The Silent Land: A Russian Revolution Saga

The Silent Land: A Russian Revolution Saga

by Sally Spencer


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The Silent Land: A Russian Revolution Saga by Sally Spencer

Spanning 80 tumultuous years, the incredible story of a peasant girl who became the Red Princess of the Russian Revolution.

Anna Mayakovsky is now a penniless old woman living in London, but no one can take away the vivid memories of her past: the Count who lifted her out of poverty; the Count’s son, Misha, whose baby she bore; Paul, the ruthless factory owner who became her lover – and her deadliest enemy; Sasha, the tough but gentle peasant who converted her to revolution. And her aristocratic husband whom she adored, but could never love as completely as a woman should love her man.

Now Anna finds she has one more battle ahead of her: her great-granddaughters Jennifer and Sonia wish to lock her away in an institution. Anna knows this would kill her. She will have to fight back . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780727886453
Publisher: Severn House Publishers
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Sally Spencer worked as a teacher both in England and Iran - where she witnessed the fall of the Shah. She now lives in Spain and writes full-time. She is an almost fanatical mah jong player.

Read an Excerpt

The Silent Land

By Sally Spencer

Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © 2016 Lanna Rustage
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78010-811-7


When he's not serving customers, Ali likes to stand in the doorway of his shop and watch the world go by. Sometimes he watches me – watches my painful progress up Matlock Road – and then, when I'm close enough to hear, he calls out, "Good-morning, Princess! Want any help, Princess?"

He always smiles as he speaks. His mouth widens to reveal pearly-white teeth, his brush moustache stretches to its limit. He's mocking me, but only in a friendly way. I've been 'Princess' to him – this little brown man who lives in a climate which is no more his than it is mine – ever since the day we finally laid Gregory Lozovsky to rest.

How long ago was that? A year? Two? No, it was four long years ago.

Highgate Cemetery, that March morning in 1985, was so cold that the wind seemed to slice through what is left of my flesh and chill me to my crumbling bones. Since most of Gregory's friends were long since dead, it had fallen on me – one of his sworn enemies, albeit his last mistress in exile – to supervise the arrangements. The only other mourner was Demetri, Gregory's part-time, unpaid valet. Or so I thought at first.

Having lived the life I have, it didn't take me long to spot the watcher. He was standing three graves away, but he was looking at us. He was in his thirties and wearing a white trenchcoat. Apart from his eyes – which were keen and calculating – he seemed an unexceptional sort of man.

Special Branch? I asked myself.

Surely, as old as I was, I no longer merited surveillance. I turned back to the grave, imagining how it would look with the headstone, a two-headed Russian Eagle perched on top of a slab inscribed:

'General Gregory Borisovitcha Lozovsky 1899–1985 Loyal Soldier of the Tsar and Defender of the Fatherland'.

So few words, yet an essay on the delusions through which people like Gregory lived out most of their lives.

General Lozovsky? He was a lieutenant in the Guards when Nicholas abdicated. The title 'General' was bestowed on him by one of those crazy emigré groups who for years sat around in London and Paris, plotting their triumphant return. And 'Defender of the Fatherland'? Well, he died in a Whitechapel nursing home – thousands of miles from the sacred soil he had sworn to protect with his life.

When it was over, Dmitri put his hand respectfully on my shoulder and said in Russian, "Allow me to take you back to your residence."

My residence! What a way he had with words, this small, insignificant man who worshipped the Russia he'd only known as an infant.

"Princess, it's time to go."

Looking down at his thatch of thin, grey hair, I felt a wave of disdain sweep over me. Why should a man – any man – act like a lackey through choice?

"It is cold," Dmitri said insistently. "I must drive you —"

"To my residence," I agreed. "119 Matlock Road, the door next to the communal bathroom. But first, I must visit Marx's tomb."

"I don't think —"

"Correct," I snapped. "It isn't a servant's place to think."

And I almost laughed when he nodded his head gravely, accepting the rebuke.

A sheen of frost glittered on the paving stones and clung to the lichen-green gravestones. We made our way slowly to the final resting place of the political visionary whose words had sustained me throughout the bitterly cold winter of 1917.

A group of young Chinese in boiler suits stood around the tomb, jabbering excitedly and pointing their cameras. I looked up at Marx's bust, and it gazed back – as if daring me to speak.

"Workers of the World, Unite," I said softly. "You have nothing to lose but your hopes."

As I turned, I saw him again – the man in the trenchcoat. He had followed us, and it was me, not Dmitri, who he was watching. I stared defiantly at him as I'd stared at Marx. His eyes were puzzled – questioning. I thought of challenging him then and there, and would have done if it hadn't been Gregory's funeral. Or perhaps I'm only fooling myself. I've seen much horror and faced death many times, yet this man frightened me, not so much the man himself, as what he represented. Even though I had no idea where he was from, or what organization he belonged to.

He looked at me for a little longer, then walked away. I let out a sigh of relief. "You can take me back to my residence, now, Dmitri," I said.

We drove home in Dmitri's rattling, coughing Mini. He grasped the wheel as if it were the reins of a coach and four. At the corner of Kilburn Lane, I said, "Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?"

I don't know why I made the suggestion. Maybe it was because I'd just buried a man who – however ridiculous he'd been – was my last real friend in the world. Perhaps I just wanted to shock Dmitri, to jolt him back to reality with the sight of my drab, dark room where the damp-soaked walls shed paper as a snake sheds its old, tired skins. Or I may simply have been unnerved by the man in the cemetery, whose look had seemed to be weighing me, assessing what of value could still be extracted from my ancient carcass. Whatever the reason, I made the offer, and threw Dmitri into a panic.

"I don't know whether it would be proper ..." he began, flushing.

"It would be if I say so," I told him.

My voice was harsher than I'd intended, but it was so hard to be civil with this little man who drew his self-respect only from his respect for others.

As we drew level with Ali's store, I remembered I'd used my last spoonful of tea that morning. "Pull over here," I said. "I won't be a minute."

He didn't wait in the car, of course. He just had to come into the shop with me. And while my arthritic hands were struggling with my purse, he reached into his pocket and pulled out some notes.

"Allow me the honour of paying, Princess Anna," he said, and for once the fool chose to speak in English.

Ali heard, and was amused. He chuckled as he handed Dmitri the change, and the joke has never lost its appeal. Now all the people who nod to me in my small world, which reaches from Kilburn Lane to – on a good day – Harrow Road, call me 'Princess'.

It's useful for them, you see. They need to classify everyone they meet, and with the old, who no longer merit serious consideration, they want a quick, easy label. What better than 'Princess' for an aged lady who walks stiffly but with bearing, who wears tailored costumes which were once smart but now are old and long out of style. What they mean, when they call to me across the street, is that I act as if I really were an ancient princess. If only they knew the truth.

It is Thursday, the 2nd of February. In my homeland, a man called Gorbachev thunders on ineffectually about glasnost and perestroika, while here in the land of my exile we are sliding – lurching almost – into the tenth year of the Gospel According to Thatcher. There may yet be hope for both of my homes – but not in my lifetime.

I'm awake, though I keep my eyes tightly closed. Some mornings, I like to play a game with myself. Lying perfectly still in my bed, I remember all the different ceilings I've looked up at during the course of my long existence. The thatch of the izbá where I spent much of my childhood. The painted plaster ceiling in my room at the Big House. The majestic carving which dominated my bedroom in the palace on the Neva. Ah, Russia, Russia.

"What was it like in Russia?" they ask me in the saloon bar of the Vulcan, when they find the time to talk to a crazy old lady.

It was extreme, I want to tell them. Extreme heat and extreme cold. Extreme idleness in the winter, extreme activity in the summer. But above all, it was very, very hard.

Yet how could I ever begin to explain to these smug islanders what it was like to live in a country where there were no horizons, only a great empty flatness which stretched to the edge of the world? How is it possible to make people who spend their lives in this insipid drizzle – which the English call 'weather' – understand what a real climate is?

Winter! Short, bitterly cold days. Snow. Not the slush they – we – have in London, here today, gone tomorrow, but feet of the stuff, white and powdery and wonderful. Days spent on the toboggan, nights around the earthenware stove that took up a quarter of our tiny hut.

Spring! In England, the spring comes as if it were an old woman like myself – hesitant, tottering, wondering whether it is yet quite warm enough to venture out. In Russia, the spring is a tiger which has unexpectedly escaped from long confinement in the iron cage of winter.

How could the English imagine ice so thick it bore the weight of a locomotive and yet vanished over-night? But it did. In the evening it was there, in the morning it was gone. Gone – all gone – save the floes trapped in the middle of the river like forgotten islands. And even they did not remain long. The angry water gripped them and dragged them downstream. Ruthlessly it used them to crush everything in their path. Remorselessly it forced them to gouge chunks from its own banks.

The land changed, too. Where the day before there had been a carpet of white, there was now only demanding greenness.

Consider the words. The English call it a thaw, making it sound more like a speech impediment than a bursting forth of nature. But in my native Russian it is otterpel – powerful, aggressive. Enslaving and liberating at the same time.

God, how we worked after the otterpel, even the children. In the factories of St Petersburg and Moscow they toiled for eleven hours a day all the year round, but out there in the fields, we slaved for as much as eighteen during the growing season.

"I'm tired, Mama."

"Keep planting, Annushka, keep planting."

"Where's Papa?"

"Working on the Count's land."

Using wooden ploughs, we turned the earth and sowed the spring oats. The oats came up and we harvested them, ploughed the earth once more and planted our winter crop of wheat. And even when we were so exhausted we could hardly stand, we still had to find the time to cultivate the garden plots outside our huts. If we had let ourselves neglect the cabbages and cucumbers we grew there, we would have had nothing but black bread to eat.

What was it like in Russia? There's much I could say to these kindly people who stop to have a word, but I know they're not really interested. So instead I take the bottle of Guinness they offer me, smile vacantly and say, "It was such a long time ago. I don't remember."

But I do remember.

I lie still a little longer, knowing that when I move it will hurt, yet knowing too that movement must come, because this withered, defective machine which imprisons my soul is already making demands on me. If I don't go to the bathroom soon, my bladder will give. And my great-granddaughters, Sonia and Jennifer, who visit me once a week – and today is that day – will see the stains when they change the sheet and take it as proof I can no longer cope. Then, finally, they'll have the excuse they've been searching for, and lock me away in an old people's home with clear consciences.

I twist my aged body and feel my feet touch the cold floor. It will be better now. If I take it slowly, if I do not let my natural impatience force me too suddenly to my feet, I should be able to avoid a further onslaught of agony for several minutes.

While I gather my strength, I look around the room. The bed takes up a great deal of the available space, and the rest is occupied by an old chest of drawers, a battered wardrobe, and a single chair. Sordid and cramped as it is, I suppose I'm lucky to have it really. The izbá of my childhood was no bigger, yet my whole family lived in it.

The clay stove dominated the room. It was our heater, our bakery, and at night, when we climbed on top of it, our bed. Next to the stove were the bench and table, where we ate our frugal meals and made sweatshop gloves for Peter during the long winter months.

At the other end of the izbá was the 'Beautiful' corner, where we kept our icons. We were great ones for religion, we muhziks. We hardly considered God, except as the bringer of bad luck – but how scrupulously we observed the ritual! Church every Sunday. Two fast days a week – Wednesday and Friday. Three major fasts which lasted for several weeks each, during which we were not allowed to eat any animal products – not even milk. And after the Revolution, when we were told that religion was no longer necessary, we discarded it all as easily as if it had been a rotting potato.

Sundays were for purifying our souls, but Saturdays were when the real cleansing took place. The whole village visited the hammam – the village bath-house. There we would sit, sweating, as water was poured over the oven to produce steam. There, we beat each other with twigs and put on a change of underwear. It was the only time in the week when we, or our clothes, were completely clean. And in summer ...? In summer, though we worked all day under a boiling sun, there was no time for bath-houses. In summer, we stank.

I was not always a withered old woman. Once, I was beautiful – and I can prove it. One of my few mementos of Russia is a photograph taken outside our izbá. I don't remember exactly when the picture was taken, but we are all barefoot and have puttees wrapped around our legs, so it must have been in summer.

The photographer was a friend of the Count's, anxious to capture a little true ethnicity before it all disappeared. That's why my father is wearing his high felt hat, though his normal headgear was a peaked cap. That's why my mother has on her kokóshnik – a tall head-dress decorated with fake pearls and gold, which she only usually got out on Sunday.

My father, Vladimir Alexovich, was a short broad man with a bushy beard – a typical peasant. In the photograph, his expression is one which at the time I took for granted, but in later years – when I saw it on the faces of other muhziks – would drive me to an emotion somewhere between rage and despair. The look is specially posed for the Count's fancy friend, and is a mixture of deference and idiocy. However much my father might attack the dvorianstvo behind their backs, he was, like all peasants, humble in their presence. He called the other members of the mir 'brother' – brat – but anyone of obvious social standing was always addressed at otets – 'father'.

"Yes, otets," my father would mumble. "No, otets. Whatever you say, otets."

And as he spoke, he would he look at the ground and fiddle with his cap, acting as if he were retarded. But God, how he and his brats could lie to the otets. And cheat him, too, if they were given the slightest chance. There is no more accomplished dissembler in the world than the Russian peasant.

Next to my father in the photograph stands his eldest son, Alyosha, almost Papa's double. He did not have long left to live – the Russo-Japanese War would see him off. Then come my two other brothers, one scarcely out of the cradle, both destined to meet their end fighting the Germans. My mother is beside the older of the two, her arm draped over his shoulder. She is still a pretty woman with large eyes, high cheekbones and an oval chin, yet already there are indications that after one or two more harvests she'll begin to look old.

Finally, little Annushka. I don't seem to belong in the photograph at all. True, it's possible to see a facial resemblance to my mother, but there's nothing of my father in me. And my build's all wrong. Many peasant children are skinny like I am, but it is plain that when I fill out, I'll still be nothing more than slender. I lack the muhzik woman's hips, on which can be carried a whole sackful of wheat. There are no signs of future thick legs, which will anchor themselves to the ground during the backbreaking task of harvesting the crop. I'm a freak, a huge practical joke of mischievous fairies.

Did my father notice that I was different? I think so. And did he know why this should be? Again, I think so. It is very difficult to keep secrets in the small universe of the mir.


Excerpted from The Silent Land by Sally Spencer. Copyright © 2016 Lanna Rustage. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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