On a bitterly cold winter’s morning Turgenovsky dashed along Sadovaya Street. When he reached the Neva, he stood still and scowled up and down the frozen river, recalling all the frustrations of yet another fruitless night’s work. What had seemed so profound and incisive when he was writing it, what had flowed so wonderfully well, looked jumbled and amateurish just a handful of hours later - the ragged prose of a pretentious schoolboy. He felt crushed. Why, why, why? he asked himself. Why do I have to be so ordinary, so talentless, just like everybody else? What sets one writer apart from another, anyway? What makes their words so beautiful? What makes their passages shine? What is the secret? Oh, only to write, write, write! That was all he wanted to do. But clearly he did not have the gift, and a terrible idea flashed through his head. He stormed out of his lodgings. Everyday he read stories of miserable people throwing themselves into the river. Now it had strange appeal, an almost literary connotation, in the same way certain daring crimes gain public sympathy and admiration. But as quickly as such a dramatic surrender suggested itself, its nobility faded on the gusting wind. He wanted to live; to sample everything life had to offer. All great artists suffered from moments of desperation; of intense self-doubt, he contended, dismissing such wild thoughts from his mind.
He turned to see a rosy-cheeked young man running over, and very nearly slipping on the pavement abutting the river.
‘Where on earth have you been hiding yourself these last few months?’
‘Lev? What brings you here? It’s a bit raw and ready for a liberal-thinking man of your highly-politicized ilk. I thought you were more a denizen of the smoky lecture hall or underground meeting place these days.’
‘You look awful,’ said Lev. ‘Haven’t you been eating properly? Are you still writing? I was only talking with Pavel and some friends yesterday about your piece on -’
‘Not that mummy’s boy playing the big shot revolutionary.’ Turgenovsky did little to conceal his disgust. His whole demeanour changed, and he proudly adjusted the lapels of his threadbare coat. ‘I’ve no time to waste on his kind. He’s a phony martyr; a porcelain god.’
‘But, Ivan, look around you. Don’t you see? There’s going to be a complete restructuring of our society. The workers and peasants, the toiling masses are going to rise up and seize power. This is the most exciting period in human history, for pity’s sake. Brilliant, educated, class-conscious men of action like Lenin and Trotsky will lead us. Lenin’s been studying the great social uprisings for the last twenty years and -’
‘Utter nonsense!’ said Turgenovsky. ‘These empty rumblings will come to nothing. The Tsar will make a few lip-service concessions to the peasantry and everything will continue as normal. Mark my words. I’m rarely wrong when it comes to political matters. Lenin and his cronies will be in Siberia before the spring thaw.’
‘Not this time,’ said Lev. ‘But I’m glad I bumped into you, as I may be able to put a little work your way. Pavel has obtained access to a printing-press. It’s a crude contraption, but we heard you were quite the expert in setting typeface and things like that.’
Turgenovsky shook his head.
‘Far too dangerous. Whatever the outcome of your political dalliance, I’ve heard of men being tortured and killed for helping disseminate anti-Tsarist literature. So count me out.’
‘But we’ll pay twenty roubles,’ said Lev. ‘Easy money for a man in the know. I can take you there now if you like, and show you how things stand. All you’d have to do is set things up.’
‘Twenty roubles, you say?’
The two friends walked across Dvortsovy Bridge. As they turned onto the Nevsky Prospect, Turgenovsky questioned the wisdom of his decision. It was not so much the element of risk involved, it was the people he would have to deal with. He despised these new revolutionary-types who were springing up like corpses in some Gogolian fable, spouting their rubbish about Marx and equality to the working masses. He knew for a fact that half of them had not read so much as a line from Das Kapital, and those that had, had not understood a word. To his mind the natural order of things came into being for a reason, whether divine or evolutional. How any privileged young man could give away his birthright for a faddish cause was anathema to him, bordering upon the obscene. It belittled his very real struggles with life, his struggles to become a great writer.
As these reservations were running through Turgenovsky’s head, a ruckus broke out in the middle of the busy thoroughfare, where a sizeable crowd had already gathered. On inching closer, he could see a group of young workers beating a much older man, kicking out at the grounded figure cowering on the frozen walkway. The ferocity of their blows seemed distasteful and disproportionate. Regardless, no one seemed willing to intercede. If anything, they were enjoying the show, in the way common people used to derive such pleasure from public executions.
As policemen arrived on the scene, a dirty-faced factory worker started to moan and curse.
‘It serves him right, the property-owning parasite! Imagine, trying to take advantage of your fellow man like that, in times of war an’ hardship an’ all. His kind deserves everything they’ve got coming to ‘em. These Jews are nothing more than bloodsucking vermin.’
Lev tapped the factory worker on the shoulder.
‘Too true. It won’t be long now, brother.’
The factory worker turned and looked Lev over. His dark, darting eyes were full of suspicion, as the other man’s fur coat and hat did not quite match his sentiments.
‘Don’t be fooled by my appearance,’ Lev went on, as if sensing this. ‘The true people of the revolution come in all shapes and sizes, and from varied backgrounds. Our cause is a universal one, comrade, one that will put an end to the exploitation of the working man. Soon there will be no Tsar or landowners left, only true working people, working for the good of the people.’
The factory worker’s expression softened.
‘Yes, they - they can’t stop us now, co - comrade.’
All this took Turgenovsky aback. He had read about pogroms and looting in the papers, but always presumed they were sporadic phenomena, of desperate people taking advantage of desperate situations. The innate backwardness of the workers and peasants who found their way to the cities seemed to add weight to his supposition. Now he was not quite so sure.
They walked to the rear of a tenement building. With a wary look over his shoulder, Lev led the way down some concrete steps, unlocked a reinforced door, and ushered Turgenovsky into a cellar. The room was dank and poorly-lit. An old gas lamp and a few guttering candles provided the only light. In the relative darkness, Turgenovsky could see three serious-looking young men in overalls and cloth-caps huddled around a printing-press. On hearing footsteps and voices they looked up with strange indifference, considering the nature of their illicit operation, and the harsh penalties applicable if discovered.
One of the men broke away from the group and walked over.
‘If it isn’t the mighty scribe, Ivan the Incredible. Welcome to our little operations HQ.’
This grave-faced young man in wire-framed glasses was Turgenovsky’s old classmate, Pavel Denisovich.
‘Finally decided to get your hands dirty, have you?’
‘You know me,’ said Turgenovsky, ‘I’m a man who finds it hard to say no to his friends - his comrades - so to speak.’
‘More like the twenty roubles for your trouble,’ Pavel gibed. ‘I’ll be frank with you, Ivan – I don’t like the idea of an outsider infiltrating the circle. This is important work, essential for the success of the forthcoming uprising. But we’re desperately short of technically proficient men in this area so - so you’ll just have to do.’
‘How charming,’ Turgenovsky affected offence, going so far as to put his hands on his hips. ‘I’ll say this for you lot, you certainly know how to make a man feel welcome.’
Pavel stepped forward, bringing his face up close to Turgenovsky’s.
‘This is no time for flippancy,’ he shouted. ‘This may be nothing more than a chance of some easy money for the likes of you. But for millions of others - real people with real convictions - this is their only hope for a better future. I won’t let anything stand in the way of that. Understand?’
Turgenovsky lowered his head. There was a long, uncomfortable pause.
‘I - I understand. Is this the press?’
‘Yes,’ Pavel replied. ‘Come and have a look at it.’
The printing-press was an antiquated model, only slightly more sophisticated than a home lithograph, but one Turgenovsky was more than familiar with. After stripping down to his shirtsleeves, he cleaned and prepared the press, before setting the typeface onto a crude printing plate, dented from continued and varied usage. All the time he worked he had to listen to the other men converse. Over tea and endless cigarettes their lofty discussions sounded foolish to his ears, like children conspiring in a playground.
‘The main problem we now face,’ said Pavel, ‘is keeping our friends in Switzerland up to date with developments. When the time comes, smuggling them back into the country will be no easy task. At present, maintenance of the most basic lines of communication is fraught with all types of danger.’
‘It’s a dialectical irony, is it not?’ said Lev. ‘The war that has caused so much bloodshed proving to be the catalyst for our movement. Had many thousands of soldiers not been subjected to its horrors, and shown the cruelty of the capitalist war machine and how truly worthless their sacrifice was, we would never have been in such a strong position.’
‘As Marx says, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it’”, said Pavel, drawing respectful looks from the others. ‘The old regime is tottering like a drunkard at closing time. It will take only one firm push to see it off now. Momentous change is upon us, comrades. We cannot afford to falter.’
The contempt Turgenovsky felt towards these men only increased. Had he been in a position to turn down the monies offered, he would have stormed out of the room and left them to it. They were so transparent. It was laughable. They just wanted the riches and power others had accumulated over years of warring and bloodshed. It was simply a case of perpetual recurrence, the old replacing the new. Marx was a Napoleon in rags, not a visionary prophet; some Jesus of Nazareth-type.
He kept his theories to himself, and after a quarter of an hour’s further work, had the press primed and operational.
‘Here you are, gentlemen. Your little printing device is fit and ready for Gutenberg himself.’
The other men walked over.
Pavel knelt down to inspect the press at closer quarters.
‘So,’ he said, ‘all we have to do is place the paper here and -’
‘No, no, no,’ said Turgenovsky, ‘the paper must be laid out on the feeder.’
Pavel stood and straightened.
‘Ivan, I know you’re a man of bookish pursuits, but surely you’re not in any way opposed to the things we stand for. So I ask you - please, as an old friend - spare us a moment or two more of your time, and show us how the press operates, just to see the first twenty or so copies safely printed.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘I’ve already, er…compromised myself, and - and I don’t mean simply by being here, for I’m no coward; you know that better than anybody. It’s just that I’m committed to finishing a new piece of work, a literary gem, I might add. It’s going so well and - and I have a deadline to keep. In truth, I only stepped out this morning for a breath of fresh air to clear my head before continuing, when Lev persuaded me to come and help you. So I couldn’t possibly -’
Pavel raised his hands, cutting Turgenovsky short.
‘If we were to offer you another twenty roubles, would you print off the entire batch of leaflets?’
Turgenovsky’s tongue darted out over his top lip. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
‘Well, I -’
But before he could answer, the reinforced door flew open, and in burst dozens of uniformed soldiers.
The windowless interrogation room contained two chairs either side of a wooden table. Turgenovsky had already been made to wait for what felt like hours. All sorts of horrible premonitions were running through his head. He was convinced the brown marks on the walls were bloodstains. He cursed himself for having got involved with Pavel’s miserable gang of revolutionaries. He could not have been any more fearful or on edge. Then the door swung open, and into the room walked a uniformed officer with a neatly-trimmed beard. He had a file in his hands, and was followed by a much larger man of lower rank. The larger man closed the door, and stood in front of it with his arms crossed.
The senior officer sat down and started flicking through the file.
‘Right, what have we here? Ivan Fyodorovich Turgenovsky, twenty-one years of age, a former student, writer of a few articles for the periodicals, parents deceased, a half-sister living in the provinces, currently residing in Sadovaya Street, and associated with well-known left-wing groups and political terrorists.’
‘That’s not strictly -’ Turgenovsky was about to protest. The flashing eyes that met his from across the table made him think better of it.
‘My name is Profiry Pelevin,’ said the officer, ‘and I want to help you, young man. We’ve been keeping a close eye on the activities of this particular group, so I know you were only there today to assist with the printing-press.’ He looked at the file again. ‘It says here that you were once employed in a printing-works with - with an uncle, I believe. So why not make it easy on yourself? If you fully cooperate, things could go off very nicely for you, very nicely indeed. There wouldn’t be the need for any unpleasantness. And my friend over there’ - he gestured towards the officer by the door - ‘wouldn’t be involved in your interrogation at all. He could stay where he is, quiet as a mouse. Because believe me, you don’t want to see him when he’s angry. I once saw him bite a man’s nose clean off his face - clean off, I tell you!’
Turgenovsky shivered, and almost reached for his nose, just to make sure it was still intact.
‘So,’ said Pelevin, ‘why don’t we start from the very beginning. Why don’t you tell me everything you know about Pavel Denisovich? It would appear he’s the leader of this little clan. Is that so?’
‘Yes,’ Turgenovsky answered without hesitation. ‘I myself am nothing to do with any political organization, and, as you so rightly said, was only doing a favour for a friend - quite innocently, I might add - but from my dealings with Pavel Denisovich - which were strictly as classmates - I’ve known by rumour and by word-of-mouth, you will no doubt appreciate, that he has been active in such circles for some time now.’
‘And would you consider Pavel Denisovich to be well-connected? Do you know if he’s in touch with the - the higher-ups, people who may not be in the country at the present moment?’
‘Why,’ Turgenovsky replied, seeing a clear route out of his predicament, ‘when I was working on the printing-press, I heard the group talking about lines of communication with their “friends in Switzerland’’.’
Pelevin shifted in his seat, momentarily betraying his excitement.
‘I’m not sure who they were referring to,’ Turgenovsky added, hoping to put further distance between himself and the charges.
‘Oh, I understand, Ivan Fyodorovich, I understand completely.’
The interrogation lasted for well over three hours. Turgenovsky told all he knew, and when not in possession of the facts, simply agreed with everything Pelevin suggested - however outrageous or fabricated - eventually signing a statement indicting his friends with a list of crimes that could have sent hundreds of men to a hard-labour camp for the rest of their days.
Pelevin got to his feet.
‘Very good, Ivan Fyodorovich. I like a man who knows how to look after his own interests. Rest assured. I’ve no doubt your case will be dealt with most satisfactorily.’
‘Thank you,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘I would hate for such an unfortunate mix-up to have an adverse effect on my literary ambitions. Currently, I’m working on a most exquisite novel, something that has already drawn interest from certain well-known publications - most respectable publications, of course.’
‘I see,’ said Pelevin. ‘Well, I’d wager a bet that you have a pen in your hand again in no time at all.’
Turgenovsky was taken to a dingy office with grilles over the windows. His co-accused stood at the far end of the room, looking battered and bruised from interrogations which had not passed off as smoothly as his. A suited official with a thick moustache was sitting behind the only desk, busy writing in some kind of ledger.
Guards bundled Turgenovsky over to the others.
Lev leaned close and whispered:
‘I’m sorry you had to get involved, Ivan. If I could get you out of this, I would.’
‘What’s going to happen? What will they do to us?’
‘It doesn’t look good,’ Lev replied. ‘In times such as these the authorities must show no sign of leniency. I fear the very worst.’
‘The very worst?’
The man at the desk stopped writing, and got to his feet.
‘Right. Lev Delyanov, Pavel Denisovich, Igor Rublev, Alexei Zasulich, and Ivan Turgenovsky, for conspiring to disseminate anti-Tsarist literature by means of setting up a secret printing-press, and calling for the violent overthrow of the monarchy, you are summarily sentenced to death. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken from your cells and shot. In the interim, you will be provided with writing materials to inform your families of…’
In his cell that night Turgenovsky was troubled by strange dreams. He saw himself at spectacular soirees, dressed like a fashionable man of letters, being toasted by society’s elite, receiving literary awards, and reciting poetry to beautiful young women. Then he saw himself hunched over his work, filling page after page. But when he stopped to read over what he had written, the words were no longer visible, only traces of vanishing ink remained, as if some cruel practical joke had been played on him. It was as if he were watching all the words he would never have a chance to write, disappearing forever more. And another nightmarish version of his hopes and dreams started up, where he was looking in at one of those soirees, dressed in a peasant’s rags, being shooed away from the door by liveried servants. There were no passionate encounters with courtesans or wealthy heiresses, or awards to be collected. The paramours and princesses were with their new darlings. The beautiful young women were laughing at him now; everyone was laughing at him now.
He woke up. It was still dark outside, and he badly needed something to occupy his mind. He walked over to the table on the other side of the cell. But when he picked up the pencil and paper he had been provided with, he could think of no one to write to. Most of his relatives were dead. Only his half-sister, Dunya, remained. Dunya, sweet Dunya, he said to himself time and time again.
Thoughts of Dunya brought back memories of his early childhood. In the silent darkness his life passed before his eyes, one painful episode at a time. He never knew his mother - she died giving birth to him. This was something his father could not forgive him for, and as he grew, he was often told that if one died, then both should have died.
His early years were defined by change and upheaval, moving from one town to the next, where his father had many and varied occupations. None of which proved very successful. From former peasant stock, he thought that good things should simply come his way, and squandered every opportunity to better their lot. His son’s life, therefore, was not a particularly happy or settled one.
Things improved when Ivan’s father remarried, and this was a very favourable match. Not only was Maria Ivanovna much younger, a kind and attentive wife and stepmother, she came with a small dowry. This gave the family some much-needed financial security which facilitated a move back to Kruzhlinin.
Back then Maria Ivanovna was a skinny, pale-faced woman of twenty. While no beauty, she had lively eyes, a wide smile, and exuded a particular warmth and charm which naturally drew people to her. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact she had on her stepson’s life. At every opportunity she bought him presents, played with him in the garden, and read to him before he went to bed at night. Those stories of Baba Yaga and the Snow Queen transported him to some fairytale land of firebirds and magic fish, where all the misery and solitude of his early life were forgotten.
Within a year of the wedding, Maria Ivanovna fell pregnant. Her term was especially taxing. It was as if the lump in her belly was draining all her strength, until there were no more presents, games or bedtime stories, until Maria Ivanovna was no more than a fleeting presence in Ivan’s life, and he started to resent that mysterious something growing inside of her.
The actual birth was harrowing. The screaming began late one night, waking Ivan from his sleep. Terrified and confused, he ducked under the covers and pulled a pillow over his head. He wanted to escape somewhere, somehow, to fly up and away, like the characters in the stories Maria Ivanovna used to read to him. When he saw his stepmother sitting up in bed, her cheeks sunken, her hair plastered to her face, and a red, wriggling ball of flesh in her arms, he fled the room in tears.
In the weeks that followed there were serious concerns about her health. The strain of bringing a new life into the world seemed to have dragged another mother to the grave. So weakened was Maria Ivanovna, she could barely rise from her bed to take a sip of water or a mouthful of broth, and when she started to cough violently, it was clear a fatal-something was rattling through her wasted body. After carrying out some tests, the local doctor confirmed their worst fears: tuberculosis in its advanced stages.
At the funeral, when Ivan looked at Maria Ivanovna in her coffin - her waxen features so inanimate - he felt all the goodness and kindness she had tried to instil in him leave his heart forever more.
As the years passed, his father showed great love and affection for Dunya. In comparison, Ivan’s presence in the house seemed tolerated rather than welcomed. He was constantly beaten and humiliated. He felt like a spectator in their family life rather than a participant. This sense of isolation drew him to the written word and the books left on Maria Ivanovna’s shelves. He would spend hours poring over a volume of folktales, the poems of Pushkin and Lermontov, the farcical stories of Gogol. Whenever he saw his father and Dunya laughing together, whenever he received a reprimand or a thrashing, he told himself that one day he would be a great writer; that one day unhappy boys like him would adopt his books as their loyal companions, as their only real friends.
His school days offered little relief. His unusual eyes and gangly frame made him an object of derision. His very existence seemed to irritate his fellow classmates. No matter where he looked, he would always be accused of looking at them. No matter where he walked, he would always be in someone’s way. This seemed particularly unfair because there was nothing he could do about the colour of his eyes, or the shape and size of his body.
As a teenager, he sometimes looked after Dunya when their father was called into town. How well he remembered those summer afternoons. How he would take the ten-year-old girl down to a secluded spot by the river, or into the depths of the forest to gather mushrooms or berries. Often in pretence of bathing or playing some sort of game, he would make her take off her clothes, and slyly touch her, exploring her soft, prepubescent body in the way a doctor would examine a patient with some curious ailment. Then he would try to get her to touch him. But no matter how he whispered or cajoled, she would always refuse and get upset, and their games ended in tears. All the way home he begged her not to tell, saying it was their little secret, that they would be denied some sort of treat or present if anybody found out. Her silence puzzled him, considering what a powerful ally she had in their father, as no matter how many times he accosted her, she never uttered a word.
He always presumed he acted that way out of natural curiosity. The older Dunya got, the more curious he became. This had as much to do with her emerging beauty as anything else. Her golden hair, blue eyes, and shapely figure made her the envy of not just the town, but the entire district. It was not long before a host of popular young boys were crowding round her wherever she went, bringing her flowers and romantic verse. Regardless, she remained unaffected, and carried herself with all the dignity and decorum of the respectable girl she undoubtedly was. If she had encouraged their advances like some kind of whore, shown some sign of pleasure, coquetry even, Ivan could have forgiven her more. But she just carried on as if nothing was happening.
It was around this time he noticed the way she skillfully avoided being in his company. The way she would rush off on some make-believe errand. This rankled with him. The way an older child is irritated when a younger one can see through a flimsy untruth told for petty gain - and it only made him want her more. By the time he was sixteen, he was completely obsessed with the idea of having her before anybody else did. At night, he lay in bed devising all sorts of plans to get her alone - but a fleeting moment was no good to him. So one afternoon he returned home early from school, having feigned illness, sure he would have her all to himself at last. He crept along the hallway and peered into the kitchen. At first, he did not realize what was happening. All he could see was his father sprawled across the table with his trousers round his ankles. Dunya was underneath him.
‘Forgive me,’ his father rambled. ‘Please forgive me, Lord.’
Dunya’s skirt and blouse were torn, her reddened face awash with tears. There was a horribly proud sadness in her eyes as she looked to the ceiling, her lips moving in prayer. It reminded Ivan of all those summer days by the river or in the depths of the forest.
Unseen, he turned and walked out of the house.
Whether that was the first time father had taken daughter, he could never be sure. But nothing was ever said, and a few months later he was sent to his uncle’s in Petersburg, and Dunya accepted a job as a maid with a well-to-do family in a neighbouring district. As far as he knew, that’s where she remained to this day. Dunya, sweet Dunya, he repeated to himself time and time again.
Stirred by his memories, he resolved to write to her, and as this was to be the last thing he would ever compose, he wanted to make it as noble-sounding as possible.
In a few short hours your loving brother will be taken from his lonely cell and shot for his revolutionary convictions. But please, do not shed a tear for me, or light a candle in church – for it would be inappropriate. I am what I have become: a firm believer in equality for the toiling masses, for the overthrow of the present regime, and for a complete restructuring of our society. For far too long now the workers and peasants have been downtrodden and exploited, and although this may come as a great shock to you, do not be disheartened. Change is nigh, dear Dunya, soon the world as we once knew it will no longer exist, and my death will not have been in vain. I know it is many years since we had any contact, and please believe me, I would not have written to you unless I was in the most desperate of circumstances. But as my only remaining family member, I felt it was only right and proper that you should be informed of the facts surrounding my impending demise. I do not fear death, Dunya dearest, if anything, he is my true brother.
I wish you all the happiness in the world.
He was not sure why he even bothered. Perhaps he wanted to have one last impact on someone’s life, and regardless of the past, he knew the worthy Dunya would feel some sort of remorse, maybe shed a tear for him, perhaps even go so far as to light the candle he had begged her not to light, anything, so long as someone was thinking of him after he was dead.
It was a cold, overcast morning. Snow fell intermittently. The heavily-fettered prisoners were bundled out of the back of a black carriage, where a priest in burial vestments stood in wait.
‘Today you shall see the just conclusion of your case,’ he said. ‘Follow me.’
They stumbled along in the snow beside some soldiers. Up ahead five stakes had been driven into the frozen ground, and behind them were a line of carts - seemingly laden with empty coffins.
‘Is this really the end?’ Turgenovsky asked Lev.
But Lev only pointed in silence to the waiting carts.
Among the military personnel, a few hundred spectators had gathered to witness the grisly scene. From the refined side of Petrograd society, they stood on a grandstand, some looking through lorgnettes, as if they were spending an enjoyable afternoon at the races.
The prisoners were placed side by side, and some artillerymen moved into position in front of them.
‘Present arms!’ shouted their commanding officer.
A drum roll sounded, slowly increasing in intensity. Turgenovsky could barely breathe. It was if someone was pressing their hands to his throat, tightening their grip with each passing moment.
The commanding officer stepped forward to complete the formalities, reading from some papers.
‘After careful consideration of the Military Court the General-Auditoriat has reached the conclusion that the accused are guilty as charged, whether to a lesser or greater degree, of intending to overthrow the Fatherland’s existing laws and national order, and are therefore condemned to death by firing-squad.’
One after another, the guilty men were called.
‘The former student, Turgenovsky - aged twenty-one - for participation in criminal plans, for attempting to print and distribute subversive works with the aid of a printing-press - condemned to death by firing-squad.’
When all the sentences had been read, the officer folded up the papers and stuck them in his side pocket. The condemned were given white shirts with hoods and long sleeves. As they put these on, the priest started pacing up and down in front of them.
‘The wages of sin are death, and yet, physical death is not the end. Through faith and recognition of your sins, you may still inherit eternal life.’
Only one of them sought to confess and kiss the cross - Turgenovsky. He fell to his knees and prostrated himself before the priest, grabbing his lower vestment.
‘Please, please…have mercy on me. It was them, all them. I’ve done nothing wrong. This is a mistake. I’ve -’
A guard dragged him to his feet.
‘Now you’ve done your job, priest,’ shouted one of the generals. ‘You’ve nothing more to do. So let us get on with it.’
With hoods over their faces, the prisoners were tied to the stakes. One platoon of twelve men lined up fifteen paces from them. The soldiers took aim. There was a long pause. Turgenovsky lost all control of his bodily function; urine sprinkling over the snow-laden ground. Then suddenly an official of some kind rushed over, shouting and waving a white cloth. The soldiers lowered their rifles. A carriage sped into the square. Another official jumped out with a sealed envelope, and handed it to the commanding officer. Turgenovsky’s hands were untied, and the hood lifted from his head. They had received a last-minute reprieve from the Tsar. Their sentences had been commuted to four years administrative exile in a Siberian penal colony.
Unlike his co-conspirators, Turgenovsky had no family or rich patron to help fund his transit, and would have to make the arduous journey amongst the common criminal classes. On the morning of departure a bunch of convicts were herded onto the station platform. In ragged clothes and bast-made shoes these wretched creatures moved around like pack dogs, eyeing each other with suspicion, probing for any sign of weakness; anything they could exploit for their own benefit.
A sickly-looking man in a filthy greatcoat sidled up alongside Turgenovsky.
Turgenovsky tried to ignore him.
‘Your eyes!’ said the man. ‘You’ve got the devil’s eyes. But they’ll be of no use to you where we’re going. Listen. I can see you’re a political, that you’re not really cut out for this sort of thing, so I’m willing to help you.’
‘I - I don’t need any help,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘I’m quite capable of looking after myself, thank you very much.’
‘Nonsense,’ said the other man. ‘A dandy fella like you won’t last five minutes. One wrong move and you could be dead or branded or shorn of your lovely locks.’ He touched Turgenovsky’s hair. ‘Stick with me. I can make sure things go easy for you. I can make sure nobody bothers you unduly. This type of vermin’ - he gestured over his shoulder - ‘can get out of hand on a long journey like this. Cabin fever, they call it. Three weeks crammed together, I’ve seen some very unpleasant things happen in my time, I can tell you. Men taken against their will, used like women, passed around like common whores.’
‘Taken against their will?’ Turgenovsky’s dread fear only mounted. ‘But surely the guards will -’
‘The guards could care less,’ said the other man. ‘Do yourself a favour and stick with me. We’ll be aboard soon - stay close, and make sure we don’t get separated - that way we’re sure to be in the same carriage.’
The boarding process was chaotic. Guards pushed and kicked convicts towards the compartments. Bottlenecks formed. Men stumbled and fell. It was absurd. Two trains would struggle to cope with this many prisoners.
In the ensuing crush, a rifle-butt slammed into the small of Turgenovsky’s back, and he was sent sprawling into the man in front of him.
As he stood and straightened, someone started shouting his name.
‘Convict Turgenovsky! Convict Turgenovsky!’
He turned to see a thick-set guard pushing his way through the crowds, waving a letter above his head.
‘Here!’ Turgenovsky shouted. ‘I’m over here!’
The guard cleared a path, and handed Turgenovsky the letter.
‘You’re a very lucky man,’ he said. ‘I was about to give up on you. We received this letter this morning. Come with me. You’ve just been upgraded to first class.’
As the guard went through the formalities with a colleague, Turgenovsky opened the envelope and read the letter.
Pray to God this letter reaches you before it’s too late. I cannot begin to tell you how distressed I was when I received word of your impending execution. For days, I was frantic with worry, and it was with great relief that I learned of your reprieve. The Lord is merciful. With my husband’s connections (I’m ashamed to admit, I don’t even know if you are aware of my marriage), I have kept up to date with the development of your case, and managed to get a few hundred roubles to you, hoping the money will make your transit and settlement in Siberia as comfortable as possible. I know this must be a testing time, but stay strong, renew your relations with God, and everything will work out fine. Perhaps it is a blessing in disguise – He works in mysterious ways, so they say – and this may enable you to see the light, to do some writing, and reconcile yourself with the Almighty.
I will light a candle for you, regardless.
Thinking of you in your time of need.
His second reprieve in a handful of weeks felt even sweeter than the first, and a solitary tear dropped onto the crumpled sheet of writing-paper. Oh Dunya, sweet Dunya, he said to himself time and time again.
The other compartment was of the same cage-like construction as the first but not nearly as overcrowded. Each man here had a bunk to himself, and access to some basic washing and toilet facilities. Of the dozen or so prisoners milling around, one clean-shaven individual with pince-nez stood out. There was something familiar about him, and the other men treated him with such deference, Turgenovsky resolved to keep a close eye on his activities.
As it transpired, nighttimes proved to be of most interest. After the guards looked in for the last time, a small group gathered in one corner of the compartment. Their whispered discussions often got heated, and it sounded as if they were trying to hatch some sort of escape plan. The man with the pince-nez, who the other men called Pero, was always at the forefront of things, gesturing expansively, and pacing up and down as he spoke.
Late one evening, a week or so into their journey, Turgenovsky shuffled closer to the conspirators, hoping to get a better idea of what they were planning to do.
‘Are you sure our people in Verkholensk have been properly briefed?’ Pero asked. ‘One wrong move and it could be all over. The authorities take a very dim view of escape attempts, and are sure to mete out the strictest punishment possible to anyone who tries.’
‘Rest assured,’ said a squat, middle-aged man. ‘All guards have been paid off in vodka. Our contacts will hide you in the back of a cart at the station. By the time we set off again it will be far too late to do anything about it. You’ll be well on your way back to Petrograd.’
Pero took off his pince-nez and rubbed his eyes.
‘Sorry for doubting you. I just need to know that things are in hand; that nothing has been left to chance. We’re entering a crucial stage, comrades. It irks me to be this far away from the capital.’
‘I understand,’ said the squat man. ‘But the very fact that so many of our senior figures are out of commission may prove to our advantage. There’s no way the authorities can keep abreast of our activities when we’re spread this far apart. The basis of their strategy, forcing us abroad and into exile or prison, could be their undoing.’
Pero put his pince-nez back on.
‘So, all we can do now is sit back and wait.’
Early next morning, as the other men were queuing for the toilet, Turgenovsky got a chance to talk to Pero alone. He was on his bunk, sorting through some linen, when Turgenovsky walked over and sat opposite him.
‘Excuse me. I couldn’t help overhearing you talking last night and, er…not to pry or be presumptuous, but have you some sort of escape plan in mind?’
Pero adjusted his pince-nez and looked at Turgenovsky with complete indifference. It was then Turgenovsky realized why he seemed so familiar before. He had seen that face in many Petrograd newspapers - all that was missing was the trademark goatee beard. He looked so ridiculous without it, Turgenovsky felt like bursting out laughing.
‘Why, you’re Trotsky, Leon Trotsky.’
Trotsky grabbed Turgenovsky by the wrist.
‘Shush!’ he hissed. His piercing eyes full of contempt. ‘Keep your voice down, you fool! The guards don’t know who I am. I’m aboard this train under an assumed name. Last week, I swapped places with another inmate. We exchanged identities, and the prison authorities were too stupid to notice. I know it sounds like an absurd, convoluted plan, but my life was in danger back there. We’d had word of an assassination attempt. By slipping away on a transit train I hoped to disappear, to go underground, and ultimately, make an escape somewhere along the line, and return to Petrograd to help organize the final putsch.’
‘Oh - oh, I see,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘Well, that’s excellent, because it’s imperative I get back to Petrograd, too. I’m a writer, you see, an emerging figure in the fight for equality. A few weeks ago, I had the misfortune of being arrested with my comrades and - ’
‘What’s your name?’
‘Turgenovsky, Ivan Fyodorovich. Perhaps you read my piece on -’
‘Never heard of you,’ said Trotsky. ‘But listen. We greatly value the power of the written word, and undoubtedly, the writer will have an important part to play in the coming Revolution. But for now, sacrifices have to be made. Our people are being arrested, tortured, and killed on a daily basis. So serve your sentence, spread the word amongst the workers and peasants you come into contact with in exile. That’s the best way to proceed until the day of reckoning. And when we are victorious, you can return to Petrograd and pursue your writing career.’
‘I don’t think you quite understand me,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘I’m not your average run-of-the-mill hack. I’m an artist and - and a man of the people, of course, and can be of much more use to you in Petrograd than in some frozen wasteland. So take me with you…please.’
‘I appreciate your earnestness,’ said Trotsky. ‘But it’s just not possible. Our plan can only accommodate one person. If more were to come, it would jeopardize the whole operation. Besides, if I were to take somebody else, I’m afraid you wouldn’t be very high on the list. Aboard this train alone are some twenty or so experienced men who’ve been active revolutionaries since before the 1905 uprising.’
Turgenovsky lowered his head.
‘If only I hadn’t got involved with that damn printing-press!’
‘Yes,’ Turgenovsky replied. ‘That’s why I was arrested: “for printing and disseminating anti-Tsarist literature.” An uncle of mine was in the trade, and for a few years I was an apprentice of sorts. If it wasn’t for my immense literary prowess and flair for languages - I speak fluent English and French, you see - I would undoubtedly have gone into the print in some capacity. The higher end, you understand, as I’m conversant with all facets of the industry; every nut and bolt, so to speak.’
‘You know how to set up and operate a printing-press? And you speak two languages?’
‘Why of course,’ said Turgenovsky, sensing something favourable brewing. ‘There’s very little I don’t know about printing-presses and conversational English and French.’
For a moment, Trotsky seemed lost in thought.
‘No, no, it’s impossible,’ he said after a long pause. ‘It would be foolish to make any last-minute changes to our plans, lives are at risk.’
Turgenovsky leaned closer.
‘But think about it, Trot - I mean, Pero. Not only am I a great writer in the making, I’m a practical man of action, too. Everyone knows men with technical printing knowledge and a flair for languages are short on the ground at present. It would be like taking three extra people, not one. And in times like these, comrade, you must weigh up the risks with the rewards.’
Trotsky refused to make a decision, wanting to confer with his comrades first. Fortunately for Turgenovsky, those involved with the plan were far from adverse to the idea of another man going along, and when hearing of his various aptitudes, they encouraged his participation.
‘What difference does it make, Pero?’ asked the squat conspirator. ‘When the guards do their nightly headcount, we’ll put something bulky in Ivan’s bed, too, to make it look as if he was sleeping. They’re far too lazy to check. And we have great need of skilled lithographers and linguists in Petrograd.’
Trotsky rubbed his chin.
‘I still don’t know. I don’t want to make things difficult for our friends. There’s so much to consider here. I don’t want to take any unnecessary risks.’
‘But take risks, we must,’ said the squat man. ‘If we don’t now, we may never forgive ourselves.’