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Sonia Part

VIEWS: 16 PAGES: 280


Joanna Hubbs
18 Hulst Road
Amherst, MA 01002
Tel: (413) 253 9816/Fax: 413 253 4924

                              A RUSSIAN AFFAIR



The Winter Palace, Saint Petersburg, March 14, 1881

    It has been almost two weeks since that day.
    For so long she had been expecting some horrifying event, imagining the sound of
a pistol discharging, or the reverberating thunder of a bomb exploding in a thick
cloud of white dust and acrid smoke.
     She had known that they were somewhere out there.
     She had known they were hunting him down.

    Today she is quite alone, perched uncomfortably on the stiff damask covered
armchair by the window. Behind her the crystal chandelier blazes over her vast
apartment in the Winter Palace casting a translucent rainbow over the cold white and
blue silk-lined walls.
    She leans forward and reaches for the heavy brocade curtain and pulls it back.
She grasps the gilt armrest, cold to her touch. Her eyes are fixed on the empty vistas
of the square outside. Not even the sound of a rare passing sleigh breaks the silence
around her.
    She gazes at the flurries of snow striking the windowpanes.
    Even the falling snow reminds her of that day.
    “We must escape while we still can,” she had begged him.

    The horror!
    The horror of it all!


      His forehead, a patchwork of cuts, blood still pearling to the surface, hair
matted with blood, blue-veined eyelids closed, cheekbones sharp, nose, pointed like
the beak of a bird, of an eagle, mustaches wet and dark as though staining his face;
His strong body, covered by a thick blue military blanket, seemed to melt into the
velvet upholstery of the divan.
    She had knelt over him. She had stroked his cold brow--now only an empty echo
of him.
     She dared not lift the cover but slid her hand under the blanket, felt his fingers,
still warm, still alive, she thought, clutching at them in a vain wish to awaken him
    She remembers repeating softly at first as though her hushed voice could reach
him, could conjure him back from the brink:
    “Darling, my darling.”
    She remembers turning her eyes to the room crowded with others, others who had
no right to see her Sasha--not like this.
    After that—darkness and the frightening sensation of spinning faster and faster to
be plunged into a rushing torrent carrying her backward, ever backward to the
     When first she saw him.


     “You’re late, as usual!” Mademoiselle LeNormand was shouting at her.
      Katia could make no excuses. She was only a little girl, after all. Her words counted for
nothing. Everything she did resulted in punishment. No one cared for her.
       A wave of self-pity ran through her but she shrugged it away. “Mamzelle” was not to
witness her tears.
       She had slipped out of her stirrups, hiked up her skirt and straddled Milou’s back to see
if she could ride just pressing her legs against his flanks. But feeling her heels against his belly
he stopped so abruptly that she fell on her hands and knees in the mud and when she got up she
saw Milou look back over his shoulder snorting, laughing at her, surely, just teaching her a
lesson, she thought angrily.
       Of course “Mamzelle” would agree with Milou, she muttered to herself.
       “A proper young girl,” she would say, “is not to ride astride, God forbid, like a boy.”
       And now her dress was covered with mud.
       She knew that she was not to go riding by the pond because Mamzelle warned her not
to go near it. Mamzelle, she thought bitterly, could always tell the difference between the mud
from the pond and the mud at the back of the terrace where Alioshia, the head gardener, was
working--though the flower-beds looked more like weed patches or like his long and straggly
mustaches. And then she remembered how Mamzelle always got Alioshia into trouble, telling
her mother that if she wanted gardens like those in Versailles she should bring in a real French
       Mamzelle disapproved of everything Russian. And Katia was too Russian, unruly,
savage, quite impossible to civilize.
       But when Katia complained about Mamzelle her mother paid no attention.


       “You must learn to speak impeccable French in the best society,” she insisted instead.
       Her mother was always busy with other things.
       Katia had observed her tired face, and the look of misery in her eyes when she turned to
her husband, silent, oblivious to his wife’s presence, slumped in the armchair where he retired
after dinner, his face flushed with too much wine.

        For the past two weeks Katia had felt particularly in the way.
       The house had been turned upside for a visit from the Tsar, on military manouvers in
the district. Everything had been cleaned. Even the gilt picture frames were dusted, walls were
cleaned and the floors scrubbed and polished till they gleamed like water so that Katia was
afraid to set foot in the drawing rooms least her shoes betray traces of her presence. The
cushions on the divans and the carpets, all mended and then beaten, looked to her as chastened
little children redied for church.
     From early morning Katia had watched peasant women passing through the courtyard into
the house carrying baskets of eggs and basins of cream and huge mounds of freshly churned
butter covered in embroidered towels. The men came through with carcasses of beef and
mutton on their shoulders. Little girls brought in chickens and geese and ducks, tied together by
their feet in bundles of two.
    Then the slaughter began, filling the yard with the desperate squawking of the birds and
Katia ran off into the only place where she would not be found, the darkness of the library on
the opposite side of the house, where the tall windows with their thick blue velvet curtains,
heavy with dust, were rarely opened.
    She lit the candle on the desk in front of the bookshelves, reaching from the floor to the
ceiling, pulled out a tome which emitted a puff of white dust as she opened it and pretended to
read, though her mind immediately wondered to other things—to how it was that the Tsar of
All the Russias could be impressed with the results of all the confusion in the house or even to
notice her. And then she remembered that she would not, anyway, be introduced to the Tsar.
Her mother had instructed Mamzelle that Katia be kept away until the Tsar left, that “a little
savage,” would just anger him.
      Just a few days ago Katia had overheard her complaining to Mamzelle:
    “That child spends more time in the kitchen listening to the cook’s stories than on her own


    Mamzelle agreed. She knew that her mother, Madame la Princesse, worried that of all the
children Katia would follow in the footsteps of “those good-for-nothing Dolgorukovs.”
     “Yes, yes,” she heard her mother sigh, “Her father is ruining us with all his nonsense, his
expensive wines, his drinking…. Bad Dolgorukov blood. If she is not taught to control her
behavior she’ll grow up to be nothing more than a….”
    “Cocotte,” Mamzelle said ever so indignantly, as if Katia were already guilty of some
terrible crime.
     Katia didn’t understand that word but she could not ask her mother who had no time to
     “Madame la Princesse, the businessman,” as everyone called her behind her back, was too
busy keeping the estate running, while her husband spent his days playing billiards or reading
the papers or, Katia could not but notice, disappearing for days at a time with one of the maids.
     Katia’s only confidant was Matriona, the cook, who called her “my little Katiushka, my
sweet little imp,” and would take her in her arms and press her to her soft breasts and coo like a
    “Never you fear, my little one. You’ll show them all up, my darling. You’ve a good heart
and a strong will and beauty, yes, such beauty.”

        From her schoolroom window she caught sight of a tall slim man with blond hair and
sidewhiskers dismounting from a black horse. He looked handsome and elegant in a bright
blue jacket with golden epaulets and white trousers and highly polished black boots. Behind
him, her eyes fell on a group of mounted officers, resplendent in black fur hats, blue jackets of
a different cut and boots with spurs that flashed in the sunlight like diamonds.
         She leaned out of the window as far as she could to get a better look at his face as he
approached the entrance. She heard her mother’s high-pitched laughter. She leaned out farther
and saw her parents standing under the white arch of the main entrance.
     She giggled.
    Her mother was stuffed into a new blue silk dress and her bosom stuck out like two
overripe melons, while her father’s face was flushed in excitement, his nose as scarlet as a
rooster’s crest. He wore a row of decorations over his white jacket. On either side of them the
footmen, shifting from leg to leg, looked uncomfortable in new but ill-fitting dark blue livery
edged with gold braid.


    Mamzelle clicked her tongue and tugged at her to move away. But before she jumped back
she saw the Tsar walk right under the window, stop to look up, and, to her astonishement, break
into a broad smile. She noticed his eyes crinkling mischievously at the corners and when she
giggled, self-consciously this time, his smile widened as though he agreed with her that her
parents looked like stuffed geese in their new clothes.
    Then, all at once, she felt her face burn with uncustomary shyness and slammed the
window shut.
    Katia’s younger sister Marie, or Mouche, rushed to the window, with her nurse Dunia in
pursuit, and pleaded to have it opened.
    Katia stepped back as Mouche brushed against her.
    She envied Mouche. It was painful that her mother preferred Mouche to her since Mouche
was always obedient, so small, so delicate, skittering about like a fly or like a butterfly or an
angel with her long silvery hair. She looked, Katia thought with a pang of jealousy like the
fairy tale maiden in one of Matriona’s endless store of tales, who always married a prince. She,
Katia, on the other hand, with her green eyes, her tawny mane, always in tangles, and her long
legs covered with scratches pretended that she was like a watersprite, an imp, a wild creature, a
rusalka. And Matriona, too, teased her that she belonged in the forest and should ride the
moonbeams to distant kingdoms where she could do as she pleased and where no one would
reproach her.

      While her brother Anatole’s muffled shouts could be heard outside the classroom door
suddenly there was a knock on the door and Masha, Madame La Princesse’s maid, burst in:
     “Madame wants Ekaterina Mikhailovna to come down. The Tsar has asked to see her,”
she panted, her eyes shining with excitement.
    Katia’s throat tightened with dread. Maybe the Tsar thought she was laughing at him
instead of with him.

    “Here she is!” Her mother said with a nervous comme il faut little laugh and frowned at
Katia, who could barely catch her breath.
    Then she inclined her head graciously toward the tall gentleman sitting in front of her on
the wide wooden porch.


     “She’s twelve,” she heard her mother say in a tone to suggest that it was an inappropriate
age for a girl.
     Katia wondered if she was to apologize for being twelve. But to her relief she noticed the
Tsar’s eyes twinkle when they met hers.
     What she saw had little to do with what she had heard from the peasants, who called the
Tsar batiushka, * and said that he was stern and sometimes cruel and always ready to punish
them for their waywardness. But she found nothing stern or cruel about him. His pale blue eyes
were mild. And he was gazing at her with the curious, as if embarrassed, kind of look she had
seen of late on other men’s faces.
     “I hear that you enjoy riding,” she heard him declare with an awkward twist of his lips as
though he was suppressing a smile.
     Her spirits rose. He was clearly not going to get her into trouble and without thinking she
blurted out:
     “I do and why shouldn’t I?”
     She heard the gasp of horror from her mother, and out of the corner of her eye, saw her
father’s terrified expression and knew at once that everyone would accuse her of incorrigible
     But instead the Tsar burst out laughing:
     “Your father tells me you’re a fine rider. And a most fearless one, that I can clearly see!
Who knows, one day you might just grow up to be like the valiant Durova, our famous Cavalry
Maiden.      You know, my grandfather once said she was the bravest ‘man’ in her regiment,
though, of course, some people claimed that she looked more like a horse than a man.”
     Everyone laughed.
     “But you don’t understand,” Katia said, defying the laughter reverberating around her and
feeling quite reckless, declared with an angry toss of her head: “I’ve got to run off because
Mamzelle punishes me all the time….
     ….Anyway, I'd much rather be a boy.”
     She heard her brother Anatole smirk.
     But she no longer cared.
     All was most likely lost anyway.
     “I just forget the time when I'm riding Millou,” she continued. “And I'm punished when I
get back.”


    She quickly turned to see what effect her words had on Mamzelle.
    Mamzelle’s eyes flashed with hatred. What, Katia thought with sudden alarm, if she
plotted with her mother to take Milou away from her?
    But the Tsar was smiling at her sympathetically.
     “Should have been a boy?” he asked mockingly. “Would of course have been a shame,”
he added with a wink.
    Once again she heard laughter all around and felt her face redden.
    “I’d rather be a man, I mean a Tsar like you, for instance,” she announced defiantly.
     Now she fully expected something awful to happen-- the very skies to fall on her head.
     “It's time, Your Imperial Majesty…” her mother burst out.
    But the Tsar leaned toward her and whispered conspiratorially:
     “When you're a little older, ask your Maman to send you to St. Petersburg. Perhaps we
can see to it that you join the Imperial Guards.”
     As if on cue everyone burst out laughing.
    Humiliated, with the sound of Mamzelle whispering “little idiot” in her ears, she raced into
the house barely avoided slipping on a lose floorboard.


    She was being sent away to Saint Petersburg.
    She and Mouche were enrolled in the Smolny Institute for the Daughters of the Nobility.
    “You will,” their mother said looking at the girls sternly, “be trained to behave like proper
young ladies. And it will then be your duty to find husbands well placed at court.”
    She flinched and looked away as she heard her husband’s voice in the other room arguing
with one of the maids.
    Varvara Stepanovna Shebeko, herself a former Smolianka and a distant relative, who
everyone called “Vava,” was to go with them as chaperone.


     “I owe so much to you, my dear Vera Vasilievna,” Varvara would repeat as she settled on
the faded chintz divans, which lined the walls of the red sitting room. “You can trust me to take
the most loving care of your daughters,” she would say, her eyes filming with tears, which she
quickly brushed away with a lace handkerchief drawn from her sleeve.
     But Katia observed Varvara’s mottled face turn sour, as she passed her hand over her
whispy red hair and pursed her lips as though she were disappointed with everything.
     Mouche, though almost thirteen and her mother’s favorite refused to listen when Katia
warned her darkly that “Vava,” would soon make them both suffer, “suffer terribly.”
     Even now, Mouche was excited to leaving home for the first time, though the Smolny
Institute, Katia insisted, would not be a corner of heaven, and the very thought of marriage to a
well-placed man filled her with trepidation.
     On the other hand, Katia saw all too well that her mother was occupied with the disasters
of the family finances.

      They were utterly ruined.
     “The Great Disaster,” as her parents referred to the Emancipation,* took place on a stormy
day with dark clouds on the horizon and a cold wind blowing a silvery dusting of snow through
the air.
     Wrapped in furs Katia stood beside Mouche at the open door just inside the entrance hall
bare save for the two carved and painted benches while Madame la Princesse, their mother,
read the proclamation to the huge crowd of servants and estate serfs gathered outside, the men,
in tattered sheepskins coats and bast shoes, the women bundled up in ragged coats and brightly
colored headscarfs.
     “A thousand souls,” Katia heard her father speculate to himself, while her mother
addressed the crowd in a shrill, indignant voice.
       “It will be the ruin of Russia,” Madame la Princesse the businessman” announced. “And
it is your ruin as well,” her voice rising higher and higher: “For who will take care of you, poor
orphans, once we can no longer protect you?” she concluded with a catch in her throat.
           Katia shuddered and stared down at her feet in embarrassment. Then, looking up, she
saw the crowd shuffling from side to side as her parents retreated to the formal blue salon,
where the samovar could be heard to hiss on the marble side-table.
     Suddenly loud voices, men’s voices, began to clamor:


      “The land be ours. It be ours to farm as we may.”
     And then the women took up the cry:
      “Ours, they be,” they chanted in chorus as if in church, responding to the priest’s blessing.
       Not that anyone had complaints about their former owner.
       Madame la Princesse had been generous the servants all said when Katia overheard them
gossiping in the kitchen. She had already freed two housemaids and given them money to go
to work in St. Petersburg. But Matriona had sighed and frowned and whispered to Katia that
Olga was pregnant and the beautiful Natasha had been the Prince’s mistress as well.
        “And you, my poor little lamb,” she had added, her broad face glistening with sweat as
she stirred the kasha for the servants’ dinner in the big black kettle, her eyes suddenly moist as
though with tears, “who will look after you?”

     “Ruined, quite ruined,” her mother was heard keening, as she wandered around the house,
her dress stained and her graying hair loosely piled onto the nape of her neck.
     Katia followed her silently as she closed bedrooms that would no longer be occupied by
distant friends or visiting relatives. The blue parlor, crowded with family portraits on its linen-
covered walls, was locked and left like a sealed tomb to turn to dust; the Persian carpet, whose
intricate patterns had fed Katia’s imagination, fading; the crystal chandelier, whose brilliance
had so dazzled her, forever dark. The long French windows and doors in the ballroom were
shuttered. The once scarlet chintz-covered divans of the red sitting room had become as
lackluster and threadbare as poor relatives. And in the dark oak-paneled dining room the white
pech, or Russian stove, gave out less heat than before as the family gathered around the table
for their somber meals.
     Aliosha continued alone with his desultory labor in the gardens, looking “a little too
English,” Katia heard her mother sigh.
     Pavel remained to drive the creaky coach, fumble with its worn springs and patch up the
leather seats.
     Matriona took to groaning as she stirred the pots in the kitchen, and muttered “my poor
little ones” when Katia came to see her.
     “We be too old to find a new master or mistress and nowhere else to find shelter,” she


     Only two horses remained in the stables, Katia’s Milou and Mikhail's stallion, ready for
the pasture.
     Mamzelle, Katia’s tormentor, had been reluctantly dismissed with a string of embarrassed
apologies from her mother. And while Mouche did little else but hover by her mother’s side
like a lost puppy and their younger brothers Anatole and Sergei had been sent off to boarding
school Katia was left to her own devices,
     When the weather did not permit her to ride into the woods she went, as had been her
habit in the past, to the library, left open inadvertently, perhaps, simply forgotten.
     The winter cold had settled in and with the snow piled high on the panes of the tall
windows shadowed by their heavy curtains in which deep rents were now apparent, she would
sit on the window seat after pulling out a thick leather-bound volume with gold lettering. It did
not matter what she read because one sentence alone would allow her mind to wander off the
page and find comfort in the familiar dreams of her childhood.
     Again and again she imagined that she was a changeling, that her royal parents were dead
leaving her their kingdom with Matriona as her companion. Milou would live in a golden
stable. Her brothers and sisters would be safely banished to distant rooms in her castle. There
would be no “well-placed” husband to marry and she would be free to rule over her kingdom as
she wished.
     Nothing she could find in the pages of the books she opened compared to the infinite
delights of her reveries.

     But one day, as she stared at the snowflakes etching their delicate patterns on the window-
panes, the spell was broken.
     The sound of the door opening startled her. Her father stood on the threshold, rocking
unsteadily on his feet.
     “My little wild Katia,” his voice sounded raucus, “my savage Katiushka needs taming,
that’s what she needs!”
     Then he closed the door behind him, leaned against it as if to catch his breath and lurched
toward her.
     She jumped up, frightened. Her book fell to the floor with a dull thump and when he
stepped onto it, emitted a strange crunching noise, as if a small animal trapped in its pages, had
been trampled. A thin trickle of saliva ran out of the corner of his mouth and glistened against


the red stubble on his chin as he flung his arms around her. The sour smell of vodka on his
breath came in rapid bursts and though she twisted and pushed away at his chest, she felt his
arms tighten, his flaccid lips wet on her neck and his hand fumbling for her breast.
     “Papa, Papa, stop!” she screamed.
     Suddenly, the door burst open and her mother rushed into the room.
     “Mischa! Mischa! Stop, you old fool!” she shouted her eyes flaming.
     Katia felt a tremor pass through her father’s arms as he loosened his grip and staggered
back. Her mother rushed up to him, pushed him to the side as though he were no more than a
gnat, grabbed a thick strand of Katia’s hair and slapped her face, shouting over and over,
     “Little fool, silly little fool!”
     “Stop, please stop, please!” Katia pleaded her cheeks burning.
      But Maman continued to rain down blow after blow until, at last, her rage played out, she
     “You little…” she hesitated and then repeated, “ You little… cocotte.”
     Then she seized her terrified husband by the arm and dragged him out of the room
slamming the door behind her.
     Katia eased herself to the floor, her temples throbbing, and began to cry. But the tears
seemed only to scald her cheeks.
     What had she done to deserve such punishment?
     The word “cocotte” resounded in her ears. Slowly she rose and without forethought ran out
of the room as fast as she could downstairs to the kitchen to find Matriona.

          The night before she left for the Smolny Institute Katia lay awake, expectant and
anxious all at the same time.
          Before daylight she wrapped herself in her eiderdown against the cold of early spring
and went to the window to watch the darkness turn from grey to filmy pink. She heard Milou
neighing, a rooster crowed and then another. A flock of sparrows shot out of the bare blueberry
bushes like a volley of arrows. The musty smell of damp earth, of “spring earth,” wafted into
the room.
          Tiptoeing downstairs Katia opened the front door cautiously and ran through the snow
to the stables to fling her arms around Milou’s neck. She pressed her face to his rough cheek,
and cried until she had no more tears left.


        Milou had given her wings.
       Milou had given her a taste of freedom.
        “When I get to the capital I must,” she sobbed to Milou, “I most definitely must appeal
to the Tsar. He must, yes he must set me free!”



Peter-Paul Fortress, Saint Petersburg, March 14, 1881


     “Sonia Levovna Perovskaia!”
     She is sitting on a cot, dressed in the prison uniform stiff with the previous occupant’s
grime and reeking of sweat. Her heart beats violently as she listens to the muffled sound of her
name being called outside the heavy door of the cell.
     Are they coming to get her? Already?

     “Sonia Levovna Perovskaia!”
     Her name is called out once more. She feels her jaw tightening, her heart leaping into her
     She glances at the small grating at the top of the door. Something is being slipped through
it. A bundle of paper drops heavily to the ground.
     A wave of relief passes through her and her heart resumes its steady rhythm.
     Now she recalls that she has asked to be permitted to write. Of course they grant her
request because they expect a full confession, the naming of names. They think, in exchange,
she expects clemency from them.

     But she knows that they are going to hang her.

     The memory of that day comes flooding back and she starts to shake uncontrollably.
     She remembers how, afterwards she had forced herself to remain calm.


     For the good of the party.
     She had lost her nerve, had fallen ill with fever.
     It would have been better had she died.
     Now she has only one last duty left. She must write to her comrades. They must continue
their struggle.
     Her brother or her mother will smuggle her notes outside of the prison walls.
     And then, too, as long as she is writing, she will not think about the future.
     She will not worry about Andriushka.
     She will not torment herself with the thought that he will hang as well.
     But if he does… then surely they will be allowed to embrace for the last time. That one
embrace will burn death away.
     Her last thoughts will be on him and his on her.
     “Andriushka, Andriushka,” she whispers his name, summoning up the image of her

     Her pencil rushes over the page.
     This will not be a confession.
     This will not be a simple letter to her comrades, either.
     Her life seems to be unraveling so fast she can barely follow. Something is welling up
inside her, like a wave cresting. A tide of bitterness is rising in her throat. She must go back
to the beginning.
     To the very beginning.


     Her father arrived late for dinner.
     Sonia held her breath when he came into the dining room. His hair was flecked with
ashes and his face smeared with soot. He was frightening to look at.
     Her mother rose and rushed to him but he brushed her aside and sat down in his usual
place at the head of the long table and glanced at the others seated on either side staring at
him with a mixture of curiosity and dread.
     “I could see it clearly from the windows of the Ministry,” he began, picking up his soup-
spoon without looking at the plate put in front of him. “It’s clear that the radicals were
aiming their fire at our building. Those hoodlums simply want revolution and bloodshed.
They want the rabble to rule,” he slammed the spoon down beside his plate so that drops of
soup splattered the tablecloth. “Still there’s no need for you to panic.”
     Sonia saw him look at Mama with a flicker of contempt.
     “The Ministry is safe, after all!” he addressed her as though she were the cause of the
disaster visited upon the city.
     Then he turned his eyes to scrutinize the faces of the others, as though they too might
share in her guilt and continued:
     “There were whirlwinds of fire and smoke and people running in all directions and
merchants throwing their goods out onto the sidewalks. We sent messangers to get fire
engines.” He paused, picked up his spoon once more, dipped it into his soup and then looked
around at the startled faces to gauge the effect of his words. Sonia felt her heart pound


     “But then,” he continued, “the shops filled with turpentine and oil and brimstone began to
explode like bombs and people started running madly about trying to keep the flames from
reaching the goods lying on the sidewalks.”
     He stopped, left the spoon in the plate and mopped his brow with his napkin as though he
had himself fought the raging fire:
     “It was an inferno!”
     “Only your good efforts managed to get the fire under control,” her mother, pale and
anxious, suggested tentatively.
     He ignored her, lowered his eyes and set about eating as though no one else in the room
existed for him.
     Sonia gave her brother Vasilii a meaningful glance but Vasilii sat rigid in his chair and
stared impassively in front of him.
     Svetlana, the cook, standing by the door, wiped her hands on her apron. Then she clasped
her arms over her chest and muttered,
     “Those students’ll be the death of us all!”

     She was just eleven when the fires broke out but she was quite used by then to her
father’s angry outbursts, to his tyrannical behavior.
     She remembered vividly, when she was only six years old, running up to the samovar,
which the maid had placed on the black marble topped side table in the salon. Over it hung
the forbidding portrait of her grandfather, with heavy black mustaches, standing rigid in his
black morning coat, his eyes boring into hers as though she were responsible for having
compressed him to fit into the thick ridges of the gold frame.
     She remembered trying to help the maid bring glasses of hot tea to her parents. But when
she reached to pick one up, the glass spilled and scalding tea seared her hands and splashed
her forehead.
     She screamed and ran into her mother’s arms but she found Lev Nikolaevich, her father,
standing in her way, glowering, shouting at her, chastising her for her clumsiness. She could
not recall whether she cried more from pain or fear. But she remembered with absolute clarity
her mother, Varvara Stepanovna, murmur as she carried her to bed:
     “One must never, no, never, trust any man with one's affection. One receives only abuse
in return.”


     She could not forget the helpless fear and sadness etched on her mother’s face and the
cloyingly sweet scent emanating from the folds of her dress, a scent which, ever after, was
associated for her with resignation and despair.
     Her niania*, Praskeva, tiny, bird-like, still young with a round and rosy face, rocked her
to sleep that night after her mother had recited the evening prayers over them both.
     Sonia knew that Niania, wouldn’t let her father shout at Mama if she could help it.
Niania told her that she pitied her mother. But she also said that she pitied herself more. She
was a serf but when Sonia asked her what that meant, Niania just smiled and then turned
     “You’ll find out in time,” she murmured as she adjusted the cold compress on Sonia’s
hands and tucked her into her bed.

     Sonia’s older sister, Masha, was always talking about growing up so she could marry.
     Her father liked her most of all though it was not clear to Sonia why. Masha was pale,
her hair so light and her eyebrows and her stubby eyelashes almost invisible so that her eyes,
a deep periwinkle blue, looked out at the world with the expression of a startled mouse
trapped inside a short legged body where it did not feel quite at home.
     But Sonia’s older brother, Vasilii, like her, was angry with their father.
     Vasilii was tall and thin and had to bend his head to talk to her but he always had a ready
smile, which showed the gap between his front teeth and made him look like a rabbit. And
like a rabbit’s ears his hair stood up either side of his head in two unruly tufts.
     But when they talked about their father, his eyes would narrow and he would frown.
     She wanted to be like Vasilii, high-spirited and kind and clever. But, being a girl, she
was expected to resemble Masha, though she knew she would never be like her.

     The Perovski house by the Fontanka Bridge was spacious because Lev Nikolaevich held
an important rank in the Ministry of the Interior. Massive chairs, upholstered in florid scarlet
with arms and legs carved to resemble bear claws, lined the formal circular foyer. Sonia had
never seen anyone sit in them for guests were quickly ushered by the maid into the salon,
where tea was served from the side table.
     On one end of the salon stood a marble fireplace dominated by an enormous gilt mirror,
which reflected the gold and crystal chandelier and the dark blue brocade curtains hanging in


heavy folds over the three windows, with their uninspiring view of the massive base of the
bridge. The walls, painted a light blue were hung with portraits, the chief of which was that of
Sonia’s grandfather. But there were smaller ones of her female ancestors as well, looking
prim or forlorn or uneasy in contrast to the men whose poses expressed, if not regal
composure, then at least an assumption of dignity.
       All the public rooms made Sonia uncomfortable.
       When the family assembled around the mahogany table of the dining room where meals
unrolled with monotonous unpleasantness dominated by the general fear of provoking yet
another of her father’s ourbursts, she sometimes felt that the walls were closing in on her and
the reddish floor tiles were burning her feet.
       Most of all, she dreaded entering her father’s study, where guests sometimes disappeared
for hours.
       It was dark, its ceiling oak paneled, its walls bordered by packed bookshelves. In the
center of the room stood an immense desk covered with papers and paper weights, pen
holders and various sharp objects, which never failed to frighten her as though they were the
sort of instruments devils might use to torment her if she were bad and went to hell.
       In contrast her mother’s bedroom, airy and bright, was a haven of peace, with its white-
tiled pech rising almost to the ceiling and humming with warmth during the winter months.
There Sonia could prance in front of the tall mirror next to the dressing table with its array of
crystal bottles, their brightly colored contents glittering like gems when the rays of the sun
penetrated through the white gauze curtains.
       Sonia’s bedroom, which she shared with her sister Masha, had the most light and opened
out onto a small balcony looking over the chain fretwork of the bridge. The image of the
Virgin of Kazan, with the same mournful expression as her mother’s, looked down from the
icon corner directly over Sonia’s narrow cot. A brown bearskin rug lay on the shiny parquet
floor. Sonia avoided looking at the bear’s head, at its glassy eyes, which seemed to her to be
staring out in an accusatory way. Masha would sit cross-legged on it, stroke the bear’s ears
and tease Sonia that she had often seen the bear rise up at night and approach her little sister’s
       Sonia did not know what her father did at the Ministry of the Interior, which conjured up
for her a gloomy palace, where armies of stern-looking man, holding sheafs of papers,
marched up and down stairs. And when her mother told her that one day he would be the


governor of St. Petersburg Sonia fretted that there would be no place for her to run away from
       She had just turned eleven and yet found so much to worry her!
       Besides her fear of the the bear, lying in wait on the floor of her room, she imagined that
the huge supports of the Fontanka Bridge, outside her window were giants who woke at night
and roamed through the city frightening children, particularly children like her who didn’t
obey their fathers. Most of all her father’s anger scared her. Small as she was, she could not
stand up to him when he got so angry that his beard twitched like a cat’s tail and he made her
think of evil sorcerers in fairytales.
       But then Sonia did not like the fairy tales Niania told her about children who had to
escape witches and sorcerers, and about princesses who were forced to marry before they
could live happily ever after. She preferred her mother’s stories from the Bible, most of all the
story of David and Goliath.
       “I’ll never marry!” Sonia told her nurse one evening, thrusting out her lower lip defiantly
as she was being tucked into bed.
       Niania laughed.
       “That's what I said too.” She turned red. “It's a hard life to be a man's slave, to be
shouted at and even beaten. But when a man comes along and he's just how you always
wished, you'll forget how you thought...”
       “Just like in fairy tales?” Sonia asked.
       “Yes, just like in fairy tales.”
       “Well I think they are silly, those fairy tales. They're all lies, fairy tales. I’ll never marry.
No, I won’t be a man’s slave!”
       “Only eleven years old and you talk like that,” Niania laughed. “But just you wait ‘til
you grow up.”

       In the winter, a governess was engaged to teach the children math and geometry as well
as German.
       Anna Karlovna turned out to be very kind. She told Sonia and Masha in her heavily
accented Russian about her sad childhood, about the death of her father, about supporting her
mother in Freibourg. She said that the German books in her small bookshelf were her


“treasures.” She had so little else that was precious to her--only a worn fur coat and a broach
shaped like a rose pinned on her collar.
     While Masha seemed quite indifferent Sonia was saddened by Anna Karlovna’s poverty.
     “She’s German,” Masha told her as they were doing their lessons and Anna Karlovna had
gone to talk to their mother. “I’ve heard Germans are terribly stingy with their money.”
     “Why can’t Father pay Anna Karlovna enough to buy a new coat?” Sonia asked one
morning while sitting on her mother’s bed.
     “Your Papa can ill afford to give everyone in the house what they want,” her mother
replied with a mournful smile. “But you do have a kind heart and it will serve you well, “ she
added, cradling Sonia in her arms.

     Just after Sonia’s twelth birthday, Nikolai Alexeievich, her grandfather died, and her
father asked to be transferred to the Crimea so he could look after his ancestral estate.
     “Kilburn,” was a strange wooden mansion decorated with turrets like a medieval castle,
with a warren of wood paneled rooms, both downstairs and up, dark and forbidding.
     The family shared “Kilburn” with their widowed grandmother, Charlotta, who only
appeared at dinner, entering the stuffy low ceiling dining room with great ceremony,
accompanied by her maid.
     Without uttering a word she would pick up her knife and fork and look down at her plate
as if she had something terribly difficult to do. In her stiff black taffeta dress that enfolded her
like the frame of a picture, the tiny frail woman at the head of the table, seemed, to Sonia, as
if on the verge of disappearing, melting into her high-backed chair; though no one would
notice her absence, not even her maid.

     Still, as the first impressions of the house and its mistress gave way to a quite different
reality, Sonia found that she would be quite happy in these unfamiliar surroundings. Her
father did not make scenes at the table in deference to his aged parent and her mother’s eyes
even began to lose their sadness. And although Masha pouted and complained about the
isolation of their new life refusing to join her brother and sister as they set out to explore the
countryside, Sonia discovered her first taste of freedom.
     The wide meadows and abundant orchards, which surrounded the house lay under the
shadow of the great peaks of the Yala mountains. On their first tour of the property they


stopped at the first fruit-laden tree and filled their pockets with fallen plums and wiped their
sticky hands on the grass. Then they looked back at the row of poplars, which led to the
house and listened to the screeching of starlings nesting in the tops of the trees. The
dazzlingly bright rays of the sun, so unlike the pallid and flickering light of St. Petersburg,
soft as velvet, warmed their faces, and burnished their hair.
     “Tomorrow, if they let us, we’ll go to the river and I’ll teach you to swim,” Vasilii said
putting an arm around her shoulders.
     With a surge of joy, she broke lose and ran toward the house.

     In the days that followed, while her mother and Masha and Anna Karlovna spent the late
afternoon reading or embroidering on the wide verandah which ran the length of the house
and drank countless glasses of tea drawn from the samovar set on a little table, Sonia sat with
Vasilii on the shady banks of the river and watched the sun-drenched water shimmer and
beckon and listened to the musical rush of the current over the rocks.
     At first, however, she had resisted Vasilii’s urging to join him in the water.
     “Niania told me to beware of the rusalki,” she told him primly watching with fascination
and growing envy as her brother plunged into the current, disappearing to reappear further
downstream, beating the water with his arms, laughing and snorting like a buffalo.
     But when he emerged out of the water and shook himself, he splashed her and his eyes
twinkling grasped her hand and drew her away from the bank and into the river, while she
screamed with a mixture of terror and delight as he held her up. She thrashed about, fearful,
fighting against the swift eddies which pulled her here and there until, quite suddenly as if by
some magic spell, she felt herself weightless, floating in the current passing over her body and
she pushed at the water with her hands, propelling herself forward with an ease that
astonished her.
     She swam, “like a fish,” Vasilii snickered to hide his admiration.
     All at once the river appeared to her as her element. The currents led her and she
followed, freely, without constraint, as though some some mysterious, strength had entered
her body, had taken it over and yet made it fully her own.
     In the water she felt she was the mistress of her own realm.
     She resolved never to be afraid of anything or anyone again.


       The family had been at “Kilburn” for six months and when Lev Nikolaevich was
summoned to the capital and did not return the routines of the day were spent even more
       But all too soon the calm was broken with the news that Varvara Stepanovna’s sick
sister, Aunt Yulia Stepanovna would join them.
       Aunt Yulia, as limp as a rag doll, was brought into the house by her harried maid and
helped upstairs to the bedroom prepared for her.
       “Oh how Yulia Stepanovna screamed and thrashed about when we came to take her from
her room,” the poor woman complained to Varvara Stepanovna. “You cannot imagine looking
at her now, for she has quite exhausted herself--and us as well. You cannot believe, I say, how
difficult it has been to bring her here. How she has struggled in the carriage so that I had the
coachman stop and help me stop her from opening the door and flinging herself out by tying
her hands to a handle. Oh, you cannot imagine how she fought us, like a demon, I say.”
       But Sonia, who had stood by her mother’s side when Aunt Yulia was brought in, had
been mesmerized by her aunt’s eyes darting about like an animal’s caught in a hunter’s net.
Beneath the layers of thick black wool crèpe she seemed to be no more substantial than a
faded bouquet of flowers. She was pretty, fair and her huge violet tinged eyes, when they
stopped being filled with fear, fixed on a far-off horizon, staring at something she alone could
       “You must not go to see her,” Varvara Stepanovna warned Sonia after Aunt Yulia had
been taken upstairs.
       Her frown indicated that no one was to question her about her sister.

       That night, propelled by an insatiable curiosity, Sonia rose silently from her bed, listened
to Masha’s quiet breathing and Anna Karolovna’s faint snore and raising herself on tiptoes,
pushed open the bedroom door and crossed the landing to Aunt Yulia’s room.
       The floor creaked loudly under her bare feet and the door handle squeaked when she
turned it.
       In the moonlight Aunt Yulia was lying uncovered on the bed in a long white nightgown.
Her eyes, great dark hollows, were wide open.


     “You came to see my wounds, little one, didn’t you?” she whispered conspiratorially as
though quite expecting her visitor. “I don’t let anyone see them but I can tell that you won’t
do me any harm.”
     Sonia put her hand over her mouth. Her heart pounded.
     Aunt Yulia raised herself on her elbows. Her long hair fell to the pillow, like a rusalka.
Niania had warned Sonia about certain kinds of rusalki who kidnap little girls. But now she
remembered with a pang of fear that she had called Niania silly to tell such stories.
     “Come closer and I’ll let you see,” Aunt Yulia whispered, the dark hollows of her eyes as
big as saucers.
     The thought flashed through Sonia’s mind that if she bolted out of the room her aunt
would follow her. She approached the bed cautiously.
     Aunt Yulia held up her arms.
     “See,” she said.
     Sonia shuddered at the livid red marks across both wrists.
     “I can open them when I wish,” Aunt Yulia declared defiantly, folding her arms over her
chest, “and they can’t stop me.” She looked at Sonia threateningly. “But I'm waiting, I'm
waiting until I hear the order.”
     Like some marionette whose strings had been pulled tight, Aunt Yulia sat up straight.
     Sonia stepped back and covered her mouth with both hands.
     “And when I hear the call, I’ll be ready. Yes, I’ll be ready!” Aunt Yulia hissed, looking
directly at her.
     Then she smiled sweetly:
     “I’ll…I’ll drown them all in blood. The Tsar as well!”
     Suddenly as if the strings that held her up had been loosened, she lay back onto her
pillow with a satisfied grunt as though she had done something important.
     Feeling her legs about to buckle Sonia turned and rushed, in terror, to her mother’s room,
sure that Aunt Yulia was right behind her.
     But when she climbed into her mother’s bed, Varvara Stepanovna just stroked her cheek
and went back to sleep.
     Sonia lay awake.
     Was Aunt Yulia ready to kill the Tsar? Why were her wrists so scarred? She pressed
herself against her mother’s back and felt its warmth comfort her, as she mulled the


unanswered questions over and over until finally her mother’s regular breathing lulled her to
     She dreamed.

     She had gone into her mother’s room and found Aunt Yulia sleeping together with
her. All at once, Lev Nikolaevich burst in. His hair, bright red, stood up on top of his
head as though it were in flames and his eyes glittered with rage. Then he rushed to the
bed and seized both the women by their hair, dragged them onto the floor and throwing
the window open lifted them both as though they were weightless and pushed them out.
Sonia found that she was rooted to the ground. She could not move her arms. She could
not scream. She could not help her mother.

     When she woke shaking with anger, she felt her mother’s arm around her waist and her
sleepy voice murmuring,
     “You must be still!”
     Next day she confided her nighttime adventure and the nightmare that followed to
Vasilii. But Vasilii showed no interest in his aunt’s plight, even when Sonia suggested to him
that, perhaps, their father might have been to blame for Aunt Yulia misfortune.
     “She’s quite mad, anyone who has eyes can see that,” Vasilii said with a shrug. “And
dreams are just nonsense, anyway.”
     But his words did not reassure her.

     That spring their father had been named to the Ministry of the Interior again and been
given the use of an even more spacious government house in the capital and though Sonia was
sad to leave “Kilburn,” she could not help feeling a sense of relief to leave her aunt behind.
     In the new house on the fashionable tree lined Ekaterinski Prospekt Lev Nikolaevich had
made arrangements that his wife and children should no longer share his quarters, a decision
that pleased Sonia and, at the same time, made her uneasy. Instead he and his mother
Charlotta--whose death two weeks after their arrival was hardly noted in the household--took
over the lower floor, while the rest of the family lived on the second, containing the public
rooms which included a vast ballroom.


     Masha had just turned fifteen and talked of nothing else but about the ball that would
introduce her to society.
     “What kind of a man would you like to marry when you grow up?” Masha, staring
dreamily at her own image in the mirror, asked Sonia who sat glumly on the bed behind her.
     “I’ll never marry,’” Sonia replied without hiding her irritation. “Vasilii and I will go to
live together at ‘Kilburn,’” she quickly added. “We’ll swim in the river and hunt in the
mountains and….” She thought for as minute and then muttered with a tentative smile, “help
the peasants.”

     Although Anna Karlovna was kept on to continue teaching them German, Lev
Nikolaevich permitted his wife to hire a tutor for Sonia and Masha while Vasilii attended the
gymnasium in St. Petersburg.
     Varvara Stepanovna’s choice of Alyosha, a student at the university, pleased them all.
Though his appearance might have been cause for mockery--he was tall and thin with stooped
shoulders, a prematurely thinning hairline, and big sad eyes and he was often caught blushing
when working with Masha-- he treated Sonia like his little sister and called her “precocious.”
     Anna Karlovna, eager to discuss the German books that they had both read, often
interrupted their lessons to talk to Alyosha, while Sonia listened with rapt attention and
Masha yawned and fiddled with her hair.
     “I want to read all that you read. I want to read all those German books too!” Sonia
declared as she and Masha sat primly at their desks.
     Masha snickered but Alyosha flushed, looked over guiltily at Anna Karlovna who
quickly rose to leave the room. He bent over Sonia, smiled shyly and said:
     “I’m here to teach you literature and it is with our own Russian literature that we must
     They had been reading Gogol’s story,“The Overcoat,” and Sonia was troubled at the
thought of the poor clerk, dying after being robbed of a new overcoat for which he had made
so many sacrifices.
     “Was he not just like a serf?” She asked.
     Alyosha flushed, his eyes grew sadder, and he hunched his shoulders even more as he
glanced at Masha, who was busy drawing outlines of dresses in her notebook,


     “Russia is still enslaved,” he whispered. “We’re all slaves of the Tsar! And you women
are the slaves of us men!”
     Masha looked up at him, startled, and then made a face.
     “What do you mean by that?” she asked sullenly.
     Alyosha flushed:
     “Perhaps I was only joking!” He stuttered.

     “Alyosha's teaching me all sorts of interesting things,” Sonia confided to Vasilii that
evening. “He said that we are all slaves, that the Tsar owns us all. But Alyosha looked ever so
frightened when Masha didn’t believe him. What if she tells Father?”
     Vasilii frowned:
     “Alyosha will be dismissed.” Then he lowered his voice to a whisper. “You must not
breathe a word, not even to Mama but it’s not as though he’s alone in thinking so. At school
they’re even talking about a constitution.”
     “What’s a constitution?” Sonia asked.
     Vasilii smiled patronizingly:
     “You're still too young to understand.”
     But a week later, as he left to go to his classes, he pulled Sonia aside and whispered
     “The thunder of an approaching storm can be heard.”
     All morning she mulled over his warning, not daring to ask Alyosha what Vasilii’s words
meant, fearing Masha might report any such conversation to her father,
     That afternoon when she went for a walk with Anna Karlovna along the crowded Nevski
Prospekt, where carriages of every size jostled with peddlars’ carts, her attention was first
drawn to the fashionably dressed women, their hats decorated with a vast array of feathers as
they paraded disdainfully past throngs of grim-faced peasant men in bast shoes and soiled
tunics and peasant women, with down-cast eyes, in sarafans and flowered scarves tied firmly
under their chins, carrying heavy baskets or untidy bundles filled with food to sell.
     Anna Karlovna stopped, every so often, to look in the dress shop windows while Sonia
gloomily stamped her feet with impatience. But as they made their way amid the throng, she
became more aware than usual of women in tattered shawls begging in the spaces between the


shops surrounded by their children, with tear-stained faces huddling next to their mothers and
staring with imploring eyes at every passerby.
     That evening, as Sonia sat on the divan next to Masha in the little blue salon, where the
stove had been lit to ward off the chill of the night, and watched her mother picking at threads
in her embroidery frame and Anna Karlovna reading from one of her books, she recalled the
children’s grimy and anxious faces, and remembered the angry looking peasant men on
Nevski Prospekt.
     Quite abruptly her feeling of guilt gave way to a wave of indignation. She must protest to
her mother, to ask why nothing was done to help. Why her father in his important Ministry
was not aware of the misery outside the walls of their house.
     As if she had heard her daughter’s thoughts, Varvara Stepanovna turned away from her
embroidery and looking directly at Anna Karlovna said, in a worried voice:
     “The city is now so crowded with poor peasants coming in from the countryside. Starving
so they say. So terrible, of course. And then, too, I hear from everyone that there have been
disturbances at the universities. I only pray that our hot-headed Vasilii will no involve
himself and that calm will be maintained—for Lev Nikolaevich’s sake as well as ours.”
     “It’s not right,” Sonia blurted out indignantly. “Anna Karlovna and I saw mothers and
children begging. They looked so very hungry. I felt so sad since I had nothing to give them
and Anna Karlovna had only a few kopeks in her bag. Why can’t Father do something for the
     “So young and such a tender heart,” her mother glanced at her with a smile, sighed and
turned back to her needlework, though she muttered, as though to herself,
     “Lev Nikolaevich will know what to do. He’s not made of stone, after all.”
     “Akh, Akh,” Anna Karolvna responded. “Such a country!”

     But the next evening at dinner, for which, despite his separate quarters, Lev Nikolaevich
never failed to appear he arrived late and announced angrily:
     “The student rabble is the cause of it all.”
     Everyone remained silent. Sonia looked down into her plate.
     “They’re determined to destroy the state, to let ignorant beggars run it,” he continued,
glaring at Vasilii as though his fifteen-year-old son was guilty of starting a “storm.” Then he
looked accusingly at his wife.


     “There’s a manifesto circulating addressed to the so-called ‘younger generation.’ It
claims, if you can believe, that Russia is in a state of dissolution and must become a republic.
I see now that these fools will drown us all in blood.”
     The memory of Aunt Yulia's wrists flashed before Sonia’s eyes and she shuddered at the
unwelcome thought that the storm announced by her brother might indeed begin--with Aunt
Yulia arriving in the capital to kill the Tsar himself.

     But although, Aunt Yulia did not materialize, the early summer did indeed bring the
     Sonia listened wide-eyed as the adults talked anxiously about suspicious fires being set
through the entire city.
     “What is happening? What is happening?” She asked Vasilii in the corridor as she went
to her room.
     “The storm, the storm,” he muttered through clenched teeth, looking over his shoulder to
make sure that no one overheard him and grasping her arm tightly, whispered in her ear: “You
must tell no one!”
     “What must I not say?” Sonia whispered back.
     But hearing a door open Vasilii put his finger to his lips, gave her a dark look and turned
to go to his room leaving her wide-eyed and puzzled.
     For several days afterward he refused to talk to her when she came to see him. He
appeared distracted and secretive and was often late to dinner so that his father glared at him
and shouted that the house “was not an inn for laggards.”
     Then, more ominously still, Sonia overheard Lev Nikolaevich order her mother to
dismiss, “that radical Alyosha,” and her heart pounded with anxiety.

     Alyosha, carrying a bundle of books, appeared for the last time in the Perovski mansion
to say goodbye.
     Masha, pretending to have a headache, had remained in her room. Sonia, both sad and
angry, held back her tears. But Anna Karlovna started to cry. Alyosha laughed nervously.
     “I know that you have been a good teacher and an honorable one,” Varvara Stepanovna
was saying, looking guilty and uncomfortable as she patted the governess’ arm to calm her.


“Our precocious little Sonia,” she glanced affectionately at her daughter, “is always asking
question but I cannot hold you responsible for that.”
     She hesitated and then, out of the corner of her eye, gave him a suspicious look.
     Sonia rushed to his defense.
     “Alyosha has done nothing wrong. And it is mean of Father to dismiss him! And I’ll bet
     Varvara Stepanovna interrupted:
     “Masha is indisposed,” she said curtly.
     Alyosha smiled sadly and muttered something about how he understood that a man in
Lev Nikolaevich’s position needed to be cautious but that he, Alyosha, meant no harm to him
or to “our poor Holy Russia.”
     When he closed the door behind him and the sound of his footsteps echoed as he ran
     Sonia rushed to the window to watch him leave the house. She saw him crossing the
street, head bowed, back bent, clutching his pile of books to his chest. And a tremor of pity
passed through her. But just as she meant to turn away she noticed two policemen approach
the stooped figure, stop him, and wave their arms at him menacingly.
     Alyoshia stepped back in alarm, dropped the books, tried to pick them up again but one
of the men was already grinding them into the ground with his heavy black boot.
     She called to her mother. But both she and Anna Karlovna, had already left the room
and, afraid to take her eyes of the scene outside, to bear witness to it, Sonia watched horrified
as the policemen grasped Alyoshia by both arms.
     He put up no resistence though he turned his head to look at the tattered and muddy
books scattered on the sidewalk as though he would not leave without the things, which, she
knew, were most precious to him.
     She struggled to open the window, desperate to shout, to object, but the heavy latch
refused to move and seeing the men lead Alyoshia briskly away, she rushed out of the room,
ran down the stairs, and threw open the main door.
     Once outside, she saw a black carriage pulled by two horses approaching the front of the
house. Through the window she thought that she could make out Alyoshia’s anguished face.
She held her arms out to him but the carriage began moving so fast that she was not sure he
had seen her.


     She ran back in with tears brimming in her eyes, and brushing past the startled maid,
burst into her mother’s room.
     Varvara Stepanovna was alone, sitting at her dressing table, looking wistfully into the
     “They took Alyoshia away,” Sonia cried out, flinging herself into her mother’s arms.
“The policemen took him away. But he did nothing wrong!”
     Varvara Stepanovna pressed her tightly into her arms and began to stroke her daughter’s
     “Your father,” she murmured. “ Your father was angry with me for hiring him. He told
me I was a fool, that I should have suspected that Alyoshia, like most students, was involved
in a radical group, that he might well have important information to give to the police about
the possible assassination….”
     She did not finish before Sonia, wiping the tears from her cheeks, interrupted:
     “You mean to kill the Tsar?”
     “Hush, hush!” her mother whispered. “Who but he could give you such ideas?”
     “But he gave me no such ideas,” Sonia objected, her heart pounding. “He was the
kindest man. He taught me about…literature.”
     “You must keep in mind that your father has our great city to protect. You do not know
what he knows. Trust him It is all for the best.”

     Two days after Alyosha’s dismissal Sonia, still angered by her mother’s words, found her
sitting on one of the several gilded armchairs arranged around the sofa in the formal salon
which was rarely used. The tall French windows were open and a slight breeze made the
summer muslin curtains billow bringing in a strong smell of smoke. She was leaning over a
book in her hand but her eyes were not focused on it. By late morning Anna Karolovna, now
in charge of the girls’ lessons, had whispered that Varvara Stepanovna was nervous after
hearing the news of the uncontrollable fire raging in the vast Apraxin market where the
Ministry of the Interior was located.
     Sonia walked hesitantly up to her mother.
     “What will we do if Father is hurt?” she asked pointedly.


     “You must not say such things!” Varvara Stepnovna replied with a frown. “We have
debts. Your father’s salary is quite indispensable!”
     “But if we went back to ‘Kilburn,’ Mama,” Sonia objected. “I’m almost thirteen, quite
grown up. We could live well, with the orchard and with Vasilii and me…fishing.”
     Varvara Stepanovna looked up. There was a faint smile on her lips and an apologetic
look in her eyes.
     “Child, child, “ she said. “Forgive me. I’ve been too brusque. But you must honor your
father, however he treats us all.”




     “Princess    Ekaterina    Mikhailovna      Dolgorukova!   Princess   Maria    Mikhailovna
Dolgorukova!” the valet announced.
     Self-conscious in her ill-fitting white dress Katia entered the Smolny Institute’s grand
ballroom ablaze from a dozen chandeliers.
     “We look like a flock of geese,” she whispered to Mouche, whose hand trembled as Katia
squeezed it.
     At the far end of the vast room a small group awaited them.
     When Katia rose from her awkwardly executed curtsy, flushed and wobbling, the
disapproving expression on the Empress’ face only served to fluster her. The Empress was
seated in a massive red and gold armchair, which enveloped her like a gilded frame. With her
drooping jowls, dull brown eyes, and faded hair pulled tightly back into a low chignon she
looked quite like the strict matrons at the Institute.
      A man’s voice murmuring something drew her attention to the Tsar standing next to one
of the three ladies-in-waiting directly behind the Empress.
     “The Dolgorukov sisters,” she heard Madame Leontieva’s voice repeat.
     The Tsar took a step forward.
     He looked tired. His mustaches were long and streaked with gray. But he also appeared
stiff and cold and distant, the very image of a ruler, rather than the simple man she had met on
her mother’s estate.
     Her heart sank.


       But she quickly recovered. For quite suddenly his eyes lose their glassiness and begin to
sparkle and he broke into the mischievous smile she so clearly recalled.
       Her spirits soared. She quite forgot to address him as etiquette demanded, and found
herself blurting out instead:
       “ How you’ve changed since I saw you at Teplovka!”
       He raised an eyebrow in mock astonishment, though he continued to smile as he passed
his fingers over his mustache.
       “Indeed, indeed, my dear young lady! Have I aged so?” he asked teasingly.
       She felt herself blush and to hide her embarrassment remembered the speech she had been
practicing all morning.
       “The promise…. the promise you made at Teplovka…. to allow me to….well, to join a
regiment, do you recall?” She stuttered. “Of course then I was only a child,” she quickly
corrected herself, pulled back her shoulders as if to give herself confidence, and continued:
       “You told me then about the Cavalry Maiden. Of course I know now who she is but I no
longer wish….”
       She stopped and then forgot what she was going to say about changing her mind, and to
her consternation, broke into a nervous giggle.
       The Empress stared at her, glanced furtively at the Tsar and then fiddling with a silver
cross on her breast turned her head to the lady-in-waiting closest to her.
       There was a stir. The Empress leaned forward and her three ladies-in-waiting whispered to
each other.
       “I do apologize for the girl’s behavior,” Katia heard Madame Leontieva’s voice behind
       But Tsar's smile had turned into laughter.
       “How could one forget such an impudent little imp,” he said, looking warily at his wife,
still fiddling with her crucifix. “But of course, you could hardly pass for a man,” he laughed,
turning to the ladies-in-waiting, who lowered their eyes, and began to fan themselves
       “Maybe next year,” he said, “when you have finished your studies, the Empress,” he
stopped and turned toward his wife, “might be in need of a young and lively lady-in-waiting,”
he glanced at the three women, “to cheer her.”


     The women, Katia observed, raised their eyes in unison and flushed with irritation. She
took notice of their pinched expressions and their drab long-sleeved, high-necked dresses in the
dullest of hues.
     Throwing all caution to the winds she declared:
     “I’ve no wish at all to become a lady-in-waiting. I’ve waited here long enough as it is!”
      She heard a gasp behind her and Madame Leontieva's voice quivering with indignation as
she burst out:
     “She's incorrigible, Your Imperial Majesty!”
     Mouche gave a sharp tug to her sister’s sleeve.
     “Another Dolgorukova beauty in the making,” the Tsar muttered approvingly, observing
the younger girl’s nervousness.
     At that instant, feeling that she had nothing more to lose, Katia decided to plead for her
     “May I not be allowed to leave the Institute early? There is nothing more here…” she
hesitated, fearing that she might go too far in her complaints. “And I wish to study….”
     Breaking her silence, the Empress trained her weary brown eyes on Katia and interrupted.
     “Your mother placed you in our keep,” she murmured. Her voice was soft and yet cold,
and her thin upper lip quivered in irritation. “You must not betray her trust.”
     But then turning to the Tsar as though seeking his approval her expression changed and her
eyes appeared momentarily filmed with tears.
     Ignoring his wife, the Tsar burst out laughing:
     “You’re a brave one, a real imp. And if you wish to leave and continue your education
elsewhere we’ll see how we can help. Although what it is that so lovely a girl would wish...”
he stopped and she was disturbed to see a faint flush rise to his face. “Why, it would be a
shame,” he shook his head as though to rid himself of an untoward emotion and turning to
Madame Leontieva, who, together with the ladies-in-waiting could barely hide her outrage, he
declared with a malicious twinkle flashing through his eyes: “You should take special care of
our ‘future scholar’ and I will come from time to time to check on your efforts.”
     The Empress lowered her eyes submissively and enlaced her fingers delicately around the
cross on her chest.
     “Both of you may curtsy and go,” Madame Leontieva commanded.


     With Mouche hanging on to her hand, as though for dear life, she walked down the length
of the ballroom, rustling with the sounds of whispering. Reaching the great double doors, she
glanced over her shoulder and saw him wink at her.
     And she was filled with a sense of absolute elation.

     All night Katia rehearsed what had happened though she dreaded the morrow when she
must face Madame Leontieva. And indeed, just as she had feared, right after breakfast, she was
summoned to her office. But instead of finding the directress in a rage, Madame Leontieva
appeared to be unusually pleased, though she addressed her coldly:
     “The Tsar has graciously consented to talk to you despite your appalling behavior. And he
has deigned to see you here next Tuesday. You will wear your white dress and you will behave
with proper decorum as you have been taught by us to do!”

     The door to Madame Leontieva's private salon closed.
     Rigid with trepidation, yet determined not to reveal it, Katia betrayed herself by a deep and
lasting blush as she stood facing the Tsar seated in the directress’s armchair. Here she was,
alone with the “Tsar of All the Russias,” as she had been taught to think of him. For several
days she had been telling herself that if she had not been intimidated as a child, she must not
now shame herself by succombing to such a feeling.
     “Well, well, my young beauty,” he said, leaning over and looking into her eyes with the
same ironic smile which he had turned upon her in the ballroom. “I’m most curious to know
what kind of studies you wish to pursue?”
     She straightened her back. The intensity of his gaze troubled her. What could he be
making of her blushing face?
     That morning in a moment of panic she had prepared a speech so as not to appear foolish.
One of her teachers had been talking about the poverty of the peasantry and though, the
previous week, he had suddenly disappeared from the Institute, he had made a strong
impression on her. He made her think about her beloved Matriona, about Alyoshia. She had
written to her mother worried that they might have been sent away. As yet she had received no
reply. Folding her hands primly over her apron she decided to forge ahead.
     “The peasants need our help!” Her voice quavered, she stopped, cleared her throat, passed
her hand over her brow, felt her face begin to cool and continued her recitation:


       “At Teplovka, when our gardener Alyoshia cut himself and fell ill with a fever, they
brought in the midwife and she gave him such a terrible mixture of herbs and roots he almost
       The Tsar, she saw, was staring as if appraising something in her. Once more, she felt
herself blush. It made her quite frantic and she blurted out:
       “So you see I want to study…medicine.”
       She bowed her head, waiting to regain her composure by pretending to inspect the hem of
her apron while he remained silent.
       Perhaps, it suddenly occurred to her that she might have offended him in some way by
wanting to help the peasants. Was he not called the “Tsar Liberator,” after all? Well, what did
she care! Even if he had her expelled from the Institute, was that not a small victory? She
could go back to Teplovka. Milou was still alive. She would find Matriona, perhaps look after
her in her old age.
       But when she looked up she saw that his face was flushed--and not with anger.
       Then to her relief the door suddenly flew open and a maid entered carrying a tray with
glasses of orangeade, followed by a smiling Madame Leontieva.

       That evening a girl stopped her in the corridor and thrust her face into Katia’s:
       “My sister-in-law knows people in the highest court circles. And she’s warned me that the
Tsar likes nothing better than “des oies blanches,” white geese, to seduce and then cast aside.”
       Katia blanched. The words stung like a sharp slap in the face. She had tried, after leaving
the Tsar, to make sense of the interview. He had promised her nothing. Madame Leontieva had
dismissed her curtly as though she had important business to discuss. And he, after all, had
responded to her request only with a blush, which continued to disconcert her.
       The girl went on:
       “My sister-in-law says that a white goose turns into a “grue,” a crane, when she grows
       She glanced knowingly at a group of girls who had gathered around her. They all burst out
laughing and dispersed but not before Katia observed a glint of envy in their eyes.
       Still their jealous laughter hardly gave her cause for satisfaction.
       Instead the words, “Oie blanche” and “grue,” burned like a brand as she recalled the face
of the Tsar, his eyes, mischievous and yet troubling. And then the shameful memory of her


father’s face, blotchy and swollen, his breath on her shoulders reeking of drink came back to
frighten her.
     She shuddered in disgust.

     She spent the night, unable to sleep, going over and over her interview with the Tsar.
Something was happening, all right--something to do with the will of the Tsar. Something
disquieting. Something resembling the will of her father—to which she would not, would never
agree. Perhaps she had been a fool, an ignorant fool, to ask for the Tsar’s help.
     The following day, Katia was startled to be called out of class by a silent and stern-eyed
matron, Mademoiselle Tufaeva. Mouche, looking alarmed, but afraid to speak, joined them as
they walked to the directress's quarters.
     But instead of Madame Leontieva, they found Vava sitting alone in the visitor’s armchair
pulled up to the white tiled stove, her face propped up pensively in her hands.
     “My poor girls,” Vava sighed, rose, came up and spread her arms protectively around both
the sisters. “I have some bad news,” she said.
     Katia started to tremble and reached for Mouche’s hand.
     “Your Maman, my poor dears…. Your poor mother…” Vava pressed them both to her
breast, “You Maman has died.”
     Pushing Vava away, Mouche flung herself onto Katia’s neck with a piercing wail.
     But Katia listened to Vava’s words as though coming from another room:
     “Your Maman caught a fever. They waited too long to fetch the doctor and,” Vava’s voice
became hushed, “she grew worse, fell into a faint and…..”
     Mouche let out another strangled cry and pressed herself into her sister’s arms.
     “Your dowries are small,” Vava’s tone of concern shifted to a practical note. “But enough
to find a suitable match. I have been appointed to be your guardian until you marry. I also have
your Maman's last letter in which she gave me instructions regarding the Tsar.”
        Katia flinched and tried gently to remove Mouche's arms from around her neck, but her
sister clung ever more tightly. An unwelcome and frightening thought had occurred to her:
        Was it possible that her mother and the Tsar had made a pact behind her back?
        And what was the nature of that pact?


     A week later, came the news of the death of their father and Katia already numb with
remorse, moving through the day like a sleepwalker, was now filled with an abiding sense of
shame—and remorse.
     Most terrible of all Teplovka would be no more.
     Her beloved Matriona, would, most certainly be sent away, God knows where. Milou
would be sold. Alyosha and the others would have to leave.
     But deepening her misery the suspicion of Maman’s pact with the Tsar tormented her.
Only the need to look after Mouche prevented her from falling into complete despair.
     “We’re quite alone, we’re orphans,” Mouche wept, stretched out on her cot in the
dormitory while Katia stroked her hair. “Who is there now to look after us like Maman did?”
     And Katia recalled, with a pang of resentment, that her sister had been Maman’s favorite;
and that her mother, whose affections she had not shared, had called her a “cocotte.”

     One morning she woke up feverish.
     Her head spun and her eyes lost their focus, as she was led, stumbling, through the
interminable yellow corridors of the Institute to the infirmary. There, barely able to stand, she
was undressed and tucked into the stiff white sheets of her cot. She drifted into what seemed to
be sleep though she was aware of everything around her. She was conscious of the nurse in her
white gown and then of the doctor carrying a small leather case, which he opened with a sharp
snap. Now he was taking her wrist in his hand.
     Was she going to die, perhaps from the same fever that killed her mother?
     A wave of terror swept over her, crested and then ebbed slowly, gently, leaving her
completely calm, resigned to her fate.

     “Katia, Katia, poor child!”
     The sound of Mademoiselle Tufaeva’s voice roused her.
     “You should know that the Tsar sent his personal physician to attend to you. You must
now recover as quickly as possible.”
     Mouche's face emerged as if from a dense fog, her blue eyes huge with terror.
     “You won’t die like Maman and Papa, will you?” she whispered, tears welling up. “You
won’t die and leave me quite alone?”


       Katia tried to reach out for her hand but her arm felt too heavy to lift. Then, overcome by
an irresistible urge to sleep, she closed her eyes and drifted off.

       She was lost somewhere in the woods. Milou was panting, stumbling, as they pushed
through the thick foliage.
       Everything around her rustled, whispered, each leaf on each tree trying to make itself
       “My poor angel,” she heard a murmured chorus, “my little lamb, who will look
after you? Let me press you to my breast.”
       Suddenly Milou stopped, turned his head to her, and whinnied.
       A woman’s angry voice rose above the hubub of the trees:
       “Marry. You won’t marry! Girls like you don’t deserve to marry.”
       She tried to see where the voice was coming from but the trees closed in on her and
then the leaves began to tremble and fall, one by one, slowly at first and then faster and
faster until she was surrounded by bare tree trunks which extended as far as she could
       A man’s voice sounded from somewhere far away:
       “Servant girls, servant girls,” it cried, dying away slowly, the words echoing through
the trees, brushing past their bare limbs and leaving in their wake a nauseating smell of
       Milou had vanished and she stood quite alone in the barren forest.
     “I must find my way out!” She tried to cry out.
       But somehow the words refused to take shape, to leave her throat.
       “There, there, don’t be so sad,” She heard a man’s kindly voice. “I’m here to protect
       A bright light shot like a bolt of lightening through the trees, so bright that she had to
close her eyes.

       She was alone sitting up in bed in a blindingly white bedroom, empty of furniture, save for
a table with a porcelain jug and basin on it and an ornate gilded armchair placed in front of her
bed. The window was ajar letting in the rays of the pale spring sun and a strong breeze, which
seemed to make the basin rattle and move imperceptibly as if it were alive.


     She was wearing a starched white bedjacket that crackled when she moved. Her heart was
pounding and her breathing come in shallow gasps.
     The door opened and the Tsar came in.
     She caught his eyes riveted on her hand gripping the collar of her bedjacket, and she drew
it more tightly under her chin. He pulled the chair up to the bed, leaned forward, and smiled
mischievously, like a schoolboy.
     She recoiled.
     “An imp like you can’t be ill,” he muttered, his smile broadening, his eyes shining, “It’s
just a pretense to fool us mortals. Those green eyes sparkle, and this mass of hair,” he reached
out and lifted a strand from her shoulder while she pressed her head firmly against the pillow.
“Looks as if it’s spun out of gold,” he continued, unperturbed by her unease.
     Her chest tightened with embarrassment. He gave off a strong smell of tobacco and it
nauseated her. She wanted him to leave at once! He made her feel as vulnerable as a snail out
of its shell. The hateful words, “oie blanche, white goose, cocotte,” began drumming in her ears
as she shifted and tightened her jacket around her. The jacket crackled and made her aware of
her breasts and she worried that he could make them out through the starched fabric.
     She noticed that his blue eyes bulged slightly. They looked pale and watery and they
repelled her. They made her think of her of her father.
     He must have read her thoughts because he pushed his chair back from the bed, sat up very
straight and folded his face into a formal smile.
     The distance between them relieved her. She thought that if she began to speak to him, to
talk to him about her illness or, more pointedly, about the fact that she was now an orphan he
would pity her and keep away.
     “My mother died,” she said, her voice breaking. “And then my father.”
     She did not expect to cry and blinking away her tears, scanned his face anxiously for a
reaction but his expression did not change.
     “I must look after my sister,” she went on, with a hint of desperation. Once again her eyes
were filmed with tears. “Mouche is only thirteen and too young to be alone.”
     Then, not knowing what else to say, she wiped away a tear running down her cheek and
brushed off a lock of hair curling over her brow.


     But to her dismay the Tsar leaned over her, grasped her hand firmly in his and brought it to
his lips. She felt the roughness of his mustache and the moistness of his lips, tried not to
shudder, checked an unexpected urge to laugh, and pulled away violently.
     “Ah, you mustn’t!” She exclaimed and then, despite herself, broke into a nervous giggle
only to observe the Tsar’s eyes register disappointment.
     He stood up towering over her. He was, she thought with a pang of fear, the Tsar, after all,
He was not her father. His wishes, it was known, were commands. Was there then nothing she
could do to keep him at bay?
     But to her immediate relief he said in a voice quavering with repressed emotion:
     “My lovely little imp, for that is who you are, you shall call me your friend Sasha and I’ll
do what I can to free a rusalka, held captive!”
     Then his expression changed once more. He winked at her mischievously, like a schoolboy
caught in a prank, turned and left the room without glancing backward.
     She felt the blood draining from her cheeks. His words puzzled her.
     Why was she to call him by his nickname, Sasha?
     What did his offer of friendship mean?
     And what would be the cost of her freedom?
      His mischievous smile was perhaps simply a ruse to win her over. She remembered the
feel of his lips on her hand, slid under the quilt, and pulled it over her head.

     The following day she was taken back to join the other girls in her dormitory.
     The weather had turned unusually warm for early April and the row of tall windows were
opened wide to catch the breeze, which sent the curtains billowing, like a flight of gulls. She
breathed in the pungent smell of the sea, imagining that it bore the scent of freedom. If only
she could once again feel free as free as when riding Milou through the fields, where the
mingled perfumes of wild flowers, of cut grass, and of newly threshed grain so intoxicated her
that she felt as though she had wings.
     She missed Milou. She missed Matriona. Instead there would only be Vava’s weekly
     “Remember what sacrifices your Maman made for you,” Vava always repeated in an
accusatory tone before she left. “And that is why you must show his Imperial Majesty your


     Katia had never asked her what she meant. But now she thought she knew; and the
suspicion grew more shameful every day.

     One morning as she dressed, oblivious to the chatter of the other girls’ around her,
Mademoiselle Tufaeva came into the dormitory. She was greeted, as was always the case, with
silence. But her ruddy face appeared even more flushed than usual:
     “Now that you have fully recovered from your illness,” she announced loudly as she
stopped in front of Katia, “I’ve come to give you some good news.”
     Katia frowned. She could imagine nothing that would give her pleasure within the walls of
the Institute—unless it were the announcement that she could leave it. Her heart throbbed in
her throat in anticipation.
     “The Tsar wishes to take you for a drive this afternoon,” the matron continued.
     A pang of dread made Katia’s heart stop and then flutter. She raised her head, heard
gasps, and saw the other girls staring at her, whispering to each other with sly and knowing
smiles. She tried, with little success, to comfort herself with the thought that at least she would
to be excused from classes for the whole afternoon. But her hand shook as she adjusted her
hair, remembering Vava’s words. It was now all too obvious, she decided and felt her eyes
brimming with tears. An agreement had been reached between her mother and the Tsar—an
agreement in which she had no voice. And a wave of resentment quickly dried her tears.
     “I won’t be anyone’s servant girl, not Papa’s, and not the Tsar’s,” she thought as she
smoothed her skirt with her hands and raised her chin defiantly.

     The sun shone directly in her eyes as they drove out of the gates of the Smolny Institute,
past the blue walls and white columns and cupolas of the façade of its church, crowned with
golden domes which sent off flashes of light like auxiliary suns or bright beacons to the
     Hardly had they turned onto the broad boulevard than the Tsar seized her hand and carried
it to his lips. She pulled away angrily, pressed her back firmly against the seat, and looking
directly into his eyes declared:
     “I won’t be your oie blanche!”
     Her boldness left her trembling with rage and humilation but the Tsar’s sudden burst of
laughter startled her. Why was he laughing at her? Had she simply made a fool of herself?


     Then he leaned forward, with a surprisingly mild and friendly look in his eyes and
whispered in a conspiratorial sort of way:
     “My dear sweet girl. Never have I met an imp such as you. Such an imp! You say exactly
what’s on your mind. Yes, exactly, what’s on your mind! He repeated. “Is it possible that you
are not aware that no one dares to talk to me with such impudence, such delightful impudence, I
should add. And is it possible that you don’t care? That you have no fear? No, you see, not
even my own family can speak openly to me. Naturally, you must think, how can a Tsar expect
it? Everyone believes they must bow and scrape, even though it’s clear that I’m no Ivan the
     Then, quite abruptly, he stopped, straightened his back and looked away through the
     They rode in silence for a minute while she tried to make sense of his words. Everything
seemed jumbled, incomprehensible, and she did not know if he was reproaching or praising her
or what it was he wanted from her. And then, she did not like to be called an imp. It conjured
up for her, some small, deformed creature, or a ghostly, frightening rusalka.
     “Now,” he suddenly looked back at her and, ignoring her confusion, continuing to address
her though a shadow passed over his face “I will tell you what’s on my mind as well and we’ll
both be frank with each other.” All at once his eyes deep sadness reflected a deep sadness:
“What would you say if I told you something that might quite shock you?”
     Once again she pressed her back against the seat.
     Was he now going to disclose the agreement he had made with her mother?
      “You told me about your mother’s—or should I say, your parents’—sudden deaths.”
     She held her breath.
     “But just two days ago someone tried to kill me!”
     She felt her body grow rigid. This is not what she had expected to hear but the shock of
his announcement unnerved her.
     What did he intend for her to say? What did he mean by giving such news to her?
     Could this be merely a ruse to soften her attitude toward him? And why had no one in the
Institute been informed?
     Was he telling her the truth to make her pity him and then…. What then?
     He continued, despite her silence.
     “It was a young man. One of those ‘radicals,’ as they call them.”


     He hesitated and frowned, looking at her searchingly. Then he turned away, disturbed,
perhaps, by the way she continued to stare at him without uttering a word, suspicion etched on
her face. She followed his eyes and saw him wipe them with his gloved hand.
     Behind him, through the window, the sun glistened on the placid waters of the Neva. They
were riding past the grandiose palaces of the English Embankment. Her attention was suddenly
drawn to the thunder of horses’ hooves surrounding. She glanced through the window and saw
the guards, perhaps a dozen of them, preceding their light Phaeton and heard, behind her, the
rumbling of a heavy black carriage. The thought came to her that there was something ominous
about it all, not the trappings of power, not the demands of a Tsar that his subjects bend to his
will; and when she turned her gaze on him again, her diffidence gave way to curiosity.
     “No one dares speak frankly to me,” he repeated gloomily. He seemed on the verge of
tears. He was clearly not dissembling. “I’m surrounded by people who want something from
me. I can trust no one.”
     There was a familiar look his eyes--the hurt look of a child, who, like her, had no one to
comfort him.
     “Well, I don’t want anything at all from you,” she finally stammered, breaking her sullen
silence. “ I won’t even ask you again to help me leave the Institute.”
     He smiled faintly, reached out as if to pat her hand and then just as quickly withdrew it.
Once more he turned to look out of the window and murmured:
     “I was walking in the Summer Garden….”
     The driver cracked his whip and the two bay horses snorted. They were moving past the
Nikolaevski Bridge and toward the endless stretches of the pink and white façade of the Winter
     “I walk there every day, you know. The Summer Garden.”
     She had not seen the Summer Garden but she heard it described as resplendent with
flowers and dotted with statuary.
     “I noticed him because he was wearing a long black cloak and a hat,” he was saying. “I
distinctly remember the hat, drawn down over his forehead.       Yes, he was all in black.” His
eyes focused on her with frightening intensity as he continued: “The man came rushing toward
me and pulled a pistol out of his cloak.”
     She imagined a black shadow flying toward him like a bird of prey.


       “I heard a shot ring out.” His expression now betrayed terrible distress. “Then I spotted a
burly-looking peasant jump behind him and quickly wrestle him to the ground.”
       She imagined Alyosha in his rough white tunic and bast shoes, rushing to save the Tsar.
       “My men immediately surrounded me but I wanted to see his face and so they dragged him
to me. He was bruised and quite bloodied. You know, I felt sorry for him. He was so young!
Only a few years older than you, my dear imp.”
       With a motion so swift that she had no time to react, he grasped her hand and squeezed it
gently before releasing it. Mesmerized by what she was hearing, she did not flinch.
       “He looked up at me with such shame. There were tears in his eyes.”
       She imagined a boy dressed like a bandit kneeling at the feet of the Tsar.
       “I asked him what he wanted and he repeated, ‘My crime is so monstrous!’” He sighed and
once more turned to stare out of the window.
       She flushed. Now she felt ashamed of her suspicions. Perhaps he simply needed comfort.
       When he looked at her once more his expression had changed.
       “My imp will soon be seventeen.” His eyes were still moist but he was smiling. And then,
just as suddenly, he frowned.
       “The Empress is ill and the court is terribly loyal to her. I must always be on my guard….”
       His voice trailed off. She wanted to express her sympathy to him but didn’t know what to
       “You’re no doubt surprised by what I’ve been telling you?” he inquired, tentative. “You
know, I think of you as an imp, a rusalka, trapped in the Institute.” Suddenly he leaned toward
her. “And if you should wish to withdraw before you graduate next year….”
       She held her breath, not quite believing what he was saying. But the old suspicions
reemerged and she stiffened.
       “I ask for nothing!” she declared. “You know I want nothing from you!”
       “I’ve already taken it upon myself to make inquiries, you see,” he continued, ignoring her
outburst. “You can go to live with your brother and his wife. I could visit you there whenever
you allowed me to do so. There we can continue to speak frankly to each other…”
       They were now on the Palace Square, passing the great Alexander column at its center.
The Winter Palace gleamed in the bright sunlight, like the palaces described to her in fairy
tales. Gazing through the window it seemed as though she had entered quite another realm, a
magical one where a Tsar might indeed rescue her, a rusalka, from an evil sorceress like


Madame Leontieva. And as the image of the directress’s stony glare flashed before her, the
prospect of freedom in the great Imperial city gave her a burst of joy and her suspicions were
replaced by such a feeling of euphoria that she jumped to her feet and, without thinking, threw
her arms around his neck to thank him.
     But before she could resist he had crushed her against him and kissed her on the lips.
     The feel of his lips and the smell of tobacco nauseated her as she struggled out of his arms.
He was like her father, just like her father, she thought with a feeling of shame, which quickly
turned back to anger.
     “Oie blanche, oie blanche,” reverberated in her ears as she pressed her back firmly into the
corner of the seat. How easily she had been taken in! How gullible she was!
     But when she saw his head bowed like a guilty schoolboy, his gentle, slightly bulging blue
eyes looking up at her with such intensity, his lips quivering beneath the heavy mustaches as
though he might at any moment burst into tears, she checked herself, unwilling to make a scene
and instead stared back at him with as cold and reproachful look as she could muster.
     “I was too precipitous, my little rusalka,” he murmured, crest-fallen. “I fell to quickly
under the spell of your beauty, of your candor. For indeed, your beauty has, though you may
not yet know it, a real power, a magical,” he emphasized the word, “power. I can only beg for
your pardon and I promise, yes indeed I promise that I will most certainly control myself in the
future if only you would consent…allow… me to see you again.”
     It was all so topsy-turvey. Why else would the Tsar, the Tsar of All the Russias wish for
her company, the company of a ill-mannered and headstrong girl not yet seventeen, that he
should beg her pardon?
     Still, she would not, no, never, whatever the cost, become his “oie blanche!”




     “Look here, I’ve got the another chapter for you,” Vasilii said bursting in and carrying a
heavy volume under his arm.
     As the date of Masha’s coming out ball approached, Varvara Stepanovna had insisted
that Sonia, now thirteen, should be moved to her own room so that her sister might have
enough space to prepare herself for the “marriage market,” as Lev Nikolaevich so cruelly
called it.
     The room was small but furnished with a fine chestnut sleigh bed over which hung lace-
edged gauze curtains. By the bed a blue tiled stove and hummed with heat. High up in the
corner over Sonia’s desk, hung an icon of the Virgin with upturned hands, which her mother
had given her on her birthday.
     But nothing, not even having her own room, nor the gift of the icon, not the
announcement that her father had just been appointed by the Tsar to be the Governor of St.
Petersburg, nor that Masha, at seventeen, was to be presented to the Imperial family, had
thrilled her as much as reading each chapter from a serialized novel, called, What is to be
Done?, which was turning her world upsidedown.
     “Why can’t everyone be equal?” Sonia declared to Vasilii as they sat side by side on her
bed. “Why can’t men and women live together and work together like Vera Pavlovna in the
novel? ” She asked her brother in an indignant tone of voice as though he were in some way


to blame for the present state of affairs. “One day, you’ll see, Father and Mama can’t make
me marry. I’ll run away and live like Vera Pavlovna as well.”
     Vasilii shot her a startled look, brushed a strand of hair off his forehead, and after a
moment of hesitation, said haltingly:
     “They would blame me if you ran away and what…if you find someone you might want
to marry?”
     “Then we can all be together anyway, though I am sure I will not marry,” Sonia grinned
happily reaching up to put an arm around his neck.
     But his lips twisted into an awkward smile, he flinched and pushed her away.

     Just before Masha’s coming-out ball, Sonia was obliged to accompany her sister and her
parents on a round of social visits to all the “important people,” culminating in being
presented to the Tsar.
     She did not hide her petulence as they climbed the marble staircase of the Mikhailovsky
Palace lined with valets in gold braided red jackets. But she found herself awed by the sheer
magnificence of the vast reception room into which they were ushered with its soaring ceiling
ornamented with a frieze of Roman figures. The immense chandeliers appeared as though
erupting rather than hanging from the ceiling, and blazed like so many suns, their crystals
emmitting flashes of rainbow-colored light.
     But as Sonia’s eyes swept over the crowd of bejeweled women in gowns with elaborate
bustles of embroidered velvet or heavy silk, cascading to the floor in intricate folds, her
petulance gave way to a kind of panic and she wished that the evening would pass swiftly so
she could be free to run to her room to read.
     At the far end of the vast salon, in front of an immense portrait of a man on horseback in
military dress, his torso twisted awkwardly toward the viewer, stood the Grand Duchess
Helena Pavlovna, the Tsar’s powerful sister-in-law, dominating the group of ladies who
surrounded her. She was tall, stately, as laden with jewels as the frame of an icon, her blond
hair parted in the middle and decorated with a pearl strewn white lace cap. She wore a long
sleeved dress, a shimmering heavy diamond necklace at her throat and her fingers were
covered with rings of every hue.
     Lev Nikolaevich began by addressing her and indicated his wife and daughters with a
tentative gesture that Sonia found insulting as though he were ashamed to be found in their


company. She wondered if her mother’s modest gown and nervous demeanor had displeased
him or that his daughters did not dazzle anyone with their beauty.
     The Grand Duchess glanced at Varvara Stepanovna with a dismissive smile:
     “Are you the governess?” She asked in a thick German accent.
     Varvara Stepanovna lowered her eyes, flushed, stepped back, reached for her husband’s
arm but before she could mutter that she was the wife of the Governor of St. Petersburg, the
Grand Duchess had already turned her penetrating blue eyes to Sonia and after examining her
face for a moment, pronounced in Sibyline tones:
     “You, my little one, will grow up to be an important soul, a fine young woman of the
kind that are much needed in our day.”
     Sonia flushed, covered her mouth self-consciously with her hand, glanced guiltily at
Masha whose expression plainly revealed her disappointment, and before she could think of
words to defend her mother’s injured pride, the Grand Duchess had already turned her back
and was speaking to one of her ladies-in-waiting.
     Masha grasped Sonia roughly by the arm and hissed,
     “It’s all your fault!”
     Her mother, too, glanced at her sadly, as though her youngest daughter had let her down
by eclipsing Masha, the object of the family’s considerable expenses.
     Lev Nikolaevich, looking irritated, said nothing as he took his wife’s arm, glared at Sonia
and gestured to Masha to follow, as he led them to another part of the great salon and toward
yet another towering figure, dressed in a blue jacket bordered with gold braid and decorated
with a profusion of brightly colored medals. He stood in the midst of a group of men, with his
arms behind his back, apparently deep in conversation.
     “The Tsar!” Lev Nikolaevich announced, stopping and turning back to address his wife,
and whispered loudly enough for everyone around to hear. “ He trusts me with his life and I
have assured him that as long as I am governor, I’ll protect him from these hotheads filling
the universities, stuffing their minds with treacherous ideas.”
     Sonia stiffened at the startling thought that her father might discover what she was
reading. But when she saw him smiling broadly, gratified to be in the presence of the Tsar
amid such a distinguished crowd, she herself could not keep from feeling a surge of
excitement as she stared at the man drawing the attention of the entire room.


     Here was the tyrant poor Alyoshia, whose sudden arrest still reverberated in her
memory, had called a slave-master. Intent on examining his face, she forgot to curtsey until
her mother nudged her to do so.
     The Tsar, she was astonshed to see, did not look like the cruel despot she had imagined.
His expression was kindly, not in the least haughty like her father’s. And then, unlike Lev
Nikolaevich with his thinning hair and huge ears, he was handsome, with delicate but regular
features and shiny blond hair, receding only slightly at the hairline. His pale blue eyes
twinkled merrily and when he glanced at her she detected a faint smile on his lips, as though
he thought all this formality was a joke. And she was disappointed when he turned away
from her to exchange a few words with her father and then to direct his attention to a young
aide who had just approached him. At once the Tsar nodded curtly to the group gathered
around him, turned on his heel and took his leave. But the aide, dashing in his short fur-
trimmed jacket, tightly fitted white trousers, and long black boots, instead of following,
hesitated for a minute. She noticed that he was smiling at Masha, and approaching her,
clicked his heels. He introduced himself as Prince Pyotr Alexeievich Kropotkin and leaving
Masha scarlet-faced, he rushed off to catch up with the Tsar.
     Lev Nikolaeich looked well satisfied, put his arm around Masha and nodded approvingly
at his wife who was fanning herself vigorously with one hand while, with the other she
proudly clasped the arm of her oldest daughter.
     The reception, which had begun so disastrously was deemed a success.
     “Yes indeed, he trusts me with his life,” Lev Nikolaevich said as they settled into the
seats of the carriage taking them home. “He knows that as long as I am governor of St.
Petersburg, there will be no danger from these young hotheads!”
     Why, Sonia wondered, her heart swelling with emotion, would anyone want to kill such a
kind-looking man? Perhaps he was not a tyrant after all but simply surrounded by evil
advisers as she had heard their own servants repeat.

     But that night she had a strange dream:

     The Tsar, young and handsome, was extending his hand to her. But when she
reached out to him, he changed quite suddenly into an old man with a bloody face and a
shredded coat, limping away toward the steps of an immense throne.


     All at once her father appeared and threw himself angrily at the Tsar pulling him
down and taking his seat instead.

     She woke with a shout of anger.

     The day of the ball arrived and from the early morning Masha was in a frenzy of
excitement and apprehension. With a touch of malice Sonia observed her pull the brush again
and again through her hair, glaring unhappily at her reflection in the dressing table mirror.
     Anna Karlovna was rushing from room to room ordering the maids around, muttering
under her breath, telling Sonia to help her sister though it was not clear what she was to do.
     But Sonia was nervous as well. She drifted down into the kitchen, where her mother, a
dampened compress tied around her forehead, was paler than ever as she supervised the
servants. The heat from the great whitewashed oven was stifling and the long oak table at the
center of the room carried a heavy load of cakes and sweet and savory pirogi.
     Everything had to be prepared in accordance with Lev Nikolaevich’s instructions.

     The columnated gold and white ballroom of the Perovski mansion, lit by four handsome
gilt chandeliers, had been decorated to look like a Crimean garden. The walls were lined with
pallid if still flowering cherry trees showering their snowy petals onto the floor; bushes of
wild pink roses grew in elaborate jardinieres with blood-red tulips and yellow-striped tiger
lilies surrounding them; and here and there clumps of brilliant blue flowers peeked out from
beneath the branches of stunted wormwood trees.
     Sonia smiled mockingly at Masha, looking anxious in her pink dress cut daringly low
over her still flat bosom.
     “Silly Goose!” she whispered to Vasilii when the dancing began and she followed him to
an empty corner of the room.
     “When do you suppose the Tsar will arrive?” She asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
     “You’re just stupidly in love with our despot,” Vasilii sniggered, pulling himself up to his
full height, jabbing at the forelock which stubbornly fell back over his brow and straightening
his shoulders so that his new jacket now hung too loosely on his tall lanky frame. “You’re so
naïve to keep defending him. Even after what happened with Alyoshia…”
     “That was Father’s doing,” Sonia shot back angrily.


     “Besides,” Vasilii continued, teasingly, “I’ve heard rumors that he has many young
women around him, all in love with him. There’s one, in particular….”
     Vasilii did not finish before Sonia, flushed with annoyance, nudged him with her elbow.
     “In love with our despot ?” a voice, brimming with mockery, asked her.
     Prince Kropotkin, the Tsar’s aide, dressed in the full uniform of the Corps de Pages, was
bowing to her with mock formality.
     “Since your lovely sister is already occupied,” he said with a broad grin, “May I ask you
to dance?”
     Sonia backed away from him in alarm.
     “Of course if you have another chevalier servant, I’ll be obliged to wait until you or your
sister are free,” he declared, looking askance at Vasilii, who thrust out his chin belligerently.
     She felt herself blush and to mask her embarrassment said the first thing that came into
her head:
     “Haven’t you read What Is To Be Done?”
     She felt Vasilii jab her in the ribs and out of the corner of her eye saw him glaring at her.
     Kropotkin’s expression suddenly turned serious and he looked warily over his shoulder.
     “Indeed I have,” he whispered.
     “Well Masha hasn't,” Sonia declared raising her chin in a way she thought to be haughty,
though small as she was she reached only to Kropotkin’s shoulder. “So you can't talk to her
about it. You see Vasilii and I have been reading it in secret.”
     Vasilii jabbed her even harder and barked something incomprehensible in her ear.
     “My Lord,” Kropotkin exclaimed with a mocking smile directed at them both, “To think
that the children of the Governor of St. Petersburg are reading such a radical work—though of
course everyone else is as well!” Then he added conspiratorially: “And so what do you most
like about it?”
     Vasilii, red-faced with irritation, hissed:
     “Sonia is just a child. She doesn’t understand a thing. And as for me…” His voice
     Sonia made a face at her brother who shot her a threatening glance:
     “He, Chernyshevsky, the author, I mean, thinks women are equal to men. Don’t you bet
that in private Tsar feels the same way?” She declared trying to justify herself.


     Kropotkin let out a gale of affected laughter and looking over his shoulder warily once
more muttered:
      “I don’t think so. After all, he sent the author to jail.”
      She squirmed. She knew she had made a fool of herself and he would now consider her
to be an ignorant and naïve little girl.
     Vasilii broke into a sly grin:
     “Sonia’s just thirteen but, you can see, she’s already in love with the Tsar.”
     “And Masha’s in love with you, Pyotr Alexeevich Kropotkin,” Sonia declared
maliciously to distract Kropotkin from her foolish remarks and betray Masha’s secret.
     Kropotkin blushed, stuttered something about meeting “so and so,” and forgetting his
invitation to her to dance, fled.

      A week after the ball, while Masha was fluttering about the house in a romantic haze
having just received a flattering note from Prince Kropotkin, the news of the terrible incident
reached them.
     It was late afternoon and alone at her desk Sonia had been reading haltingly from her
Latin textbook assigned to her by the strict new tutor Lev Nikolaevich had hired to assist
Anna Karlovna.
     All at once the door burst open and the maid rushed in looking alarmed.
     “Madame wants you in the big salon right away,” she announced.
     Sonia’s heart pounded with excitement. Earlier in the week Vasilii had berated her for
her indiscretion in telling the Tsar’ aide about their reading. But he did not hide from her the
rumors of plots to assassinate officials. That very morning, Vasilii had whispered:
     “I’ve heard talk about an organization called ‘Hell.’The leaders want to knock off the
Tsar and all his ministers—Father as well--and that then, they say, we’ll finally have real
     When she entered the salon she saw her mother and Anna Karlovna sitting solemnly side
by side on the gold brocade-covered sofa and the thought suddenly flashed through her mind
that the radicals had struck. She imagined her father’s inert body, black against the snow on
the English Embankment, blood pouring from a wound on his chest and reddening the ground
around him.
     Varvara Stepanovna, looking wan, announced calmly:


     “The Tsar’s safe! Your father just sent the messanger a few minutes ago. They’ve caught
the young man. Lev Nikolaevich told me not to leave the house, that there might be some sort
of uprising,” she added with a painful grimace.
     Sonia rushed to bury her face in the folds of her mother’s dress and felt an unexpected
wave of shame and guilt rise from deep within her chest.

     That evening when Lev Nikolaevich burst into the room Sonia and Vasilii were playing a
card game in the corner of the formal salon at a small table bearing a lamp with a yellow-
fringed lampshade. Anna Karlovna, looking particularly nervous, turned the pages of her
book back and forth as though she had not read anything at all and Varvara Stepanovna’s
head was bent over an embroidery frame. Masha had gone to bed, still clutching Kropotkin’s
note to her bosom and whimpering about the frightening scene their father would most
certainly make.
     “Disappointed the Tsar wasn’t murdered?” Lev Nikolaevich hissed, glaring at Vasilii.
     Sonia stared at her father with a mixture of defiance and apprehension.
     “I’ll have none of your impudence, either!” He roared, seeing her expression and raising
his arm, as if preparing to lurch at her. But Vasilii jumped out of his seat to hold him back.
His father’s eyes flashed and turning on his heel he walked to the door with an air of wounded
     Suddenly he stopped and glanced over his shoulder at his wife, who sat immobile, white
with terror:
     “It was my duty as governor to protect him,” he thundered, his face scarlet. “I will be
dismissed. Tomorrow, I'll give orders to pack everything up and move every one of you to
the Crimea.” Then noticing Anna Karlovna standing behind her chair, he added, “And take
that German witch with you!”
     As the door slammed shut the yellow lamp on the table fell, flashed, and let off an acrid
     Sonia wrapped her arms tightly around her waist and shuddered.

     Three years had passed.


     Three years in which she grew used to the taste of freedom.
     “With you, Mama,” Sonia had said shortly after their arrival at “Kilburn”, “there is no
need to pretend. Are we not happier here than we have ever been? Doesn’t our food taste all
the better for not having Father glaring at us over the dinner table? And are we not at liberty
to spend our days as we wish?”
     “You must not speak so ill of your father,” Varvara Stepanovna chided her.
     But the reproach was spoken in a soft and caressing voice and she passed her hand over
her daughter’s brow and smiled.
     While the weather remained warm and after the day spent studying with Masha and Anna
Karlovna, Sonia would run down alone to the river. There, as when she was a child, she
found the same delight in swimming among the currents and eddies, feeling her body as light
as the dragonflies skittering around her head, as swift as the little fish brushing against her
arms and legs. Then she would rest on the bank, immersed in the intoxicating scents of wild
herbs, surrounded by a profusion of flowers, which seemed to peek out at her with smiling
faces from amid the thick clumbs of soft grasses, over which she gently swept her hands.
     And when a neighbor offered the use of his horses she learned to ride with the same
speed that she had learned to swim, imaging herself as a brave polianitsa,* galloping on the
back of a horse, with the wind cool and sharp on her face, the tall stands of trees in the
meadows flashing past.
     Far from the capital, far from the gloomy presence of her father, she felt that there was
nothing she could not do, nothing she could not master, no ideas she could not express.
     She began to dream about a future when she would be free forever. She joined Vasilii,
who was studying law at the University of Odessa, in reading the English freethinker John
Stuart Mill on women’s rights, and encouraged her mother and Anna Karlovna to do the
     “I’m going to be,” she would declare primly, “an independent woman!

     But the long respite from Lev Nikolaevich’s presence finally came to an end when,
demoted to a humble position in the Ministry of the Interior, he summoned the family back to
the capital and installed them in an unprepossessing apartment located far from the
fashionable part of the city.


     “I want to study,” Sonia announced at dinner two weeks after their return. They were
seated uncomfortably close together around a table in the alcove off the small salon, hung
with family portraits jostling for space.
     “If Vasilii can study law, why can’t I study medicine?” she insisted defiantly.
     Her father pushed his plate aside:
     “Planning a career as a savant?” he asked sardonically.
     “I plan to become independent,” she snapped back. “The Institute for women just
opened. I want to enroll.”
     She saw Lev Nikolaevich’s earlobes quiver. Everyone stopped eating. A deathly pale
Anna Karlovna pushed her chair back.
     “An independent woman,” he mimicked Sonia. “What you mean is that you’ll end up
like that one,” he growled, pointing to Anna Karlovna. “I suppose you got your ideas from
her. ”
     “Zo cruel!” Anna Karlovna protested and before Varava Stepanovnah could restrain her,
the governess rushed out of the room.
     “What have you said, Lev Nikolaevich?” Varvara Stepanovna cried out. “She’s my
friend, not an employee. I’ll not part with her.”
     “Who’ll pay her salary?” He shouted, clearly enraged by his wife’s defiance.
     “Oh, how you torment us all!” Varvara Stepanovna’s usually placid eyes flashed with
anger. The years without her husband had served to embolden her.
     “We’ll need money to support such whims! I’ll sell ‘Kilburn,’ Yes, that’s what I’ll do!”
Lev Nikolaevich screamed pushing his chair back with such force that it fell behind him when
he stood up.
     But then putting his hand to his chest, he bent over so far that the bald spot on the crown
of his head was visible. He hesitated as though about to straighten his back and quite suddenly
crashed to the floor, pulling at the tablecloth so that glasses, plates, and cutlery cascaded off
the table.

     The next day the doctor diagnosed his attack as a “weakening of the stomach” and
recommended a cure abroad at a German spa where the waters would most certainly produce
satisfactory results. He also urged Varvara Stepanovna to take her oldest daughter with her so
that the two women could minister to the patient’s needs.


     Filled with guilt as she listened to the groans coming from his bedroom and seeing the
frightened looks on the servants’ faces as they scurried back and forth from the kitchen Sonia
dared not repeat her demands and risk worsening his condition. And she was not prepared to
be summoned to his bedside and hear him announce to her mother:
     “Let her study, for all I care.”
     He grimaced and dismissed her with a wave of his arm.

     Nothing in the Perovski household, Sonia thought, would ever be the same again.


     “Don't worry,” Sonia reassured Anna Karlovna, as they stood under the stone arch at the
entrance of the building where the classes were being held watching a crowd of women and
girls laugh, banter, and argue with each other. “Don't worry. You’ll never be dismissed and
I'm going to be a…” she saw her new friend Alexandra Iakovlevna Kornilova walking toward
her with a bright smile, “a doctor!”
     Anna Karlovna glanced warily at Alexandra Iakovlevna:
     “Zo unnaturlich boyish,”she muttered, “in that mannische coat.”
     Not that she approved of Sonia’s ill-fitting white blouse and oversized dark skirt, which,
hung on her small and graceful frame, “like ein Kurtain on ein scarecrow,” and did little to
enhance her pretty face with its high forehead and rounded eyes, which gave her the
appearance of an overgrown child.
     Two more of Sonia’s new friends arrived.
     “Akh, akh!” Anna Karlovna muttered, “one like ein Mann, the other zo skinny und tall
like ein poor horse and the other zmall und brown like ein mouse. Mit such Freunds…It can’t
be helfed.”


     As she walked away, Sonia heard her mumble under her breath:
     “Ze vill be the ruin of herself—und maybe others!”

     Although at the beginning of his cure in Ems, “ Your father behaved like a lamb, a poor
martyred lamb, ” Varvara Stepanovna confided to her youngest daughter, on their return to
the capital his ill humor re-emerged with such force that the effect of the illness on softening
his character was soon forgotten.
     Once more he had been demoted in rank at the Ministry
     And once more the household was racked by his angry outbursts.
     “How is our savant faring in those women’s classes?” He asked Sonia with a sardonic
     “I am learning so much,” Sonia replied in an effort to appear conciliatory and avoid
another scene. “The professors are so anxious to help us.”
     “And indeed they must be,” Lev Nikolaevich said. “Teaching women science is more
difficult than training dogs to talk.”
     Varvara Stepanovna glanced at her daughter with a warning frown.
     Thursting out her lower lip in an effort to restrain her anger Sonia countered coldly:
     “Dogs have no need to talk but women do need to learn so that we can be…productive,”
     “ ‘Productive!’” Lev Nikolaevich mimicked her. “It is not enough that you marry and
produce obedient children….Something your mother….”
     He did not finish before Varvara Stepanovna interrupted putting her finger to her lips and
turning to Sonia:
     “Your father enjoys his jokes. He likes to tease us.”
     Lev Nikolaevich gave Sonia a withering smile and with his knife and fork clutched
firmly in his fists, proceeded instead to attack the stringy veal cutlet on his plate.

     Their newly rented apartment in a house surrounded by a high iron fence was even more
cramped than their earlier quarters and gave Sonia the feeling she was living in the tight
confines of a prison.
     In the evenings the ritual of dinner was gloomier than ever. The walls of the salon, which
also served as a dining room, were papered with garlands of roses in pinks and purples, which
brought to Sonia’s mind not a garden but rather the gory insides of some huge beast. From


the base of the heavy wrought iron chandelier directly over the table issued sharp tipped
curlicues resembling hooks upon which a butcher might hang cuts of meat, she thought, with
a shudder. The massive oak table taking up too much space in the salon had legs as sturdy as
carthorses, resting on poorly executed lion’s claws. On one side of the room was a fireplace
with a small mantle over which hung a fly speckled mirror in a worn gilded frame. The vastly
diminished size of their quarters meant that the portraits of the Perovksi ancestors had been
culled and placed so that their frames touched and it seemed to Sonia as though Grandfather
Perovski’s expression had grown increasingly stern as he witnessed the decline of his son’s
     Those too may have been Lev Nikolaevich’s thoughts when, each evening, he glared at
Sonia, reproached his wife for his youngest daughter’s “liberal” opinions, and ignored the
presence of Anna Karlovna, who took to keeping her face bent over her plate so as not to
meet his hostile gaze. He barely noticed Vasilii, who absented himself frequently with the
excuse that his studies preoccupied him. Masha, absorbed in debating the qualities of the few
suitors who came to court her, retreated into an anxious silence.
     It was not long before Sonia, no longer able to bear the tense atmosphere in the
household, confided her secret plan to her brother.

     One evening at dinner Vasilii announced:
     “You know Sonia is studying just as hard as I am. She's just as ambitious and everyone
knows how stubborn she is. She’s good in mathematics and all her professors in the sciences
claim that she may well have a future as a doctor.”
     Sonia glanced apprehensively at her father.
     Earlier that day she had also described her plans to her mother: Her new friends, the
Kornilov sisters, Alexandra and Liubov Iakovlevna wanted her to move in with them.
     “If you think that I don't know what you’ve been plotting…” Lev Nikolaevich growled.
“I’ve heard your mother tell me. I suppose the next thing, our savant will insist on going to
live with those unnatural women.”
     Sonia looked reproachfully at her mother. Varvara Stepanovna’s eyes registered alarm,
then dismay, and finally, guilt.
     Lev Nikolaevich had hardly finished speaking when Anna Karlovna stood up:


     “It vas not my fault!” she muttered and turning brusquely around, rushed out of the room
sobbing so loudly that Varvara Stepanovn, throwing her napkin onto the table, her lips
quivering, followed her.
     Sonia held her breath.
     She knew her fate was being decided
     “If you don't give Sonia permission,” Vasilii cried out, “ she may very well do
something,” he stopped and gave her a meaningful glance, “out of sheer despair!”
     Lev Nikolaevich started eating, slurping the soup loudly from his spoon.
     The sound he made was more than she could bear and clenching her jaw, Sonia shouted:
     “If you don’t let me go…. I’d rather die!”
     “That’s quite up to you,” her father raised the spoon once more to his lips without
looking at her. “But I will not give you permission to leave this house. You’re a minor and
my rights over you are absolute.”
     “Despot!” she shouted, her heart pounding painfully.
     “You’d rather that your daughter attempt suicide than give her permission to live as she
needs?” Vasilii ask icily.
     “Papa,” Masha cried out, breaking her usual silence, “ Please let her go! She might do
something desperate and then no one will marry me!”
     Lev Nikolaevich put his spoon back into his plate and looked up. His face twitched as if
a fly had landed on his nose.
     “Ill as I am, plagued by a flock of geese for children and a gander for a wife,” he
     Then with a sigh, placing his hand gently on his stomach, he rang the bell for the maid to
clear the table and bring the next course.

     That night, her throat tightened as if someone were squeezing her by the neck, Sonia
threw some school books and clothes at random into a small bag and slipped into Vasilii’s
     “It’s quite final,” she whispered as he looked up startled from behind a desk littered with
papers. “I’m waiting for everyone to go to sleep and then I’ll go to the Kornilovs.”
     He shook his head in disbelief, blinked several times, sighed in resignation, stood up, put
his arms around her, and kissed her cheek:


     “I’ll stand by you, whatever Father does!”


     “Mark Andreevich Natanson says that Karl Marx is the Jews’ second gift to the world
after Christ!” Alexandra Iakovlevna Kornilov, passing her hand over her boyishly cut short
hair, announced the day that Vasilii and his new friend Mark Andreevich, a medical student,
came to visit the modest sparely furnished dacha the Kornilov sisters had rented for the
     “We must translate Das Kapital,” she declared to the group of men and women, friends
from the University and the Women’s Courses, a radiant smile illuminating her plain features,
as they sat packed together on both sides of the long table covered with bowls of steaming
cabbage soup.
     Sonia pushed her bowl away as a whirlwind of images spun through her mind.
     She saw a swirling mass of humanity around her.
     She heard herself say, “Onward!”
     She was the French revolution transplanted to Russia!
     But she did miss her mother terribly.
     And yet how else could she make her way in the world as an independent woman, as
someone who could offer to play a role in the reformation of an unjust society--of an unjust
     “But listen, Sonechka, you know you have us,” Alexandra Iakovlevna comforted her one
day after she had found her in tears. “And we’re going to change everything!”
     Her group was to be her new family.
     And they were planning for revolution.


     In the early fall Sonia and the Kornilov sisters moved into communal lodgings in the
teeming slums of Vyborg workers’ district on the outskirts of the city and invited others to join
     They would study Marx.
     They would study the anarchist Bakunin.
     Then they would take their knowledge to the people.
     “We’ll strike a blow against patriarchal customs, against the whole institution of marriage
and women’s subjection,” Sonia explained to Vasilii on the day she decided to abandon her
studies at the Alarchin Women’s courses.
     Natanson and his wife Olga Alexandrovna were the first to join them in the ramshackle
wooden house on Kusheleva Street. Though its window frames were solid and still retained
traces of blue paint the wooden slanting roof was beginning to buckle at its center and threaten
to collapse after a heavy snowfall. But the house was commodious with a large if dimly lit
wood paneled main room warmed by a pock-marked pech too heavy for the loose wide
floorboards and a cause of much speculation on the part of the men about the danger it
represented to the building. Upstairs were five small bedrooms to be shared by the women
while the men rolled out mats on the ground floor to sleep on.
     But Sonia gave little thought to her own comfort, so taken was she by the promise of new
life and by the trust she seemed to evoke in those around her.
     Like the Kornilovs before him, Natanson was quick to win her over, though thin and dark
with weak close-set eyes made all the smaller by rimless glasses, he hardly represented her idea
of a revolutionary firebrand.
     “You’re made for intellectual work.” He told her with the utmost seriousness. “In time
you could well be the one to lead us all.”
     But within days her newly found confidence was dashed when Nikolai Vasilievich
Chaikovski, a charismatic and handsome new member, moved in.
     As the group, now fifteen strong, gathered for their first meeting around the hissing
samovar set on the table in the main room Chaikovski announced in a stentorian voice:
     “Everyone of us must know each other so well that if we were ever to be persecuted we
could tell how each of us would behave!”
     “Who is he to give us orders?” she whispered to Natanson, confident that he would agree
with her. “He seems to think of us all as his apostles,” she complained.


     But Natanson did not answer. For the front door opened abruptly, everyone turned to look,
and to Sonia’s astonishment Masha’s former admirer, the Tsar’s aide, Prince Pyotr Nikolaevich
Kropotkin entered. He, too, seemed surprised to see her and without waiting to introduce
himself to the rest of the group turned to her with an engaging smile:
     “Ah, my dear little Sonia Nikolaevna. Yes, I still recall your name. You were just a child
when I last saw you,” he said and gazed at her a little too steadily with his clear blue eyes, as if
intent on embarrassing her.
     Sonia flushed:
     “And you showed such keen interest in my sister,” she shot back making every effort to
sound disdainful.
     But she was mortified when she saw everyone smiling slyly at her.
     “Kropotkin has agreed to join us,” Natanson announced. “He’s at court so he’s an
important new recruit.”
     Now a doubt stirred in her mind. Had she been mistaken in Natanson? Had he flattered her
so that when he recruited men to take over the leadership of their communal household she
would not object?
     She was angry and disappointed when next day she met Vasilii at his lodgings near the
university to complain to him:
     “We women, you know, we expected to be joining a group where we would be respected.
But now Chaikovski, Kravchinski and even your friend Natanson and that….untrustworthy
     But Vasilii grasped her firmly by the arm, and interrupted:
     “Kropotkin’s invaluable because he’ll listen to court gossip and give us information about
the Third Section.* {footnote}And as to Kravchinski….”
     “None of you men can be trusted,” Sonia shot back, pushing him roughly away.
     Then she turned on her heel and ran out of the room as Vasilii shouted for her to stop
behaving like a child.

     Then there was the scandal over the Nechaev affair.

     “Men cannot be trusted,” Sonia repeated to Alexandra Kornilova later that evening. Like
everyone, they had been reading newspaper stories about a charismatic peasant radical called


Nikolai Nechaev, who had bewitched so many young men and women in the capital. There
were daily reports of his trial and sentence for organizing the murder of a member of his group
to test their commitment to his own leadership.
     “We’ll have nothing to do with Nechaev, nor with his methods, nor with his terrorism!”
Sonia immediately declared as the group was settling down around the table to eat their spare
evening meal.
     She barely glanced at the plate of sour black bread and the soup tureen being passed
around. She was too agitated to eat.
     “He’s an example of male tyranny at its worst! How can he be linked to revolution, to a
new life, to helping the poor, to freeing…” she hesitated, “…mothers!”
     Sergei Mikhailovich Kravchinski looked at her mockingly from beneath his dark bushy
     “But we do agree, don’t we, that the revolutionary must live for the revolution alone? Isn’t
that Bakunin’s idea?”
     He was the oldest among them with the distinction of just returning from Geneva:
     “Our great anarchist thinker Bakunin.*{footnote on Bakunin} is quite aware of the
growing discontent among young men and women like us.”
     He put the soup spoon down, dabbed a white handkerchief over his goatee, and glanced
around the room with a smile of satisfaction as though he himself had been responsible for
bringing them all together.
     “For revolution,” he concluded.
     Sonia stiffened. How he angered her! His imperious manner, his self-satisfaction and even
the conspicuous elegance with which he dressed! But while she struggled to parry his question,
quite unexpectantly, Natanson came to her defense. His chin twitched with indignation as he
pushed his bowl away:
     “Sonia’s right. We know that Nechaev’s a charlatan!”He had removed his glasses and his
myopic eyes darted from face to face.
     Olga Alexandrovna put her hand on her husband’s arm in an effort to calm him.
     Sonia brightened. Natanson was on her side, after all.
     “He’s a megalomaniac,” Natanson continued angrily, paying no attention to his wife.
“He’s fooled people just because he claims to be a peasant. He’s a swindler and an
incompetent organizer and now a murderer as well.”


     Chaikovski pushed his chair away from the table, stood up, and threw his shoulders back
     “But aren’t we supposed to devote ourselves to the destruction of the status quo just like
he does? ”
     Sonia’s jaw tighten. Chaikovski was just as she had feared--a force to be dealt with.
     For once Natanson attacked him:
     “You know damn well what Nechaev orders us all to do. Any revolutionary organization
must, he insists, compile a list of people to be destroyed even in its own ranks. I’ve also about
his outrageous behavior with his own recruits. If you introduce him to a friend,” Natanson now
looked fixedly at the women, “he sets everyone against each other. If a friend has a wife or a
daughter, he’ll try to seduce her and force her into revolutionary activities.”
     Sonia heart pounded. She struck the table with her fist and announced angrily:
     “We women agree to remain with this group ONLY on the condition that our relations will
remain absolutely egalitarian and comradely, that our goals are peaceful and that our work is
educational, that we work to free everyone, men and women, from tyranny.”
     To her annoyance Kropotkin guffawed and buried his face in his hand.
     “You men have no respect for our views! No respect for us women!” she shouted at him,
banging the table with her fist, once more.
     Was she wasting her time here?
     Should the Kornilovs have permitted men into their communal dwelling?
     Now it was the Kornilov sisters who came to her rescue.
     “We reject Nechaev’s methods,” Liubov Iakovlevna declared, flushing as she glanced at
     But Sonia noted, with irritation, that, aware of the men’s attention to her pretty face, she
brushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead with a graceful movement.
     Alexandra Iakovlevna, on the other hand, pursed her mouth into a disapproving pout,
tugged at the collar on her shirt, and added testily:
     “His dedication to the revolution is no less than ours. And we women have as much right
to leadership as you men!”
     Sonia smiled with satisfaction.

     It was late November when the police first arrived.


     The sergeant asked for the “head of the household” and Sonia stiffened.
     They were all gathered around the table, just beginning the day’s reading of Marx. But
everyone knew what the police wanted. They had heard of the arrest of a general’s son,
Goncharov, for printing revolutionary leaflets. Sonia’s hands trembled but she forced herself to
smile politely.
     “We're all heads of the household,” she declared. “Here there are no masters and no
     The sergeant nodded curtly, though she noticed the two men with him looked startled.
     At that moment Chaikovski, out on an errand, appeared at the door, his hair disheveled as
if he had been running, and a ragged scarf wound tightly around his neck. Pushing past the two
guards he drew himself up to his full height to face the sergeant.
     “If you're going to arrest anyone it might as well be me!” he declared in his stentorian
voice and then looked defiantly around the room.
     “And me too!” Sonia jumped up, determined not to let him overshadow her.
     The sergeant glanced at her dismissively and ordered his men to seize Chaikovski.
     “If you take him you might as well arrest me as well,” she insisted, going up to him as the
others pushed Chaikovski outside.
     Out of the corner of her eye she saw Natanson covering his face with his hands.
     “Might as well take in a few hornets at a time!” The sergeant spat out the words in disgust
and grabbed Sonia by the arm.

     She stood facing the three Third Section officials.
     The one with a heavy graying mustache kept rubbing his nose thoughtfully as he examined
her face. The other, gaunt and balding, paced back and forth with his hands held rigid behind
his back. A third stared through steel-rimmed glasses at a sheet of paper on which he had just
written a few words.
     “Of course your father will be informed immediately,” said the man with the mustache.
     “How do you know Goncharov?” barked the one who was pacing.
     He stopped, drew his arms up from behind his back, and, putting his hands together,
cracked his knuckles.
     “I don't know him,” she protested.
      He gave her an indulgent smile:


       “Confess and we’ll be lenient. Go back to dancing at balls and finding a husband instead
of dressing like a man and playing at revolution.”
        She felt her jaw tighten:
       “I can dress as I please,” she responded though she was all too aware that it hurt her case.
“And as for dancing, I've danced all I want to,” she continued, thinking that now she had
nothing more to lose.
       “A pretty girl like you not wanting to dance? But now you’re dancing the revolutionary
‘carmagnole’* {footnote} with Goncharov, is that not right?” the mushtachioed man winked at
the others.
       She would not let them make fun of her. Even if it meant that they might deal harshly with
       “We wish only to help the poor by educating them!” She replied trying to sound calm
though the tremor in her voice betrayed her.
       “Our benevolent Tsar has no need of your assistance,” the man with glasses declared
curtly as he raised his pen.
       She knew it was pointless to argue.
       She had condemned herself.

       She had feared being sent back to her father; but she did not expect to find herself in a dark
cell in the Peter-Paul fortress with the sound of the waves lapping against the sides of the wall.
       She shuddered with disgust as the cold-eyed matron, ordered her to pull on a gown,
saturated with the previous prisoner’s sweat. When she was dressed and the woman had
slammed the door and padded away in her felt shoes, she looked around her. The floor was
rough and dirty and a window with iron bars set high near the ceiling let in a dingy light. The
walls were covered in stretched canvas, covered with stains and strange marks like
hieroglyphics. In the corner stood a narrow iron cot with a straw mattress and beside it a table
and a three-legged stool.
       She had not counted on the unbroken silence, on the deadening solitude.
       The aimless days blended into nights.
       At first she paced angrily from side to side, beating her hands against the damp walls,
shouting, hungry for any sound. But her voice came back to her like a mocking echo. The
thought that she might go mad began to assail her and she determined to outwit her jailers, to


thwart their victory over her. She tired herself in gymnastics, which she had encouraged her
friends to perform daily. But soon enough she lost hope, her energies waned on the prison diet
of watery gruel, and instead she determined to pass the time sleeping.
     Soon she was unable to distinguish between sleep and wakefulness.
     She was haunted by a recurrent dream:

     She was walking with Vasilii through a crowded ballroom.
     The men wore official uniforms and glared at them, muttering, “Order!”
     The women, all in black, cowering around the edges of the room, looked more like
shadows than living people, their faces concealed behind black lace-edged fans.
     She was approaching a group of young men in uniform, their bear-skin helmets
tucked under their arms, standing around the towering figure of the Tsar. He broke into
a kindly smile.
     “How handsome!” She thought.
     Then something landed on her hand, a delicate white lace handkerchief.
     A voice whispered:
     “Wave it!”
     But instead she was grasping the Tsar’s outstretched arm. He was inviting her to
dance. She felt herself lifted off the floor, light as a butterfly, and twirled through the air.
Then his kindly eyes began to change. Flashes of light, of crimson light, emanated from
them and a voice boomed in her ears,
     “Order! Order!”
      Someone was putting a hood over her head.
     “Hang her!” a chorus of voices shouted and she woke in a cold sweat.

     She thought she was still dreaming when Vasilii appeared in her cell. He was pale. His
hair hung over his red-rimmed eyes. And he carried a bundle in his arms.
     “Your clothes,” he whispered. “You’re going to be released tomorrow. They haven’t
brought any charges against you.”
     She started to cry and Vasilii stroked her arm:
     “Mama came but they refused to let her see you,” he said.
     All at once she had a terrible yearning to place her head in her mother’s lap.


     “I’ve caused Mama such pain,” she muttered. “But I know it’s only the beginning.”




     The coachman driving Katia from the Institute to her brother’s apartment had informed her
in a voice not devoid of disdain that Basseynaia Street was not in a fashionable part of town.
     “Mostly teachers and retired army officers and merchants,” he shouted down to her
through her open window.
     She peered at the unimposing apartment buildings lining the street, observed that the traffic
consisted more of carts and small conveyances rather than the imposing carriage in which she
found herself, and that the sidewalks were crowded with grim-faced men and women, some
quite shabbily dressed.
     She saw a group of peasant women in flowered scarves being pushed into the gutter by two
garishly attired ladies with brightly painted faces. The sound of indignant shouts faded away as
they passed and she noticed a pale girl with short brown hair and rimless spectacles waiting to
cross the road, nervously pulling a black shawl tightly across her thin shoulders. Behind her, a
young man, dressed in black, his face shadowed by a wide brimmed hat, observed her as
though she were on some important errand.
     “Radicals, radical students, ” the coachman shouted and spat.
     Soon they pulled into the small courtyard of a three-story building.
     For days as she prepared to leave the Institute she had imagined herself a princess in a
fairy tale, saved from an evil sorceress by a Tsar. But though the Tsar was quite real and


appeared to be kindly disposed, a nagging fear pinched at the edge of her happiness and even
now prevented her from fully reveling in her newly found freedom.
     Followed by the coachman carrying her bags she climbed the wide and shiny stairs,
smelling of freshly laid wax, with a mixture of apprehension and excitement. The door of the
first floor apartment had a polished brass handle and was opened by a tiny child-like maid to
reveal a small foyer, empty save for a wooden coat-rack.
     Her brother Mikhail and his wife Louisa stood on the threshold of the salon to greet her.
     Marquesa Louisa Volcano showed no signs of straighted circumstances.               She was
elegantly dressed in a brown velvet gown, which flattered her olive complexion. She was small
and slender, with dark close-set eyes, a slightly hooked nose, and black hair falling in curls
around her face. Her smile was gay and friendly in stark contrast with Mikhail’s expression,
his thin lips pursed and his brows knit together to indicate that he was out of sorts. He had
grown stout since Katia had last seen him, his blond hair had already begun to thin and he
sported fashionable sidewhiskers.
     “My dear child,” Louisa exclaimed in her strongly accented French, “How happy we are to
have you here with us.”
     Katia observed her sister-in-law’s dark curls bobbing up and down as she spoke and she
smiled. But she could not ignore her brother’s sour and dismissive peck on her cheek. He was
making it plain to her that the arrangement was not quite to his liking and she noticed him
wincing as she looked around the room.
     The salon was spacious but not opulently furnished. A few darkened portraits of Louisa’s
Italian ancestors did little to enliven the drab blue wallpaper. Two red velvet divans facing the
row of windows looked faded and worn. But there were fresh flowers placed on spindly tables
around the room as well as two luxuriant potted plants framing the door clearly intended to
give the illusion of entering a garden.
     But Katia’s good humor returned as they sat down to a dinner of mushroom pie and
sturgeon and she was reminded that she had not eaten so well since leaving Teplovka. Only
after they had finished did Mikhail suddenly place his napkin on the table and with a grimace,
as though the meal had not been to his liking, and turning to her, announced officiously:
     “You should know that yesterday I turned in my resignation from the Imperial Guards. We
will now live on the pension, which our Gracious Sovereign has settled on me—though I must


say it is rather a paltry one.” His eyes swept the somber dining room with distaste. “Perhaps he
expects something more of you…”
     Seeing Louisa’s eyes flash and her lips mouth a silent reproach, he stopped himself.
     Katia stiffened.
     Surely Sasha was not, in this way, rewarding her brother? And for what? Had Sasha not
repeatedly assured her of his innocent friendship.
     Out of the corner of her eye she saw Louisa frowning. But Mikhail smiled at her as
patronizingly as he had when she was still a child:
     “The Tsar asked nothing of me,” he said with a mixture of malice and calculation.
     “And nothing of me,” she declared, her lip trembling.
     The euphoria of being freed from the rigors of the Institute was fading as quickly as the
light outside the windows.
     “A joke, I meant nothing by it,” Mikhail grinned. “A joke, just a silly joke.”
     Just then Vava arrived quite out of breath. She had that very day moved in as Katia’s
“official” chaperone. As she sat down at the table giving Katia a wan smile, and sensing the
tense atmosphere, she said, with affected formality:
     “I must remind you that your Mother, Madame La Princesse made me promise to look
after you, so that nothing untoward occur to you and your sister until you both marry.”
     “But I’ve no desire to marry!” Katia declared sounding more petulant than defiant.
     Perhaps her freedom was a mere chimera.
     Perhaps everything had been decided behind her back and she was merely a pawn in
others’ game.
     Perhaps it was time for her to assert herself.
     All at once the memory of seeing the pale girl in the black shawl on the street flashed
through her mind:
     “I’ll join the radicals!” She mumbled, not quite sure what she meant.
     “And that,” Mikhail retorted sarcastically, “would certainly please the Tsar!”
     “It’s better to be a radical than… a oie blanche,” she insisted, trying to parry his jab.
     Vava’s mouth puckered as she interjected with righteous indignation:
     “The Tsar has expressed nothing but the kindest and most fatherly affection for our
     But Katia could see that Vava was only determined to avoid an argument and to calm her:


     “In my presence he has always behaved in the most honorable manner. After all she is still
a child!”
     Katia jumped up:
     “I’m old enough to take care of myself!” her voice was shrill with indignation.
     Out of the corner of her eye she saw Louisa frown at her husband, rise from the table,
sweep up to Katia, and put an arm around her shoulders. But she pushed her away.
     “Katia, Katiushka,” Mikhail gave his wife a meaningful glance and in a calculating attempt
to soothe his sister, muttered: “Katia, my dearest little sister. I would never allow…. And you
needn’t worry. In my house,” he drew himself up pompously, “the Tsar will be welcome only
as a friend and benefactor to us all!”

     For two days Katia heard nothing from Sasha. But the joy at her release from the Institute
had quite faded to give way to worry over her future. What was she to do if Sasha’s motives
were not as innocent as he had claimed? Was she to stay at her brother’s only to wait for a
suitable husband to claim her as Vava had insisted? She had told Sasha she wanted to study
but what was she to study, after all? Months ago, after meeting Sasha once again the thought
of becoming a doctor had crossed her mind, though she knew that women had no possibility for
such a profession and besides, her illness had not given her a real taste for the profession.
     Nothing that Vava or Louisa said could reassure nor distract her. Not the suggestion to
accompany them to a fashionable café on the Nevski Prospekt; nor to visit a famous
dressmaker. She remained alone brooding in her room, lying on the new and expensive sleigh
bed or sitting, staring morosely at her reflection in the mirror over the dressing table, which she
supposed, like the bed, had been purchased for her by the Tsar.
     She looked through the window at the street outside and watched the crowds pass by
curious to see if the girl with the black shawl would reappear and thought about what she might
do were she to see her again. She felt trapped in her brother’s apartment and the bustling street
with its busy passersby took on an aura of mystery and a new kind of freedom.
     On the third day he was announced.
     When she entered the salon, her heart drumming to accompany her roiling emotions, he
was standing in front of one of the windows, his hand on the worn red brocade curtain, looking
out. He turned, smiled, and winked. She pretended to ignore him, sat down on the divan,


leaned back on the cushions, and started to fiddle with button on her sleeve. For a moment
neither of them said a word. Then as he approached her, she shrank away from him.
      “You’re angry that I’ve not come sooner?” He looked hurt.
      For a minute she continued twisting the button on her sleeve until finally, unable to contain
her fears any longer, she burst out:
      “You must not think that I don’t know your plan! They all know your plan.”
      She saw him staring at the tip of his highly polished black boot with a frown and then he
looked down at her coldly.
      “There is no plan!” He said. “Yes, I…I was too precipitous that day in the carriage,” he
continued with a hint of irritation but almost at once his eyes softened: “Still, we shall be
friends, shall we not? I’ve told you that’s all I wish for,” he said, flushing, lowering his eyes
and glancing warily at her from under his brows.
     “You gave my brother a pension,” she pressed him.
      He stood tall over her and she felt a twinge of fear. He was the Tsar, after all. Maybe she
had gone too far. He could do anything he wished. He might even send her back to the Institute.
It was her turn to lower her eyes. Instead she heard him say:
      “Who at court would have dared to talk so impudently to me? Who would have your
courage!” His voice reflected infinite sadness. “I hope, in time, my little imp, that I’ll earn your
full trust!”
      He had not answered her question but she breathed more easily anyway. Perhaps she was
wrong to accuse him. She thought of her father with his face to the wall as she bid him
farewell. Perhaps Sasha, like a good father, just wanted the comfort of a good daughter.
      She leaned forward toward him, tentative.
      He grinned:
      “My little Amazon will have something to look forward to immediately. I have a horse, a
gift from the Khan of Bukhara. Then we shall see how well you hold your saddle!”
      She jumped up excited. But this time she was careful not to fling her arms around him.
      His eyes twinkled.
      “We shall be friends, shan’t we?        No more talk about ‘my intentions.’ No more
misunderstanding between us,” he said with a hint of shyness and delicacy.


     But weeks passed and though he came to see her almost every day he did not keep his
word about the horse. At first when she complained about his false promise he told her to be
patient. But later he confessed:
     “The Empress is ill. It will look unseemly for me to give a lovely young girl such a
present. There might be gossip that my relationship with you is not as innocent as”--he blushed
like a schoolboy and said looking directly into her eyes--“it most certainly is.”

     Her days revolved around his visits.
     As soon as she heard the sound of a carriage drawing up to the house, she ran to the salon.
He always winked at her complicitly when Vava or Louisa ushered him in and left them alone,
though later, they irritated her with their intrusive questions.
     She was listless when he failed to see her, though, to alleviate her boredom she agreed
reluctantly to accompany Vava and Louisa for walks and sit in “fashionable” cafes watching
groups of wealthy ladies parade and strike poses in the latest finery from Paris. Sometimes she
caught them glancing at her and whispering something to each other and smiling complicitly.
But none of this amused or distracted her.
     Alone in her room she read the French and English romances that Louisa handed her. But
as in her father’s library, the words blurred on the page, her mind wondered and she would fall
into a reverie. Most of all she would think about him.
     How was it that he, the Tsar of All the Russias was becoming a trusted confidant to her, a
girl just seventeen years old? Was it not that her loneliness found an echo in his? That her
desire to be free of constraints mirrored his own? She knew that he was amused by her candor,
that he felt boyed by it, that he felt at ease in her company and that it pleased him to describe to
her alone the absurd rituals of his office.
     “A crown is heavy to wear,” he sighed “and is ringed with thorns rather than glory.
Everywhere I turn I see those who seek favors, who surround me with flattery, who tell me
what they think I wish to hear. Nowhere am I treated as a simple and even frail human being.
Even the Empress weighs her words with me.”
     She pitied him seeing his mild eyes fill with the deepest sorrow when, as happened so
often, he broached the subject of the death of his beloved eldest son some years earlier.
     “Like you,” he would murmur, “my darling son told me what was in his heart, on his


       She tried to distract him with stories about Teplovka. He listened eagerly when she
described her life on the estate, the joy on the faces of the peasants after the Emancipation,
their beliefs, their hardships.
       “My mother was so angry with the decree,” she said. “My mother said that you had robbed
       He frowned:
       “And what did you think?”
       With a sudden burst of enthousiasm she declared:
       “I wanted nothing more than to be of help to the peasants. Perhaps to learn to be…” a
vague thought formulated itself in her mind, “midwife, perhaps,” but it quickly faded when he
glanced at her with a wry grin and asked teasingly:
       “ How can such a modest young woman go about becoming a midwife?”
       Still when she was together with Sasha, she felt completely at ease just as she had been as
a child sitting in the kitchen chatting with Matriona.
       He had also begun to look younger to her. She had grown used to the smell of tobacco on
his clothes and at the least hint of the weariness in his eyes, she took pleasure in making him
laugh. She would imitate Louisa’s accent or Vava’s mincing walk. She would laugh at their
questions about him. She made fun of Mikhail’s stuffy manners and paraded up and down the
room like an Imperial Guard with a piece of black ribbon under her nose as a mustache. And
when, one day she smiled at him teasingly and said, without forethought, simply to amuse him:
       “Since you’re called the ‘Tsar Liberator’ maybe you could free us women as well.”
       He grinned mischievously, raised an eyebrow and asked:
       “What kind of freedoms would you want?”
       “I haven’t made up my mind as yet,” she hesitated, her smile fading.
       But though he quickly changed the subject and asked her to accompany him the following
week for a walk in the Summer Garden, his question pursued her the rest of the day.
       Freedom had meant riding Milou at breakneck speed.
       Freedom had meant being left to daydream.
       Freedom now meant speaking her mind to Sasha, sharing her loneliness with him.
       But how long could this last?
       That constant worry nagged her, keeping her awake at night.


     The Summer Garden with its wide allees of trees, was ornamented by a plethora of marble
statues bordered by brilliantly colored flower-beds. It would have astonished Alyoshia at
Teplovka, Katia thought as she strolled with Sasha in the early mornings when the garden was
almost deserted. There was, Sasha had assured her, no taint of scandal in these outings. It was
rumored that the Tsar had simply taken a paternal interest in one of his Smolny Institute
orphans and had allowed her to leave the Institute because of her fragile health.
     Unlike their meetings in the apartment, they were never to be alone. Vava and Sasha’s
aide-de-camp walked behind them and at a discrete distance heavily armed guards followed the
little group. Sasha would lead her to the marble arbor with its small lake and fountain in which
swans and multicolored fish swam. She sat beside him on a low stone bench and watched the
sun’s pale morning rays dappling the tiny waves with dancing lights, while exotic birds
fluttered, twittered, sang, and beat their wings against the elaborate fretwork of the aviaries
shaped like Chinese pagodas which stood behind her.
     “It’s enchanting, quite like a fairy tale,” Katia had declared with child-like joy, when first
he had brought her there though the sight of caged birds shadowed her pleasure with a twinge
of anxiety.
     “It’s romantic,” Sasha had answered softly.
     Now each time as they parted, she had begun to let him hold tightly onto her hand and
watched his eyes shine as he whispered, his voice always breaking with emotion:
     “You are an exquisite creature.”
     She had never cared about her appearance accustomed as she was from childhood, to being
praised for her beauty. Still the reflection in the long mirror of her dressing table did not
displease her. Most of all she was glad to have grown tall and slender, like a boy, she thought.
She knew she was elegant in the white dresses Sasha asked her to wear. Her green eyes seemed
to have become enormous, like a cat’s she joked, when he admired them and her mouth was
small and well shaped. She had little patience for the elaborate coiffures that Louisa favored
and simply pulled her fair hair back from her face into a chignon at the nape of her neck.
     But the ever increasing pleasures of Sasha’s company were soon to become tainted with a
feeling of shame.
     One day, after returning from their morning walk and standing at the open window of the
salon with Louisa beside her, listening to the sound of Sasha’s departing carriage, she turned to


see Mikhail enter and close the door behind him. He glanced at her with his usual sour
     “It’s only a matter of time before there’ll be ugly gossip about my family,” he declared
         She frowned:
     “Because of your pension?” She asked pointedly.
     Mikhail glared at her while Louisa put an arm around her shoulders and cooed:
     “Of course, no one thinks ill of you.”
     Katia pulled away. But still she felt the need to justify herself:
     “We enjoy each other’s company. We laugh together. He’s my friend, he’s like…” she
hesitated, and looking askance at Mikhail, added stingingly, “a devoted brother.”
     “But old enough to be your father,” Mikhail retorted with a wicked smile.
     “You know the Tsar, he loves beautiful women, it’s no secret,” Louisa broke in with a
reproachful glance at Mikhail. “But you also know that he must be careful. People admire the
Empress and blame him for her sickness and find him to be…”
     Vava entered, hearing the conversation, and interjected:
     “The Tsar is as foolishly romantic as a schoolboy,”
     Stung to the quick, Katia felt a wave of apprehension pass over her.
     So the Tsar was foolish.
     Was she also foolish to believe him?
     And then, the Empress, the Empress! He rarely mentioned his wife except to say that even
in his presence she was always reciting her prayers, that she had a kind heart but not one which
understood his own, that in her company he felt burdened, crushed by a feeling of guilt which
nothing could temper.
     And with her parents’ unhappy marriage in mind she had believed him.

     But the next morning her fears were realized.
     She was sitting with Sasha in a little arbor hung, unexpectedly that day, with white
     “It’s to…to…escape from the eyes of the public, “Sasha explained with a faint blush.
     Then his expression turned serious, his eyes filmed over as though about to brim with


     “At my age, I never expected to love another woman.” His voice was choked with
     Katia recoiled in alarm as he seized her hand and held it tightly in his.
     “Of course, I’ll continue to respect…your innocence,” he continued, with a strange
grimace, “but one day, perhaps, you will feel as I do.”
     Her face burned with a mixture of anger and shame.
     Had she not been deliberately deceiving herself about his friendship, too lazy and too
frivolous to grasp the danger of her situation?
     Had she not, inadvertently, been giving him hope?
     Without thinking she whimpered:
     “What am I to do? I do so want you as my friend. You’re my only true friend. I’m quite
lost when I don’t see you. Vava and Louisa tell me not to fret, that you have so many official
functions to attend to, so many documents to read. Oh, I feel so alone in the world.”
     She ended her outburst with tears cascading down her cheeks, whether from from the
frightening realization of the position in which he had now placed her or her sudden surge of
affection for him. Had she not been an oie blanche by refusing to acknowledge the truth.
     She pulled away to wipe her tears, like a child, with the back of her hand. She could no
longer hide from herself that it was inevitable their friendship could only continue if she agreed
to become… She could not bring herself to say the degrading word, and instead sat up, rigid.
He was still gazing at her with a look of infinite longing, when suddenly he sat up so that he
towered over her and announced in a dull voice, in which she could hear his disappointment:
     “Next month the court will be moving to shores of the Baltic, to Peterhof and I must, of
course, join my wife there.”
     Was this to mark the end their friendship? She thought in sudden panic.
     What would now happen to her? Perhaps, losing his favor, Mikhail and Louisa, might
decide to throw her out of their apartment.
     And what would she do then?
     “Shall I not see you for two whole months?” she muttered dejected, her tears drying and
the blood draining from her face.
     But she observed his shoulders slump, the expression of deep yearning reappear in his eyes
and he replied:


     “Oh! I couldn’t endure that. I shall have a small dacha rented for your brother so that we
can continue seeing each other in Petershof.”
     She could not suppress a deep sigh of relief and throwing all caution to the winds threw
her arms around him. But seeing his aide de camp peering at them, it was Sasha who drew
away this time with the mischievous grin of a schoolboy caught playing a trick on his elders.


     “My father, Count Cerchemaggiore, was a terrible spendthrift,” Louisa was saying with
her customary lilting laughter as they drove through the scrubby woods of the Baltic coast.
“And you know, Naples, cosi bello, is always filled with temptations.”
     She looked out of the window and sighed.
     “Our family was sliding into impoverishment so I was sent to the Italian consulate here in
St. Petersburg to find myself a wealthy husband. And I found your brother, a cavalry officer,”
she smiled bitterly. “Handsome but not rich.”
     “Your brother told Papa that he couldn’t marry me without a dowry. So Papa scraped
together some money because he was sure I had made a fine match. Papa told me that the
Dolgorukov princes and their estate, with all those serfs, would make us all rich.”
     She stopped to laugh.
     “But you see, our mutual deception was revealed after our wedding--which cost your
brother several months’ salary.”
     She sighed once more and looked out forlornly at the drab countryside.
     “I was afraid to tell your brother about the paltriness of my own income. And without the
sale of Teplovka, which gave us some little relief, we would have had to do without servants.
Imagine! ”
     “So my appearance in your household must have been…” Katia flushed with annoyance.


     “A godsend!” Louisa interrupted and with a stiff smile quickly corrected herself: “ But
The Tsar has always assured us that his paternal interest in your future would extend to your
entire family.”
     Louisa’s words felt like a slap in the face. Her sister-in-law had made it clear that the fate
of her family now depended on the very nature of her relationship with the Tsar.

     At first she could not hide her disappointment when she saw the house that Sasha had
rented for them: “Villa Beckman” was more like a gloomy wooden pile than the imposing
structure its name suggested.
     Following Vava, she tripped on an uneven floor-board entering their sparsely furnished
and dimly lit bedroom. On the floor below, in the shabby salon, with its bare planked walls and
low ceiling she heard Mikhail, who had preceded them with their luggage, receive the full force
of Louisa's anger:
     “Your sister may be a oie blanche, all right. But damn it all, she has not laid any golden
     “Well I can see quite well, without you telling me,” Mikhail hesitated and then angrily spat
out: “He’s insulting us by renting this…merchant’s house. God knows Maman...”
     Katia put her hands over her ears to drown out his words, sank down onto her narrow bed,
and buried her face in her hands.
     “Oh, my God!” She heard Vava cry out, as she sat down beside her.
     “Leave me!” Katia muttered.
     But a few minutes later she heard Mikhail bound upstairs. He threw a note onto the bed
beside her.
     “The Tsar's valet just brought this,” he declared grimly. “You’d better answer it at once!”
     Katia sat up, grimaced, tore at the envelope and peered at the spiderly writing on the note
     “My dear little Imp!” she read. “How happy I am that you have arrived. You cannot
imagine how I have missed you over the past week. This evening I will be at the Belvedere
Palace and wish for your sweet company. I will send a carriage for you.”
     The note was signed: “Your loving friend.”
     She had to face facts. He would not long be satisfied with their “friendship.”


And furthermore, with Mikhail’s outburst her suspicions about an agreement between Sasha
and her mother had been reawakened. She tightened her fists in anger:
     No, she was not a serf!
     She would never be sold!
     Not even to a Tsar!
     But where, she thought, her spirits sinking, would she go to escape them all?
     What would she do?

     She had not expected the park of the Peterhof palace to be so vast. With Vava trailing her,
they passed copses of willows, a small lake, and an artificial waterfall and had not yet caught
sight of the Belvedere.
     “You are so foolishly headstrong to send away his carriage,” Vava complained.
     “I have no wish to owe him anything!” Katia answered firmly.
     She was walking fast, running from the jumble of conflicting thoughts tormenting her,
ignoring the heat and humidity, which made her petticoat stick to her legs and sweat trickle
down her temples.
     Finally they reached a large white building with columns framing a classical portico.
Hardly a palace, she thought, with a sudden and untoward twinge of anger. Then catching sight
of the sea she stopped, mesmerized as she gazed at the shimmering waves reflecting the rays of
the setting sun and heard the distant thunder of the waves.
     “Hurry, hurry, we’re late! ” Vava shouted to her.
     But she did not move. If only she could escape there, across the sea, far off, where the sky
plunged into the deep waters. A poignant thought flashed through her mind. She should just
drown herself, become a rusalka, dancing in the waves with the sun. And tears of self-pity
clouded her eyes.
     Suddenly she heard her name being called and turning saw Sasha standing between the
portals of the entrance, shielding his eyes with his hand. While Vava moved toward someone
signaling to her, Katia took a few hesitant steps in his direction, imagining, instead, that she
was walking into the sea until it covered her and she gasped, as though for air.
     “No! No! Katiushka!” She thought she heard her sister’s plaintive voice echo in her ears.


     She shook her head as though brushing off imaginary seawater. She would not to let
herself drown. There was, after all Mouche to think about, trapped in the Institute. She had
been ignoring her little sister all too long. Instead she remembered the speech she had been
composing since early morning.
     They didn't speak as they entered the salon. She was aware of a crystal chandelier hanging
heavily at the center of the room and the vastness and brilliance of it suddenly intimidated her.
Here, in this palace, this Belvedere, he now appeared to her an unfamiliar figure, the all-
powerful Tsar.
     She took a handkerchief out of her bag and she fanned herself nervously.
     “You're stubborn, dismissing the carriage,” Sasha broke their silence and taking her hand
squeezed it affectionately.
     She avoided his eyes.
     “If you had driven here, you would not have tired yourself,” he said softly. “And you
would not be angry at your impatient friend.”
     Hearing the word “friend,” she glanced at him warily. The time had come to tell him. She
tightened her jaw, clenched her fists defiantly and blurted out:
     “Last night Mikhail told Louisa that Maman had sold me to you.”
     She knew that this was merely a half-truth but it expressed all her fears.
     She saw a deep flush spread over his face as he turned away, clearly irritated. She hadn’t
considered that he might be angry.
     “Let me assure you,” he said indignant, releasing her hand abruptly and turning his back to
her, “that any correspondence with your mother would have been confined to the subject of
your arrival at the Smolny Institute as a ward of the Imperial family and nothing else.
     Now, if you so wish, I'll call Mademoiselle Shebeko and send you both home in the
carriage and not bother you again,” he concluded coldly.
     She was taken aback.
     Was it possible that she made a fool of herself by accusing him wrongly?
     And did his words mean that all was over between them?

     She could not sleep. The heavy curtains drawn against the light of the midnight sun made
the room unendurably stuffy. She listened to Vava tossing in her bed and groaning from time
to time. Her mind would not stop racing. How Vava had scolded her on the way back from the


Belvedere! How she disliked her guardian, so false, so eager to see what was to her advantage!
Then her thoughts turned to the look of the disappointment and sadness in Sasha’s eyes as she
        Was he telling the truth about her mother?
        Could it be that he really loved her?
        Nobody had ever loved her. Really loved her! Perhaps not even her sister, who still
depended on her, nor Matriona or Alyoshia. After all, they were serfs.
        It was daybreak when she leapt out of bed to scribble a note to him, to tell him that she
valued their friendship above all else, that she did so—she underlined--wish to be loved and
that she wanted nothing more than to see him the very next day.
        She sent Vava that morning with the note but was disheartened and even alarmed when she
read the first lines of his answer. He could not meet with her. He was, he wrote, obliged to
attend the festivities to commemorate his late father. It was to be a public celebration and he
invited her, in quite formal terms, to attend. But when it was over, he agreed to see her again at
the Belvedere, if she so wished. He did not sign the letter affectionately but simply with his
name, “Sasha.”
        She sighed with trepidation.

        She was wearing a simple white dress as she pressed forward through the crush of
        “Lovely, quite lovely, she heard the whispers of men and women around her as she gazed
with wonder at the spectacle of lights from the hundreds of torches flickering in the warm
evening breeze and illuminating the stages on which various tableaux vivants represented
scenes from antiquity. From the trellised pavilions scattered here and there she heard the strains
of folk melodies, mazurkas, and waltzes floating on the air, and forgetting her anxiety she felt
that she had entered a fairytale.
     Mikhail, bored and irritated, walked behind her and Louisa as they made their way up the
double row of steps of the “Golden Cascade,” unfurling like bolts of rich fabric shot through
with the golden threads of brightly gilded statues. And between the steps two great tiered
cascades dotted with fountains flinging their jets of water high into the air to fall into an
immense basin which spilled into an endless canal.


     At the top of the steep stairway where the blue, yellow, and gold Peterhof Palace rose
before her, a rush of water from the jaws of three sparkling blue-winged dragon-statues
cascaded onto a series of immense marble steps tilted downward so that a steady stream ran
into the basin below. There, surrounded by golden fish, whose spouting mouths threatened to
soak any passerby foolish enough to come too close, throned a majestic golden Triton.
     It was already nine o’clock when they entered the ballroom.
     Mikhail had lost sight of them and Louisa waved her fan in the air to signal their presence
to him. The heat from the forest of candles and the overwhelming perfumes of the women’s
toilettes mingling with the smell of sweat made Katia feel faint. But it did not prevent her from
being awed.
     The huge ballroom, all blue and gold, was aswirl with dancers, the women in brightly
colored gowns trimmed with ribbons of diamonds, which flashed and shimmered as they
whirled by, the men, chests blazing with medals, jackets trimmed with gold braid and trousers
so tight that every muscle in their legs stood out to be admired. How different, she mused,
from the balls at Teplovka where fat landowners dragged their portly spouses around while
Madame la Princesse, uncomfortable in her finery, always appeared harassed and worried,
glancing at her husband, who had, invariably, found some young girl to spin across the dance
     Suddenly the music stopped, the dancing ceased and everyone looked expectantly as the
vast gilded doors on the opposite side of the room opened.
     A chamberlain stiff in his brocaded uniform tapped the floor with a gold cane, calling out:
     “Their Imperial Majesties!”
     And the Tsar entered with the Empress, terribly pale in her diamond-encrusted headdress
and heavy satin gown and from the way her lips were primly pressed together, clearly not
pleased to be attending the ball.
     A rush of pride swept over her:
     “Here’s Sasha, my friend, Sasha who’s said he loves me!” Katia wanted to shout.
     Was this not a “fairytale,” like the ones Matriona had told her. And fairytales, after all,
always had a happy ending, she reminded herself.
     Now she focused on the Imperial couple’s movements as though her own life depended on
what they might do. She held her breath when they reached the edge of the carpet leading to the
dance floor and the Tsar turned to the Empress and bowed. The Empress’ grim expression


lightened as she looked up at him, and her lips curved into a shy smile. Katia shivered, though
she did not dare ask herself why. Then he released his hand, and they both advanced toward
two gilt armchairs placed on one edge of the dance floor on a small dias.
     She started when she felt Louisa nudge her with her elbow and whisper:
     “Look! That’s the Tsarevich Alexander and his fiancée, Princess Dagmar.”
     The heir to the throne, frowning with unconcealed irritation at his father, stood on one side
of the dias. Like Sasha he was tall and fair but massively fat and rigid. In contrast his delicate
and pretty fiancée smiled happily at the crowd, as though delighted to see them all.
     The orchestra struck up. The ball began once more.
     But at this ball, Katia mused, she was not to be Cinderella.
     Her story would unfold quite differently. And only after midnight.
     And her prince was a Tsar with a sickly wife and an angry son.

     The carriage had barely drawn up in front of the terrace when she saw Sasha bounding
toward her, the medals of his dress uniform bouncing on his chest.
     How was it possible, she thought, both frightened and excited, that the central actor in the
grand spectacle she had just witnessed, the inhabitant of so magnificent a palace, had singled
her out merely for the pleasure of her company? He, the Tsar, the center of everyone’s attention
at the ball, had come just to see her, to feel like a simple mortal in her presence.
     She noted his expression of surprise that she had come without Vava, who she had
recklessly, she now thought, “dismissed;” and his eyes twinkled as he opened the door and
reached for her hand.
     “I didn’t see you at all this evening,” he said.
     “There was such a crush,” she blushed, still under the spell of the spectacle she had
witnessed and trembling at the prospect of what might await her. “It was all so splendid. And
so were you,” she said shyly.
     She saw him looking delighted as they entered the vast salon. On a side table she glimpsed
a champagne bucket, an uncorked bottle wedged in the ice, and two tall glasses on a silver tray.
     “To toast our renewed friendship,” Sasha grinned slyly, noticing her eyes widen.
     She had never tasted champagne and perched herself on the edge of the divan, as awkward
and tentative as at their first meeting in Madame Leontieva’s salon.


     “I observed your family very carefully,” she stuttered, at a loss for words, glancing
apprehensively at the champagne.
     But instead of filling the glasses he reached for her hand:
     “It makes me sad,” his eyes clouded over, “Marie has the children well under her wing,
Alexander in particular. He disapproves of everything I do. He’s my heir but he doesn’t appear
to have much love for his father. And as everyone knows only too well, I’m not pleasing my
     Katia felt a stab of guilt: The Empress most certainly would not be pleased by this
midnight meeting.
     “People change, of course,” he sighed. “She lost her beauty….”
     “Is that all you care about?” Katia exclaimed with mock irritation, straightening her back
and pushing a stray curl self-consciously off her cheek:
     “And something of a reckless nature,” Sasha added with a wounded smile, “like my imp
whom I love with a passion which grows deeper every day,” he squeezed her hand, “and which
makes me despair because I know that she doesn’t share it.”
     She had most certainly been reckless coming alone.
     She brushed his hand away, jumped up, made her way toward the open windows and stood
looking out into the milky midnight light, unsure of a way out of her predicament, pretending
to admire the pale sun reflected on the water and then turned abruptly as the thought occurred
to her that she should pretend to be Sasha's accomplice in some huge prank. She must make
believe that they were both behaving recklessly like runaway children.
     After all he should be with his wife and she, with Vava, asleep in her room.
     “You must show me around your Belvedere,” she declared, turning to him with a smile she
hoped was mischievous. “So much space! I share a room with Vava. It’s very cramped and she
moans all night from the heat. You would think devils were roasting her feet over the fires of
     She laughed nervously as she walked up to one painting or another, a landscape, a battle
scene, a portrait of some stiff looking hussar, a peasant girl, but conscious of the speculative
look in his eyes following her as she moved toward the doors at the far end of the room.
     “Let’s pretend it’s a fairy tale palace,” she said as much to herself as to him, “ with a
thousand rooms, each more marvelous than the last.”


     In fairy tales only witches and sorcerers harmed the princess in quest of her prince. And
besides they were soon wed to live happily ever after. She shook her head at the last thought as
though to push it away.
      But she did not have to strain to make believe, when, in the center of a round white
marble-floored antichamber, she found herself looking at an enormous gilt cage. Frightening
thick black coils, like snakes, emerged out of the top and disappeared into the ceiling. And
what was most puzzling to her was that inside the elaborate iron-wrought gate was a small red
velvet sofa.
     Sasha, coming up behind her, laughed:
     “Here’s a real marvel that only real tsars in true fairy tales can own.”
     He reached past her, pulled at the handle of the gate, stepped onto a carpeted platform, and
sat down on the sofa. The platform jolted when he extended his hand for her to join him. She
hesitated. But then, giggling nervously, stepped forward, felt the ground move under her feet,
and let out a scream as he pulled her onto the seat and reached over her to close the door. The
cage rattled violently.
     “Now we’re in the same golden cage,” he said softly, pushed a handle, and to her
astonishment they began to rise in the air as though on a magic carpet.
     Something heavy clanged overhead and, when he placed his arm protectively around her
shoulders as they flew up through the ceiling, she did not object. She closed her eyes and when
she opened them again she found herself in another antechamber, identical to the one below.
     “It's called a ‘lift,’ Sasha explained. “A wonderful machine made in Germany.”
     He pressed against the handle of the gate and it swung open. She could feel his hand
tremble when he helped her out, though hers too was shaking. She made an effort to sound
nonchalant as she broke away from him and made her way to one of the closed doors:
     “A flying carpet. What else is there in your magic kingdom?” She asked trying to be
     The door opened into a room lit only by the grey light streaming in through the two large
French windows onto a blue-curtained bed with a gold embroidered cover on which the arms of
the Romanovs were clearly displayed.
     She stopped. This was no longer a fairy tale. She had gone too far in this prank. She had
herself fall into a trap.


     His hand was touching her waist and then her shoulder and then he was turning her toward
him, pressing her tightly in his arms and kissing her, her chin scratched by the roughness of his
mustaches and her mouth filled with the sour taste of tobacco.
     She wanted to break away but his arms were tight around her.
     She wanted to say, “Don’t!” but she knew that it was too late, that it was all her fault as
Sasha 's hand trembled gliding, without resistance, to her breasts. She knew she should push
him away, but she was overcome by a keen sensation like that of heat melting her body so that
her legs seemed to buckle with the force of it and, no longer aware of what was happening to
her, she closed her eyes, no longer either willing or able to withstand the sudden violence with
which he tore at the buttons of her high collared dress, drawing her toward the bed and pulling
her down, reaching to tug at her skirt, while she muttered, a faint and half-hearted, “Don’t”
until, once again, he pressed his mouth to hers and she felt her bones soften, liquefy, as though
she were suspended over a precipice into which she was no longer afraid to let herself fly.


     “I may still not be free now, but I’ll marry you as soon as I can. I consider you my wife…”
Sasha murmured , his head cradled on her arm “…before God.”
     The whole night had passed for her as if in a dream.
     Never had she imagined that the loss of her innocence would lead her to such heights of
pleasure, that his passion for her could infect her, could be intermingled with such tenderness,
that she could respond to his caresses with such abandon. Proud as she was, never had she
wished to lose her virginity to any man. And now….
     Perhaps, she mused, she had been reckless.
     Perhaps she had simply taken pity on him.
     Perhaps she had pretended too well that it was all a fairy tale.


     Still, it was she, she assured herself, who had seduced him, willfully, deliberately. She was
no oie blanche. Instead it seemed to her as though a burden has been lifted from her shoulders
and made her wonder at the stubbornness of her resistence. Now she would never feel alone
and abandoned in the world nor would she need to fret about her future.
     His promise of marriage did not surprise her.
     Like two lonely children, they had found each other at last.

     Her return to the Villa Beckman brought her back to a stern reality.
     Louisa and Mikahil had quarreled, looked sulky, and didn’t speak to her. Back in her
room Vava asked with a sly, knowing smile--like some jealous witch, Katia thought :
     “And how did you spend the night, my dear?”
     But Katia did not answer. How could Vava ever understand?

     From that day onward, as soon as he could tear himself away from his official duties,
Sasha met her at the Belvedere.
     Though she needed no further proof of the strength of his passion for her, still she found
herself needing constant reassurance.
     Could this be simply a dream which could fade in the light of day or a fairy tale which
might end badly, she would ask herself as she tossed in her narrow bed at night and tormented
herself over Vava’s and Louisa’s insidious hints about a Tsar’s prerogatives, his love of
beautiful women, his romantic nature, and most of all, his capriciousness.
     But each day, sometimes even more often, he sent her notes.
     “My beloved angel,” he addressed her again and again, “Why is it that you cannot feel
loved beyond the shadow of a doubt?”
     He even asked her to keep a diary:
     “My little imp, you must send me copies of everything you write. In that way I will feel as
though I am living close to you, even if it is only on paper. I return from our meetings
intoxicated with you. It is always like a delicious dream which passes all too quickly.”

     Life at the Villa Beckman improved only because Sasha insisted on it. Louisa hired a
good cook and a carriage with a coachman was placed at their disposal.


     “Maybe you’re just buying my affection,” Katia teased him, half in jest but half with
     “I want you to be happy. And that means keeping your relatives satisfied,” he justified
himself. “I know they are the ones responsible for putting doubts about me into your dear
     But as weeks passed, reassured by the frenzy of his lovemaking, the passion in which he
declared his love for her, she began to use her newly found power to play at being capricious,
“like a Tsar,” she laughed. And she found that only served to enflame his desire for her:
     “You see sometimes I’ll be an angel, and sometimes an imp. You’ll never know which one
you might find,” she would giggle and run from him to hide in another room or rush down the
stairs and out onto the terrace and pretend to escape into the park
     She needed to make him understand that she had not been “bought,” that even though she
depended on him, she would never be completely tamed, that she might, if provoked, consider
running away to be “free of everyone.”
     And when he sent her presents, she sent them back.
     “Your habit of teasing me grieves me so,” he objected with a half smile. “By now you
should know me sufficiently to understand how I love you and all that you mean to me.”
     Nevertheless their last meeting before the return to Petersburg at the end of August turned
out to be stormy. It was also the first of their “misunderstandings” as later he would refer to her
unpredictable moments of irritation fueled by anxiety.
     “I suppose that in the city we’ll go back to our earlier habits,” she muttered, petulant.
“We’ll walk in the gardens on the islands, far from people’s eyes, and you’ll be careful not to
let the court know about our affair and I’ll just wait as before in my brother’s apartment….”
     “We’ll meet but not just to walk…”
     He folded his arms around her but she pushed him away and went out onto the balcony of
their bedroom. It was early morning and the weak rays of the sun glistened in the ocean spray.
As always, the Belvedere and the park around it appeared deserted, save for the musical rhythm
of the waves, the ringing cries of the seagulls, and the rustle of a gentle wind stirring the silvery
foliage of the trees.
     “You look angelic!” Sasha came up and, once more, put his arms around her.
     She could not help breaking into a smile:
     “Angels don’t make love to mortals,” she declared.


     “But their love is eternal,” Sasha replied as, once again, she slipped away from him.
     “They decide when they will visit those they love. And they don't make promises they can't
keep.” She saw the lines deepen around his eyes. “Who is to know if the Empress hears about
us and and you’ll abandon me.”
     She knew she was being unfair.
     Sasha passed his hand over his face, and seeing how she had wounded him, she flung
herself into his arms and kissed him so passionately that all her accusations melted into thin air.


     Since her departure from the Smolny, she had never failed to visit Mouche every week,
sometimes with Vava and sometimes alone. She felt guilty to see her sister left behind at the
Institute, and then, Mouche always flung herself at her neck to tell her how alone and miserable
she was. But although Mouche was now almost fifteen, Katia took care not to tell her about
her affair. Instead she insisted that she had the good fortune to elicit the Tsar’s paternal
affection, which she claimed, he had extended to her family and would ensure Mouche’s future
when she, too, left the Institute. But still, it made her miserable to see Mouche’s eyes fill with
tears, glance at her sister reproachfully, and set her pretty mouth into a pout.
     Then one day, in mid-September, Katia received a violent shock.
     “There’s a rumor going around here about you and the Tsar…” Mouche declared, with
quaver in her voice.
     Katia jumped up, as though stung.
     “I meant only that everyone thinks the worst, of course, though they simply gossip and I
listen and sometimes it breaks my heart.” Mouche quickly added. “And one girl even told me
that she thought the Tsar would soon try to seduce me as well.”
     Katia felt her throat constrict, reached to embrace her sister and then, inadvertenly, drew
     “It’s all a lie! Just gossip,” she said angrily, though trying to keep her voice steady. “The
girls are jealous, that’s all and you mustn’t listen to them.”


     But Mouche peered up at her with a mixture of slyness and uncertainty.
     Yes, Katia thought at that moment, Mouche had grown quite beautiful. Her face was a
perfect oval framed by pale golden hair. She had an enchanting upturned nose and huge blue
eyes with thick lashes.
     She made an effort to smile reassuringly at her sister and kissed her cheek as she always
did when she left. But in the carriage, on the way home, she could not shake off a suspicion.
     Could it be that Sasha might prefer Mouche to her?
     Had Vava and Louisa not warned her that he was drawn to beautiful women.
     She knew, of course, that they were trying to put her on her guard, trying to make her ask
him for favors for her family before he tired of her.
     But “they” did not understand, Katia repeated to reassure herself. They knew nothing of
his passion for her, of “the intertwining of our two souls,” as Sasha described his love for her.
Still, they had placed the worm of doubt into her mind and it never ceased to erode her
confidence about his intentions.
     When she returned from the Institute she saw Sasha's coupe drawing up at the curb and
hardly had he closed the door of the bedroom, than she looked at him mournfully and sighed.
     “I talked to Mouche,” she muttered as Sasha reached for her waist and she squirmed out of
his arms. “She says there are rumors about me at the Institute. The girls tease her. They
pretend that you’ll seduce her as well.”
     Sasha dropped his arms to his side and laughed mirthlessly:
     “We’ve so little time for each other,” he muttered as he caressed her with his eyes. “I’ve
sworn I’ll marry you as soon I can. As for Mouche…. Really, you’re accusing me of something
that never even entered my mind!” He smiled mischievously and seizing her in his arms once
more and pressing her tightly to his chest, declared: “And, trust me, I can also assure you that
no one knows about us.”
     But he was wrong. The secrecy around them would soon come to an end.

     It was all Louisa’s fault.
     The Marquesa Volcano, impatient with her isolation from the highest circles of society,
insisted that her family should at the very least be given a lodge in the theatre.
     “There’s always the risk that you’ll be noticed.” Sasha warned Katia. “There might be


     But instead Katia threw her arms around his neck.
     “I’ve never been to the theatre,” she declared breathlessly.
     She too had grown restive and even eager “to go out into society” as Louisa put it, if only
to break the monotony of her days and the worries that kept her up at night.
     “And I’m so bored and lonely waiting for you. I try to read those silly romances that
Louisa gives me. Or I’m forced to listen to Vava and Louisa gossip about God knows what.
And then I have to face my disagreeable brother every morning until he goes to his club. Of
course I always walk by the Palace in the hopes of catching a glimpse of you getting into your

     “It’s simply magical,” Katia gasped as her eyes swept over the brilliant blue hangings,
heavy crystal chandeliers, and soft blue velvet seats of the Maryinsky theatre.
     Sasha had warned her to dress simply so as not to draw the eyes of the crowd. But in the
midst of the buzz of conversation around her, she heard sudden bursts of laughter as lorgnettes
were pointed in the direction of their lodge. She blushed to see the men staring insolently and
the women whispering to each other.
     Even when the curtain rose on a brightly painted landscape and the dancers floated onto
the stage, the murmuring and laughter did not die down. She wanted to engross herself in the
spectacle as the ballerinas, in what appeared to be white foam, flew through the air, or whirled
in place with the speed of tops, or floated from one side of the stage to the other as though
carried upon the waves of the sea. She leaned forward, eager to enter into the dream world on
the stage, but the spell it cast could not prevent her ever-present sense of people’s cold
judgment, like intrusive hands, reaching out to touch her.
     At the intermission Louisa whispered:
     “Ma petite, you should take pleasure in your success. Everyone’s asking who is that
     But quite unexpectedly the door of the box opposite them was thrown open and Sasha
appeared alone, stood still for a moment scanning the audience in the boxes around him and


then, spotting her, smiled with such pleasure and undisguised admiration that no one could
doubt he was her lover.
     She lowered her head in embarrassment and tried to hide behind her fan. But she heard
Mikhail jump up angrily and call to them to follow him.
     “How could he!” her brother whispered as they hurried out of the theatre. “There’ll be a
scandal! We’ll all of us be disgraced!”
     As the carriage door closed Katia asked Louisa with tears in her eyes:
     “Why would Sasha betray our secret like this?”
     That night, with Louisa looking haggard, Mikhail pacing up and down in a rage, and Vava
hovering over them, Katia wrote Sasha a reproachful letter.
     His answer came back in the early morning. It was addressed to Louisa:
     “I fear that I have made you angry coming to the theatre yesterday evening. I beg you to
forgive me for this rash act for which I reproach myself bitterly. I was so tempted to see
everyone admiring my beautiful Katia! But now I’ve brought harm to her who is dear to both
of us and whom I love more than my life. I beg you to plead my cause with Katia who is also
angry with me. I would be quite in despair if you both think ill of me.”

     The next morning, sitting on the edge of the bed, biting her lower lip anxiously, she was
startled to see Sasha burst into the room with a desperate look in his eyes. He sank down
beside her.
     “Now they all know,” she muttered reproachfully, without even glancing at him, her head
bent as she fiddled with the cuff of her sleeve. “Mikhail says that a scandal is unavoidable.
Everyone will hate me. I am sure that they will blame my family, call me a wicked name, and
then pity the Empress.”
     Sasha gazed at her sorrowfully. But when he placed his arms reassuringly around her she
crumpled, listless, against his chest.
     “There’s no help for it,” he said, his voice breaking. “Like my imp I’ve been reckless. I’m
to blame and we must both suffer for it. We’ll need to be separated for a time, though I don’t
know how I’ll bear it!” He picked up her hand and drew it to his lips. “You’re my life, my soul.
You should know that by now. I couldn’t sleep all night with anxiety over you.”
     She looked up and saw him blink away his tears.


     “I’ve been thinking about what must be done and I’ve decided that you must go away with
Louisa, to her people in Italy. But it’ll only be a few months. And then we’ll meet in Paris. I
have to go to the Universal Exhibition there.”
     Her world was suddenly turned upside down.
     Sasha was sending her away.
     Did it mean he must abandon her?
     And Italy seemed so far.
     She might never return.


     She stepped out onto the wide terrace of the Palazzo di Angri overlooking the Bay of
Naples and inhaled the perfume from the flowers in the huge painted jardinieres bordering the
terrace. Then, with unexpected delight, a feeling she had not experienced since her mournful
departure from Saint Petersburg, she gazed at the graceful umbrella pines on the hills around
them. It was still early afternoon and the sky was as luminous a blue as the sea below. But in
the distance she observed the black cone of Mt. Vesuvius looming ominously.
     Later that day, she was driven through the center of the city together with Louisa and her
elderly relative, the Duke, who was dressed in impeccably starched linen and carried a splendid
bejeweled cane, and complained testily about “the terrible changes” since the dismantling of
the monarchy. But she was far too distracted by the sights to listen to him
     She found the famous Via Spaccanapoli was far narrower than she had imagined and not in
the least like the broad avenues of St Petersburg. Here everything and everyone seemed
crammed together. Yet the bright sky and the dazzling sunshine made even the shabbiest
houses, criss-crossed with lines of laundry strung from windows, appear picturesque, though
they stood next to palaces and churches of such richly ornamental whimsy as to have been


created by the confectioner’s art. The drawn-out cries and bursts of song from the mouths of
the lazzaroni—or the layabouts as the Duke called them-- blended with the strains of guitars
and mandolins played by wandering minstrels, while the bells from a hundred churches and
convents rang out in accompaniment.
     “Bella, bella,” cried the peddlers and shopkeepers, peering at Katia as the carriage drove
     At first she lowered her parasol, but soon she ignored them.
     They were not in St. Petersburg, after all.
     There could be no scandal here.
     But what drew her full attention was the sight of black-clad crones squatting in the gutters
at the intersection of each street and bending over bubbling cauldrons.
     She noticed by-standers gathered to lean over the blackened kettles when the women
dropped something into the boiling liquid. She also noted some faces light up as people
reached into their pockets for change; while others threw down a coin in disgust and turned
     In a voice filled with disapprova Louisa explained:
     “We’re in the month of the Sybils. They come to tell people’s fortunes. I’ve never
consulted them myself.”
     She pursed her lips and exchanged a few words in Italian with the Duke, who looked back
at her with a shrug and an ironic smile.
     But Katia’s curiosity was aroused and spotting a fortune-teller with a pleasantly rounded
face and eyes like two plump raisins she asked the Duke to order the coachman to stop and
without waiting for the valet to open the door she pushed it open and jumped out.
     “Signorina bella, cosa voi?” the old woman asked with a kindly smile:
     Louisa muttered “silly girl,” while the Duke guffawed.
        Katia saw the old woman reach with a blackened spoon into a small pot on the fire and let
fall a drop of hot lead into the kettle of boiling water.
     “The shape the lead takes,” she heard Louisa declare haughtily, “is supposed to determine
your future.”
        Her heart beat violently as Katia watched the metal form into something resembling a tear
and the old woman smiled:
     “Beata sei!”


     “You see, you’ve nothing to fear,” Louisa said with a hint of irony in her voice.
     But after throwing some coins into the woman's lap Katia caught the stern eye of the crone
sitting on the other side of the street. Perhaps, she too might reassure her that Sasha would not
forget her.
     Ignoring Louisa’s order her to get back into the carriage, Katia noted, instead, the crone’s
eyes darting around like a madwoman’s as she approached her. A grimy hand dropped the lead
into the cauldron where it twisted to form a jagged shape.
     “Ai Ai Ai,” the woman cried out with alarm.
     Behind her Louisa’s voice was insistent:
     “It's a game they play,” she exclaimed, irritated.
     But Katia saw the old woman was staring at her with a look of horror.
     “If you asked all the Sybils of Naples you would get different fortunes,” Louisa went on,
     But nothing could rid Katia of the crone’s horrified face and shrill cry.
     “I must write him,” she whimpered and turned away to get back into the carriage.
“Please,” she pleaded, tears forming in her eyes, “let us return to the Palazzo. I must write to
Sasha at once.”
     Then, as they passed a small chapel, the thought occurred to her that she should pray for
his safety.
     She demanded they stop, jumped out and ran inside the dimly lit empty interior.
     At the far end, above the altar the image of the Virgin, arrayed in blue and crowned with a
golden halo seemed to beckon. Lights from tapered candles in an iron-spiked circle flickered
yellow in the darkness around her. Wreaths of flowers, pale dying roses, brown edged lilies lay
in an untidy heap at her feet.
     Katia fell on her knees before the altar and bowed her head.
     “Spare Sasha,” she prayed.
     But when she looked up she saw the Madonna had the face of Sasha’s wife, looking down
at her coldly.

     That night she dreamed about a man in a Spanish cape brandishing a revolver. But when
she shouted to warn Sasha her voice refused to obey her.


      She woke to the sound of something like a shot, sat up as though she had been hit, and saw
the frightening outline of Vesuvius through the window, looking like the lead forming itself
into some evil thing inside a bubbling cauldron.


      They had been apart for six months. Despite her nagging worries no misfortune had
overtaken him.
      On the day of her arrival in Paris a small carriage came to fetch her from the little hotel in
the rue Basse du Rempart where Sasha had insisted that the family be housed.
      She was so anxious and excited that she threw a simple shawl around her shoulders and
jumped in, hardly looking around as she passed through the bustling narrow streets, wanting to
urge the coachman to hurry, thinking only of their reunion. Her heart fluttered so that she
feared she might faint. Would he still look at her with the same ecstasy as before she left?

      The doors to the apartment had barely closed when he lifted her up in his arms.

      Later, with his head resting on her breast, he reassured her:
      “You must believe me when I tell you that from the day I fell in love with you, other
women simply do not exist for me! What can I do to prove to you how much I love you? Can’t
you see all too well. I want you again and again!”
      She smiled with happiness as she stroked his hair. But then a shadow passed through her
mind. She sat up to cradle his head in her lap.
      “You know, when I wrote to you… to warn you….Naples is so filled with fortune
      “God knows,” he muttered wearily, guessing her thoughts and putting his hand over her
breast. “There are many who would be glad to see me dead!”
      Then he too sat up abruptly and grasping both her hands tightly said with forced gaiety:


       “Let’s have ten days of absolute happiness, my imp! Let’s go riding in the Bois de
Boulogne! Let’s throw all caution to the wind and spend each night together!”

       Nothing made her happier than their early morning excursions to the Bois de Boulogne
where, for the first time, he could admire how well she held her saddle. She felt her blood were
coursing like a reviving, rushing current through her body. The cool wind ruffled her hair, the
scent of the dew-laden grass filled her nostrils as she galloped, free as when she had been
riding Milou. But now with a difference. Sasha was there beside her, challenging her to press
on faster, ever faster, until laughing with joy and exhaustion she called out for him to stop, to
let her catch her breath, to allow the panting steed to rest.
       They could not stop long in the woods as Sasha would have liked, guarded as they were by
French and Russian aides. Instead they raced each other back to the Champs Elysees and
paraded happily with “le beau monde,” like any other couple in love.
       “You’ll be my eyes and ears to discover Paris, while I attend to my duties,” Sasha told

       But when she decided to go out to see him at the Universal Exhibition where he was to
mingle freely with the Parisian crowds, Louisa and Mikhail refused to accompany her,
objecting to the crush of people.
       “I’ll go there alone,” she announced angrily.
       “Then I’ll lock you up in your room,” Mikhail hissed.
       His mood, even in Paris, had not improved. He missed his club in St. Petersburg and
talked about nothing else now that they were on the way back.
       But going to her room to dress she heard the key turn in the lock.
       “I’ll be here to watch you!”Mikhail called out as she pulled at the doorknob, with tears of
helpless rage.
       She heard Louisa leave to go on a visit and pounded on the door like a madwoman until
her fists hurt and she sank down on her bed, muttering angrily to herself about her selfish
brother, nursing her anger.
       But not an hour had passed when she heard Louisa return and suddenly burst into the
room, her cheeks mottled with excitement and her hat askew.
       “Sasha’s safe!” Louisa cried out. “The assassin missed his mark.”


      The terrified face of the Neapolitan Sybil flashed before Katia’s eyes.

      That night as Sasha held her in his arms, gazing at the blue and gold canopy of their bed—
“Madame de Pompadour’s,” he had told her laughing—he went over the events of the day:
      “We were driving back from the military review at Longchamp through the Bois de
Boulogne to go to the Exhibition. I was thinking about our morning ride together. Louis-
Napoleon sat next to me. My sons sat opposite us. We could hardly move forward for the
surge of cheering crowds.
      We heard a shot and I really felt something like a puff of wind pass between Louis-
Napoleon and myself. Then I heard someone cry out on the other side of the road and people
started screaming all around us. Well, Louis-Napoleon stood up quite bravely and announced,
      ‘Sire, we have been under fire together!’”
      Katia sighed, whimpered, and buried her head on his chest.
      “We were surrounded by soldiers and driven to the Elysee. It was a young Polish patriot,
the would-be assassin.”
      “Why, even here, do they hate you so?” she whispered.




      “We needs your kind,” Praskovia Ivanovna smiled good-naturedly.
      Sonia smiled back, trying to overlook the gaping hole where the peasant woman’s front
teeth had been, making her speech slurred:
      “I wants to see me gran’sons bein’ ed’icated.”
      It had been Sonia’s idea to go into the countryside with Alexandra Iakolevna to spread
their ideas. She was no longer satified with remaining in the cramped house on Kusheleva
Street arguing among themselves.
      “We must not forget,” Sonia had repeatedly reminded the group, “that our goal is first and
foremost educational. That is how the revolution will be sparked among the peasants. That is
how the Tsar can be overthrown.”
      Besides, the week in jail had drained her, left her with a feeling of grinding despair, which
had burned deep into her skin and she was eager to leave the city, to “breathe the clean air of
the countryside and talk with ‘honest folk,’ ” she had confided to Alexandra Iakovlevna.

      The room they had rented in the hamlet of Edimnovo belonged to the village elder, Maxim
Petrovich, and his kindly desposed wife, Praskovia Ivanovna. And within a day Praskovia
Ivanovna had bustled through the village and arranged for a group of neighbors to come “to
have ourselves a talk.”
      The women gathered in the half-light of the stuffy timber-lined room dominated by a
massive whitewashed brick stove. Four of them sat pressed together--like birds on a
clothesline, Sonia thought with a smile--on the wooden bench set next to the stove. One had


perched herself on a flimsy three-legged stool. Two of the women leaned against the waist-high
wooden pestle near the oven door. Praskovia Ivanovna stood under the icon corner, where a
faded image of the Virgin and Child looked sadly down on the little table, bearing a loaf of
bread half-covered with a brightly embroidered towel.
      Sonia’s eyes swept over the tired deeply lined faces, the heads covered with faded
kerchiefs, and the worn and tattered skirts pulled taunt over the women’s legs and she found
herself questioning whether she was in a position to really help.
      She was nervous and unsure of herself.
      “Fairness is what’s needed,” she listened as Praskovia Ivanovna continued. “Batiushka
Tsar don’ know ‘bout them thievin’ officials an’ landlords.”
      “We need to make the Tsar understand,” Sonia began softly, more confident now that the
women shared Praskovia Ivanovna’s anger, “that the landlords should give up their land so
you’ll have enough to feed yourselves. And then there’s a need for more schools for your
children,” she continued, afraid that her words, despite her calm and measured tone were
sounding too rhetorical but unable to stop herself, “and schools for you as well, so you can
learn to read and write and participate with the men,” she declared and ended with a hopeful
      But her fears were immediately realized when one of the women peering at her
suspiciously asked:
      “And how, my fine lady, does you thinks you can do all that?”
      Sonia frowned. She did not want to appear disconcerted and took a minute to think of a
convincing answer:
      “By telling you that the more you can read, the more you can know,” she replied, her voice
steady despite her apprehension. “The Tsar will listen when millions like you demand what you
want,” she cast a hopeful glance at Praskovia Ivanovna, who nodded vigorously.
      The woman placed her hand on her hip and looked around the room with a sardonic smile.
The others squirmed and remained silent.
      “There’s no need to fret,” Praskovaia Ivanovna broke in. “What harm can there be in
learnin’ to read, even us women.”
      “The menfolk claims that women’s hair be long and their wit short,” one of the older
women piped up.


      “And we’ll show them that it’s their wits that are short!” Sonia responded with a nervous
      But the women continued to sit in sullen silence.

      Two weeks later it had become all too clear that convincing them would not be easy.
      Sonia’s doubts about her worthiness, about her intentions, about her own judgement in
coming to the countryside to spread such radical ideas began to overwhelm her, though she did
not confide her concerns to Alexandra Iakovlevna, busy helping a young doctor with a program
of inoculations, which the villagers also found “suspicious.”
      And then, soon enough, trouble arrived.
      She had decided to shift the focus of their efforts from the stubborn womenfolk to the
youngest inhabitants of the hamlet and had persuaded a few of the thin and sickly looking
children who haunted the yards outside the ramshackle wooden huts, or chased flocks of geese
through the meadows, to come to learn to read in an unused shed which would serve as an
improvised village school. One morning, as she hurriedly packed a few schoolbooks into a
satchel Sonia heard an insistent rapping on the door.
      “It’s ’bout your tenants,” the shorter of the two burly policemen announced to Praskovia
Ivanovna as Sonia came up behind her.
      “We’ve both taken our qualifying exams to teach in the district,” Sonia declared defiantly.
       She was not ready to go back to jail so soon.
      The short policeman stepped back and cleared his throat. She could tell that he was not
quite sure what to do, while his companion stared at her, clearly embarrassed.
      “We wasn’t expectin’ such a young ‘un,” he finally piped up, clearing his throat.
      “She don’t look dangerous to me,” the other added. “It be Saint John’s Day tomorrow and
we don’ wants to spoil your fun, my pretty one!”
      As they left, Sonia saw them holding their hands behind their backs, laughing.

      Still, she was grown increasingly miserable and disillusioned—as much with herself as
with the villagers. The women remained suspicious and the men ignored her or sometimes even
spat when she walked by. There was even a rumor that she and Alexandra Iakovlevna were
“doin’ the devil’s work” and that they were “unnatural women sent by the landowners to
corrupt honest folk!”


      “Oh miser’ble’s our life, little is there of our land, and our taxes’s killin’ us, and we don’
know what to do,” Praskovaia lamented, in her sing-songy wail, as she looked at the two
remaining women gathered in her hut to learn to read.

      One hot and humid night as she lay on the straw mattress next to Alexandra Iakovlevna,
soaked in sweat, her legs and arms raw from flea bites, Sonia sighed:
      “We’re doing our best, but…”
      “Perhaps it would be better for Praskovaia Ivanovna to teach the other women and spread
our ideas.” Alexandra Iakovlevna replied, scratching at her arm and then turning over wearily
onto her stomach. “She seems to be the only one here who really understands.”
      Sonia wiped her wet forehead and pushed the rough sheet away with her feet.
      “Of course we might get her into trouble from the authorities,” she muttered half to herself.

      Back in the city, disheartened and weary, she found that the others who had decided to stay
in the city to rally the factory workers were jubilant over their success. And to add to her sense
of failure came the news that Praskovia Ivanovna had been briefly detained by the police.
      She had been wrong. The “honest folk” of the countryside were not ready for revolution.
      “You’ve done your best,” Natanson reassured her as she sat gloomily beside him at the
long table in the main room of the house on Kusheleva Street over their spare dinner. “But
instead of despairing—for that will help no one-- you must help by agitating with us among the
      Sonia bowed her head and picked at a crust of bread on her plate.
      Lately she had lost her appetite. She was doubting herself. She had been foolish,
headstrong, mislead by the exciting ideas they had been discussing. And furthermore she was
too eager to prove that, though a woman, she was equal to any man.
      She listened half-hearedly while Natanson and the others discussed the prospect of renting
a small house near the tollgate by the Nevsky Zastana to be closer to the factories.
      “Sonia Levovna looks enough like a peasant girl that she’ll not attract suspicion, like my
Olga Alexandrovna,” Sonia heard him say.
      She looked up at him startled.


      “This is important work,” he declared, “and I wish to be given permission to join as her
‘husband.’ Our sacred bond is with the cause.” He gave his wife a meaningful look and added,
“Personal relations are secondary!”

      She was all too familiar with the district of the Nevskaya Zastana. It never failed to make
her indignant seeing the workers harassed and their documents controlled at the tollgates.
Worst of all, beyond the tollgates stretched a wretched shantytown with unpaved streets.
      It was early morning in October, the air thick with a soot-laden mist as she observed the
daily scene of workers making their way to the factories through the muddy streets in clothes
that would all too soon be covered with dirt. She passed carcasses of dogs covered in flies,
women, wrapped in shawls and carrying infants so tightly bound in rags that they appeared
mummified. She had been warned to be careful not to go out at night when bands of men would
get drunk and fight over the prostitutes gathered outside the taverns. Even now she saw drunks
stagger and fall into the ditches, lining the road and filled with grimy water smelling of the
latrines. She was jostled by skeletal horses lashed on by their owners as they pulled rotted
carts. Stray dogs whined and yelped at her heels only to stop and sniff at the carcasses of other
dogs less fortunate even than they.
      She was posing as a laundress so as to get easy access to the barracks. She was to gain the
workers’ confidence, and invite them to her house “for a bowl of kasha and some kvass” to
meet her “artisan husband,” Natanson. She was quite aware that her pretty face and childlike
appearance, her easy manner, and gay laughter would attract the men to visit the small house
by the tollgate. And she was gratified to see, that unlike the village women, they listened with
real interest to what she and Natanson told them about their rights and about the demands that
they should make on their employers.
      All too soon, however, her growing sense of accomplishment as well as her peace of mind
were shattered: Prince Kropotkin, back from talking to the anarchist Bakunin in Switzerland
was sent by the group on Kusheleva Street to join Natanson and her.
      Kropotkin had barely set down his valise on the floor of their tiny living room when he
announced rhetorically as though addressing a crowd:
      “We must encourage armed resistance among the workers. We must help to organize
armed bands.”
       She was horrified at his air of self-importance:


      “You don’t understand,” she thrust her lower lip out pugnaciously. “We’re not in league
with bandits!”
      Natanson was quick to back her up:
      “Sonia Levovona is quite right. We’ve all agreed. Our work must only be educational and
      But Sonia was alarmed.
      What if an appeal to violence gave the men the right to push the women into the
      No, she must never let that happen! Besides, after the past weeks’ among the factory
workers her self-confidence had returned and the memory of her failures among the peasant
women had faded.
      Once more she felt sure of her goals.
      Once more she saw herself as the true face of a new kind of revolution, peaceful
revolution, a revolution led by women.
      She glared at Kropotkin, tapped her foot firmly against his unopened suitcase:
      “If you begin by arming people there’ll be no end to police persecution.”
       To her bewilderment Kropotkin’s cold and even hostile expression quite suddenly gave
way to a flirtatious smile. He bent his tall frame over her and gently patted her shoulder as
though she were a mere child in need of calming. She recoiled, angry, mortified. He was
trying to charm her, she thought, as though she were some silly society girl—like her sister
      Then unexpectedly a thought flashed through her mind making her blush: Men did not
attract her. But still, Kropotkin was, most certainly, far more appealing and handsome than the
scrawny and myopic Natanson who shared her lodgings.

      Later that day she went out to meet her brother Vasilii still at his legal studies.
      As they walked along the Neva, brushing away the puffs of snow blowing in their faces,
she decided to confess her feelings to him. She was in need of his reassurance:
      “Kropotkin makes me uncomfortable. I’d be happier to live with my women friends.
      And then, without meaning to, she blurted out:
      “You know I’ll never marry—not even a marriage blanc * {note}. And I want you to
promise that you won’t either.”


      But she was quite taken aback when she saw Vasilii raise his eyebrow, curl his lips into an
ironic smile and say:
      “Our Amazon needs a Hercules to tame her.”
      “So you think it proper that Kropotkin won’t stop flirting with me?” she glowered. “Just
because, for quite practical reasons, we’re living together and….it’s difficult….”
      “To resist!” Vasilii teased with a peal of laughter.
      She made a face, pushed him roughly, broke away and started to run in the opposite
direction, her cheeks aflame, slipping on the wet pavement but paying no heed while he
      “It was a joke, just a joke!”
      Later that evening, she avoided Kropotkin’s insistent stare, and sat at one end of the table
reading the draft of a speech to a group of cotton workers.
      She was jarred out of her concentration by the sound of pounding on the door. Natanson
and Kropotkin, at the other end of the table looked up from their books. She sprang up, cracked
open the door and stuck her head out anxiously. She sighed with relief to see that it was only a
student recruit. But he was looking at her with frightened eyes.
      “ I’ve been sent to warn you!” He was out of breath. “There are rumors circulating that a
worker’s gone to the owners of the cotton factory to tell them about you three and the rest of
the group. You must move out immediately.”
      Sonia gasped. The previous day she had returned from Kusheleva Street with a heavy
bundle of a radical Russian journal smuggled in from London. The editor, Herzen, was calling
on young people to spread out into the countryside and provoke the peasants to revolution.
Now her first thought was to give the bundle to the student for safekeeping and when she asked
him to take them, Kropotkin and Natanson, who had not uttered aword, simply nodded in
agreement. She saw the student wince but he picked it up anyway and left.
      As soon as the door closed she rushed upstairs into her bedroom to pack up her belongings,
throwing everything into a laundry basket. When she returned Kropotkin, with a pile of books
under his arm, looked ready to go with her.
      “I’ll accompany you through the district,” he said “It’s too dangerous for you to go alone.”
      This time there was no hint of flirtation or mockery in his voice as he put an arm around
her shoulders.


      “I’ll go to old Kornilov’s house again until we decide what to do,” she muttered as a
jumble of thoughts spun through her mind. “Perhaps it’s time to leave the city again until
things settle down, that is,” her voice drifted off.
      The sudden thought of her mother flashed through her mind. She could not endanger
Mama by running to her now. As it was, she had received and sent letters through Vasilii. And
yet each letter sent a pang of guilt through her, sharp as a knife and as painful.
      What kind of a daughter was she?
      How could she cause Mama such worry, such anguish?
      Still, her path was firmly set. She could not turn back. Her principles forbade weakness of
any kind. Besides, nothing would please her father more than her retreat from them.
      But she must avoid, at all costs, being sent back to prison. That was how to keep Mama
from spending sleepless nights.
      “And I’ll remain here for another day or two,” she heard Natanson, who had not moved
from the table, say, “to warn the workers, that is.”
      “What if the police come in the morning?” Kropotkin asked, glancing at the window.
      “There’s nothing here for them to find,” Natanson replied calmly, removing his glasses
and wiping them carefully on the corner of his shirt. “Besides, they’ll eventually come after me
anyway,” he sighed.


      “We’re looking for Alexandra Iakovleevna and Liubov Iakovleevna,” she overheard a
man’s booming voice announce to the maid.
      She had just finished drawing on a peasant skirt, while Alexandra Iakovlevna, a kerchief
covering her head and Liubov Iakovlevna, with her hair in two tight braids, were laughing at
each other’s costumes.
      At the very moment when Alexandra quipped,


      “This time we will be more convincing to the women,” the three policemen of the Third
Section burst in.
      Sonia’s immediate impulse was to run behind the bed toward the open window and draw
the curtain over herself.
      “You’ll all three accompany us to headquarters,” she heard the tallest of the officers
declare and saw him place his hand on Alexandra Iakovlevna’s’s back, as the girl recoiled.
      Another had already grabbed Liubov Iakovlevna, who was struggling helplessly. The third
ran toward Sonia, tore the curtain away, reached for her while she ducked as if prepared to run.
But his arms grasped her tightly and she could only scream:
      “We’ve done nothing wrong. You have no right…”
      She could think of nothing but of Mama’s anguish. It was all too painful for her to bear.

      Once again she was submited to the humiliating rituals of prison dress and interrogation.
She concentrated on the memory of her mother’s sad face and then, so that she did not fall into
deep despair, tried to reassure herself:
      She had done nothing wrong.
      They had made another mistake.
      They had no evidence against her.
      She would soon be released.
      But two days passed, no one came to her help, nothing about her case was known by the
wardens who she pestered with questions and, worst of all, the nightmares of her first
imprisonment began to torment her. But with one difference: The Tsar inviting her to dance
had been replaced by her father, whose beard quivered with anger like a cat’s tail.
      And to add to her misery, Anna Karlovna’s stern voice echoed in her ears to reproach her:
      “Ze vill be the death of her Mama!”
      Then the memory of Masha’s petulant and plaintive words, repeated again and again, had
the torturous effects of an incessant dripping of water on a stone:
      “Papa, if you don’t let her go she might commit suicide and then I’ll never be able to
      She feared that she would go mad with nothing to distract her from her anguished and
guilty thoughts.
      She considered that she might do well to kill herself.


      Had she not failed in everything she had tried to do and succeeded only in giving pain to
her family? Perhaps she might never be released. She would rot, like so many before her, in
her evil smelling cell, where rats would gnaw away at her lifeless body.
      On the third day she decided to refuse food. She remained stretched out on her narrow cot,
resisted slapping and scratching at the fleas that tormented her, folded her arms over her chest
and prepared herself to die.
       But by the end of the day a woman warden arrived and with a glint of sadistic pleasure in
her eyes tied her hands behind her back and though she struggled as vigorously as she could,
forced food into her mouth until she choked.

      By the time Vasilii arrived she had lost track of time.
      She no longer cared whether she lived or died.
      Nothing mattered.
      Even her suicide attempt had failed.
      “You must write to Father,” Vasilii whispered urgently. “If you don’t they may keep you
here forever.”
      She shivered, a jagged kind of throbbing, as if lightening had struck her, passed through
her and her eyes lost their focus. Only when she felt his arms around her did she stop trembling
and her sight returned.
      “Old Kornilov’s going to see the chief of police about his daughters,” She heard him say.
Father’ll do the same for you. Copy this over.” He handed her a piece of paper.
      She obeyed. But after he left and the cell door clanged shut the familar nightmare came to
her as vividly as if she had already gone to sleep. But this time, a change had occurred. No
longer was there an invitation to dance:

      She was walking with Vasilii through a ballroom. She was holding onto his hand
tightly in case they might be separated in the crowd. The men all wore official uniforms,
which appeared to resemble those of police officers but were edged in gold braid and
decorated with a plethora of medals. The women were all in black and they seemed to
cower behind giant fans. She found herself approaching a group of men in tall black
bear-skin helmets surrounding a towering figure.
      “It’s the Tsar,” she heard someone say.


      But when she reached him, Vasilii had vanished and as the men stood aside, to her
horror she found her father glaring at her and raising his hand to strike.

      For the rest of the day and night until Vasilii arrived to take her back to Father’s apartment
she shook with anxiety.

      When the maid ushered her into her father’s study she was aware of him standing behind
the massive paper-littered desk. But she could not bring herself to look at him and glanced
around the room instead. At the far end was a brick fireplace with a high mantle on which she
was surprised to see a framed photograph of a buxom and pretty woman, standing in sunlight,
wearing a broad hat, which shadowed her face flatteringly as she smiled into the camera.
      She averted her eyes to the familiar pictures of battle scenes and Crimean mountain peaks,
which covered the walls. The portrait of her grandfather had pride of place behind her father’s
desk and his expression had not changed. In fact, he appeared ever more irritated, angry,
perhaps at the dark blue wallpaper into which his angular black-clad figure seemed to melt.
      Finally when she forced herself to look directly at her father she was shocked to see him so
gray and stooped, so obviously unwell.
      He came up to greet her and then suddenly, to her astonishment, he burst into tears.
      And whether through exhaustion, or relief to be free, or a sudden feeling of sympathy, she
felt her eyes fill with tears and wet her cheeks.
      “I should never have given you a passport. I’m to blame!” Lev Nikolaevich sobbed as he
pressed his arms tightly around her.
      At once his words succeeded in drying her tears.
      It was now all too clear that her fate was completely in his hands. Her nightmares were to
be realized.
      Vasilii had informed her mournfully on the way to the apartment that there was to be a
trial. She was to be among a hundred or so young people who were to be charged with a plot to
incite violence among workers and peasants. Meanwhile she had been placed in her father’s
      All at once she felt faint, utterly worn out and went limp in her father’s arms.


      “You know she can stay in my rooms,” Vasilii offered, glancing at her hopefully.
      Lev Nikolaevich released her, stepped back, took a carefully folded handkerchief out of his
jacket pocket and wiped his eyes slowly and methodically.
      “You’ll stay here!” His voice was firm. “You can sleep,” he indicated a new Turkish
divan between two bookcases on the wall opposite the fireplace, “on this.”
      In the cold winter light coming in from the tall window, the room looked to her like
another prison cell.
      “I’m often out. You won’t be disturbed,” he added, his thin lips folding into their usual
bitter expression. He gave her a threatening look: “I’ll see to it that you have no more contact
with your friends. Vasilii must also vouch for you. I won’t stand for such radicalism in my own
family. It amounts to treason!” he hissed.
      Then turning his back on them both, she heard him mutter mournfully,
      “Sick as I am, abandoned by my wife...”
      But before he finished his sentence there was a knock on the door.
      The maid, flushed and wide-eyed, came in:
      “It's the Prince Kropotkin to see you, your Excellency,” she announced.
      Sonia held her breath. Kropotkin was free! But what, she asked herself, was he doing
      A sudden and terrible suspicion struck her with the force of a blow and she staggered.
      He was, after all, the Tsar’s equerry.
      Perhaps Kropotkin was a spy, a police spy.
      Perhaps he responsible for the arrests of all her comrades from the house on Kusheleva
      Perhaps his incitement to violence was a well- planned provocation.
      When Kropotkin entered, she felt the blood draining from her face and she feared that she
might faint. He was wearing his court uniform, a tight-fitting blue jacket and white breeches
and carrying his hat tucked under his arm. There was no question. Most certainly he had
betrayed them all. If not, why was he taking such a chance to see her?
      “I’m here, Lev Nikolaevich,” Kropotkin addressed Lev Nikolaevich avoiding her eyes,
“on behalf of the Tsar who has expressed astonishment that one of your own family would be
      Sonia lowered her eyes. What a curious game he seemed to be playing.


      “What gives you the right to interfere with my family!” she heard her father growl and
glimpsed a menacing gleam in his eyes. “You give yourself the liberty of speaking about my
daughter as though you know her.”
      He peered suspiciously at him and then glanced at Sonia who kept her eyes fixed on her
father, in an effort not to betray her sudden shock. But it was obvious to her that Kropotkin was
      “The Tsar wishes that you suffer no ill effects from your daughter's indiscretions,” he
assured him.
      His quick response seemed to flatter Lev Nikolaevich’s vanity for Sonia saw his face relax
and assume a merely formal coldness.
      “So this must be Sonia Levovna, now so grown up,” Kropotkin exclaimed, smiling
      She did not understand but let him take her hand and raise it gallantly to his lips.
      All at once she felt something being pressed into her palm. She closed her hand around the
wad of paper and slipped it into her sleeve.
      Kropotkin clicked his heels, bowed and turned to leave:
      “Of course if you wish to let the Tsar know what can be done to alleviate your distress,
you will let me know.”
      Then he opened the door to reveal the blushing maid who ushered him to the front door.

      The Turkish divan in the study had been made up into a bed, Lev Nikolaevich had gone
out, and Sonia found herself alone with Vasilii.
      She retrieved the note, unfolded it carefully and read it with Vasilli looking over her
shoulder. The spidery handwriting was Kropotkin’s:
      “Natanson has been arrested. So have many others. Kravchinski has fled. We need money
and the workers are asking for guns. You and I are the only two of our group left free. We must
find a way to get them the money. Natanson managed to get me old Kornilov’s contribution
before he was arrested. I will deposit it tonight at the apartment of Yrodkin, number 14,
Stolyarny Lane. Go in the morning and take it to the entrance of the Illinsky factory. Disguise
yourself as best as you can so no one can follow you. The old foreman is trustworthy. He will
meet you there at eleven o’ clock in front of the gate. Take care!”


      “He doesn't seem to care about the danger. And that business of the guns...” Vasilii burst
out indignantly:
      “I won’t carry money for guns,” Sonia said crumbling the paper.
      At that moment she wanted nothing more than to sleep. But doubts about Kropotkin kept
nagging at her. Surely he was not a spy she told herself. If that were so why should he drag her
into another venture. Was she not already to go on trial? She would go to the Yurodkin
apartment but only to deliver money for books, for educational materials. There would be no
harm in that.
      Vasilii bent over her, seized her by the shoulders and shook her.
      “I won’t let you go! Why not let Kropotkin do it himself?”
      Why indeed she wondered?

      But the next morning, despite her reservations, she made up her mind to go. If Kropotkin
had set a trap for her she would surely be able to tell. She need only be cautious, make sure she
was not being followed.
      It was easy to slip past the maid without being seen. Then as she made her way to
Yurodkin’s apartment and turned onto Stolyarny Lane she stopped. Vasilii, looking angrier
than she had ever seen him, rushed up to her, tugged at her arm, looked over his shoulder, and
      “Kropotkin’s been arrested.”
      “Am I being followed?” she whispered, her heart thumping in her throat.
      A man in a tall hat and a brown cape seemed to be showing some interest in them.
      “We’re being followed,” Vasilii muttered, seeing the man in the cape in front of them stop
and turn as they passed making their way toward the bustling Haymarket, filled as always with
stalls selling fresh produce, or assorted cast off clothing, or such a plethora of domestic odds
and ends that it seemed as though their owners had moved their rooms out onto the street.
      Here Sonia knew that they could easily shake off their pursuer in the press of gawkers,
shoppers, prostitutes of all ages with their official yellow badges, pickpockets whose sidelong
glances gave them away, and housewives carrying heavy baskets.
      “You’re not to go to Yurodkin’s. I went in your place and he gave me the news,” Vasilii
whispered tightening his grip on her arm as they merged into the crowd, surrounded on all sides


by angry shouts, indigant complaints, barkers encouraging passers-by to sample their wares,
whistles as young girls walked by and even snatches of ribald song.
      “But the money...” she mumbled, hesitantly.
      “And if you go to see the foreman, you will endanger everyone.”

           The next day, while she paced back and forth in the study, Vasilii arrived with more
bad news. Alexandra Iakovlevna was in her father’s custody but Liubov Iakovlevna remained
in jail.
      “The rest of the group are either imprisoned, in hiding, or abroad,” Vasilii announced
wearily. “Perhaps it’s best to let things quiet down, not to arouse Father’s suspicions. Maybe
even to leave for a while. If they let us why not go to stay with Mama in the Crimea? Father
will be glad to see the last of you. Besides, he’ll put two and two together about Kropotkin’s
      She sank down onto the divan:
      “Everything is failing and I….”
      Vasilii settled beside her:
      “Let's both of us go to Mama’s and start afresh.”
      “And your studies…?” Her voice was dull with despair. “I can’t let you sacrifice your
future for me.”
      “I would be selfish, a coward, to finish my own studies now. Listen, Sonechka, we’ll
organize another group there. I’ll learn a trade and you…well, you can get a medical
certificate— just as you’ve always wanted.”


      “My child, my darling daughter,” Mama sobbed clinging to her.


      The warmth of Mama’s body brought tears to Sonia’s eyes. She knew she was crying for
the unhappiness she had caused her mother. But she was also aware that she was crying for
herself, for her failures.
      “Kilburn” had been sold to pay for debts but Sonia liked the little house Mama had bought.
Though it was a simple one storey wooden structure, it bore certain pretentions to luxury. The
living room had been paved with black and white checkerboard marble tiles to suggest,
incongruously, the floor of an Italian palazzo. A wall of French windows let in a flood of light
and the shady verandah which ran the length of the façade looked out onto the mountains, Even
better, Sonia thought, her spirits lifting, it was close to the sea.

      Only a week had passed and already her depression had begun to lift.
      She went swimming with Vasilii, slipping easily and happily back into her childhood
reveries, and gaining confidence with every day. Afterwards the two of them did gymnastics on
the beach—“to strenthen our Amazon,” Vasilii said.
      And it was not long before they were joined by a group of local children from the near-by
village, whose friendliness and eagerness to copy them, cheered her.
      “Maybe we should begin our work right here,” she suggested to Vasilii as the children
followed them up to the house, laughing and jostling each other to see who could hold onto
Sonia’s hand.
      “I’ve talked to the blacksmith this morning,” Vasilii replied with a faint smile. “And he
thinks that ‘an educated gentleman’ like me can quickly master his trade.”

      Two weeks later he returned from the nearby town of Simferopol with more good news: A
group of students from the University in Odessa, jailed for trying to rally the peasantry, had
now been released.
      “We can create a new political circle,” he suggested. “I’ll marry and set up as a
blacksmith family in one of the neighboring villages.”
      “You don’t have to marry to do your work,” she snapped, irritated by his plan.
      “The peasants are less suspicious of a married couple,” he insisted.
      “Then wait and, if you have to, marry Alexandra Iakovlevna after the trial. We could all
move in together,” she suggested. “ We could reconstitute our group and…”
      She hesitated when she saw Vasilii frown, mumble something, and change the subject:


      “Anyway,” he said, “I’ve already arranged for you to meet some students in Odessa,
though you musn’t tell Mama that you’re going there for political reasons.”

      The windows in the tiny cramped apartment of a medical student were closed. The room
was heavy with smoke and frightfully hot. She started to fan herself with her hand. It did not
help that a samovar hissed and steaming glasses of scalding tea were being passed around.
      Five men and four women were crowded shoulder to shoulder around a table.
      But her eyes were immediately drawn to a man standing at the far end of the room, one
foot set on a bench against the wall. He was tall and muscular, his features rough-hewned yet
regular, a square jaw, prominent even beneath a bristling mustache and a long brown beard. A
mass of unruly dark hair reached to the collar of his shirt and his eyebrows were thick and well
shaped. Even at a distance his deep blue eyes were penetrating, hypnotic even, as they swept
over the assembled group and then, quite suddenly, twinkled with merriment at something,
which only he could see.
      She had never felt drawn to physical beauty, whether in men or women. Bodies, unless that
of her mother, even repelled her and the thought of any intimacy was unthinkable. But
something about him attracted her with a magnetic force she had never before experienced.
Perhaps, she later thought, in his rough white peasant shirt belted tightly at the waist he made
her think of a particularly romantic figure, a poet or even a bandit like those she had read about
in childhood novels. But why such “frivolous” notions should suddenly enter her head, she did
not know. Besides, save for Vasilii, men, she reminded herself, were not to be trusted. And yet
she was disturbed to feel the blood rushing to her face.when he glanced at her and began to
stroke his beard thoughtfully.
      But her confusion quickly faded after the medical student introduced her as a leader of the
“Chaikovski circle” and she started to speak, trying to give the impression that she was aware
of how things were going in the capital:
      “The police think they have rounded up those of us they consider to be serious threats,”
she declared. “My father is a friend of the chief of the Third Section. They are convinced that
there is no one left to incite unrest among the workers.”
      She avoided the eyes of the handsome “poet-bandit,” aware, as she spoke, that he was
staring at her.


      “We must avenge the unjust imprisonment of our people,” she continued, raising her voice,
in an attempt prevent herself from blushing once again.
      Under the smiling scrutiny of the “poet-bandit” she was beginning to feel completely
unnerved. Was she sounding foolish or even arrogant?
      “But if we want to work with the peasants we need to respect their customs or they’ll
denounce us to the police.”
      She was relieved to hear someone exclaim: “We're all bound by prison!” And saw the
student-tenant of the apartment jump up excitedly.
      Then a dark-haired girl, with little round glasses broke in:
      “Some of us think it’s time for an armed workers’uprising. We must find funds to buy
guns. The peasants are too primitive.”
      But before Sonia could rouse herself to object, “the poet-bandit” pulled his shoulders back,
walked past the table to the window and turned dramatically to face the group.
      “That’s Andrei Ivanovich Zhelyabov,” someone whispered to her. “He's a real daredevil.”
      Zhelyabov’s booming voice filled the room as he glared at the girl who had just spoken.
      “Yes, we peasants may be primitive. But it’s not for you gentry to lead us!”
      He wiped the sweat running down his temples with his sleeve and started to pace from one
side of the room to the other as though the pent-up energy circulating through his body needed
some explosive outlet.
      Without looking at his mesmerized audience and as though speaking to himself he began
to recite:
      “ ‘The heavy hanging chains will fall/ the walls will crumble at a word; / and freedom
greet you in the light, / and brothers give you back the sword.’ This revolution must be led by
us peasants working in the cities.”(Pushkin*)
      Then he raised a fist dramatically over his head
      Sonia blushed. The thought came to her that he was indeed a poet, a peasant-poet and not a
bandit! She pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed it against her damp forehead in
the hope that the others thought her flushed from the heat.
      But Zhelyabov seemed qute aware of his effect on her and persisted in looking fixedly at
her while he continued to speak and she struggled to keep her mind focused on his words. She
was fascinated by the way his eyes blazed, the muscles of his forearm flexed, and he tightened
his massive hands into fists whenever he emphasized something. It all roused strange feelings


of excitement in her and she lowered her eyes in a vain effort to regain control of an emotion
she found disturbing.
      After everyone left and Vasilii opened the windows she asked about him. She was
mortified when the medical student, who must have seen her blush, smiled slyly:
      “You know, everyone’s attracted to him. He’s the son of serfs. A landowner had him
educated and he got into the university. You should also know that he thinks of writers as his
saints! I’ve no understanding of such things. But anyway, he did manage to get himself into
      She raised her chin imperiously to indicate that his activities were of little interest to her:
      “What did he do?”
      She wanted to sound indifferent to the answer.
      “He led a student protest and the authorities expelled him. Then he got work as a tutor for
a merchant family and ended up marrying the daughter.”
      “So he’s married?” she could not mask a twinge of disappointment in her voice.
      “Yes, and it’s not a ‘marriage blanc.’ * Everyone says he really fell in love with her.”
      “I’m interested in his ability to rally peasants and workers!” she responded officiously,
though her spirits fell.
      “Well, he was very successful in organizing classes in the Odessa poorhouse. Then he was
arrested on charges of smuggling prohibited literature from abroad.
      “So he’s careless!” she interrupted.
      It was suddenly imperative to her that she convince him her interest in Zhelyabov was not
in the least personal.
      “After that, he decided to become a real revolutionary and took classes in chemistry to
learn about explosives.”
      She glanced at Vasilii and frowned. Clearly that meant he was more a bandit than a poet
after all, she decided, glad to dismiss him—and with him her embarrassment, which she now
saw quite clearly as stupidly girlish.

      On the ride back to their mother’s, Vasilii teased her.
      “I know you don’t believe in marriage,” he said with a twinkle in his eye, “which must be
why Zhelyabov’s case so disturbed you!”


      “Should a man who wants to learn about explosives be trusted?” she parried self-
      Once again, it was all too clear to her that men could never be trusted.
      Besides she was ashamed of her interest in a “bandit.”
      But that night she found herself tumbling into a dream, which began, like her previous
prison nightmares. She was rooted to the ground, witnessing a group of men surrounding the
Tsar--or her father, she could at first not tell which it would be—suddenly stand aside to reveal
Zhelyabov bowing to her ever so formally and inviting her to dance.
      There the dream ended but when she woke she found herself smiling.

      The following day her thoughts were unexpectedly turned to other matters.
      A letter arrived from her father, warning her that her activities were being watched by the
local police.
      “If they discover anything to incriminate you,” he wrote, the ink so thick on the paper that
it appeared as though he was on the verge of piercing it, “ you will be jailed and I will no
longer vouch for you.”
      “I forbid you to go to Odessa again,” Vasilii ordered, gripping her shoulder firmly as if
afraid she might run away. “And I will tell Mama if you don’t obey me!”
      She did not object. Her unwelcome interest in Zhelyabov had quite unnerved her. Besides,
she asked herself, wasn’t it time to get to work? She would make plans to volunteer as a
medical aid in the hospital in Simferopol. She would also register for a course in midwifery.
      Nothing, she thought, could be more useful.
      Nothing could keep her mind more fully occupied.
      Nothing could place her in a better position to keep the police at bay, while preparing her
for practical revolutionary work.
      And nothing could please her mother more.



      A whole year has gone by with little to distract her.
      The memory of her troubling encounter with Zhelyabov was fading. Vasilii’s life had
changed. And her mind was filled with a worry she had not expected.
      He had kept the secret for several months, though he visited Odessa with unusual
regularity and refused to discuss his activities there besides an occasional mention of meetings
with the medical student and his group. She never asked about Zhelyabov, despite an
occasional pang of curiosity, for fear that her brother would tease her. But then, to her dismay,
Vasilii began to mention the name of a girl, Maria Ivanovna, the one, who had called for an
armed uprising at the meeting she had addressed.
      “What do you find to interest you in her? “Sonia asked, recalling a stern-looking girl with
steel rimless glasses and two long dark braids which made her look like a child. “You forbid
me go to the meetings but then you talk about her as though you see her often.”
      She did not want to admit to herself that she might be jealous of her brother, of his freedom
to move about.
      Most of all she did not want him to marry.
      “She’s a hot-head. You know she’ll get you into trouble,” she scolded him. “And you
would cause Mama such sorrow,” she ended on a threatening note.
      Vasilii took one of the Turkish cigarettes out of the silver case Mama had given him and
started to pace up and down the verandah. He had started smoking only recently and he
coughed from time to time. His silence irritated her. His long dark silhoutte against the
evening light bathing the garden in gold and pink appeared vaguely menacing. The moon, pale
and full, had risen over the horizon. Somewhere a frog croaked and set the cicadias to
      She was seated on a white wicker chair which faced a cluster of rose bushes, the
overblown flowers shuddering in the wind, which carried their scent mixed with the salty tang
of the sea. The sharp squeaks of some small animal, the barking of a dog filled the tense
silence around them.
      At last Vasilii stopped, threw his cigarette on the ground and stamped it out with his foot:
      “What I do is my business,” he lashed out, facing her. “You have chosen your path and
you have suffered for it—and so has Mama,” he added, giving her a look of such deep reproach
that she grasped the arms of the chair. “We must each decide how best we can serve. I gave up


my studies to come to Mama’s with you. And now I find that I can best serve by marrying and
bringing my wife to Sempiferol to begin our work among the folk here.”
      The anger in his voice dismayed her as much as his unexpected announcement.
      Was this the Vasilii, who had always been her ally?
      Was this the Vasilii, on whom she could always depend?
      Was this the Vasilii, who would never betray her trust?
      That same Vasilii, her brother, was telling her angrily, resentfully, that he was going to
marry. The shock of it made her feel as though all the air had left her lungs and, for a minute, a
lingering shaft of golden light from the setting sun flared up into her face like a flame and spun
out around her, bringing with it the image of the girl in her rimless glasses like some evil spirit
who had bewitched him.
      She was shaken out of her bewilderment by her mother’s voice, soft behind her:
      “My dear children, you sit out here and dinner is waiting for you on the table.”

      And soon enough Sonia found her fears justified.
      The wedding had delighted Mama, even though the ceremony in the village church had
been quite modest. Sonia had accepted her brother’s decision without much grace and could not
keep from treating his wife with a condescension, which Maria Ivanovna coldly reciprocated.
Now, for the first time, there was a source of tension between Vasilii and her, estranging them
from each other. No, she repeated to herself, no man, even a brother, can be trusted.
      A month after the wedding when Vasilii came unexpectedly to see her at the hospital, she
was pleased and surprised. But instead she saw a frightened look in his eyes and his mouth set
grimly as he grasped her elbow with a shaking hand to pull her outside the ward.
      “They’ve arrested her,” he whispered. “They claim she has been sending coded letters to
students at St. Petersburg University. I’d warned her, I’d told her that we must continue our
educational work in the village. They trust us now. Two days ago Maria Ivanovna even
managed to organize a reading group for the women. But now everything is destroyed.”
      He bowed his head, took her hand in his and squeezed it tightly. She knew he was asking
for some kind of comfort. But she could only look at him horrified. It was not the arrest of
Maria Ivanovna, which concerned her.
      If they went after his wife, would they not now come after Vasilii?


      “They won’t arrest Vasilii, I promise you,” she tried to reassure her mother as the two of
them sat side by side on the wicker sofa outside on the vernadah sipping tea, sweetened with
raspberry jam.
      “A sweet-natured girl, and the two of them so well suited to each other,” Varvara
Stepanovna lamented, stroking Sonia’s hair.
      Over the past year her mother’s face had filled out and her cheeks were rosy rather than
sallow. The presence of her children had filled her with such contentment that the signs of
suffering from the years of her stormy marriage appeared to have been been erased. But once
again her face grew drawn and her eyes filmed with tears:
      “My two beloved children, with their kind hearts and good minds. Perhaps I’m to
      The next morning Sonia learned from one of the doctors that her brother had just been
arrested on suspicion of collaborating with his wife.
      How was she to break the news to her mother?
      She found it hard to do her work in the wards. All at once the patients seemed hopelessly
ill and she felt useless. Once again she was assailed by the thought that she had dedicated her
life to nothing more than prison and now she had condemned her brother to the same fate.
      Finally, unable to hide her misery she confided in an old peasant woman, sitting up in her
bed, smiling a toothless smile and looking stronger, if not healthier, than those around her.
      “They’ll ‘ave to let the hare out o’ the trap!” the woman said putting a wrinkled hand as
light as a dry twig on her arm. “An’ your Mama—well, a mother’s life be hard an’ her heart so
tender. But mothers be made of strong cloth to bear the deaths o’ their young ‘uns, and even
the biggest rips can be mended, my little lady.”

      Still more bad news awaited her that night when she returned home.
      Varvara Stepanovna handed her a letter from the authorities summoning her to the capital
for the beginning of the trial. She was informed that she would be among one hundred and
sixty nine young people, accused of fomenting revolution.
      “When they set you free, you’ll come back here and continue your work?” her mother
      But later that evening when Sonia could no longer delay breaking the news of Vasilii’s
arrest, she had fainted in her arms. Once tucked in bed and the maid gone closing the door


quietly behind her, Varvara Stepanovna, pale, a radiating line of wrinkles etched around her
eyes and mouth whispered tearfully:
      “Don’t upset your father. He can still protect you and your brother if you’re condemned.
Be tolerant of his moods.”


      Once again Sonia found herself a prisoner in her father’s study.
      “You have not only disgraced yourself but enticed yor brother into your activities,” Lev
Nikolaevich thundered. “You have brought nothing but calamity onto our family.”
      She stood before him looking down on her trembling hands. This time she knew that it
would be futile to argue. She must heed her mother’s words. At least for the first days.
      “I’ve made arrangements with my maid to keep her eye on you,” he continued seeing her
appearing contrite. “But if you deceive me once again, I will have no compunction but to take
you myself to see Shuvalov. He will know how to deal with you, you, a the radical viper that
gives me no peace and brings shame on us all.”
      Yet despite his threats, two days after her arrival Sonia determined to make contact with
the Kornilov sisters, like her, in their father’s custody. She had missed Alexandra Iakovlevna.
      With the small sum of money saved from her work in the hospital she found she could
bribe Dushenka to say nothing when she left the house in her father’s absence.

      She caught sight of her friend as soon as she turned onto the Nevski Prospekt.
      How she had changed! Her dear boyish Alexandra Iakovlevna was wearing a fashionable
jacket and a fine wool skirt hugged her hips, making her look no different from the other
wealthy women around them.
      Had her imprisonment so easily discouraged her, Sonia wondered?
      “It’s Papa who insists that I dress like a proper young lady. He’s so afraid for us,”
Alexandra Iakovlevna explained, seeing Sonia’s startled expression. And looking affectionately


into her eyes embraced her with all her usual warmth. “But I must introduce you to a new
friend of mine.”
      A young woman, small and slender, with dark hair pulled back from a lovely oval face
stared at Sonia with evident mistrust in her intelligent dark eyes. There was something rather
stern about her, a certain annoying aristocratic hauteur.
      Had Alexandra Iakovlevna, Sonia thought with a twinge of bitterness, found a new close
      “Vera Nikolaevna Figner,” Alexandra Iakovlevna announced, smiling, as though unaware
of Sonia’s disappointment. “She’s back from Zurich. She’s decided to give up getting her
medical degree and wants to be of use here in the capital. She’s working for the Red Cross,
visiting prisoners. She’s even seen poor Chaikovski who, you know, hasn’t been released for
years. But guess who convinced her to return?” Alexandra Iakovlevna’s eyes twinkled with
merriment: “Natanson!”
      “Natanson?” Sonia’s disappointment gave way to a surge of excitement.
      “He went overseas as soon as he got out of jail but he’s back now,” Alexandra Iakovlevna
said. “Natanson told Vera Nikolaevna that it would be selfish to continue her studies while
others had been arrested, and continue to be arrested for their activities.”
      She placed an arm reassuringly around Sonia’s rigid shoulders, which relaxed at her touch.
      But Sonia could see that Vera Nikolaevna looked uncomfortable as they all three made
their way to a little marble-topped table in the back of a café.
      “He's here trying to organize a secret society,” Alexandra Iakovlevna whispered, looking
over her shoulder, though the tables around them were empty.
      Still Vera Nikolaevna seemed terribly nervous.
      “Natanson’s here illegally of course,” Alexandra Iakovlevna continued whispering. “But
the best news is that we now have a real genius among us! You don’t know him but his name is
Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov. He’s terribly erudite. He understands Marx better than any of
us. You can’t imagine how he will help our cause!”
      “Let’s not stay here,” Vera Nikolaevna murmured anxiously, getting up to leave.
      The waiter had spotted them. Sonia saw him glanced dismissively at her peasant skirt and
worn silk shawl as they brushed past him to the door and set out along the Nevski.
      Once outside, Vera Nikolaevna appeared more at ease and turning to Sonia she asked:
      “Did you know about the group organized in Kiev?”


      Sonia shook her head.
      “Well, they’ve been buying guns for an armed uprising.”
      She froze.
      “So the daredevils are in charge now,” she burst out.
      Her worries that the year of exile in the Crimea had cost her everything had been realized.
      “They are indeed,” Vera Nikolevna agreed frowning. “I too believe that if we begin with
violence, we’ll all end up dead.”
      She glanced at Sonia warily from beneath her thick dark lashes.
      Sonia nodded distractedly. Her thoughts raced as they started walking toward the Winter
Palace. She must contact Natanson at once.
      “We need to organize the workers, educate them to know their rights, but above all we
must prevent bloodshed! ” Sonia declared officiously, determined to make Vera Nikolaevna
understand and reassure herself as well, that she would regain her rightful place in the
Chaikovski circle.

      Two weeks later, tired of seeing the resentment in her face, her father agreed to let her rent
a small house. But he insisted that Dushenka go with her in order to continue to watch over her.
      “I have made too many sacrifices for you already,” he had growled as he paced behind his
desk. “And now in Dushenka’s absence I will be forced to employ another girl--another
expense. It is all your mother’s fault! It is she who spoiled you. It is she who turned you into a
radical. ”
      Sonia held her tongue. His concession allowing her more freedom was quite unexpected.
It made it easier for her to implement her new plans.
      She bought Dushenka off with Alexandra Iakovlena’s help And when Natanson agreed
with her to re-create their old circle and to take charge of contacting their old comrades as well
as recruiting new members, Sonia was jublilant. She missed her mother. She missed Vasilii.
But now she would be reunited with her radical “family.” And Alexandra Iakovlevna was still
her friend.


      “We should call our group by the two things that the peasants want,” Sonia suggested to
Natanson as she and Alexandra Iakovlevna and Vera Nikolaevna sat around the small kitchen
table with him.
      Dushenka had gone out but she had left a tureen of soup and a dish of pierogi and their rich
aroma filled the room.
      “You mean land and freedom,” Natanson said, pushing his glasses onto the bridge of his
nose, eyeing the dinner set before them, and smiling with satisfaction.
      “ ‘Land and Freedom,’ yes! And our work will be educational,” Sonia exclaimed with
childlike enthusiasm. “We women,” she exchanged knowing glances with Alexandra
Iakovlevna and Vera Nikolaevna, “will not let daredevils impose their demands on us,” she
added, in a barely veiled warning to Natanson.

      But at the first meeting of the group in her little house she received a shock.
       After the joyful reunion among the old members and the hurried exchange of stories,
instead of the general agreement she had expected she heard cries of dissent from some of the
newly recruited members so crammed together in the small living room that most were obliged
to sit leaning against each other on the floor.
      “We must foment strikes and revolts,” a young man standing by the door declared.
      “We must create a sense of disorganization,” a girl, sitting rigidly on one of the few chairs,
      A young woman scrambled up from the floor, brandished her fist, and shouted:
      “We must begin a program of assassinations!”
      Sonia felt as though all the air had been sucked out of the room.
      She heard the wind rattle the double panes of the two windows and carry with it the faint
sound of a dog howling outside on the street below.
      Her heart sank.




      A whole year had passed since their reunion in Paris.
      Katia was now installed on the fashionable Millionaya Street close to the Winter Palace,
though, according to a disappointed Vava, her new residence was far too modest.
      The entrance to the white stone three storied house was a tall narrow door protected from
the elements by a wrought iron canopy. Next to it, a broad archway opened out into a
handsome stone courtyard, used by tradesmen, servants—and, most discreetly by the Tsar—to
gain admittance.
      The tall windows of the third floor where Katia’s bedroom and the main salon were
located let in so much light that even on the darkest winter day, she imagined herself floating in
the luminosity of the white painted walls and the brightness of the blond wood of the parquet
floors, adorned only by a few small Persian carpets. At night dainty chandeliers hung with
strands of iridescent pearl-like crystals illuminated the rooms with soft light.
      It pleased Katia that the house was bright, pleasant, and comfortable, but in no way
luxurious like the palaces and mansions surrounding it.
      It pleased her that her salon was not decorated with gilt furniture in the French style, nor
petit-point upholstery, nor massive draperies, nor pale Aubuisson carpets, nor elaborate
moldings around doors and windows.
      It pleased her that the house did not resemble the home of a Tsar’s ambitious mistress.


      Still she could not hope—nor did she wish—to attend social gatherings, even with Vava as
her guardian, despite the fact that her relationship with Sasha had become common knowledge.

      “They have no respect for your rank. You are, after all, a princess, a Dolgorukov,” Louisa
complained one day when she came to take tea with Katia.
      Since their return from Italy, Katia noticed that Louisa had become more and more critical
of her and even cruel as though to suggest that her present difficulties in breaking into St.
Petersburg society were to be blamed on her sister-in-law’s “scandalous position.”
      As she sipped tea from a delicate silver filigreed glass Katia knew that Louisa would not
miss this occasion to give her offense.
      “They repeat that your branch of the Dolgorukov family is ill-mannered and provincial. It
angers me that they do not recognize my own rank, my royal parentage.”
      She raised her chin and her eyes grew icy.
      “But they talk about you as though you were a simple commoner,” she declared, turning
her cold gaze on Katia. “In fact, the court, as well as all society, has even taken to calling you
an adventuress. They are all certain that the Tsar’s passion for you will soon fade.”
      Katia replaced her glass on the little table by her chair, felt the blood rush to her face and
undecided whether to run out of the room or even strike Louisa, jumped to her feet.
      Seeing the beginning of an unpleasant scene Vava’s eyes bulged as she, too, sprang from
her armchair and cried:
      “It’s simply jealousy, yes, jealousy.”
      She gave Louisa a furtive glance to warn her of the consequence of her cruel words.
      “Jealousy?” Katia remarked, raised an eyebrow and glared at Louisa. “Sasha shall hear of
it. He’ll put an end to these lies. You seem to forget that he’s the Tsar!”
      Never before had she uttered such words and for a minute she felt ashamed of her
imperiousness. But was it not Sasha who had placed her in this untenable position?

      That night, as she tossed in her bed, raging over Louisa’s cruelty and composing the angry
note that she would send Sasha in the morning, she thought about her sister.


      After her graduation from the Institute, Mouche had been sent to Vava’s relatives in the
provincial town of Poltava to avoid the taint of scandal. Now, in her new circumstances, Katia
missed her dearly and reread the sad notes she received from her every week. Had it not been
for the occasional company of her younger brother Anatole, appointed as an officer and
assigned to the capital, she felt that she would not long tolerate her position as the Tsar’s
“whore,” as Mikhail, who rarely visited, most certainly called her behind her back.
      Anatole was eighteen, handsome but shy, still suffering from his abandonment in boarding
schools and, at first, quite happy to be reunited with his sister.
      Almost at once she decided to take advantage of her brother’s presence to divert herself.
      “Let’s go visit the gypsies,”she suggested to him one evening as they dined with Vava.
“I’ve heard so much about their wild dancing.”
      Vava looked horrified:
      “There will be talk,” she declared, setting down her napkin and looked sternly at Anatole.
      “What’s the harm of Katia going with her very own brother?” he retorted blushing.
      Katia nodding vigorously:
      “What could be scandalous in that?” she laughed and winked mischeviously at Anatole
who glanced askance at Vava.
      The following afternoon, Sasha, concerned about how much she suffered from boredom
and from isolation, made no objection and sent her a note that a troika* would be at her
disposal the very next day to take them to the islands where the gypsies lived.

      It was December and in the bright moonlight the light frosting of fresh snow made the
roads glisten and the sleigh’s runners hiss as the three horses broke into a gallop. The driver
whistled and cracked his whip and Katia snuggled up to her brother under the heavy bearskin
covers shielding them from the sharp flakes whirling up from the ground and descending
overhead. Exhilarated by the speed she felt the blood rushing through her veins, making her
cheeks burn.
      Anatole pressed his hand into her arm and whooped with joy:
      “Katia, Katiusha, what a lovely life this is!” he shouted while she kissed his cold cheek.


      The white-washed room into which they were ushered was simply furnished but a beautiful
ornate chandelier cast bright sparks of light on a velvet divan. Next to it stood a table laden
with a huge platter of fruit, a champagne bucket, and a tray with two glasses on it.
      They were seated next to two men with balalaikas*propped up against their knees.
Dressed in long tunics belted with brilliantly colored scarves, their loose trousers hung loose
over their tall fitted boots.
      Only when Katia and Anatole had filled their glasses and leaned back against the bank of
soft cushions did the women dancers emerge--six of them, dark-eyed and piquantly pretty with
such sparkling smiles that Anantole sighed and Katia nudged his arm playfully. Their wide
embroidered skirts shimmered gem-like in the splinters of light from the chandelier, the striped
shawls they carried loosely on their arms accentuated their white low-cut blouses through
which their breasts were plainly visible, and the long ribbons attached to the little caps perched
coquettishly on their black hair swirled around them with all the colors of the rainbow.
      She knew that Sasha had made all the arrangements for when the dancing began gathering
speed the women whirling by, winked at Katia, not Anatole, and the musicians strumming their
balalaikas raised their eyebrows and smiled slyly. Seized by their frenzy Katia could barely
contain her delight as she grasped Anatole’s arm to prevent herself from jumping up and
joining the dancers whose cries were echoed by ever wilder melodies.
      It was almost morning before they left. The glasses of champagne, which had added to
Katia’s euphoria, had made her sleepy, while an excited Anatole, with a young gypsy seated on
his lap and another by his side, insisted that they remain to listen to the women’s songs about
the perfidy of lovers, which simply brought tears to Katia’s eyes and made her wish that she
could write at once to Sasha, to run to him, to make him reassure her that he loved her still.

      But to her dismay, in less than a month, Anatole had lost his shyness and, despite Katia’s
entreaties and warnings plunged into the social life of the capital. He accompanied his brother
Mikhail to the English club. He lost at cards. He became involved, she heard from a
disapproving Vava, with various actresses and dancers. It was Sasha himself who thought it
best to send the young man away from the capital and to the less tempting world of Poltava to
join his sister Mouche.
      Katia’s disappointment with Anatole’s desertion was compensated by Sasha’s suggestion
that Mouche now be brought to live with her.


      “This has been the most unhappy year of my life,” Mouche stammered, as Katia wiped the
tears from her sister’s face. “And it’s all Vava’s fault.”
      “But it’s I who suffers from her reproaches,” Katia objected.
      “I didn’t want to write,” Mouche bowed her head and glanced up at Katia through her
lashes. “One never knows who might open a letter. Vava’s sister simply ignored me. I felt so in
the way. And,” she hesitated, lowered her eyes and added, in the most pitiable murmur, “I was
afraid that Sasha would tell you about the interviews that Vava had arranged between us while
you were in Italy.”
      Her sister’s face blurred. Katia felt dizzy. The unexpected confession struck her with the
force of a blow.
      “You see, I only pleaded with him to allow me to stay in Mikhail’s apartment after I left
the Institute and until you returned,” Mouche continued, now sounding aggrieved, though her
every word wounded Katia to the quick. “But he insisted that it would better if I went farther
away,” Mouche glanced furtively at Katia, sensing her sister’s anguish. “Vava was angry with
me,” her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. “She even said that I had disappointed her.” She
wiped her cheeks negligently with the back of her hand, and suddenly, looking frightened,
whispered. “I suppose that now you too will be angry with me.”
      Katia’s delight at their reunion was shattered. Only a nagging doubt remained:
      Had Sasha and Vava kept the sisters apart for so long so that she would not learn
about…an affair?

      “You’ve placed me in an impossible situation!” she lamented when Sasha arrived late that
evening. “My dear sister Mouche is free to go out in society whereas I have no freedom at all!
And then…” she hesitated, afraid to give voice to her fears and yet needing his reassurance.
“And then Mouche tells me…the business with Vava…Did you...?” Her voice trailed off as
Sasha reached out to her and took her in his arms, pressing her against his chest so firmly that
she could not catch her breath:
      “Such nonsense,” he whispered. Though there was a catch in his voice. “I will not hear of
it, my little imp, my dear soul, my little wife in God!”

      But in the weeks that followed, Katia could not repress her jealousy.


      Mouche was being called an adorable young Dolgorukov beauty, free from any taint of
scandal, and invited to balls and receptions. Moreover Louisa and Mikhail took advantage of
her arrival to claim their place in society and all at once they found themselves pursued by
      And to add to her pique Vava repeated some gossip she had overheard that Mouche was
“more beautiful than her sister,” while she, Katia was referred to as the Tsar’s “Odalesque.”
      How little, Katia thought angrily, it reflected with her relationship with him, with her love
for him. Still she was both shamed and infuriated.
      But she also felt a pang of guilt when one night he left dejected after listening to her
      Did she not know that he was suffering as well?
      Had he not, after all, defied his family, the court and society by setting her up in her own
house so close to the Winter Palace?

      Then one morning, only several months after her return to the capital, Mouche burst into
Katia’s bedroom and flung herself down next to her on the bed:
      “I’m in love,” she announced, her cheeks flushed and her eyes shining with excitement. “I
swore to myself I would not tell you until I was sure of him. He’s a guard's officer. His name is
Prince Emmanuel Meshchersky. I know we just weeks ago but he’s quite the handsomest man
in the world. Everyone says so! And I’m so happy I couldn’t sleep all night,” she threw her
arms around Katia’s neck. “He says we must begin to plan our wedding right away….”
      She drew away, bit her lip, and stared guiltily at Katia.
      Katia lay back on the pillows, sighed, and turned away from her sister’s radiant face. Why
should Mouche marry while she…?
      “Sometimes I’m so unhappy,” she responded, petulantly. “I see only you and that
scheming Vava, always at my side. And Louisa, of course, but only when it suits her. And then
she only comes to worry and insult me. I’m neither a married woman nor free to do what I
      Mouche sat motionless beside her, the corners of her mouth turned down in an effort to
hide her own excitement.


      “You know I gave up thinking of studying.” Katia exclaimed in a burst of self-
righteousness and wounded pride. Then her expression softened: “My mind is so taken up with
Sasha. He’s so…passionate….”
      Why had she confessed to this?
      She pulled off the covers, brushed past her sister and walked over to her dressing table to
stare at her reflection in the mirror, where yet another wave of misery engulfed her: Mouche
had grown prettier than her! She had never made much of her own beauty. Still had Vava and
Louisa not warned her that Sasha was drawn to beautiful women?
      What if Sasha tired of her?
      What if he preferred her younger sister?
      “I wake up and I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m so lonely without him. Is that
what it means to be his Odalesque?” she whimpered blinking back tears. “Vava tells me that
hundreds of women from the best society would gladly exchange places with me. But that
hardly consoles me since she also seems to think of me so disdainfully and those same women
laugh and call me names. So I’ll start to read some silly book or other about ill matched lovers
that Louisa sends me. She’s so spiteful. But without Sasha she would still be living in that
apartment on Basnaya Street. Anyway, the words just blur before my eyes because I’ll be
thinking of seeing him.
      “Every few days I’ll go out with Vava, who always wants to go to the fashionable shops to
look at the latest things from France. But I go just hoping to catch a glimpse of him walking in
the Summer Garden or riding somewhere in his carriage. And then when I get back the maid
will bring me a note from him—you see he does write me every day and sometimes several
times.” She raised her head and smiled. “And I’ll read it and reread it and rush to my desk and
write him everything that’s going through my mind. And so much does.”
      She sighed and peered into the mirror.
      Where was the girl who used to race through the fields on Milou’s back?
       “But then,” she continued, her voice quavering, “the rest of the day lies in front of me
like a desert. Of course sometimes I go riding in the manege in the afternoon, that’s true. Such
a pleasure! I can almost believe that I’m back at Teplovka. How I wish that Matriona was here
rather than Vava!” Her eyes lit up for a minute and then she frowned: “Or, of course, I might
go out with Louisa who always wants to go to some café or other. But when we go, I’m always


stared at, even laughed at. Then when I come home, I rush to write Sasha another note to tell
him how lonely I am without him!”
      The tears she had tried to check filled her eyes blurring her reflection in the mirror.

      Two weeks later Mouche was married to Meshchersky in a modest ceremony.
      But at the reception that followed the groom’s clear disdain toward Katia angered Sasha.
Still he had no time to listen to her complaints for the next day he set off to Berlin to attend a
meeting with the King of Prussia and the Emperor Louis-Napoleon. And Katia’s ill humor and
wounded dignity was increased when she read his first letter:
      “I confess that I am anxious to get the impressions of our dear Mouche after her first days
of marriage.”
      Could it be that he had simply married off her sister to cover something between them?
      She sent him a furious response:
      “Why should Mouche and her husband be of any importance to us? Have you grown tired
of me and need new stimulation? Have you had enough of my ‘bad moods?’ Have you no pity
for my situation?”
      She did not sign the letter with the usual tender lines. Only when Sasha's alarmed telegram
arrived two days later, imploring her to join him in Ems where he was to take the waters for a
sudden onset of asthma, was she reassured-- though the state of his health alarmed her.

      She arrived in Ems with Vava quite early in the day at the modest villa, “le Petit Elysee,”
close to the “Hotel of the Four Towers” where Sasha was staying.                The stout red-faced
housekeeper, in a starched white apron, greeted her with a sly smile as she accompanied her to
the door of her room.
      Stretched out on the bed, arms tucked under his head and in full uniform, Sasha lay
grinning sheepishly.
      The unpleasantness over Mouche was quickly forgotten.
      But next morning Katia received a note, which served to revive her suspicions:
      “Good morning, dear Angel, I slept wonderfully thanks to you, my ideal, my treasure, my
All. Today it is just two years since your sad departure from Petersburg and almost three since
your first visit to the Belvedere, where, before I left for Paris, I saw our dear Mouche.”
      Katia winced, threw the note down, lifted her chin belligerently and muttered to herself:


      “Vava, that scheming witch!”
         Vava had surely arranged the meeting to offer Mouche to him as a substitute for her. She
looked only for her own advantage.
      Her jaw tight with rage, her dressing gown firmly wrapped around her, she rushed out of
her room.
      Vava was sitting up startled, her nightcap still tied under her chin.
      “I must have the truth!” Katia shouted even before closing the door.
      Vava recoiled, drawing the bedcovers covers over her chest.
      “Did you bring them together while I was in Naples?”
      Without waiting for an answer, she flung herself at the trembling woman, who screamed
in terror.
      Hearing footsteps on the landing and a timid knock on the still open door, she leapt back,
her hands shaking, just as the housekeeper poked her face into the room.
      “The gentleman ist in dar salon und I lookink everyvhere fur you,” the woman said to
      “You may go!” Katia shouted to the startled housekeeper.
      With a puzzled expression the woman closed the door silently.
      “There was...nothing...between Mouche and the Tsar,” Vava stuttered. “Neither was
interested in the other.”
      Her eyes were big as gooseberries while she fumbled with the buttons on the collar of her
flannel nightgown.
      Katia felt the room spin around her. So it was true! Sasha was nurturing a serpent! She
dashed out slamming the door behind her.
      But no sooner had she reached her own room and slammed the door than Sasha burst in out
of breath as though he had run all the way to see her.
      She shrugged him off:
      “Even in your notes to me you’re thinking about Mouche.” She felt her eyes blaze with
anger. “I must have the truth for once!”
      He looked bewildered:
      “What does Mouche have to do with us?” he muttered.


      “Isn’t her husband in your service?” she retorted dryly. “Didn’t you put it into his mind to
marry her off? Don’t think I didn’t notice his gloomy expression at the wedding. Not the look
of a happy bridegroom!”
      Sasha's shoulders slumped and his face folded into its familiar care-worn mien:
      “What do I have to do to convince you of my love?”
      She sat down on the bed shaking in a frenzy of self-pity and covered her face with her
hands. Incoherent thoughts ran through her mind. Anger at Mouche blended with her anger at
Vava. Then Louisa’s false smile flashed before her and with it the disturbing words, uttered
just before her departure for Ems:
      “The Tsar loves beautiful women. The Empress has removed all such rivals from among
her ladies-in-waiting, but… the Tsar is the Tsar, after all!”
      “Now I suppose you’ll appoint her as lady-in-waiting,” Katia burst out as if to complete
Louisa’s conjectures. She looked up at him defiantly: “Meanwhile I’m tied to that scheming
witch Vava for the sake of respectability, you say. What kind of respectability do I have? And
what do I care about it anyway? I’m just like a wretched slave you can send away as you wish.”
      Sasha sighed:
      “ I have no such plans for Mouche. But I will make you a lady-in-waiting, if that is your
wish, though my wife….”
      He did not finish his sentence. Rather his eyes suddenly lost their weary look and instead
her grasped her shoulders and pulled her down onto the bed.


      She stood staring at her reflection in the mirror.
      The ordeal of dressing had taken two hours. She examined the long folds of her dress,
while the maid brushed away invisible threads. The day was warm and humid and the dress,
hot, cumbersome. Though it bared her shoulders and the front was white with buttons
running from top to bottom, a heavy overdress of dark blue velvet, intricately embroidered


with gold thread, covered her arms and trailed several feet on the floor behind her. Her hair,
pulled back severely, was covered in a round dark blue velvet bonnet, like a halo, out of
which flowed a long white veil.
      She was uneasy.
      Sasha had made the necessity of a truce with Vava as the condition of her presentation at
court. Vava was her “guardian,” Sasha insisted, as though that shred of respectability was
sufficient to reassure him.

      She was shaking with fright as she ascended the great staircase of pink and white marble
stumbling once, dropping the heavy train of her dress to grasp at the gilded balustrade, her
hand brushing over fan-shaped marble shells and griffon heads.
      She passed four massive black Corinthian columns and on the landing, noticed a white
alabaster bust she recognized as that of the Empress Catherine the Great and thought, for a
second, that the sharp nose, the sturdy double chin, and the cold eyes all indicated surprise
and disapproval at her presence here, in the Winter Palace, a monument to the German
Empress’ power.
      When she finally reached the immense doors of the Great Hall and heard the voice of the
chamberlain pronounce her name, she felt faint and raised her eyes to the ceiling. Between
the gilded molding of garlands a scene from mythology unfolded against a blue sky. A male
figure reclined its center.
      “It’s for Sasha, no it’s for me, that I’m here. It’s Sasha up there and down here, just the
Empress,” she thought confusedly. “This is Sasha’s palace, not the Empress,’” she tried to
justify herself and took a deep breath, urged on by the Chamberlain, who had placed his hand
lightly on her elbow as if to propell her forward.
      She found herself approaching the Empress surrounded by a group of pages and ladies-
in-waiting. The vivid memory of Sasha kissing her passionately as he left her bed the night
before flashed through her mind and she felt her face burn under the cold gaze of his wife.
      She heard a thin voice addressing her. She could not seem to make out the words and
was horrified that she did not know what to answer. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one
of the pages smile knowingly and nudge the one standing next to him. Only the appearance
of a lady-in-waiting carrying a jewel on a small pillow and whispering that she was to pin it
onto her bodice saved her from embarrassment. But picking up the broach she was mortified


to see that it bore the likeness of the Empress and as she pinned it onto her dress, the sharp pin
pricked her left breast and she winced.
      The brief ceremony came to an end.
      She stood forlorn and forgotten among the group of ladies-in-waiting who, if they
glanced at her at all, did so with open disdain as they started to walk behind the Empress into
another chamber.

      That evening she told Sasha:
      “I listened to one of the pages whisper loudly that Countess Blyudova told the Empress I
had stolen her affections through witchcraft. She said that I deserved to be thrown into a deep
dungeon to die of starvation like harlots in the days of the truly great Muscovite Tsars.”
      “In that case,” Sasha replied angrily, “someone should inform Madame Blyudova that if
I were to behave like a real Muscovite Tsar I'd put my wife away in a convent and marry the
woman I love!”
      But she knew that she had been foolish and headstrong. She had forced Sasha into
humilating his wife merely out of her envy of Mouche.
      Then, a few days after her presentation Louisa appeared with a grim expression on her
face and, as always, looked disapprovingly around the simple furnishings of the salon, their
“nest” as Sasha called Katia’s house. Her eyes swept over the unbleached white muslin
curtains, which bathed the room in light, and the divan covered with a dull blue shawl from
Sasha’s study in the Palace. She examined the simple armchairs bought for comfort rather
than elegance and frowned as she glanced at the small Persian carpets scattered here and
there. Only the small writing table with spindly legs and gilded edges, covered with writing
paper and odds and ends, seemed to please her as she settled herself on the only elaborate
chair, its arms capped with lions’ heads.
      “I must admit I feel some pity for the Empress,” Louisa began pursing her lips. “After all,
Marie Alexandrovna married when she was only seventeen—the same age you were when....”
      Her voice trailed off as she glanced at Katia to see what effect her words were having.
      Katia put down her teacup. What was Louisa telling her?
      “You should know something about her...” Louisa continued.
      “Sasha complains to me that she’s a prig,” Katia interrupted, clasping her hands to her
chest and feeling her shoulders tighten.


      “She loved him and loves him still for his sensitive mind and affectionate nature,” Louisa
insisted, her eyes boring into Katia’s.
      “He’s told me that he cannot talk honestly with her,” Katia flushed, rose, and turned
away toward the window.
      Why should she have to justify herself like this?
      “You see she fell ill with consumption only after he abandoned her,” Louisa went on.
“That's why her friends Countess Blyudova and Countess Tolstoia introduced her to Father
Bajanov. He promises her that her husband will return.”
      “Am I to tell Sasha that he must go back to his wife?” Katia asked testily.
      Louisa smiled condescending:
       “I won't hide from you that I've heard this from a friend of the Empress. But consider
well, if he's treated her like that, then you better think about your own future,” she paused.
“And make sure that Sasha provides for you and your family as he has for her.”
      Katia turned to face her, observed her eyebrow raised ironically, sat down again and then
jumped up abruptly pushing her chair back with such force that it fell behind her, catching a
little table holding the samovar. The samovar toppled over with a hissing sound, spilling
steaming water and tea leaves over the carpet.

      That evening she was still upset as she lay on her back in bed next to him. She had
accused him of seducing her only to cast her aside as he did his wife. He started to cough, and
even though she feared the onset of another asthma attack such as the one she had witnessed a
few months earlier, she continued to complain:
      “One of the ladies-in-waiting was laughing at me yesterday.”
      “Don’t you see, they can't criticize you openly. They're simply attacking me for having
inflicted this on my wife. It's more of a humiliation for her than it is for you,” he responded
wearily, reaching for her hand. “Can’t you see that my passion for you….”
      “If you're humiliating us both, what kind of a man are you?” she asked coldly, drawing
away from him and immediately regretting her harsh words.
      He flinched, sat up and began coughing with such force that the threat of an attack had its
desired effect. She reached for his hand and held it tightly, until the paroxysm had run its
course and he turned his sad, tear-filled eyes to her.


      “I'm a man, fallen passionately in love, perhaps to my perdition, with an imp who
torments me.” His voice broke with emotion. “You’re my double, my soul. Only with you
am I completely at ease, able to speak the truth. Remember I’ve promised to marry you as
soon as it is possible."
      She took a deep breath and with it put Louisa's warning out of her mind.
      Once again, only they two existed in a world filled with resentment, envy, and the anger
of the self-righteous.

      “You'll set all tongues a-chattering,” he told her, “but you will be amused by the splendor
of it all.”
      For days, since her appointment as lady-in-waiting, she had been worrying about
attending the obligatory court ball. Her nerves were on edge as she was laced into a ball gown
of white organza, which revealed her shoulders and accentuated her breasts. The full skirt was
a cascade of ruffles, “like a waterfall,” Sasha had told her when he ordered it.
      “A Snow Queen!” the maid declared, her eyes shining, as she fastened the pearl and
white gardenia garland around Katia’s hair, which had been brushed until it shone like gold.
      But Katia’s thoughts were elsewhere.
      What if everyone ignored her?
      What if they laughed at her?
      And then who would dance with her, anyway?

      She was trembling as she entered.
      The ballroom, all white marble and jasper and porphyry, with colonnades of Corinthian
columns on either side, blazed with the light from immense tiered chandeliers. She scanned
the glittering crowd nervously, her gaze fixing here and there on the brightly colored costume
of a Mongol officer or the bejeweled sword of a Circassian prince or the long black pigtail of
a Chinese envoy. But she avoided looking closely at the women who, she imagined, formed a
hostile sea of disapproving faces and she peered instead over their sparkling headdresses and
caught sight of Sasha.
      How she envied the Empress, holding tightly onto his hand, though she noted that her
face was drawn and pale.


      Two lines formed leaving an asile down the center of the ballroom and hearing the
orchestra strike up the majestically slow notes of the Polonaise, Katia took her place among
the other ladies-in-waiting to follow the Imperial couple. She determined to keep her eyes
fixed upon Sasha, barely glancing at the Empress. He was, she observed with a frisson of
excitement, looking particularly handsome in an elegant military uniform, which enhanced his
slender build. His white gold-edged jacket was emblazoned with multicolored medals and
bordered with blue Siberian fox and his blue trousers tapered to narrow black boots. She
looked neither to the left nor to the right, convinced that the crowd of men and women,
reflected in the great mirrors lining the walls, were criticizing her as she walked slowly past.
      After the Polonaise, the ball began with a waltz. But just as she feared she had become
an outcast. She stood by the wall, an arm dropped listlessly at her side, watching the swirling
dancers while with her other hand she fanned herself more and more vigorously. The ladies-
in-waiting surrounding the Empress kept their distance, talking to each other and breaking
into soft ripples of laughter. Looking around in growing desperation she took note of a group
of young officers and older men standing close to her and staring at her impudently but
making no motion to invite her to dance.
      She was on the verge of running out, all too aware that she would make a spectacle of
herself and increase her reputation as an ill-cooth provincial, when she caught sight of Sasha
in the middle of a group of women and in desperation made her way toward him. The thought
flashed through her mind that if she were to create a scandal, at the very least, it would reflect
on their mutal attachment, their passion for each other.
      He smiled, winked, and then broke through the crowd. She knew that she would now
cause a furor, obliging him to openly defy the whole assembly and insult the Empress by
coming to her rescue. For a second, she hesitated. But he was already bowing and taking her
hand. The orchestra began playing a waltz. All at once everything blurred and her heart
pounded as he led her directly into the throng of dancers. And instantly her anxiety
evaporated. She felt herself flying through the air in his arms, no longer aware of her
surroundings, responding only to the music, light as a butterfly, her skirt puffing out like
wings, carrying them both, she imagined, to a place where only they two existed. And even
when the music stopped, leaving her flushed and winded, the feeling of euphoria remained.
Then Sasha bowed to her and led her back to the ladies-in-waiting surrounding the Empress.
      She heard the Countess Blyudova let out an audible gasp.


      But before she was once again thrown into a panic, a tall, gruff man as bearded and
mustachioed as a bear, bowed to her and introduced himself as General Ryleev, who was to
escort her to supper.
      As they entered the Great Hall filled with white draped tables innumerable candles
magically burst into flame, flooding the room in flickering, twinkling light. She watched the
Imperial couple take their places at the horseshoe-shaped table set on a red velvet dais and
followed the movements of the tall moors in white turbans, gold-braided green jackets and red
pantaloons, embroidered in every seam who carried dishes handed to them by the crimson-
clad lackeys.
      It made her think of “A Thousand and One Nights,” though the memory of
Scheherezade’s challenge quite startled her. Would Sasha cast her aside—or worse—if she
no longer amused him? But just as swiftly she ressured herself. Scheherezade’s sultan had
not been in love with her and she with him. After all he only desired her stories.
      From where she was seated, she found herself facing the Empress, stooped and gloomy in
her golden armchair and quickly lowered her eyes in embarrassment. General Ryleev
whispered some words to her though in her confusion she could not make out what he was
saying. But when she raised her head she saw Sasha making the rounds of the tables and her
heart skipped as he came toward her with a glass of champagne, winking as he lifted it to his
lips. She blushed, picked up her fan and stuggled to open it, aware that the conversation
around her had stopped as others, too, observed the gleam in his eyes.

      But she put the scandal caused by Sasha’s behavior out of her mind when, a few days
later, an unexpected event turns her life upside down.
      She found herself pregnant.



       “If Vera Borisova tightens my corset even more I'll suffocate,” Katia complained to
      She had awakened at eleven in a bad mood. Even the usually placid Mouche was looking
strained. For the past month she had been irritable with everyone.
      “I feel so unwell. I hate this bulging stomach. Six months of illness and the baby will
certainly spoil my figure. Sasha's probably tiring of me.”
      She glanced at Mouche warily. Then pushing Vera Borisovna aside after the last knot
was tied she sank down on the divan, as if exhausted by her outburst.
      Mouche sat down beside her, frowned, and placed her hand on Katia’s forehead.
      “You'll make yourself feverish,” she said. “You must not worry about Sasha. My dear
husband,” she winced, “tells me that he has never seen a man so passionately in love. Of
course he says the same about his love for me, though I don't believe him.” She turned away.
“He's always off, leaving me, he says, to attend all kinds of gatherings with other officers.”
      Katia was only half-listening:
      “Of course, I won’t be able to keep the baby for myself,” she muttered. “Sasha’s forced
that stuffy General Ryleev to look after our child in his household. And you know Ryleev
doesn’t like me. Don’t you understand?” She stopped to see if Mouche was paying attention.
“Sasha tells me he’s beside himself with joy. But what’s he going to do with a bastard?”
      “My dear husband tells me that he needs to be in the company of men.” Mouche was
ignoring her. “A soldier feels more at home with his men than in the salons, he says, where
everyone chatters like old women. Of course I'm not the only one....” she sighed.
      “If it’s a boy I'll call him Yuri,*{footnote: one of the founders of the Kievan princely
dynasty which first ruled Russia in the Middle Ages} like our ancestor,” Katia muttered.
“That'll remind Sasha that we're quite equal to the Romanovs.” She knew she was sounding
peevish. “Vava and Louisa tell me that people think I’m terribly tactless, almost brutish in
my behavior.
      I’ve told Sasha that I will not, under any circumstances, go to another one of those
terrible teas for the Empress, where everyone jostles each other to find a chair as far away
from me as possible. The Grand Duchesses glare but the Empress won’t look at me at all. I
just feel like jumping up, patting my stomach and announcing, ‘I’m expecting Sasha's child.’”


She smiled maliciously. “Anyway, whenever I make an effort to say something, even a stupid
remark about the weather, they either ignore me or they look as though I’ve offended them.”
      She sighed once again aware that Mouche’s thoughts were elsewhere. No, she could not
even depend on her own sister for comfort. Mouche, as always, needed comfort herself. It was
common knowledge that her marriage had not turned out well. But at least, she was married
and not carrying a bastard child!
      “You cannot imagine whom I met at Lisa Troubetskaya's,” Mouche announced suddenly
with a bright smile and widened eyes.
      Katia looked up, pretending to be interested.
      “Well, it was that bear, Count Leo Tolstoi, come up from his den in the country. I’m
reading War and Peace. You really must read it. The heroine, Natasha, she's a little like you.”
      “Was she someone's mistress, too?” Katia asked pointedly, making a sour face.
      Mouche’s wry smile only added fuel to her irritation as Katia observed the delicacy of
her sister’s small mouth and her perfect teeth and the great blue eyes. Mouche had replaced
her as the princess of fairy tales, even if she was married to that cold fish Meshchersky.
Suddenly she could no longer restrain her anger:
      “War and peace, war and peace! What do I care about that! Ask your bear of a Tolstoi
about adultery. Yes, about adultery! He should write about adultery, then I might read what
he has to say!”
      Mouche winced, jumped up, and after quickly brushing her lips against Katia’s forehead,
left without saying another word.

       She dismissed Vera Borisovna and settled down on the armchair next to her bed. The
two pugs Sasha had just bought to keep her company jumped onto her lap with grunts of
contentment. Her anger with Mouche and “her Tolstoi” had quite disconcerted her.
      “Who is more guilty in adultery, the man or the woman?” She repeated, picking up one
of the pugs and squeezing him tightly to her chest, and when he yelped asking, “Who is more
      At that very moment a sharp pain jabbed at her side. She started to get up to go to her
desk and write Sasha but suddenly was overcome with such tiredness that instead she sank
further into the chair and her mind began to wander.


      She remembered the full moon reflected in the black waves of the sea as she lay in
Sasha’s arms that first night in Peterhof.
      Then she thought of the delicious excitement of riding Milou through the fields at
breakneck speed.
      Then the figure of Alioshia appeared, as vividly as if he were in the room beside her,
telling her how the bulbs of the flowers he was planting would burst, “reaching out for the
      She dozed off.

       It was dark when a sharp pain woke her. It shot up from the base of her spine reaching
for her heart and lungs. Then it receded slowly until it disappeared, like some monstrous
thing retreating to its cavern. What had begun in ecstacy when Sasha learned of her condition
had now turned into a nightmare. The thing turning and twisting inside her, ready to burst
through the distended walls of her belly, was making her dizzy and gasping for air. It seemed
malevolent, waiting patiently, to take her over, to enfold and suffocate her.
      She began to shake with fear but no one came when she rang.
      She got up with difficulty, gasped as another wave of pain enveloped her, and walked
unsteadily to the door. She heard the pugs snoring on the floor by the bed. All was dark and
quiet. The clock in the hallway began to chime. She counted: “One, two,” as the pain receded
once more.
      The household was fast asleep.
      She felt completely abandoned.
      No one had bothered to wake her for dinner.
      No one had helped her into bed.
      There was no one but Sasha to care for her and she wanted nothing more than to go and
find him, to fall into his arms, to feel protected. Then she remembered Sasha asking her to
come to the palace as soon as the labor pains began. She was shaking with fear but she would
go quite alone. She was free to do that, at least, she thought with a flash of anger. She
reached into the drawer of her dressing table and pulled out the key he had given her to the
secret entrance to his study.


      She struggled against a heaviness threatening to draw her to the ground like a magnet as
she made her way downstairs into the foyer, pulled on her fur against the chill of the April
night, and opened the front door.
      The night watchman was sitting by his fire, head bent, snoring loudly.
      It was not far to the palace but she stumbled as she made her way along the deserted
street, fighting a strong wind, holding tightly onto the key as though to an amulet, and heard
the not-too-distant sound of the Neva pounding the walls of the embankment as she pressed
on. To her relief the pain stopped and only the terrible fatigue from the day before remained.
But suddenly when the Winter Palace came into view, a terrifying spasm convulsed her, like
the claws of some beast tearing at her innards.
      “Why must I suffer now? And where is Sasha who brought me to this?” she whispered.
“Is the man or the woman most guilty in adultery?” The question ran through her mind like a
taunt and she blinked back tears. She might die on the street and in the morning they would
find her and her baby dead. Sasha might even refuse to acknowledge that the corpse by the
Winter Palace was that of the woman he had seduced.
      A wave of anger gave her the courage to find her way to the gate of the secret entrance,
fit the key into the keyhole, push open the heavy wooden door and enter the long corridor.
      She heard someone call her name and saw the ancient grenadier who guarded the door to
Sasha's study hold out his hand to help her inside, as he whispered, “slowly, slowly,” like an
old baba.*

      “It was pure madness to come alone!”
      Sasha was ashen-faced as he eased her onto the blue divan where she lay down with a
long sigh of relief.
      The pain had disappeared and she raised herself onto her elbows:
      “I told Mouche to ask Count Tolstoi whether the man or the woman is the greater sinner
in adultery,” she mumbled wearily and observed his eyes fill with tears.
      All at once that monstrous thing began to crush her in earnest. The terrifying beast was
digging its claws into her spine, climbing up to her heart, thrashing its spiked tail against the
walls of her womb. She cried out before everything went dark. And in the midst of the
darkness she heard Sasha's terrified voice imploring someone:
      “We must save her even if it means sacrificing the child.”


       She opened her eyes.
       Sasha was bent over her.
       “He’s my real heir,” Sasha beamed as he held the howling baby in his arms. “The
midwife never arrived. I helped deliver him myself. I cannot describe my feelings!”
       She looked at the tightly swaddled bundle, at the red face, tight with rage, recalled her
fear that a monster had taken over her body and smiled. The pain, forgotten, here was this
new life, hers and Sasha’s brought together in such an unlikely form.
       And a feeling of intense love so filled her that she began to cry uncontrollably.
       But two days later Ryleev came with the nurse, Vera Borisovna, to take the child to his
house. She could not protest. The red-faced bundle, their son, was now more precious to her
than her own life. She and Sasha must do everything to ward off any dangers surrounding

       “Ma chere, the Prussian ambassador came to see me yesterday,” Louisa said the
morning after Katia had returned to her house on Millionova Street. “Even he knows about
your confinement!”
       The dark curls over her forehead trembled with indignation as she shook her head.
        Vava exchanged a significant look with Louisa and declared:
        “The Imperial family is afraid. After all, bastards have inherited thrones.” She was still
angry with Katia for going to the Palace alone without waking her. “I am your guardian, after
all!” she declared abruptly.
       “Yes,” Louisa continued: “It’s even rumored that Shuvalov calls you an usurper and
wants to rid the Romanovs of you.”
       Katia flinched. As chief of police Shuvalov was in charge of Sasha’s safety, of keeping
the radicals at bay.
       Mouche had been fussing over her, bringing her cold compresses for her head and
making her drink innumerable glasses of tea. But her solicitude did not stop her from adding
to Katia’s worries:
       “Everyone says this will speed the Empress's death. You should know the court is in an
uproar,” Mouche muttered, glancing at Katia sadly.


      Sitting up in bed to let the maid braid her hair Katia raised her chin:
      “Sasha is quite aware of the danger for me and our child. He’ll protect us both against the
       But she was far from calm.
       What if the court schemed to get rid of her and their son?
       What if they tried to get rid of Sasha as well?

      That evening she told him what she had heard. He passed his hand over his face wearily:
      “You needn’t worry about the court,” he muttered as though exhausted by her fears, “my
son is loyal to me. And I’ll dismiss Shuvalov and find some lackey to head the Third
      Then he buried his face in her hair and murmured:
      “My crown is heavy but you help me carry it!”
      His words frightened rather than reassuring her. They reminded her of the role that fate
had thrust upon him. To her now he was no longer a Tsar but the father of her son. His crown
was a crown of thorns not the laurels of a Caesar. It was a burden, a duty. She knew that he
cared no more for his power over others than she. Still his words, “my crown is heavy,”
haunted her, reminding her again and again that he was not merely her soul, her gentle
companion, her delicate lover, who held her tightly in his arms at night.
      She must be vigilant.
      Her duty was to protect both him and their child.




      “We must be bold!” Alexander Dmitrievich Mikhailov was shouting.
      A student newly recruited by Natanson he was already challenging Sonia’s authority in
the party. She had disliked him on sight, not just because of his ungainly appearance, his round
pudgy bearded face, clumsy body and near-sightedness, which caused him to blink nervously
as he spoke, but because he interrupted her whenever she addressed the group. And with
Natanson forced to escape abroad once more and no longer able to support her, the meetings of
Land and Freedom were growing more and more angry and out of control. It humiliated her
that she could not exert more authority over them.
      “Bloodshed, they want bloodshed,” she had complained to Vera Nikolaevna and the other
women. “It can only lead to more arrests, and perhaps to executions. And it does nothing to
help the cause of educating the workers.”
      Even now as Mikhailov shouted, she heard cries of “Action, Action!” from both men and
women at the back of the room.
      “Why not assassinate the chief of police?” someone suggested.
      She winced, jumped up, tapped the back of her chair, sat down again, and glared at
      “I must stop this,” she muttered under her breath, feeling her jaw tighten. “He’s
encouraging them.”
      Glasses of hot tea were set down in expectation of a serious argument. She was all too
aware at that moment that the leadership of the party was being decided. And it was time for
her to act decisively, to wrest it away from the hotheads.


      “We women must be at the head of this organization,” she cried out getting to her feet once
more. “We want justice and equality, not violence.”
        But she did not hide her annoyance when another new member, a pale young woman,
Vera Ivanovna Zasulich, made a grimace and burst out to contradict her:
      “You don’t know how we suffered in prison, how they make us suffer, how unjust they
        “I’ve been in jail, too,” Sonia declared through clenched teeth.
        This time Mikhailov interrupted:
        “You weren’t among those who die of scurvy every year, who commit suicide, who go
mad from isolation. The Tsar’s the devil and one must fight the devil with all one's might!”
      She was preparing for a full assault on “the hotheads,” when Vera Nikolaevna, her usual
self-possession ruffled, leapt up:
        “Violence will only breed violence. It will destroy of our group.” She glanced at Sonia
who quickly signaled her approval with a vigorous nod. “Let’s begin instead by appealing to
public opinion rather than resorting to violence. Let’s demonstrate against prison brutality.
Let’s organize a mass protest. Inform the public. Let’s use the occasion to announce the birth of
our organization.”
      A sallow Plekhanov rose, looked around the room and adjusted his glasses nervously,
turned first to Sonia, then to Vera Nikolaevna, and declared in a steady if high-pitched voice:
      “Vera Nikolaevna is correct.” He emphasized the word like a schoolmaster praising his
student. “We are not yet ready for open revolt. First we need to educate workers and to broaden
our base.”
      Sonia sighed. She had been mistaken to be jealous of Vera Nikolaevna, Alexandra
Iakovlevna’s new friend. And now with Plekhanov, their best mind on her side, the “genius,
who understood Marx,” she hoped that she might still prevail.

      There was a huge crowd in front of the Cathedral of our Lady of Kazan.
        A rush of pride swept over her when she first caught sight of a young boy in a sheepskin
coat unfurling a red flag and read the words Land and Freedom inscribed on it. Then she
watched Plekhanov hoist himself awkwardly onto a ledge on the façade of the cathedral. He
was to deliver a speech against the persecution of “the best of Russia” by the government. She


had wanted, had even insisted, that she be the one to address the crowd but was finally
convinced by the women themselves that a man would have greater sway over the crowds,
mostly consisting of workingmen and students from the university.
      Here at last, she thought, raising her chin, was vindication for her ideas so enraging to her
father, for those terrifying weeks spent in jail, her sacrifices, for the suffering that she had
caused her mother, and for the imprisonment of her brother. Surely, this dramatic moment
would force the Tsar, to make changes, stop persecuting those like her wishing to better the
lives of their fellows.
      Suddenly someone yelled:
      “Them hoodlums be against the Tsar, our Batiushka. Let’s show ‘em what we think!”
      She froze. She had not anticipated such a spasm of rage directed at them from the workers.
      She felt someone grasp her arm and turned to hear Alexandra Iakovlevna, who had been
standing next to her, cry out:
      “It’s the police, Sonia! They’re here to set the crowd on us.”
      She shuddered, horrified, as others voices joined in:
      “Let’s let ’em traitors have it, boys. Let’s show ’em.”
      People all around her began to scream. A man seized her arm and swept her up in the
stampeding mass. Only after she reached the safety of the embankment did she see Alexandra
Iakovlevna and her sister Liubov standing close by. They were silent. Their faces expressed
profound shock.

      “It was terrifying,” Plekhanov said when he and Vera Nikolaevna joined them.
      They squeezed together like frightened children on the shabby chintz-covered divan in
Sonia’s rooms. He was terribly pale. One of the lenses of his glasses was missing.
      “I could see everything from my ledge,” he went on between shallow breaths. “The
students and some of the workers formed a procession. That’s when those thugs from the
market set on them. I got down and started running. They almost got me when I stopped to
pick up my glasses, but some workingmen kept them away and I managed to hide in a
      “The workers saved me too,” Vera Nikolaevna said. Her dress was ripped under both arms
and she kept trying to tuck the torn edges together. “They dragged me through the crowd. But
they caught the poor boy with the banner. I heard him scream.”



      Just before the long-awaited trial began Lev Nikolaevich sent word through Dushenka that
Sonia was to meet with him at once.
      “It’s not for my sake that I wish you not to make any disturbance,” he declared gloomily,
standing with his back to her from behind his desk and staring out of the window.
      She stood with her hands folded over her skirt, looking as docile as a schoolgirl being
chastised. But her thoughts were racing. The demonstration had ended disastrously with arrests
and beatings. She had been spared and no trace of her involvement had reached her father. It
had also cooled the ardor of the hotheads in the group. For a few weeks, she had regained its
moral and intellectual leadership. And besides she was still busy organizing various
educational activities among the workers. Now the trial would distrup all that and she could not
help being anxious—fearful, even. What if she was imprisoned once more? The leadership of
the group would be turned over to Mikhailov. Land and Freedom would most certainly perish.
There would be terrible bloodshed.
      “It’s for your mother who’s written to ask you to be cautious. She’s afraid for Vasilii.
You can be assured that I will not vouch for you if you make speeches to the judges,” he
continued. “And your mother will die of sorrow if you’re condemned.” He turned to look at
her. “I ask you to behave with decency. I’ve spoken with Shuvalov, and he knows you’re
terrified of prison. He wants you to answer the judges’ questions.”
      He bent his torso awkwardly toward her, his eyes filmed with tears, checked himself, and
sat down abruptly behind his desk.
      For a minute Sonia felt sorry for him. But his next comment disabused her of any change
of heart he might have contemplated:
      “A nest of vipers,” he muttered with a nasty smile.


      The anger in his voice brought back the memory of her childhood fears. She raised her
chin, blinked once or twice, and assuming an air of injured pride, walked slowly out of the
       “Don’t expect anything more from me,” he thundered as she closed the door.

      The courtroom was packed.
      Her eyes swept over the sea of expectant faces as she waited for one of the three judges to
      Suddenly, in the middle of the group of defendants awaiting their turn, she spotted the man
who had so disturbed her in Odessa and whose memory had gradually faded—Andrei
      He caught her eye and smiled. Her heart began to race, and immediately she bowed her
head. She heard a gruff voice asking something. For a second she thought it was Zhelyabov
and she blushed deeply. Only when the question was repeated did she look up and grasp that
she was being addressed by one of the judges.
      Sensing Zhelyabov’s eyes still on her, she stammered, recovered herself, and pronounced
in as steely a voice as she could command:
      “I will not answer questions regarding my comrades.”
      The whispered comments from the prisoners’ benches muttering approval calmed and
reassured her. She heard the judge shout,”silence!” and then pronounce:
      “You will be remanded into the custody of your father.”
      A wave of such intense relief passed through her that she felt her hands and feet tingle, as
though tight fetters had been removed from them. But she knew that she would have to walk in
front of the others before leaving the courtroom and was not sure whether she should
acknowedge Zhelyabov with a smile, feared that she might blush once more, and decided to
keep her eyes firmly on the doors through which she would be led out of the courtroom. There
was, she told herself firmly, as she followed the guard outside and heard the heavy door slam
shut, no point in renewing the acquaintance of a man who was bound to be one of the
troublesome hotheads, a married man, besides, a man who dabbled in explosives, and most of
all, one who had so disturbed her the previous year.


      Exultant but tired she returned to her little house in the early evening to find Vera
Nikolevna, pale and wide-eyed, waiting for her.
      “I’ve just found out that our lunatic, Vera Ivanovna Zasulich, has attempted to assassinate
the police chief General Trepov. It’s already being rumored that the authorities will issue an
order for everyone’s re-arrest. You must ‘disappear’ at once!”
      All thoughts of Zhelyabov melted away.

      She was a fugitive.
      She would not escape abroad to join Natanson and the Kornilovs, though Vera
Nikolaevna, uninvolved in the trial and still working for the Red Cross, had suggested that she
      Nothing had turned out as she had hoped. Her work for Land and Freedom could no longer
be continued. The group would most certainly disperse, or worse still, take on a violent
character with Mikhailov at its head.
      Suddenly she was obsessed by a desperate need to see her mother, to be comforted by her
as she had been as a child.
      That evening, having taken refuge in Vera Nikolaevna’s apartment she wrote a coded letter
to announce her visit:
      “You must know that I had nothing to do with the Zasulich affair. She was brave; but we
must all suffer for her act. I do not intend to spend useless years in prison or exile. I will evade
capture for as long as I can and there are many loyal friends who will help me. When you think
of me, remember that I love you above all others and I will keep myself safe only so that you
do not need to worry about your rebellious daughter. I kiss your hands.”

      Before leaving she decided to meet secretly with Alexandra Iakovlevna who was about to
escape to Europe.
      As she made her way to a tavern near the Haymarket where they had fixed their
rendezvous and she glanced warily around to make sure that she was not being followed, she
recognized the man with his head sunk on his chest coming toward her as the famous writer
Feodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.
      Had he not been a radical himself, she recalled?
      Had he not risked death, spent months in jail and years in Siberian prisons and exile?


      During Zasulich’s trial he was reported to have been horrified by Trepov's brutality and
had demanded Vera Ivanovna’s acquittal.
      She turned to face him. She could see he was trying to ignore her, mistaking her for a poor
peasant girl or a beggar, like the hundreds of others in that part of the city, and he reached into
his pocket. He looked tired. It was quite apparent that he wanted to be left alone and she knew
that she was behaving recklessly.
      After all, was he now not linked with the reactionaries at court?
      “Feodor Mikhailovich,” she mumbled, her heart beating wildly with excitement and
      He kept his eyes focused on the sidewalk and began to walk faster. But that only increased
her determination. Could he not be enlisted for the cause, their cause?
      “I know you won’t refuse to talk with me, Feodor Mikhailovich,” her voice quavered.
      Without looking at her directly he tugged at a tendril of his straggly beard as though trying
to resolve some problem.
      “You’re aware of the conditions under which our comrades live in the prisons,” she said
with an urgency in her voice which masked her nervousness. “Surely you know? We’re
committed, like you, to the cause of the Russian people,” she pleaded with him.
      He scowled and coughed. It was plain that he was ill. But nothing would deter her now. If
she could only convince him to write something, to denounce her group’s re-arrest….
      “Follow me then,” he mumbled, hurrying to the entrance of a teashop, holding a
handkerchief to his mouth.
      Walking behind him she felt only a sense of shame and shyness.
      Why had she accosted him? She would be late in meeting Alexandra Iakovlevna and
maybe not see her again.
      And if she were to confide in him, could she trust him? She knew that he too hated
violence. He had denounced Nechaev as a monster in his last novel.
      She was suddenly seized by a fierce longing to justify herself, and to convince him they
had the same goal. Then, perhaps, he could persuade the Tsar to enact reforms. Then, perhaps,
with this promising and unexpected encounter, all her efforts would not have failed.
      They were seated in the back of the dimly lit almost empty tearoom, against a brick wall
and at a long unvarnished table over which hung a shelf with an assortment of pots and kettles
arrayed randomly on it. Across from them was a small fly-speckled mirror into which he had


peered as they passed. The expression of annoyance on Dostoevsky’s thin face was painful for
her to look at but she must make the best of it. She must speak her mind.
      “You should know from the start that I’ll be unconvinced by your ideas,” he began,
placing his folded hands on the edge of the table and leaning forward to glare at her, clearly
hoping she might get discouraged and leave.
      “But you see I’m the daughter of Lev Nikolaevich Perovski, the former Governor of St.
Petersburg,” she announced, hoping to pique his interest.
      His dark eyes looked unblinking into hers.
      “I ran away from him when I was sixteen . I wanted to…” she hesitated knowing that she
must chose her words carefully. “To be useful, you must know. But I’ve been in my father’s
custody awaiting the trial.”
      “He’s a tyrant I suppose,” Dostoevsky muttered wearily. “Surely mistreated your martyr of
a mother and ignored his daughter—or worse.”
      She was startled. How could he guess, she wondered and lowered her eyes to escape his
penetrating stare. But it was her comment about the trial that seemed to have irritated him:
      “Of course the trial was a mistake,” he said. “It just makes martyrs out of your kind and
reinforces your high opinions of yourselves as representatives of the people.”
      She blushed. She had really made a fool of herself. Now she should simply excuse herself
and leave. Dostoevsky glanced at her sharply.
      “I’ve argued with those around the Tsarevich that the Tsar’s policies toward you young
people are entirely mistaken. But I’ve no influence, if that’s what you think.”
      She took a deep breath:
      “I’ve only one request,” she said. This would be her final plea: “That’s on behalf of the
poor prisoners suffering for nothing more than their desire to serve the people.”
      “How can you serve?”
      His eyes continued to bore into hers with an intensity that made her want to recoil. But
instead, she determined to stand her ground.
      Why should she allow him to intimidate her? Wasn’t he behaving like a despot too?
      “What have you got to teach a man who spent ten years in prison and exile for his
attachment to those ideas from the West, that foreign disease,” he was saying with such passion
that she flinched, despite herself. “Those ten years in exile brought me face to face with the
peasantry. They cured me,” he sputtered angrily.


      Her face burned with with vexation. Perhaps he was too old to understand and too much
involved with those conservatives around the Tsarevich. Still, she would not concede to him,
allow him to dominate her:
      “Those ‘socialist ideas’ you so hate, aren’t they the essence of Christianity? Aren’t we
martyrs too?” she parried.
      Now it was his turn to avert his eyes:
      “I’ve already written that Russian women will be the redeemers of our age, so it’s not
because you’re a woman that I’ll disagree with you.”
      He turned his head toward the door and she could tell that he was calculating how long it
would be before he could get away from her. The waiter arrived with two glasses of tea and a
small bowl of sugar:
      “But this destructive, thoughtless nihilism...”
      She interrupted him:
      “I’m no nihilist,” she declared vehemently. “We’re serious people, not just talkers. We
want only to serve the people and for that we’re now forced to be on the run.”
      He leaned toward her with sudden interest.
      “I might write something,” he said. “Of course, not naming you. But I might repeat that
that the Tsar is making a mistake prosecuting the young. That would be the gist of it.”
      “We’ve studied history and economics, Chernyshevsky and Marx,” gaining confidence
she pressed her advantage.
      “Oh that tiresome, humorless Chernyshevsky,” he shrugged. “He poisons young minds
with his simple formulas.”
      “We need the right kind of socialism for our people,” she continued. “We’re not Nechaevs.
We’re opposed to violence. I—and others too--think that Vera Zasulich was mistaken.”
      “And don’t you envision a revolution?” Dostoevsky asked accusingly.
      “The people live in such misery. But it’s not we who incite their violence. We just
educate them out of their apathy,” she was quick to justify herself.
      He took a sip of tea, placing the sugar cube between his teeth in the peasant fashion. She
smiled ingratiatingly and that seemed to irritate him:
      “And do you think that with your ideas you can guide a people just emerged out of
serfdom to behave with restraint and not be taken in by the Nechaevs and bandits who know
better than you how to cater to the innocent and the ignorant?”


      “We need to show them that power rests in them and not in the Tsar,” she replied, though
she knew that her argument seemed half-hearted to him.
      “And a new bloody peasant revolt will occur,” Dostoevsky declared, his eyes ablaze.
“Why are you tormenting me with your naïve ideas?”
      She could see he wanted to shake her, push her away. Instead he continued:
      “A night of terror and bloodshed like the one released by the French revolution will
swallow you all up!” His hands began to tremble as he took another sip of tea. “You innocents
will unleash this beast of revolution and then anoint a Nechaev, a bloodthirsty despot from the
people you say you understand so well. There will be rivers of blood!”
      “Rivers of blood!” She blanched. The image of Aunt Yulia’s scarred wrists appeared
before her.
      Had he not began to cough, taking a stained handkerchief from his coat pocket, she
wouldn’t have been able to repress the impulse to simply run away. But he continued to cough
so long that she forgot her fright and grew alarmed for him instead. Finally, mopping his brow
and wiping his eyes, he shot her a venomous look. Then, carefully replacing the handkerchief
in his pocket.
      “You’re so convinced of your righteousness. But I find darkness where you see light and
light where you see darkness.”
      He forced a stiff smile, rose to his feet and walking quickly to the cashier's lodge paid,
leaving without looking back at her.
      For a minute she remained seated, startled, unsure of herself and then with a sigh, muttered
under her breath:
      “He’s no different than Father, after all.”
      Then jumping up she made her way outside, feeling more crestfallen than before she had
met him.
      “Why can’t I make him understand?” she mumbled to no one in particular.



      At the station in Simferopol she had hired a peasant to take her to her mother’s house.
      It was getting dark and as the cart rattled along the dusty road, she could not stop
tormenting herself with familar doubts about what she had really accomplished in the past
years. Here she was a fugitive, worrying her mother and yet yearning only to place her head in
her lap.
      The cart pulled up to the house. She could make out a small carriage a little way up the
road. It was late but the lights were on. Who could be visiting her at this hour, she wondered?
      She paid the peasant, picked up her suitcase, and shouting,”Mama, Mama,” ran excitedly
into the salon.
      Varvara Stepanovna was sitting perfectly still in the tall Turkish chair. Her hair, Sonia
noticed with a pang of guilt, was almost completely gray and her face ghostly pale. But her
heart skipped a beat when she saw a man lounging on the divan opposite and a uniformed
police officer standing by the door leading to the kitchen.
      “We were expecting you one of these days. But not quite so soon,” said the man on the
divan in a lazy and good-humored drawl.
      His thin black mustache widenend into a grin.
      The police officer moved toward her with his arms extended. Varvara Stepanovna cried
out, hid her face in her hands, and groaned.
      “You’re wanted in the capital,” the man on the divan announced sternly. “Your father told
us how attached you are to your mother.”
      Her face drawn in helpless fear, Varvara Stepanovna sprang out of her chair. She shook as
she clung to her daughter with all her might.
      “Mama,” Sonia murmured, “calm yourself, all will be well, calm yourself. There’s
nothing to be frightened about.”
      She too was trembling as she drew gently away and with a self-control, which quite
astonished her, looked defiantly at the man still sitting on the divan. Even without his uniform
she could tell from his air of superiority and the ironic smile of the bully that he was the local
chief of police.
   “The jury cleared us all. I’ve done nothing illegal,” she protested icily.


      The man stood up. Tall and thin, he towered over her and his eyes, hooded under thick
eyebrows, looked down at her like a predatory animal staring at its prey:
      “The Tsar knows best what you’ve done. You’re to be sent into exile.”
      Varvara Stepanovna let out a wail and Sonia threw her arms around her protectively.
      “Exile is not forever,” she whispered, stroking her hair. “ I’ll write and do useful work
wherever I am.”
        “Vasilii still in jail and now you!” her mother’s lips trembled and her face was wet with
        “What are the charges against me?” Sonia asked wearily.
        Had they defeated her, after all?
        Would she find sufficient courage to resist?
      “You heard the charges at your trial,” the chief of police declared. “You’re to be taken
from Simferopol to the capital and then to Archangel province.”

      She spent the night in a cramped prison cell, afraid to sleep, terrified of the nightmares that
would assail her, stricken by doubts.
        She was, after all, nineteen years old, no longer a child, an angry child. Was she not
behaving heartlessly? And then too, she was responsible for bringing Vasilii to ruin by letting
him give up his studies.
      A sudden and unsettling thought, sharp as a knife, entered her mind:
        Perhaps she should end her life, her failed life! She deserved no better. Her father had
won. She looked down at her skirt. She could make a noose out of it to hang herself from the
barred window in her cell. Yes, that would end her useless life!
      She imagined her corpse hanging limply from the window bars.
        She imagined her mother being summoned by the police chief to claim her body.
      And she imagined her mother’s stricken face.
      She could not be the cause such agony. And with that thought her spirits unexpectedly
      She must redeem herself. She must not let her father prevail. She must escape and then
prove herself worthy of her mother, of her mother’s goodness.


      In the morning, dazed by lack of sleep but filled with renewed determination, she was led
to the office of the chief of police. Two policemen were standing behind him. She noticed the
young one, with a snub nose and bright blue eyes, staring at her, making it clear that he liked
what he saw. The other, much older, with a bristling blond mustache and cropped hair, looked
expressionless, with watery eyes, directly in front of him.
       “Your escort,” the chief of police announced with his ironic smile: “You’ll first be taken
by train to Moscow and then to a small village on the White Sea. These two will take you as
far as Moscow. Others will escort you to your destination.”
      But her escorts turned out to be friendlier than she expected.
      She let the younger, Pyotr Ivanovich, flirt with her. Ivan Pavlovich, his superior, glanced
at him reproachfully but asked soliticiously whether she was hungry or thirsty. From time to
time she witnessed the two men dipping into their bags and taking quick gulps of tea, as they
called it, from battered tin canteens. The vodka made them so lax that when the compartment
door opened at the second stop and another passenger entered they simply looked up at him
with bleary eyes as though he were just another traveling companion.
      In his neat gray suit and carefully trimmed beard the newcomer looked the very image of
the gentleman and for that reason she was startled to recognize in him a former member of the
old Chaikovski circle. He, too, pretended to ignore her.
      Ivan Pavlovich got up, saying, “Needs me a smoke” and went into the hallway.
      Pyotr Ivanovich glanced at her. She could read his thoughts. He too wanted to smoke.
There was no harm, his calculating smile indicated, in leaving her in the compartment while
they stood outside in the passage with the window open and lit up their pipes.
      The moment the door closed and the two policemen turned their backs the newcomer
      “Lucky I saw you at the station. You must get away from them!”
      He reached into his pocket, pulled out his billfold, carefully removed several large bills
and a folded piece of paper and pushed them into her hand.
      “Here’s an address in Petersburg where you can hide for a while,” he said. “My cousin,
Leonid Andreievich. You can give always those two the slip in Moscow.”
      “They’re good peasant folk. They would be court-martialed. Anyway, they change guards
in Moscow and then I’ll be able to escape,” she whispered to him.


       Luck as well as resolve was now on her side, she thought. A change in her fortunes was
imminent she decided, drawing the money stealthily into the pocket of her jacket, smiling and
extending her hand to pat his arm gratefully.

       She had been sitting for hours in a corner of the Moscow station director’s overheated
office when she was finally overcome by sleep. Visions of her mother’s tear-stained face
alternated with the terrifying sight of Aunt Julia’s scarred wrists. Then, just as Zhelyabov
appeared smiling at her during the trial, she was roughly shaken awake by the shouts of the
director. He was reprimanding two policemen. One, a thickset man with Tartar features and
unsmiling eyes, seemed to be ignoring his superior and glanced at her distastefully. The other,
short and stooped, listened to the director with total concentration and the widened eyes of a
frightened animal.
       They didn’t speak as she boarded an empty compartment on the train. The two men stared
fixedly out of the window. They seemed to be blaming her for the director’s outburst although
it was clear that they had no more liking for each other than for their prisoner.
       They traveled in silence for several hours. In the evening when they got off at a station to
await their connection, Sonia glanced furtively at a timetable outside the waiting room and
noted the arrival of a Moscow train going on to the capital at two o’clock in the morning.
       Inside the deserted room she stretched out on the rough slats of a bench while the stooped
man sat down by the door and the “Tartar” rolled himself up in the rug on the floor. Soon their
snoring was so loud she feared they might wake each other.
       Finally the bell for the Moscow train rang. Her heart hammered in her throat as she picked
up her suitcase and tiptoed to the door, careful not to brush against the man hunched over on
his stool. She prayed that the door handle would not squeak and just as she stepped outside the
train pulled onto the platform.
       But no sooner had she reached the last car than she heard a voice behind her.
       “What you been doin’ here at this hour, little daughter?” the station watchman barked at
       She caught her breath, her mind raced, and panting with fear, she stammered in the accents
of a peasant girl:
       “Pray for me little father. I’m off to find work as a maid.”
       “Get out of here then,” the man replied and motioned her on.


      As she climbed into the wagon she congratulated herself that on the journey to her
mother’s she had dressed like a peasant and that she still had her wits about her.

      Twelve hours later she was ushered into Doctor Preobrazhenski’s apartment in Saint
Petersburg. He puffed out his thick lips, clearly annoyed to see her:
      “I’ve been alerted,” he said. “But you mustn’t stay here for long. Yesterday
one of your group, Kravchinski, a real fool, stabbed the new head of the Third
Section. And today I’ve seen posters signed by a so-called Executive Committee of
Land and Freedom with the names of future targets for assassination.”
      She sat down abruptly at the table where he had been eating lunch and buried her face in
her hands:
      “They’ve ruined everything. The police’ll be everywhere now,” she groaned.
      They seemed set on destroying themselves and her effort to stop them might be useless.
      “I have the address of Olga Alexandrovna Natanson,” she heard him say coldly. “Her
husband is still overseas. But the authorities aren’t looking for her. It would be best if you
went there today. I don’t want the maid or the housekeeper to spread gossip about.”
      He rang for the maid to show her out.
      She told herself not give into despair; that instead she must get help to reconstitute Land
and Freedom, to do useful, educational work, to lead to improving people’s lives, not to
senseless terror, not to a bloody revolution.

      She woke with the sunlight pouring into her eyes. Somewhere a clock was chiming but
she didn’t bother to count. She heard the hissing of the samovar in the next room, smelled
cigarette smoke, got up, wiped her face on the hem of her shift, opened the door, and cried out
in surprise.
      Sitting at the oilcloth-covered table with Olga Alexandrovna, who puffed on a cigarette,
was Kravchinski grinning sheepishly.
      “I didn’t expect you to be so careless,” he smiled, smoothing his goatee with his plump
white hand. “For someone so meticulous, to go to your mother’s….”
      He rose and reached over to embrace her.
      Sonia glanced at Olga Alexandrovna, who looked up at her with an embarrassed grin and
stamped her cigarette out into a saucer.


      “Well I did manage to escape.” Sonia declared turning to Kravchinski, so angry she
wanted to strike him. “And what have I escaped to? Fools, dangerous fools, ruining
      He winced.
      Olga Alexandrovna, looking nervously from one to the other, poured her a glass of tea and
sliced some bread.
        “So you idiots murdered…” Sonia began, clenching her fists in an effort not to slap his
      “I signed my name to a pamphlet describing the crimes of the Third Section. We printed it
on the press that Mikhailov and I have just set up,” Kravchinski broke in.
      “I suppose the police force is mobilized to hunt for you!” She shouted.
      Kravchinski took a gulp of tea:
        “Don’t think that I acted like a coward,” he protested, turning quite pale, his left eye
twitching madly. He straightened his back and continued defensively: “I went up to
Mezentzev on the Nevski Prospekt in broad daylight. I looked him directly in the eye. Then I
stabbed him, threw the dagger down, and ran.”
        “Bravo! You’re a murderer and a fool,” Sonia exploded. “You’re endangering the cause.
You’re selfish and foolhardy and I have no respect for you!”
      Kravchinski flushed and stared fixedly at the tips of his highly polished shoes.
      “I demand that Land and Freedom meet immediately to determine what’s to be done,” she
exclaimed, “Mikhailov and whoever else is left.”
      Kravchinski rose, and without saying a word reached for his hat, and left, closing the door
softly behind him.
      Alone with Olga Alexandrovna, who lit another cigarette and puffed on it nervously, Sonia
      “We must not give up so easily or else these men’ll destroy us all.” She looked into Olga
Alxandrovna’s eyes as though seeking reassurance: “And I won’t stand for that,” she added as
firmly as she could.

      The meeting was held outside the capital in the provincial town of Voronezh.
      Sonia was relieved when Kravchinski left for England where he was to remain until the
police lost his trail. But when she arrived in the little boarding house where they were to stay


and found Vera Nikolaevna Figner, she was distressed to learn of an earlier secret gathering of
Land and Freedom, specifically intended to exclude her.
      “They want to create a network fostering terrorism,” Vera Nikolaevna told her. “It’s all the
idea of a new recruit that Kravchinski and Mikhailov brought in, a wild man, Morozov’s his
name, a real hysteric.”
      “An outrage!” Sonia cried, pulling Vera Nikolaevna by the arm as they set off for
Mikhailov’s rented rooms, where the group was to congregate.

      There another shock awaited her.
      Sprawled on a heavy ottoman and deep in conversation with a tall, gaunt man, was Andrei
Ivanovich Zhelyabov.
      She stopped, not sure whether she was pleased or annoyed. Two conflicting questions
flashed through her mind: Was he not one of the hotheads? Would his presence not be…. an
unwanted distraction for her?
      Indicating Zhelyabov casually with her chin in an effort to hide her feelings, she asked
      “When did he join the group?”
      “We went to look for him in Odessa. He fled there after the trial,” Mikhailov replied,
smiling with satsifaction. “He’s left his wife. Wants to dedicate himself to revolution. A real
son of the people! He’ll knock some sense into the heads of us gentry.”
      Zhelyabov raised his eyes lazily. She was mortified to find that she could not stop the
blood rising to her face when she saw him smile at her.
      But she regained her composure overhearing Mikhailov talking to Vera Nikolaevna:
      “Morozov has suggested…” Mikhailov indicated the tall gaunt man standing directly in
front of her, “We’ve been thinking that you might want to join us in our new endeavor.”
      All at once the color drained from Sonia’s face. She was being pointedly left out of
      “They seem to think you’re more cold-blooded than I am. I suppose you fools are out to
assassinate…” she hesitated, “the Tsar and you think that I’ll stand in your way,” she lashed
out at Vera Nikolaevna, ignoring Mikhailov.
      Vera Nikolaevna dabbed at her forehead with a lace handkerchief she pulled from her bag
and turned to Sonia with an injured frown.


      “I decline your offer. I can’t join a group kept secret from Sonia Levovna,” she said to
Mikhailov. “And furthermore, assassination...”
      She did not finish her sentence before Morozov, his eyes blazing, lunged as though to
strike her.
      “She’s free to follow her conscience,” Mikhailov cried out. Morozov grimaced, wiped his
nose on his sleeve, and backed off.
      Throughout their confrontation Sonia was aware of Zhelyabov’s eyes on her and when she
could no longer suppress the urge to cast a furtive glance in his direction she saw that he
appeared bemused. But as she grasped Vera Nikolaevna’s arm and they both swept angrily out
of the room, she looked back to catch him looking at her in a cool appraising way.

      She was relieved when her ally, Plekhanov, arrived and she urged him to take the
      “You must put some sense into their heads and convince them that Russia’ s not ready for
revolution. You need to stress that bloodshed must be avoided since it only leads to more
arrests, more time in prison, and anyway it’s imperative we continue our educational work.”
      Earlier she had confided to Vera Nikolaevna:
      “We women can hope to regain our voice with Plekhanov on our side,” she hesitated
before saying, “and even take over the leadership from those hotheads.”
      Vera Nikolaevna glanced at her with a half smile. Like Alexandra Iakovlevna, her new
friend understood her ambitions.

      The next afternoon a dozen of them gathered in the sun-dappled oak forest just outside of
town pretending they were on a picnic to ally the suspicions of the authorities ever on the
lookout for the arrival of a group of young people.
      To Sonia’s delight Plekhanov began by singling out Morozov for an ardent attack:
      “Are our recruits creating a new kind of revolutionary, a Nechaev-like killer, a defender of
the peasantry who thinks he knows it all?” he thundered. “Are we going to revel in a bloodbath
following bandits and peasants?”
      She heard Plekhanov spit out the word and looked apprehensively at Zhelyabov,
      How could Plekhanov speak so dismissively about the peasantry? She was mortified for
him and once again glanced furtively at Zhelyabov leaning against a tree.


      She saw Zhelyabov draw himself up to his full height, his eyes blazing:
      “You call yourself a revolutionary?” He shouted to Plekhanov.
      At that moment Vasilii’s words echoed in her ears:
      “Our Amazon needs a Hercules to tame her!”
      She blushed.
      “Plekhanov’s a theorist,” Zhelaybov continued in a deep resonnant voice. “He’s drunk on
Marx. I’m a peasant. I know the peasants. They’re intelligent and energetic and they’re
practical. They won't risk everything for the sake of a dream, a theory. They’d benefit only
when they can come out into the open and demand their rights. A constitution would give them
something to fight for. They’re stubborn. They'll use terror only when it’s needed.”
      He stopped, and to her embarrassment, looked inquiring at her as though waiting for her
      Her mind raced. It was a critical moment but she was only aware of her scarlet face.
Everyone’s eyes were now upon her. Could they see her blush? Could they tell why? She
shrugged struggling to regain her composure. Then she raised her chin, her mind still racing,
seeking an adequate response and at the same time chided herself for giving in to romantic
illusions, to childish beliefs. She knew she had to address him—and the group—if she were
not to lose her precarious position of authority among them.
      What he had said was certainly true-- true that as a peasant he alone in the group has
actual, personal knowledge of popular unrest. Could it be that her own resistance to any form
of terror was due to her lack of real understanding?
      She glanced at Plekhanov, looking bewildered and wiping his forehead with a huge white
      No! She immediately decided. She was certainly not acting out of some purely intellectual
commitment. She must force herself to think practically. She wanted change, real change! She
wanted to educate for change. She wanted justice! So why should that change not be led by a
peasant representing the people? They too wanted justice.
      Suddenly it occurred to her what she should say, how she might begin. She could not
defend Plekhanov. What he had said about the peasantry was indefensible. But she had to make
it clear that she was not to be so easily discounted. She could begin by objecting to the idea of a
constitution, tell them that it was a foreign, not a Russian, idea!


      “Our new member Andrei Ivanovich Zhelyabov seems to misunderstand our true mission
when he talks about a constitution…” When she got up she had been filled with trepidation but
now the words came swiftly to her: “What we really need is a new kind of political system
suited to our experience and not to that of the West. But we might well be convinced,” she
hesitated and then raising her voice and daring herself to look directly at Zhelyabov, she
announced “to use terror but only in a most limited way and as a last resort against severe
governement repression, if it would convince the peasantry to organize for a general and
peaceable uprising. But not, I say not, a bloodbath!”
      There was a stir. Zhelyabov looked intently at her. Then his face lit up with a broad smile
and suddenly the enormity of her commitment struck her with the force of a thunderbolt. Now
she had need to justify her sudden and disconcerting change of heart. But as before the words
came quite easily:
      “It seems to me that there’s no contradiction in working for peaceful propaganda among
the peasantry and working for the fall of the regime through a very limited recourse to terror.
But only if the two complement each other.”
      She saw Zhelyabov nodding energetically but heard shouts of anger from the back.
   “We're not killers, we're not Nechaevs,” a man yelled.
   “We're with Plekhanov!” one of the women cried out.
      Zhelyabov raised his arms and his booming voice silenced the group:
      “Those pledged to the revolutionary course can see that our actions against the government
are necessary. As to a constitution, we can continue to discuss this among ourselves. Now our
Sonia Levovna--there's a woman with courage. She wants terror against the system. Of course
when it comes to a constitution, she's a stubborn one.”
      Sonia flinched. These were not her words, not her intentions. He had deliberately
misunderstood her intentions. Perhaps he had tricked her. But she held back her objections
when she saw Vera Nikolaevna rolling her eyes and heard her whisper mockingly:
      “He's the man for you!”

      For the rest of the day Sonia was filled with doubt.
      Had she not behaved recklessly throwning in her lot with a man she hardly knew, one who
had deliberately misunderstood her?
      Should that not make her suspicious of his motives?


      She tried once again to justify herself to Vera Nikolaevna, whose contempt for a peasant
like Zhelyabov was obvious.
      “Aren’t we all fighting for their cause?”Sonia asked her with a forced smile.
      “For their cause,” Vera Nikolaevna answered raising her eyebrow, “but not for

      A week later in St. Petersburg Sonia rented an apartment to serve as the headquarters of a
newly organized party, split off from Land and Freedom, with the startling name of “The
People’s Will.”
      At the first meeting Zhelyabov read the program of the party, while she listened with
bowed head and a racing heart:
      “We must build a set of secret societies for general revolutionary and propaganda work led
by the Executive Committee. Our main object will be to plan a conspiracy. We must begin with
the simultaneous assassination of key administrators to panic subordinate officials and excite
the masses. Terror is simply a method for self-defense.”
      As he pronounced the word terror she looked down at her hands. They were trembling.
She wanted to protest but when she raised her eyes she saw Zhelyabov wink at her and, as ever,
the blood rose to her face. He must have read her mind and struck her dumb.
      What, she wondered was happening to her?
      Had Zhelyabov cast a spell over her?
      Why had she had allowed him to do so as no other man had done?
      Even Vera Nikolaevna’s mockery and impassioned arguments in the previous week had
not foced her to change her mind. She could think only about the twinkle in his eyes when he
looked at her, about that magnetic gaze, about the muscles rippling in his strong arms, about his
masculine beauty.
      Mikhailov began to speak slowly. She could tell he was choosing his words with care:
      “The Tsar isn’t the worst of our rulers, perhaps. He is, after all, the Tsar Emancipator. But
he’s been drawn into the net of the reactionaries. He’s now become an executioner. Because of
the two good deeds carried out at the beginning of his reign must we forgive him all the evil
that he has since done and will do in the future?”
      She remained silent while everyone present cried:


      “The Tsar, Alexander Nikolaevich,” Zhelyabov solemnly declared, “is on this day,
condemned to death by the members of The People's Will.”
      She suddenly had the terrifying sensation of seeing the Tsar’s placid eyes, transparently
blue with a strange far-off look and a kind of mildness. She shook her head trying to rid herself
of the image.

      Three days had passed after the fateful meeting and Sonia was writing out instructions to a
student recruit about a workers’ demonstration, when she heard someone rapping on the door.
The fear of the police always haunted her and she opened it hesitantly. But she was even more
shaken to find Zhelyabov standing on the threshold. He was staring at her with a shy smile.
Though she could not stop thinking about him day and night, she had been avoiding him so as
not to embarrass herself.
      Without being invited he sat down on the cane-backed chair, carefully avoiding the loose
stands of webbing sticking out of the sides, pulling it roughly up to the round wooden table and
placing his massive hands on its roughened edge as though ready at any time to push himself
away and leave.
      For a minute he remained silent as his eyes scanned the monastic room, alighting first on
the narrow cot in the corner covered by the faded fabric from a peasant skirt, raising his
eyebrows at the soot darkened icon of the Mother of God, which throned over the bed from its
blackened frame, turning to examine the small filmed and fly-specked mirror on the wall beside
a wooden cupboard whose door was warped and appeared in need of a push to remain shut.
      Finally he said:
      “How this reminds me of my student days!” He smiled self-consciously, began stroking his
beard, and added, “All I wanted then was knowledge. Even now what I would most like to do
is to go somewhere and write.”
      She was disconcernted. These were not the words of a terrorist. This is not what she
expected of the man who had--she admitted to herself--bewitched her. Perhaps he was more of
a poet than a bandit, after all. She recalled how the student in Odessa had told her that
Zhelyabov’s saints were writers.
      “You mean to put your knowledge to use?”


      She could think of nothing better to say as she stood facing him, shifting awkwardly from
one foot to the other, undecided as to whether she should join him at the table, and all the while
trying to keep from flushing.
      “Or maybe not.” Zhelyabov answered. “I’d like,” he said, his eyes losing their focus, “to
be free to choose!”
      “Yes, free to choose!” she repeated, as though his words might relieve her of her
      She smiled tentatively.
      “But now’s not the time to discuss metaphysics,” Zhelyabov’s eyes lit up and he laughed.
      His laughter, as spontaneous and carefree as that of a child, put her at ease. She sat down,
placed a hand on the table as he had done. Then to her bewilderment he reached over and
grasped it. The expression on his face had changed from laughter to a kind of animal ferocity. It
lasted for only a second but it frightened her. She pulled her hand away and, without thinking,
sprang to her feet, blurting out the first thing that came to her head:
      “I’ve decided to leave tomorrow to see my brother and my mother.”
      She had already made up her mind to go, but now, his troubling presence made it seem
urgent to leave at once.
      “It’s dangerous, I know,” she stuttered, “but it may be for the last time.”
      “You might get caught again,” he said, looking either worried or angry, she could not tell
which. “They’ll certainly be looking for you there. You could easily endanger yourself and
the party as well.”
      She picked up a shawl from the back of her chair and threw it over her shoulders,
mumbling that she had a crucial errand to run and when he offered to accompany her, she
      He left with the same shy smile with which he had arrived.
      Why had he come to see her?
      Why had he grasped her hand with that disturbing look in his eye?
      Why did he trouble her so?
      The questions tormented her all day even as she instructed the student recruit in his duties,
and it kept her up all night.
      She dozed off in the early hours only to have Zhelyabov invade her dreams, his eyes filled
with the cold hard look of an animal about to pounce and she woke up with a start. The room


was already filled with light. She dressed hurriedly, picked up her bag, and ran out onto the
landing, anxious not to miss the train.
      Zhelyabov was standing at the bottom of the stairs. She reeled back from the shock he had
caused her and dropped her bag.
      “Just in time to take you to the station,” he announced, smiling, ignoring her pallor. “I’ll be
passing through Simferopol myself to inspect the railroad line from Odessa, but not until next
week.” He picked up the bag. “I worried all night about the risk you’re taking. It’s better you
see your mother quickly. I’ve alerted some reliable people. I’ve sent a wire to introduce you.
They work for the Red Cross and their house is large enough for hordes of people. No one’ll
even notice you there. And they will be on the lookout for any signs of a police raid on your
mother’s house. Here’s their address.”
      He handed her a slip of paper.
      He was thinking about her safety, it occurred to her, as she placed the paper in the pocket
of her jacket and drew her shawl protectively around her shoulders. It was for the good of the
party. Only for the good of the party. But the thought struck her unpleasantly

      The sun was blindingly bright as they made their way through the twisted alleys, passing
tumbled-down workers’ shacks and merging with the crowd of women holding babies like
small neatly tied bundles in their arms while older children straggled behind them.
      From time to time she glanced up at him shyly, unnervingly excited as his hand brushed
hers while he described to her, in such poetic detail, the enchanting landscapes of his native
Crimea which, he told her, he missed so painfully in the gray streets of the capital.
      But even as he talked she kept reminding herself that she must ignore the unseemly
feelings which she could not repress, that she was going with the firm intention of preparing
Mama and Vasilii, just released from jail, for her eventual capture.
      When the train for Moscow pulled in Zhelyabov handed the bag to her.
      “We’ll see each other in a month,” he said with a broad smile.
      She smiled back and to her horror blushed to the very roots of her hair and turning away
took a seat next to a big-bellied merchant whose bulky shoulders brushed against hers. The
siren sounded and as the train drew away she saw him walking alongside the platform, still
waving to her.


      “I’m certain that if these disturbances continue we will get a constitution,” Varvara
Stepanovna declared as the three of them sat on the verandah while Vasilii smoked a cigarette.
“And then all your sacrifices will be justified,” she insisted.
      “What kind of constitution would we get from the Tsar?” Sonia responded gloomily.
      She had been trying to get Zhelyabov’s image out of her mind and now her mother was
reminding her of him.
      “Anyway, I don’t believe in constitutions. For Russia that is.”
      Vasilii glanced at her reproachfully. She had told him of her firm decision to prepare their
mother for the worst. Along with her obsession with Zhelyabov—and perhaps because of it she
thought fleetingly-- she was haunted by the thought of martyrdom.
      “There’s another path…. Even if that path might lead to prison.” She stopped and then
      “Or death.”
      Varvara Stepanovna jumped up, and flung her arms around her.
      “I say this only to prepare you if we fail. Though I know we’ll be successful,” Sonia
quickly added, trying to calm her.
      Varvara Stepanovna sighed, stroked Sonia’s hair, and sat down again. Vasilii put out his
cigarette nervously on the railing, got up and began pacing up and down the verandah.
      “For God’s sake, why do you torment Mama?” he asked.
      She didn’t answer. She sank to the ground next to her mother’s chair and placed her head
in her lap.
      She imagined she was already dead and that her mother was crying over her body. Neither
her mother’s sighs nor Vasilii's words seemed to reach her. She heard only the sound of the
crickets, the rustling of the wind in the trees, and the howl of the dogs on the neighboring

      Later, alone in her room, listening to Vasilii continue to pace outside on the verandah she
      “My dear, adored Mama,


      The only thing that oppresses me is the thought of your grief!” She stopped.
      She recalled her father’s insults, her mother’s martyrdom borne with such goodwill.
Tears came to her eyes but she continued:
      “I will not speak to you of my devotion to you; you know that from my infancy you were
always the object of my deepest and fondest love. Anxiety for you was the greatest of my
sufferings. I hope that you will be calm, that you will pardon me the grief that I have caused
you and not blame me too much; your reproof is the only one that would grieve my heart.”

      She would give Vasilii the letter. He would put it in her mother’s hands if the inevitable
      Since the first meeting of The People’s Will, she had been beset by the thought that, like
the Tsar, she too had been condemned. Even now, she knew Zhelyabov was putting in place the
group’s plan to blow up the Imperial train.


      Back in the capital she heard that Zhelyabov had just returned from inspecting the railroad
line from Odessa. The Executive Committee was to meet in her lodgings to finalize the
assassination plan.
      But when he arrived in the crowded room and she smiled at him shyly she was shocked to
see him greet her with apparent indifference.
      Her disappointment was soon overshadowed by the heated discussion over the transport of
the explosives to the three chosen points on the Tsar’s route.
      Zhelyabov objected to the delicate job going to a new recruit, Grigori Davidovich
      “Then I’ll transport the dynamite myself,” Sonia insisted, her heart sinking.
      Was he using her? Was he also, like so many peasants, an anti-semite?


      “It is a man's job. You too might put us all in danger,” Zhelyabov responded glancing at
her as sternly as he would at any other member of the committee.
      “Then I will take part in the Alexandrovsk operation,” she declared, a sudden cold wave of
anger passing over her.
      Now it was clear. He did, indeed, have a peasant’s view of Jews and women. He would
deceive her. He was not to be trusted!
      “I plan to take part in the Alexandrovsk operation myself. We’ll need you for elsewhere,”
he rebuked her once more.
      So that’s all it was! He had been flirting with her so she would not object to his
assumption of the leadership of the party. He had been fooling her with his talk of concern for
her welfare.
      She could see everyone exchanging uneasy glances over her disagreement with him:
      “Well then I must be included in the Moscow plan, or else I see no point in remaining
      Zhelaybov interrupted to counter her:
      “Mikhailov is buying a house by the railroad tracks. You and Lev Maximovich Gartman
will go there to live under false passports as man and wife,”
      Who was he to order her around!
      She glanced at Gartman, brushing his unruly shock of blond hair off his face self-
consciously. She would look peevish if she were to object. She tightened her jaw at the
humiliating thought that she had let herself be fooled, that Zhelyabov’s spell over her was no
different from that of evil magicians, about whom Niania had warned her when she was a child.
      “Why was I chosen to go to Moscow?” She asked, trying not to sound petulant.
      “We need a married couple to occupy the house,” Mikhailov responded. “And besides I'll
be going with you. We need you. You pass so easily for a peasant and that will keep people
from becoming suspicious.”

      Next morning, after a restless night, she was awakened by a knock on the door.
      When she cracked it open Zhelyabov eased himself in. He was grinning sheepishly. She
turned away, wrapping her shawl tightly around her shoulders in an attempt to control her


      “I… need… to explain myself,” Zhelyabov stuttered. “You know we must think of the
party first and foremost.”
      She passed a hand over her forehead and, disheartened, sank down on a chair by the table
as he drew up a chair opposite her. She had spent the night convincing herself, that theirs was
nothing more nor less than a collaboration on the crucial goal of the assassinating the Tsar.
      But whose idea was the assassination?
      Had he not tricked her into supporting such terrorism?
      Had he not compromised her in the eyes of others?
      Sitting up and striking the edge of the table in frustration and disgust, she recalled how
easily, how quickly he had drawn her into an act, which repelled her and most certainly went
against her principles.
      Now as she sat facing her tormentor she was too angry to be embarassed. All men were
untrustworthy, despots by nature! She had allowed herself to be misled into accepting terror as
legitimate. Zhelyabov’s only interest was in assuming complete control of the party and
pushing her out into the margins. She was nothing more than a fool.
      “I suppose you also think women have long hair and a short wit,” she burst out
      Vera Nikoleavna had been right. He was a peasant. Now he had disabused her of the
nobility of his motives. She was free to mock him for his peasant roots.
      Zhelaybov winced:
      “Nothing of the sort,” he said, refusing to be offended. “We need you in Moscow because
a cool head and a real intelligence aren’t to be found so easily among us.”
      She sighed with exasperation. Once again he was trying to appease her.
      “Can’t you see how much I admire… your intelligence and determination,” Zhelyabov
stuttered. “If I wasn’t needed to lay the mine in Alexandrovsk I’d gladly go with you to
Moscow in the place of Gartman.”
      But she would not let herself be fooled again.
      She got up and walked over to the window and looked down onto the dingy narrow alley
outside the apartment house. A peasant woman wrapped in a ragged jacket over her dress was
dragging a child by the hand, walking with grim determination.
      “We must make this succeed,” Sonia pronounced as if she were addressing a crowd of
peasant women and children, “for them!”


      But her thoughts revolved around something quite different.
      She must reassert herself. She must lead the party away from the dangerous path onto
which he had placed it.
      Her eyes flashed as she turned around to face him.
      He looked at her with an awkard smile and then, quite unexpectedly, jumped up,
approached her, and put his hands on her shoulders.
      Perturbed, despite herself, she brushed past him toward the door.
      “I just wanted,” Zhelyabov muttered, “I just wanted to tell you that...”
      “That you’re trying to keep me pacified so I won’t give you trouble,” she interrupted
bitterly, like an offended child. “That you’ve succeeded in convincing me of something which
horrifies me.”
      “That in different circumstances, if our lives were ours to control...” he continued, ignoring
her outburst.
      She felt her her heart start to beat terribly fast.
      “But I know that I’ve made you angry instead.” Zhelyabov mumbled, turned, walked
hesitantly up to the door and grasped the handle.
      Her heart pounded like a drum.
      “We must sacrifice our freedom for the cause,” she heard herself declare primly, though
her voice quavered.
      “Well, if we are destined not to see each other again.…”
      Zhelyabov opened the door and swung around to face her. His eyes looked imploringly
into hers and she observed his arm shaking as he extended it toward her.
      Seeing him in that state and hearing his words filled with foreboding her anger and
suspicion abruptly dissolved. All of a sudden she found herself afraid for him so that when he
approached her once more, put his arms around her, pressed her face to his and kissed her
lightly, almost tenderly on the lips she offered him no resistance.
      Then he tore himself away and dashed out into the corridor like a madman.
      Never had she felt such a surge of excitement.
      But then never had she been kissed in that way by a man.
      A vivid memory washed over her. She heard Niania saying with a laugh,
      “You’ll see, when a man comes along and he’s just how you always wished you’ll forget
how you thought you’d never marry.”


      It would be another two months before she would see him again.


      “All for nothing!” Vera Nikolaevna announced as soon as she had settled herself on the
tattered divan in Sonia’s newly-rented rooms.
      She looked around warily to ascertain that Sonia had latched the door and that the faded
chintz curtains were drawn over the only window. The lamp on the dining table in the center of
the room sputtered and hissed and gave off a dim glow.
      “We’re not cut out to be terrorists! The men created a trap and we’re all falling into it, you
most of all.” She leaned back and sighed wearily. “Just as you would have known the Emperor
decided to travel through Simferapol instead of Odessa. All my work there was useless.”
      Sonia flinched. Just then there was a knock on the door. She jumped up in a fever of
excitement and apprehension. She was expecting Zhelyabov, who had written to tell her that he
would come to see her as soon as he returned to the capital.
      When he squeezed his massive frame into the cramped room, and without a word, took a
seat at the table and passed his hand nervously over his beard she could barely keep herself
from flinging her arms around him. But all too aware of Vera Nikolaevna’s expression of keen
disapproval directed at him she made an effort to compose her face so as not to betray her
      “I think that none of us could help what occurred,” he burst out, sensing the charged
      Sonia looking from one to the other, saw him frown and Vera Nikolaevna’s eyes narrow in
      “Everything was planned so carefully,” he justified himself. “We could not have foreseen
the change of plans in Odessa. Anyway, I made the rounds of all the innkeepers and told them I
was setting up a tanning factory. I even made friends with members of the town council,” he


       Sonia lifted her hand from Vera Nikolaevna’s arm and laughed nervously.
       “So how could you fail? Vera Nikolaevna asked, glancing at Sonia and raising her chin.
       A shade of doubt passed over Zhelyabov’s face:
       “ My workingmen and I moved into a house outside of town close to the railway. The
dynamite was to be buried in cylanders under an embankment right next to the tracks.”
       “And anyway, who knows how many on the train would be killed,” Vera Nikolaevna
       “You know we can’t think like that!” Sonia reproved her gently and grasped her hand. She
had to protect Zhelyabov. “If we think like that, we’ll be paralyzed.”
       Vera Nikolaevna drew her hand away and placed it demurely on the little reticule in her
       “Anyway,” he continued, ignoring them both, his eyes unfocused as he relived the event:
“we dug at night and during the day I had to pretend to discuss the leather business with my
new Alexandrovsk friends. It rained and the whole area was an ocean of mud. I managed to get
one cylinder in place just when we got a telegram from Simferopol that the Emperor was due to
pass through Alexandrovsk two days early. Then I got sick. On the day before the train passed
through I was carrying the second cylinder up the embankment and slipped in the mud. The
cylinder fell and slid into a pool of water. I fished it out and attached it to the wires. But when
we got back to the house I was shaking with fever.
       “The next morning we managed to connect the wires and just waited. It was ten o’ clock
before the first of the trains came through--then, the second. I must have been shaking so hard
that I probably pressed the switch over the third rather than the fourth wagon. Whatever the
case, nothing happened.”
       “I suppose, Andrei Ivanovich, that the dynamite got wet when you dropped it in the
water,” Vera Nikolaevna declared sarcastically, glancing guardedly at Sonia. “Or maybe you
bungled attaching the switch.”
       “We’re none of us experts,” Sonia said defensively, “and besides,” she noted Zhelyabov’s
despondent expression out of the corner of her eye, “he was too ill to be doing this.”
       Zhelyabov’s shoulders slumped:
       “Then of course, we heard that the Moscow operation had also been a failure.”


      Sonia flushed, got up to pour three glasses of tea from the sputtering samovar, and placed
the sugar bowl on the table. Zhelyabov put a lump of sugar between his teeth and drank noisily
through it in the peasant manner while Vera Nikolaevna turned her head away in disgust.
      “Our group made the greatest mistake of all. Vera Nikolaevna may be right. We’re not cut
out for terrorism,” Sonia muttered glancing at Vera Nikolaevna for approval.
      But she was startled when Zhelaybov jumped up as though stung.
      “Forgive me,” he addressed her. “I’m to blame for the fiasco in Alexandrovsk.” Then a
fleeting look of alarm passed over his face. “But is it true that Goldenberg has been caught by
the police?”
      Sonia nodded:
      “Yes! It’s true. We’ll all have to be careful.”
      She saw Zhelyabov turn pale:
      “He’ll give out names. Wasn’t he with you In Moscow?” he asked, indignant.
      “Yes. There were eight of us,” Sonia replied. “Gartman and I moved into a house in the
Preobrazhenskoe quarter so we could dig a tunnel from the cellar to the railway embankment.”
      She focused on the steaming glass of tea in front of her, avoiding Zhelyabov’s eyes. How
was she to navigate between him and Vera Nikolaevna, she thought as she continued:
      “Most of the people around us were Old Believers,*{footnote} terribly suspicious.
Gartman told our neighbors he was working in town. My job was to keep up good relations
with the neighbors. Goldenberg came up from the south with the dynamite and we set him to
work with the others.”
      Zhelyabov rolled his eyes and puffed out his lips in irritation:
      “What a mistake! Didn’t I warn you about him?”
      “But you see you were quite wrong. He turned out to be very useful,” she objected but
without any irritation. “He helped the others clear the earth from the tunnel to the hatch and
from the hatch to the storehouse. We only had a pickaxe, two shovels, and a compass to make
sure that the tunnel was straight. As we dug deeper Gartman fixed up wooden rails and brought
in a truck on wheels worked by a pulley and rope to get the earth back into the cellar. He
boarded up the walls and ceiling.
      Naturally no one felt safe working. Goldenberg said he suffered from claustrophobia but
then he refused to be relieved from work in the tunnel. Whatever you may think, he’s quite
brave.” Sonia shuddered:


      “The gallery was only the height of...well, to your waist,” she glanced appraisingly at
Zhelyabov, who was stroking his beard, listening intently, “and only wide enough to squeeze
through. There was a ventilation pipe of course. One man worked at the entrance of the tunnel.
Another shoveled the earth onto the truck, and a third received it at the hatch. There was so
much earth that when we’d filled the cellar we spread it in the yard and finally smuggled it out
of the house at night to the garbage dump.”
      Vera Nikolaevna’s eyes widened and she pressed her hand to her cheek:
      “What if the neighbors saw?”
      “Yes, our nerves were strained. And then that crazed Morozov arrived and had a
hysterical fit inside the tunnel. We sent him back to Petersburg with Mikhailov. But we were
all on the verge of hysteria. It was up to me to calm everyone.” She felt her forehead as though
checking for a fever.
      “It was Gartman who insisted on a bottle of nitroglycerine. I was in charge of exploding it
with a pistol shot if the police came.”
      “A real warrior, our Sonia,” Zhelyabov turned to Vera Nikolaevna, who avoided his eyes.
He smiled broadly so that his teeth flashed white in the dim light of the room.
      “There were constant problems. Rainwater collected in the tunnel. Gartman suggested we
carry small amounts of poison to commit suicide if we were to be buried in a landslide. This
really frightened us and God knows we were already on edge. Then when the diggers finally
reached the embankment they found huge rocks and a drill was needed to get past them.
      “By this time,” Sonia continued, her breathing quickening as she relived every moment,
“we had heard that the Odessa attempt was off so we decided to send Goldenberg to Odessa to
bring us extra dynamite. We heard of his arrest five days later. We were terrified. Gartman kept
feeling for the bottle of poison in his pocket, making us really nervous.
      “That day we got a coded telegram from Odessa that the Emperor was in the fourth coach
of the second train and we waited for word from you in Alexandrovsk. I was so worried for
you, Zhelyabov. And, naturally, for our other comrades,” she quickly added.
      “When we heard that the Emperor's train had passed safely, we knew that the last chance
lay with our operation. There was no news about Goldenberg. We were afraid of a police raid.
The Emperor's train was to arrive in Moscow around eleven-thirty. Gartman took his position
by the lever and I stood by the window watching for the Tsar’s train. I was to wave when it


      Zhelyabov tugged at his beard nervously.
      “The first train passed and was still sounding its whistle when the second train arrived. I
began to count to calm myself. The first coach rumbled by and then the second and then the
third and I waved.”
      “There was a terrific crash.
      “We made our way back to the capital one by one.
      Next day we read in the papers about the baggage coach being derailed, with nothing more
than jars of preserves from the Imperial estates in the Crimea. There was no mention of our
attempt to dynamite the train.”
      They looked at each other in silence.
      Zhelyabov sprung up:
      “Public opinion must be aroused! We’ll issue a manifesto.”
      “And what about Goldenberg?” Sonia asked quietly.
      The account had the effect of exhausting her nerves and she feared Zhelaybov might
quarrel with Vera Nikolaevna who made a grimace as she looked up at the figure towering over
them both.
      “We must all move to new lodgings,” Zhelaybov replied.
      “Why did no one know the Tsar changed his plans about Odessa?” Vera Nikolaevna asked
      Zhelyabov winced:
      “We’ve no spies in the Imperial household. Though, of course as a society lady, you, for
example, might be in a position to recruit someone like his mistress, Dolgorukova.”
      “We must make new plans,” Sonia said, seeing them about to argue in earnest.
      Vera Nikolaevna rose, picked up her coat, took her gloves out of her little tapestry bag and
pulled the fine leather carefully over her hands. She kissed Sonia, nodded curtly to Zhelyabov,
and casting a reproachful glance at both of them, closed the door firmly behind her.
      Sonia sank onto the sofa. Her first thought was that she did not want to lose her friend’s
confidence and considered running after her to calm her. But Zhelyabov was staring at her
with such intensity that she put her hands to her face and murmured, without knowing quite
what she was saying,
      “You must not be so harsh with her.”


      He smiled, but only slightly, and though there was a hint of tenderness in his eyes there
was also the hard and fierce look of an animal that had frightened her before.
      Her heart pounded as she heard him recite something softly, some lines from a poem. She
blushed and lowered her eyes as he continued in a voice filled with emotion. She wanted to tell
him that this poetry was just a ruse. That he was just like every man and therefore not to be
      But her heart beat so violently that when he drew her to him she simply murmured:
      “You must not...”


      “Sonia Levovna and I have decided to live together so as to organize things more
efficiently and to make our rooms the central gathering place for the Executive Committee.”
      She listened to Zhelyabov’s announcement self-consciously passing her hand over her hair.
At first she smiled shyly at the astonished faces around them. But as he finished her cheeks
turned crimson.
      “We’ll also continue to agitate among the workers,” Zhelyabov continued, paying no
attention to the surprise, which greeted his words.
      “It must understood,” Sonia stuttered, “that our… union…” In her
embarrassment she wanted to choose the word carefully, “revolves around the good of the
party. Zhelyabov and I will pool our efforts to make new plans and, more important still, to
continue our educational work.”
      She did not dare to look directly at him, knowing that her knees would weaken at the
memory of his body pressed against hers.
      “War is war,” Zhelyabov declared while Sonia watched a smile slowly etch itself on
Mikhailov’s moon-like face as he looked around the room. “We’ve failed three times and we
may fail again. But we must plan after each event. Our attacks must be relentless. We must
prepare for a general uprising.”


      She knew that she must say something in support of him, despite the doubts that continued
to torment her, and making an effort to keep her voice steady, she said:
      “We… need to print the program of the party. We… must continue to form secret cells
and organize strikes.”
      But the thought flashed through her mind that he had, once more, forced her to
compromise her principles by supporting a general uprising. Then the sudden memory of his
hands caressing her breasts made her catch her breath, blush, and lower her eyes demurely.
   “And when the document is printed we’ll send it to Karl Marx,” Zhelyabov declared with a
sly grin directed at her.




      Two years had gone by and another child, Olga, was born.
      But Katia was haunted by a guilty wish:
      If only the Empress would die!
      “I think of nothing else but you and the children,” Sasha said as Katia reached for little
Oly crawling behind the armchair, and picked her up with a squeal.
      Her brother Gogo tumbled off his father's lap and clutched Katia’s skirt as she settled on
the floor with the laughing baby in her arms.
      How her lively children diverted her from somber thoughts!
      “If you were to abdicate...?” She broached the now familar subject, rocking Oly while
Gogo climbed back on to his father's lap.
      Sasha stood up, straightened his shoulders, and clapped his hands impatiently:
      "You know I can’t. Right at this moment you know that war might break out. You’ve
seen the newspapers. And it’s going to be a quagmire.”
      Katia rang and nurse Vera Borisovna came in, saw Sasha looking grim and without a
word ushered the children out ignoring their howls of protest.
      “It’ll be useless bloodshed,” he began pacing, his arms drawn tightly behind his back, as
the door closed.
      She followed his movements gloomily. She had not been able to sleep for several nights,
tormented by a rumor:
      “Mouche reports that a faction at court wants to approach the Tsarevich to ask him to
depose you or even…” she murmured.


      He stopped her finishing her thought with a frown and then buried his face in his hands.
      "My son may hate me because of what I've done to his mother, but I’ve told you he's
personally loyal to me.”
      The word “personally” alarmed her. Vava, never one to spare her any anxiety, had
reported that some at court were plotting to assassinate him for what they saw as his
indecisiveness in declaring war on the Turks; but more likely, Vava implied, it was on
account of their scandalous affair and illegitimate offspring.
      She ran up to him and wrapped her arms protectively around his shoulders:
      “You must insist on peace!” she whispered burying her face on his chest.

      But by spring she could see that the outbreak of war was inevitable.
      Vava and Louisa were reporting that the public was calling for the Tsar to lead a crusade
freeing the Christians in the Balkans from the Turks. Though Sasha came more frequently to
her house, their reunions were overshadowed by the fear that he would soon have to leave.
      “This war's impossible to win,” he lamented, bowing his head and tugging at his
       She shuddered:
      “If you're forced to leave for the front…” she began, “I want to, go with you!”
      Sasha smiled tenderly, stroked her cheek and shook his head:
      “Even is you were to come, as a nurse of course, I’d be accused of neglecting my duties
by catering to you. At any rate, since the court is so eager to wage this war, I’ve made the
decision to give my brothers the command of the army. Naturally I’ll be at the front with
them. We'll see if they can rout the Turks. But it'll be their war, not mine!”

      A week later, she weapt uncontrollably as he left her to travel to the front in Moldavia.
      She could not sleep for worry. But even awake she was haunted by lurid thoughts of him
charging the enemy on horseback, his sword drawn, his eyes blazing. She saw him hit by
enemy bullets, and tumbling to the blood soaked ground, her name on his dying lips. Or she
imagined a cabal of courtiers surrounding him as he slept in his army tent and slashing at him
with pointed daggers.
      And she found herself, even in Vava’s presence, crying out with fear.


      No one and nothing could console her, not even playing with the children, who were too
young to understand the danger their father was facing--nor the dangers facing her alone,
without a protector, unmarried, and looked down upon by everyone.
      Only his frequent telegrams reassured her that he was still alive and still thinking of her.

      Kishinev, Telegram, Saturday at 9 in the morning:
      “I love you, my darling little woman, my dear imp, and I long for you so terribly. I still
am filled with the memories of our delicious moments together before I left. These memories
will console me through the sad months that lie ahead of me.

      No sooner did she finish reading than she wrote back:

      “I feel so miserable all the time. It is awful here without you. You should see me now. I
roam about like a lost soul. Why should we have to suffer so? We, who are interested only in
ourselves, who feel truly free only when we are together and live for the feeling of belonging
to each other and have nothing in common with the rest of the world, that is what bears us up.
I cannot live without seeing you. Everything now is empty for me.”

      Tears stung her cheeks unchecked as she sealed the letter.
      An agonizing two weeks had passed before he wrote that he had reached Romania and
was living in an ordinary officer’s tent. He complained of his asthma, which added to her
worries. But even amid the misery of cold and rain and battle, he assured her, he would
always devote his free time to keeping her informed.
      Every day her heart raced as she rushed to read the papers. She trembled with fear
reading the reports of a successful attack by Turkish troops to punish the defenseless
Bulgarian Christians for their revolt. She was in a state of continual terror, unable to sleep,
waiting for his letters and trembling when she read of the horrors he described.

      July 25 at seven-thirty in the evening:
      “I went to see two unfortunate Bulgarians who had been horribly mutilated by the Turks
and whom the Cossacks found on the road from Nikopol to Systovo. One of these poor
fellows had just died and his unhappy wife was at his side. His head had been split open by a


cross-shaped saber cut; the other had three wounds and they hoped to save his life. His young
pregnant wife had followed him....”

      2 August at midnight:
      “I watched the engagement with the Turks from a little hill through my field-glasses. It
was as though I were in the midst of a nightmare, seeing our troops massacred and praying
that the survivors save themselves in flight rather than face an enemy they were not prepared
to fight. I cannot describe to you the depth of my remorse as I realized that my plan to hand
the military operations of the war to my brothers who had so wanted this engagement has
been a disastrous one. How I hate war! How opposed it is to my nature! How I wish that I
could abdicate, that we could move…to Egypt. Imagine! To be free to ride in the desert amid
the Pyramids! These thoughts keep me from despair.”

      In a state bordering on panic she read the angry newspaper reports claiming that the
Russian armies’ debacle, their ill-planned crusade to save Christian bretheren in the Balkans
from the continued oppression of the Moslem Turks, would continue all fall and winter and
result in terrible loss of life and utter defeat.
      Would she never see Sasha again?
      And to increase her misery Mouche and Louisa kept her abreast of the seditious rumors
at court in which the Tsar was being blamed for the incompetence of the army.
      For the past three weeks when she went to bed the image of the Neapolitan Sybil
appeared before her, like a spectre. The twisted shape of the lead in the cauldron sometimes
took the form of a Turkish soldier, or a black-masked radical, or the massive figure of the
      It was already well into September. She had never felt so unwell and avoided looking
too long in the mirror. Her face was pale. A web of wrinkles was forming around her eyes,
and strands of white appeared in her hair. She worried that Sasha would not recognize her
when he came back—if he came back at all.

      September 10, at nine in the evening:
      “During these everlasting four months of this campaign, I've hardly changed from my
shabby old uniform. It’s practically in tatters! My asthma bothers me more than ever but it is


nothing in comparison with the hardships of our men. I've developed rheumatism from the
onset of cold weather and from living like a simple officer in a small cottage with only a camp
cot and a table and chair. I am always keenly aware that the principal danger lies in the fact
that my brother Kolya doesn't know the first rules of war and that our enemy under the brave
and crafty leadership of Osman Pasha could outflank even a well- trained and well-led army.
I’ve made a terrible mistake in confiding the war to my feckless brothers and am now paying
the price—as are our men. It is hard not to fall into despair, to feel the stings of conscience.
My guardian angel, think of me as I think of you day and night and pray for victory.”

      But to ease her worries, she read in the morning’s paper the most heartening news since
the beginning of the campign. Whatever rumors circulated at court regarding the Tsar’s
incompetence, public opinion, made aware of the hardships to which he had subjected
himself, was now turning in his direction:
      “The courage and endurance of the Tsar have earned him the respect of his troops which,
in his position of grave responsibility, he had been unable to gain by testing himself in
      For a brief moment she forgot his gloomy letter and felt proud of him, of his humility, his
simplicity, his sensitive nature. But her pride soon gave way once more to the nagging fear of
the dangers surrounding him. Even as she tried to distract herself by playing with the
children, she could not help looking long and hard at Gogo, whose features so reminded her
of his father and tears would fill her eyes and she tasted something bitter on her tongue.
      Then, more bad news confirmed her forebodings:

      September 18, at eleven in the evening:
      “Yesterday another disastrous defeat occurred. There was a total rout. The army was
saved from complete destruction only by its shameful and disorderly flight. The Turks
retreated in order to attack again. Last night, my brother Kolya collapsed and began to cry
like a hysterical woman. There was such panic that I must take things into my own hands.
How could I have given up responsibility for so long? I must admit that I disregarded your
concerns about my safety when I was awakened this morning by the news that the Turks
might attack again. I rushed to mount my horse and went the round of the army reassuring
my men as calmly as I could. In light of the danger we were facing, I was astonished at my


own ‘desinvolture.’ The Turks did not materialize, but at once I sent orders to St. Petersburg
that the Guards regiments, who are the best equipped and best trained, were to leave at once
for the front.”

      The defeat would surely turn public opinion against him once again.
      “There is panic at court,” Mouche announced, rushing in to Katia’s bedroom the day
following Sasha's letter. “The women are terrified that our best Guards officers will be
sacrificed to this war.”
      Katia stared at her with blank eyes. The reaction in St. Petersburg to the reports of the
deaths of sixty thousand men terrified her as well:
      “He predicted it would happen,” she muttered, while Mouche sat down on the bed beside
her. “He said that it would be nothing but bloodshed. He talked constantly about the
unreadiness of the army. Everyone who was agitating for the war is blaming the defeats on
him. Though I suppose that at court they’ll blame it on my influence.”

      Then, miraculously one December morning, she could hardly believed what she was
reading when she saw the newspaper headlines announcing a complete Russian victory.
      She sent for the children, hugged them, dancing around the room with the baby in her
arms and had Vera Borisovna send a jubliant note to Mouche.
      But when Mouche arrived, she did not burst into the salon as was her custom but entered
slowly, trailing her coat behind her, her fur hat perched askew on her head, her eyes puffy and
      “I just got the telegram,” she muttered.
      “Sasha?” Katia’s heart leaped to her throat.
      “No,” Mouche replied with a hint of indignation in her eyes. “Meshchersky. He’s been
seriously wounded.”
      She dropped her coat onto the floor, pulled off her hat and collapsed onto the divan
burying her face in her hands
      “What will happen to me if he dies,” she sobbed as Katia rocked her in her arms.”
      “Sasha will help,” Katia stammered. “And anyway, Meschersky won’t die!”
      Still, after she left Katia rushed to her writing table:


      “The news has turned public opinion overnight,” her pen skipped lightly over the paper.
“Now you can come home for Christmas and I will cover you with glory!”

      She held him at arm's length. He was frightening to see. His hair and mustaches were
almost gray, his eyes, sunken, his cheeks, hollow, and his face, mottled with dark blotches.
      “If only you'd been with me,” he said as she settled him on the bed, her eyes riveted on
him as though afraid that if she looked away he might suddenly vanish. “And it’s not over.”
      “Please, let’s have no more talk of war!” she whispered putting her head in his lap.
      “They're rejoicing now,” he went on as she listened to his muffled voice,“but I'm afraid
when the peace is signed and the English see the terms, suspect that Russia may dominate the
Dardanelles, push into the Mediterranean, and challenge their fleet, the war could begin
again--with England this time.”
      “No more war,” she repeated, her lip trembling. “I must not give you ignorant advice
but how I wish you would give the English whatever they want. This war will be the death of
you. And of me as well!”

      But when a month later Sasha told her that he had made concessions to the British to
avoid another conflict, she heard from Louisa and Mouche that his newfound popularity
among the public had quickly dissolved and once again he was being accused of weakness
and indecisiveness.
      “Oh, how I want to abdicate!” he sighed. “Now I'm being accused of wounding Russian
national pride! And yet I’ve tried to avoid the killing of innocents. Instead, every day I get
police reports that the public is enraged and the revolutionaries are once again....”
      His words struck her like a thunderbolt. Not that she was unaware of the unrest.

      “The whole country is like a dry tinderbox seething with resentment,” Mouche informed
her, one day, just after she arrived and before she had time to remove her fur coat. “Everyone
blames the Tsar. They say he cares for nothing so much as his mistress,” she concluded with a
theatrical sigh.
      “Why doesn’t Sasha hand over power to his son?” Katia responded in desperation and
anger. How thoughtless Mouche could be! “The court loves Tsarevich and they want him to


be a Tsar like Ivan the Terrible. If Sasha abdicated we could all go abroad--take you with us,
of course,” she added without enthousiasm, “and leave Vava with a pension!”
      But then she was quickly brought down to earth with the guilty realization that nothing
could happen until the Empress died.

      Within a month Meshchersky died of his wounds and his family proceeded to reject
Mouche completely. Once again she needed her older sister’s care. She took to spending
whole days dragging herself around Katia’s house, breaking into tears for as little as dropping
a ring, and leaving a trail of teacups, handkerchiefs, and the overpowering scent of lavender
in her wake.

      Sasha had spent the whole afternoon with her and the children and as they left with their
new English governess, Gogo shouted:
      “I’ll beat you in chess tomorrow!”
      “So lively! So much like you!” Sasha laughed.
      “But unlike me he will most certainly join the Imperial Guards when he grows up!” Katia
replied with a wry smile.
      “But they must be protected!” he said with a grim expression. “If I can’t give them my
name I can at least give them some name.”
      His words jolted her. Since he had returned from the war she had not hidden from him
that she was worried about the children’s illegitimacy. But his sudden expression of concern
felt like a knife to her heart.
      He drew himself up stiffly as if making a public announcement:
      “I'll write the order tomorrow. It'll say that I give the minors George Alexandrovich and
Olga Alexandrovna the title of...” Here he stopped.
      “Naturally the scandal will just increase,” she muttered more to herself than to him, as a
wave of apprehension passed through her. “They already call me an adventuress scheming to
depose the Tsarevich.”


      But a week later an order was signed giving Katia and the children the title of the princes
Yurievich in honor of her Kievan ancestry. The day following the signing she met him in his
study in the palace. He was sitting at his desk.
      “It’s as though a stone had fallen from my heart,” he said with a weary smile and rose to
take her in his arms and press her to him with such urgency that she could barely breathe.
“The falseness of their position has been worrying me for a long time.”
      Then he released his hold on her and turned away to look at the bronze bust of his father
over the mantlepiece.
      It seemed to her that Tsar Nicholas, handsome as a Greek god, was staring unhappily out
of the window.
      “I’ve always lived in awe of him,” his voice became hushed. “Of his disapproval. He
never ceased to ridicule me for being too emotional! But I never wanted to be Tsar,” his voice
trailed off. You know that all too well.”
      Taking a seat on the hard and battered camp bed Katia looked around the familiar room
once more. Besides his paper-littered desk, on which framed family portraits, arranged in
rows, bristled like an army on the march, there were two leather-upholstered armchairs. The
walls were covered with darkened pictures of war scenes as well as engravings of Romanov
ancestors. A large bust of his father dominated the mantlepiece.
      “And how angry he would be with me now!” Sasha continued, as if in a daze, placing his
hand on the edge of the mantle, as though afraid to touch the bronze head.
      “Because of us?” Katia frowned.
      “Over everything I’ve done! He thought I should rule as ruthlessly as he.”
      She got up, put her arms around him, and kissed his cheek.
      “We should by now both be quite used to disapproval,” she said with an awkward laugh.

      She was pregnant again.
      Not only was her body swollen, but she did not look well when she caught sight of her
reflection in the mirror. Her dark blond hair had lost its luster, her cheekbones stood out
sharply, her whole face appeared flushed, there were deep blue hollows under her eyes, and
her lips seemed almost white.


       She knew that Sasha worried about another delivery. Yet even so he quite took her by
surprise her when he told her of his plans to move their growing family into an apartment in
the palace.
       “The scandal could not be greater than it is now. So we might as well be closer together,”
he insisted. “Anyway, I wish to be by your side to call for the doctor myself when the child is
about to be born. I shudder at the thought of the suffering I have once again imposed upon
you. I couldn’t bear it if something happened to you. You know I can’t live without you.”

       She knew, of course, that even in the Winter palace, surrounded by courtiers, she must
continue to live like a hermit, and more so than ever, see the same familiar faces. She was
closer to him; she knew that he would never abandon her, that he would marry her when he
could, that she was necessary to him. But what deepened her sense of isolation and ostracism
was her shock at the insolence and disrespect of the servants who also waited on the Empress.
       “Your Imperial Highness’ coffee is served,” the gray-haired valet announced the first
morning after her move, smirking without averting his head and slamming the tray onto the
dressing table where she sat having her hair done, rattling the little bottles lined up in front of
       Or later in the day the pinched-faced maid seeing Katia joining in her children’s games,
looked at her in mock horror and declared:
       “Her Imperial Majesty never approved of seeing her children for more than an hour in
the afternoon and then, never, no never, would she consent to have them drag her to the floor.
She would think it positively indecent.”

       In September, when she gave birth to a baby, which Sasha decided should share her
name, Ekaterina, Louisa and Vava were quick to tell her that the chorus of public disapproval
had reached its peak.
       “I know I'm torturing Marie,” Sasha confessed to her as he lowered his eyes. “But she
makes me suffer too.” Suddenly he struck the armrest of his chair with his fist. “I can't abide
this hiding for us both,” he bristled, looking at Katia with a mixture of remorse, self-doubt,
and rage. “She knows we have children. She also knows that I adore them.”
       The preposterous idea came to her so spontaneously that without giving herself time for
reflection she burtled out:


      “What if you take the children to see her? If she's truly pious, she'll bless them and
forgive you!”
      But hardly had she finished speaking than she immediately regretted her words.
      Sasha stroked his mustaches thoughtfully and remained silent for a minute. When at last
he looked up at her, she could see a shadow of guilt pass fleetingly through his pale blue eyes.
      “If I went with them and ask her forgiveness… if she sees what angels they are…if she is
as devout as she claims …if she can be made to understand how much I love you, my little
imp, then perhaps we can all be reconciled.”
      His eyes reflected a glimmer of hope and he passed a hand pensively over his chin.
      “It would be madness!” She broke in, irritated with herself and now with him as well.
“How can you take my foolish suggestion seriously? I was not thinking clearly, I must have
been mad. If anyone hears of this they will think me nothing more than a heartless and foolish
      But she could see that he had already made up his mind.

      “Marie looked like a ghost. She was so ravaged and so pale,” he muttered, looking
remorseful as he came into the room, sat wearily down on the divan, and leaned back against
the gold-fringed cushions with a deep sigh.
      “She’s skeletal. She lies on that red chaise longue as though in a pool of her own blood. I
looked at the marble angels over the alcove and for a minute I felt as though they were
witnessing my sins and that God would strike me down.”
      Katia stared at him rigid with horror as he continued in a stricken voice:
      “She was surprised when we came in. Gogo and Oly were grasping my hands tightly. I
saw tears streaming down her cheeks. I could tell Gogo was frightened because I felt him
tremble when she told me to bring the children closer so she could bless them. They both
hesitated before letting go of my hands and then they slowly stepped up to her bed. She
reached out her arms and pressed their heads to her chest and kissed them both. I couldn't
keep back my tears and the children stared at me, startled. Gogo asked, ‘Why is Auntie lying
down?’ Marie started sobbing and then restrained herself and said that she wished them long
life and happiness. When I kissed her forehead she closed her eyes.”
      The thunderous sound of Biblical words reverberated in Katia’s ears:
      “Vengeance is mine!”


      Surely some terrible punishment would follow.


      “I came to tell you that the Prussian Ambassador invited me for a tete a tete,” Louisa
announced as she handed her fur and bonnet to the grim-faced valet and smoothed her hair.
      Then, catching sight of herself in the mirror over the mantle she sighed:
      “Oh! I'm looking so old!
      “Anyway he wanted me to know about his conversation with our good writer Turgenev.
Of course, he knew that I would tell you about it.”
      She raised an eyebrow and smiled with self-satisfaction.
      Katia glared at her expecting the usual announcement of bad news:
      “If it's gossip about me, I won’t listen!”
      “No, not at all. But it is about a matter of state in which you can play an important role.”
      “What would a writer know about matters of state?” Katia asked irritated.
      “These writers….You must remember that Turgenev knows Russians well—and Sasha is
quite familiar with his work,” Louisa responded, trying to charm her by cocking her head.
      She approached the chaise longue where Katia was stretched out, bent over her and
grasped Katia’s cold hand.
      “Anyway, Turgenev said that la Sainte Russie needs….that the Tsar must make some
concessions. That he must immediately stop the repression of students, for example.”
      She hesitated once more, stepped back and then sank down abruptly on Sasha’s favorite
armchair opposite.
      “Something must be done, at once!” She turned her face away. “Or our Sainte Russie will
suffer and you....”
      “I will lose Sasha!” Katia finished her sentence and flushed. “Anyway, if you must
know, Sasha wants our little family to accompany him to the Crimea, next month. He says
that he's safer there. And he is. Here I won’t let him leave the palace without an escort.”
      She lowered her eyes and took a deep breath.


      “Gogo asked me yesterday what would happen if Papa were killed and then burst into
tears. And Oly overheard and started crying as well.”
      She lapsed into silence, afraid to look into her sister-in-law’s eyes. Finally, she muttered:
      “I keep seeing the face of the Sybil...”
      She was desperate for reassurance.
      “Sybils are for the superstitious!” Louisa responded sternly. “Remember the powerful are
always in danger. You must try to forget such superstitions. Anyway, take my…that is,
Turgenev’s advice: A promise of reform would improve your own situation as well. People
would no longer say that the Tsar is being punished for adultery!”
      “Punished for adultery!” Katia repeated, her eyes darting toward the door, making sure
that no surly servant was within earshot.
      But Louisa’s words burned into her like a brand.

      She was installed with the children in the Livadia Palace, set on a gently sloping hill,
which descended to a broad swath of stony beach.
      Far from the dangers of the capital the Crimea appeared to her like an enchanted
kingdom, a perfumed garden, with roses entwining every building, lilac bushes lining the
pathways and violets carpeting the lawns. Together with Sasha she took the children for long
walks along the shore, stopped to sit on the wrought iron benches set at regular intervals--“so
that the women of the Imperial family,” Sasha laughed, “might might gaze restfully out at the
sea”-- and picnicked in the woods. And every morning, to complete her happiness Katia went
riding with Sasha, even though the Cossack escort never left them.
      The days slipped by as in a dream and she was reluctant to broach a subject, which so
threatened to spoil their pleasure. But aware of the grave responsibility placed on her
shoulders, she knew that she must tell Sasha about Louisa’s warning.
      Her duty was ever the same: She had to protect him and the children.
      She chose the moment carefully.
      They were sitting in the white cane armchairs on the broad verandah overlooking the sea.
Sasha, with his long legs stretched out in front of him, was smiling, as happy as she had eve


seen him. Below them, framed by the rich vegetation on either side of the wide steps leading
to the shore, the sea shimmered as though swarming with silvery fish. He took her hand and
they both looked down, remembering another sea.
      “Our good Turgenev,” she began hesitantly, repeating Louisa’s expression, “has been
having some important conversations with the Prussian ambassador.”
      “You mean the writer?” Sasha interrupted with a deep frown.
      “Louisa, who listens to all the court gossip, claims he knows Russia in ways we don't.
He says there is an absolute need for reforms to prevent revolution.”
       Sasha rose abruptly, pushed the chair back and strode to the edge of the vernadah with
his arms akimbo. He straightened his back and did not turn to face her. She knew that she had
angered him:
      “I’ve read Turgenev. Everyone knows that I had read his book just before I ordered the
Emancipation. Everyone supposes that it had a real influence on my decision. It seems that
no one will give me the consideration of thinking that I have a mind of my own!”
      She saw his hands form into fists.
      “Turgenev is not in charge of a country. Nor is Louisa. I, more than they, am in a better
position to know that it is more important for me to strengthen the Secret Police. We simply
need to round up a small group, a tiny minority of our youth who think of themselves as
revolutionaries. That’s what will prevent revolution. Not giving in to their demands.
      I will not be cowed by a band of scoundrels.”
      Katia got up, walked up behind him, and put her arm gently on his shoulder. He was
stubborn, that she knew. How else had he put up with the long courtship she had imposed on
him? But she was afraid for him. It was critically important that she make him understand.
      “We are only interested in each other, in each other’s company” she said softly. “We are
happiest as we are here, far from everyone. But still, you must pay attention. Louisa insists
that your life—our life—is in danger unless you agree to some kind of reform.”
      Sasha brushed off her arm as he swung around to face her. His eyes were hard, cold,
like the eyes of a despot, an ancient Tsar, not her loving Sasha. She recoiled but quickly
recovered herself. She would not let him intimidate her. Had she not defied society, the court,
his wife, her own family?
      “I hadn't expected that you'd be used in this way by the liberals,” Sasha declared icily.


       He was staring at her with a kind of suspicion in his eyes she had never before seen. But
rather than mollifying him she felt an overwhelming urge to challenge him instead.
       “I wouldn't think that you'd want to abandon me and the children to an assassin's gun,
either,” she parried, pursing her lips, raising her chin, and returning his cold stare with her
own disdainful one. “And how could you possibly suspect me of plotting? You know I see no
one. That I have devoted my life to our…love… and true friendship.”
       Her challenge worked. Sasha’s eyes lost their hardness, a fleeting look of alarm clouded
them, he winced and made a motion to touch her arm, though he checked himself, as though
still wary.
       “You know we always think as one. I trust your judgment, of course, but in matters of
state, in matters of such importance...”
       “Precisely that's where my judgment counts,” she interrupted, suddenly filled with
confidence. “Vava and Louisa and Mouche tell me what people are afraid to tell you. And I
must tell you what you don’t want to hear. It is for your own good and for your little family’s
as well. If you don't make changes, the revolutionaries will.”
       “But if I concede they will always demand more.”
       “Perhaps that would be for the best. Then you can abdicate.”
       Quite suddenly Sasha's eyes misted over.
       “Make these reforms!” She dabbed at his eyes gently with her fingers, as though
caressing him. “And then abdicate! We all know that Marie Alexandrovna can't last much
longer.” She stopped abruptly, straightened her back and pressed on. “Then we'll marry and
you can leave the rest to your successors!”
       He did not reply. The corners of his mouth were turned down, the lines in his forehead
deepened and his whole face took on a look of infinite sadness.
       “So it's settled,” she declared defiantly and turning away began to run down the steps to
the sea, hesitating for a second to see if he was following.
       He was staring at her wearily and then, as though some resolution had strengthened in
him, he straightened his shoulders, broke into a broad smile, winked, and raced down to join

       But the day after Sasha, obliged to return to the capital, left her and the children to stay
for another week, a telegram arrived.


      She tore open the envelope with shaking hands:
      “Baggage car bombed. Am safe. Bring children and join me at once.”

      She rushed into Sasha's study.
      “Here we have Turgenev's ideas!” he declared handing her a leaflet. “That's what the
liberal party wants. A constituent assembly and then...the guillotine!”
      Her eyes flew over the page. It was an appeal to the Tsar to convene a constituent
assembly after which a group calling itself The People's Will, would “forgive him” for being
“a repressor of liberty.”
        They stood looking at each other in silence. Finally he turned away and began to pace.
      “I must stand firm. I must root out these criminals. I must show them who's in
      He stopped in front of her, grasped her by the shoulders, and looked searchingly into her
      “No! Give them their damned constitution and abdicate before they kill you!” She
pleaded and threw her arms around him.




      “It’s all the fault of a woman student. She was caught by the police with a copy of the
paper and admitted that she’d received it from Evgeniia Nikolaevna,” Mikhailov announced
panting as he burst into the room,
      Sonia sat up rigid, her pulse quickening.
      There were ten of them in all, some seated around the table laden with plates holding slabs
of fatty sausage, crumbling wedges of cheese, and thick chunks of rough black bread. The
samovar steamed and glasses of tea were filled, ready to be passed around.
      She was sitting with Vera Nikolavena on a wooden bench, which tipped from side to side
on its uneven legs whenever they moved. Zhelyabov, by the door, turned to look out of the
window through which a bright full moon streamed into the room. He appeared to be expecting
the police to arrive at any moment.
      “They’ve found the dynamite in Evgeniia Nikolaevna’s lodgings,” Mikhailov continued,
catching his breath and fiddling nervously with his scruffy beard.
      For a minute Sonia did not quite grasp the meaning of his announcement.
      Did he mean that Vera’s younger sister, Evgeniia, had just been arrested?
      Did he say that she was storing a cache of dynamite?
      Then she heard Zhelyabov’s stricken voice:


      “I might as well tell you now, that the dynamite there was for a cabinet maker in the
Winter Palace. I’ve been talking to him. He’s proposed to blow up the Palace!”
      She let out a gasp of disbelief and instinctively placed her hand on Vera Nikolaevna’s
shoulder. Vera Nikolaevna was quivering like a wounded bird.
      “My little darling sister, my fault, all my fault,” Vera Nikolaevna repeated her sister’s
name again and again.
      Sonia’s heart skipped a beat and then started to race. She was angry, horrified, and utterly
      Zhelyabov! How could it be that he had told her nothing about the plot?
      “What an idea!” she cried out, grasping Vera Nikolaevna’s arm but looking up at
Zhelyabov, her lips twitching nervously. She felt as if she was on the verge of hysteria. The
terrifying thought flashed through her mind that Zhelaybov had betrayed her, led her astray.
      “It would be a massacre! You men are nothing short of criminals! Terror in the name of
the Tsar is one thing,” her voice sounded shrill with rage, “but we’re not murderers of
      She pressed both her arms around Vera Nikolaevna, who had started to shake violently:
      “Evgeniia’s frail,” Vera Nikolaevna stuttered. “She’ll not survive jail. It’s my fault! I
encouraged her!”
      She bit her lip and closed her eyes and continued to sway back and forward as though
      “Are we women to be left out of all such decisions?” Sonia screamed at Zhelyabov, still
holding her friend in her arms and aware of the horrified faces around her. “Who has decided
that we are no longer to make decisions collectively?”
      “We’re not murderers,” Vera Nikolaevna brushed Sonia’s arms away abruptly, sat up
rigid, her voice breaking.
      “What if the authorities hang your sister? What then?” Zhelyabov shouted back, his eyes
flaming though he was tugging at a strand of his beard nervously
      Sonia spied a look of terror pass over Vera Nikolaevna’s face.
      “They don’t hang women,” Vera Nikolaevna whispered as if to reassure herself and then
looked around the room for confirmation.
      Once again Sonia put her arm around her shoulders.


      “They don’t hang women,” she exclaimed, looking at Zhelyabov with such a look of
outrage that he took a step back, lowered his eyes and then just as quickly raised them
      “You must understand. This is the best chance we have.”
      He was addressing her rather than the others, who had been shocked into silence
throughout their exchange. But out of the corner of her eye Sonia saw them glancing at each
other unsure whose side to take.
      “Our cabinet maker recruit, Khalturin, claims that the discipline in the palace is slack,”
Zhelyabov went on. “The back entrances are often open and unguarded. People go in and out
as they please.”
      He looked around defensively avoiding Sonia’s eyes.
      “You’ve left us all in the dark,” Morozov’s angry voice interjected.
      She grimaced. Morozov, ever eager for violent action was simply disappointed in being
left out of something, she thought seeing him rise abruptly and bang the table with his clenched
fist, startling everyone and making the plates clatter.
      Olga Natanson frowned, passed a trembling hand over her forehead and added angrily:
      “We women knew nothing about this. How would this murderous plan be carried out?”
She glanced at Sonia sympathetically.
      But at that moment Sonia felt as though nothing short of hitting Zhelyabov would suffice
and she clenched her fists.
      “Khalturin’s not suspected by anyone,” Zhelyabov continued, though his voice was ever
more defensive.
      She could see that he was clearly upset by her fury and was making an effort to justify
      “They can’t prevent workers from doing repairs in the palace can they? As soon as Sonia
and I,” he glanced at her cautiously, “have found another apartment,” his eyes swept over the
anxious and angry faces turned toward him, “ I’ll supply him with dynamite.”
      Sonia clentched her fists: “I will not, no I can’t agree to a mass murder,” Sonia spat out the
      Vera Nikolaevna groaned.
      “Even if Evgeniia...?” Zhelyabov, joined now by Mikhailov, who had until that moment,
remained silent, both turned on them.


      The words froze in Sonia’s throat as she saw tears running down Vera Nikolaevna’s
      But Vera Nikolaevna raised her face and whispered:
      “Even if Evgeniia…. Anyway, they don’t execute women, do they? ”
      But her eyes expressed undisguised dread.

      After the others had left and she had retreated to the tiny alcove which served as their
bedroom, she argued furiously with Zhelyabov, who remained at the table, afraid to join her.
      “You’re dishonest! I trusted you! But you’re just another despot. You’re stupid, criminal,
reckless, and endangering the whole party! I should never trust a man, especially one like you!”
      She accused him of using her to further his own ends so as to take over the leadership of
the party. They continued to argue. He justified himself, she attacked. But to her dismay, as the
night wore on and she grew tired, she found her emotions shifting from minute to minute. She
was enraged, resentful, sad, terribly disappointed, and yet….
      “Sonechka! Sonechka!” he pleaded, again and again, hovering at the side of the bed,
extending his arms to her with what he thought was a winning smile.
      But each time she pushed him away roughly.
      She tried to reason with herself. Perhaps she should leave him and the Party and continue
her educational work with the Plekhanov’s group. But when she recalled “the genius’” stooped
figure, the cold detached look in his eyes, his arrogance, she hesitated. Besides, for now, with
the police arresting Evgeniia Nikolaevna, they were all in immediate danger. They needed to
find another apartment immediately.
      And finally she knew she could no longer hide it from herself:
      She was in love with Zhelyabov.
      Even if he led her to a life of crime, to terrorism, to fomenting a general and bloody

      The first light of dawn peered through the net curtain of the window by their bed.
      She had been sitting up for hours on the cot, listening to Zhelaybov pace in the other room,
stopping from time to time to pick up a plate and then set it rattling down onto the table, sigh,
fling himself onto the divan and yawn loudly.


      Her anger had waned. She felt calm as weathering a storm. But it was a calm disturbed
now and then by a kind of fierce joy new to her. She recalled his caresses, his passionate
caresses, and she blushed. Never had she expected that a man could give her such pleasure.
Yes, she loved him. She could never leave him. She made a conscientious effort, to understand
her own feelings—and most of all his: Could it be that his embrace of terror was in some way
linked to his sexual passion. Could it be that violence and sexual love, anger and passion were
close relatives? And suddenly she was so overcome with desire that timidly at first and then
louder, she called out to him.

      When the sun rose that morning flooding the room with light they were still enlaced, his
head resting on her breast, her hand caressing his shoulder.
      No, she could not live without him.
      She would agree to meet Khalturin.
      Zhelaybov promised that he would let her judge the merits of the new plot for herself.
      He promised to abide by her decision.


      They made their way through the teeming slums around the Okhta district and finally
reached the shack of a workingman at the back of a small trash-ridden courtyard.
      A red-bearded youth, introducing himself as Yasha, Khalturin’s cousin, surveyed them
coolly with his vivid blue eyes, while a group of skeletally thin and ragged children of
indeterminate ages, peered from the doorway of another room, until a harsh voice was heard to
admonish them to “disappear!”
      Then, through the same doorway, Khalturin came in. He was sallow, and emaciated, with a
sharp nose, a carefully trimmed mustache, a thick shock of brown hair and darting blue eyes.
Unlike his cousin and the children he was dressed in a clean white smock, as if expecting


      When he saw Zhelyabov he smiled. But he glanced suspiciously at Sonia.
      “She be the one what worked with us when we was organizin’ the workers’ Northern
Union?” he asked Zhelyabov indicating her.
      Zhelyabov put his hand on the man’s shoulder.
      “It’s up to you to convince her that your scheme is worthwhile. She thinks you’re
planning a massacre.”
      Sonia did not like the looks of the man. The sight of the famished-looking children had
distressed her. The district was crowded with wretched families living six or more to a room.
But there seemed, she decided, to be something of the criminel about him.
      He averted his face from her and started to cough, taking a soiled handkerchief out of his
pocket, and wiping his mouth carefully. Then he sat down at the rough kitchen table next to his
cousin but did not offer her or Zhelyabov a seat.
      “They been around, the police ‘ave,” he said. “But you knows me, I plays the hick, I plays
the fool. They thinks I’s a clown but I knows all the servants. That’s how I found that cellar.”
      “Where you’ll put the explosives?” Zhelyabov asked, careful not to glance at Sonia.
      “Yes, that’s the place. Right under that bastard’s dinin’ room. I knows the layout like the
back o’ my hand.”
      “The dynamite will only blow up the dining room?” She demanded, dubious, aware of
Zhelyabov’s eyes, trying to gauge her reaction.
      “The dinin room, yes, that's all. There’s wouldn’ be more than the family an’ a few
servants. But we’ll get the whole cursed tribe, we will. Like they says, you can’t build a hut
without an axe!” Khalturin laughed mirthlessly and wiped his mouth.
      “And what about those servants?” She questioned him.
      “Only the Tsar's people,” Zhelyabov replied with a hopeful glance.
      “Yes, only the Tsar's people but,” she was about to spring to her feet but Zhelyabov held
her back with his arm, “the plan is criminal!” she exploded.
      “So tell us how things are going,” Zhelyabov was quick to ask Khalturin, trying to deflect
her anger.
      Khalturin took a drink from a glass of kvass, leaned forward in his chair, and ignoring her
outburst, addressed Zhelyabov:
      “Well the cellar where me and me two buddies work, it be right under the guard room,
smack under the dinin’ room. One of your people done give me small packets of dynamite. I


takes them in me pockets and puts them under me pillow in the dormit’ry. Well, I gets quite a
stir when we was woken in the middle of the night, me buddies and me, by soldiers what made
us line up and searches us. I was shakin’, but those fools never search our beds. Be more
difficult now, but we'll find a way, won’t we Zhelyabov?”
      He winked.
      Sonia narrowed her eyes.
      He was a hateful man, a real criminal, she thought but she remained silent, waiting to see
what more he would say to justify his plan.
      “Seems like he be obliged to bring in smaller amounts. Hide ‘em in his boots and walk
soft so they don’t explode!” Yasha’s voice boomed with laughter.
      “And what about the servants and the soldiers in the guard room, aren’t they workingmen
as well?” She asked between clenched teeth.
      Once again Zhelyabov placed his hand on her arm in an effort to calm her.
      “Better to take time and do the job proper-like,” Yasha responded, evading her question
and looking at her uneasily.
      “Sure do make me sick that dynamite under me pillow. But I’ll get the job done.”
Khalturin said defiantly, continuing to ignore her, and then started coughing again.
      “The guards,” Zhelaybov asked, still avoiding Sonia’s eyes. “They don’t eat at the same
time as the Tsar do they? We can chose a moment when...”
      “When they’se doin their rounds,” Khalturin responded. “Me, I got to know everyone.
There be some ways not to harm them, trust me, I’ll see to it. Oh, I seen that bastard o’ a Tsar
meself. Came in one day into the cellar, he did. Says he wanted to inspect us workers hisself,
hearing what good work we was doing.       Tall bastard, he be. Cold fish. Looks at me like he
be seeing the wall. Don’ give a damn for us poor ‘uns, don’ care if we and ours starve so long
as he ‘as what he be wantin. We is nothin’ better than dogs to ‘im.”
      He laughed uneasily.
      She lowered her eyes, and felt her stomach tighten as she imagined the explosion, the
flames reflected in the Tsar’s cold eyes. She recalled the frightening nightmare that had
tormented her in prison.
      But a disconcerting thought suddenly came to mind:
      Was this not different?
      Was the Tsar not guilty of oppressing his own people?


      Was he not dooming them to perpetual poverty while he lived like a god on Olympus?
      After all, she told herself, Khalturin was a worker.
      Could it be that her misgivings were misplaced, that he was no criminel, but simply a
desperate man with a famished family to feed, like so many others?
      Was she not behaving toward him with the same arrogance that Plekhanov had shown
toward the peasantry?
      Could he not be trusted to prevent innocents, like his own family, from dying?
      Then her thoughts suddenly turned to Evgeniia Nikolaevna and the countless others, the
suffering, the deaths, the cruel deportations. She recalled, with a shudder, her own days in jail
and now, her life on the run.
      Should the Tsar not suffer the consequences of his evil actions?
      Maybe it had to be done! The whole Imperial family needed to be blown to dust. Maybe it
was logical that a poor workingman and a peasant join forces to avenge centuries of
      Was it not their right, after all?
      But the possibility of a massacre of innocents, of soldiers and guards whose lives were no
less precious, who had families to support continued to torment her.
      She debated with herself as they walked out of the courtyard, remaining silent as they
made their way down the alley. Now, more than ever she was acutely aware of the decaying
shacks with their windows stuffed with rags, of dirty window panes through which she made
out decrepit cupboards without doors, chairs with broken backs, ramshackle tables around
which sat frail, half starved children with a deathlike stillness as though each of their
movements had to be calculated so as not to expend too much of their limited energy. She
observed stooped and grim faced women, moving slowly about the room, peering into pots,
preparing the meage daily meal, and shouting at the children, who stared back with blank faces.
      Were these not the very people to whom she had dedicated her life, for whom she had been
jailed, and for whom she was now a fugitive?
      She lips started to tremble and when Zhelyabov, who kept glancing nervously at her
suddenly put his arm around her and pressed her firmly to his side, she whispered:
      “I’m with you!”
      But she could not stop the trembling, which spread from her lips to every part of her body,
even as Zhelaybov held her tight.


      Had she not, after all, made herself an accomplice in a crime?

      She stood anxiously at the window of their lodgings, straining to hear the faint sound of a
distant explosion. Six o’clock in the evening had been chosen as the hour for blowing up the
Imperial family’s dining room in the Winter Palace.
      But the wind gusted and each time that it rattled the windowpanes and stirred the flimsy
curtains she could not erase the image of the Tsar from her mind. Most of all she recalled his
mild eyes and their mildness reproached her.
      It was almost seven and still neither Zhelyabov nor Khalturin had returned. As the little
clock on the sideboard chimed the hour, her anxiety turned first into a stab of fear and then into
a wave of a panic such as she had never felt.
      She began to cry, her heart throbbed. She placed her shaking hand to her chest.
      Suddenly there was a knock on the door. She was barely able to stand on her feet when she
saw an ashen-faced Khalturin stumble into the room, brush past her, and collapse on the divan.
      “Zhelyabov?” she asked him, trembling uncontrollably, “Did they catch him?”
      Khalturin, doubled over in a fit of coughing:
      “He be comin’ soon,” he finally mumbled, gasping for air.
      She managed to pull a handkerchief out of her pocket and hand it to him. She noticed a
spot of blood caked on the corner of his mouth and smelled dynamite on his coat. He was
breathing with difficulty, his eyes closed and his right hand clutching the handkerchief to his
mouth. Then his head sank into the cushion of the divan.
      “But Zhelyabov,” she whispered to herself, Zhelyabov is coming!”
      Her heart slowed. But still trembling she slumped onto a chair.
      At that very moment Zhelyabov burst into the room:
      “It blew!” He announced triumphantly, picking her up, and lifting her into the air.
      She felt his coat cold against her and the touch of him melted the lingering traces of fear
from her.
      Khalturin sat up with a groan:
      “The bastar’ be dead?” he asked, so pale that his bloodshot eyes looked like two wounds.
      “Don’t know,” Zhelyabov replied.
      Khalturin sank down once more onto the pillow and quite unexpectedly burst into tears.


       “Be still, be still!” Zhelaybov soothed him, placing his hand on the tearful man’s forehead.
“You’ll alert the neighbors.”
       “Police’ll be after me nohow,” Khalturin sobbed, “but they’ll not catch me alive.”
       “Be still, be still,” Sonia repeated, dizzy with relief as she got down on her knees and tried
to wipe his eyes with the bloody handkerchief, while he pushed her away.
       Nothing seemed to calm him and she looked up at Zhelyabov for help.
       “Listen, our place is mined. If the police arrive we’ll blow ourselves up,” Zhelyabov
whispered loudly in his ear.
       Khalturin stopped crying, leaned back, closed his eyes, and seemed to lose consciousness.
Then, quite unexpectedly, he started to snore.
       “Nervous exhaustion,” Sonia said, relieved.
       “Dynamite poisoning,” Zhelyabov muttered.
       Then he grasped her hand and feeling like a guilty child she followed him into the little
alcove and collapsed on the bed.

       “It be all over town,” the white-haired landlady announced as Sonia left their lodgings in
the early morning to buy the paper.
       They had hardly slept listening to Khalturin snore and cough.
       “There’s been an explosion at the palace. But the Blessed Mother of God done protects
our Little Father,” she said piously folding her hands on her bosom and adjusting her flowered
shawl over her shoulders.
       Sonia staggered, passed her hand over her brow, and asked tremulously:
       “And the damage? How bad was the damage?”
       “They say that fifty o’ our boys be killed, an’ hundreds injured. But our Little Father be
safe, thank be to God.”
       Sonia felt her legs buckle, leaned against the door, and drew her shawl over her hair.
       “Oh, you’se so pale, me pretty one,” the woman went on with apparent concern. “It be a
shock for everyone the way they sets bombs, them radicals. Best be on the lookout, I says.”
       “I need to buy some milk for my sick uncle,” Sonia muttered, anxious to get away from
       But she was unnerved when she saw the landlady staring at her quizzically.
       “He be the one what’s been coughin’ all night?” she asked.


      Sonia nodded, felt her heart beating wildly, and without saying anything more walked
unsteadily out into the street determined to buy provisions first lest she faint reading the story
in the papers. She found the women at the milk stall and at the bread stall were all taking about
the explosion.
      “There be a thousan’ dead,” an old woman next to her announced, looking around.
      “I heard all our boys there was killed,” the girl behind her exclaimed excitedly.
      “Our Little Father be protected by an angel,” a young and sturdy peasant woman declared,
crossing herself.
      She was barely aware of what she was doing but holding the basket with the bottle of milk
and the loaf of bread tightly, as if to keep herself from falling. She was shaking with fear as she
bought a paper from a scruffy newspaper boy, who was shouting, “The Tsar be alive” at the top
of his lungs. Then, feeling that she might not reach the safety of their lodgings without fainting,
she mustered what strength she had left and ran, unsteadily, back home.
      Zhelyabov tore the paper out of her hands, looked at the headline announcing the Tsar's
“miraculous escape,” and read, haltingly, while Khalturin glared at him.
      Sonia let the basket of food slide to the floor and listened in terrified silence.
      “The explosion killed eleven people--ten soldiers and one civilian while thirty-three
soldiers and twenty-three civilians were injured. The Tsar and the Imperial family were just
entering the dining room when it occurred. The room was terribly shaken. The floor heaved
from the vibrations and dishes fell. But the Imperial family was unhurt.” Zhelyabov’s voice
grew fainter and fainter.
      Then to her horror Khalturin jumped to his feet and began shaking his fist in Zhelyabov's
face, shouting,
      “You bastar’, you goddam bastar’!”
      She reached over and pulled at his arm to force him back onto the divan:
      “Be quiet or you’ll get us all arrested!” she whispered, her throat constricted with anxiety.
      “It be the fault of you bastars’!” he continued to yell. “You bastars’ and your weak-liver’d
‘Xecutive C’mmittee.”
      Then he thrust his face into Sonia’s, who recoiled in shock and bewilderment.
      “You and yours never heeded me advice,” he went on. “I tol’ you we needs more dynamite
to finish the job. And now that son-of-a-bitch’s safe. All for nothin’.”


      She saw tears of rage form in his eyes and when, all at once, he started to pound his head
with his hands. She looked helplessly at Zhelyabov, who merely stared at Khalturin in pained
      “It be your fault,” he hissed at Zhelyabov. “That party of yours, a bunch of bigger fools I
never seed.”
      Then jumping up and grabbing his coat from the divan, he rushed for the door like a
madman, and ran down the hallway cursing.

       Zhelaybov sank onto the divan, which still emitted the smell of Khalturin’s coat
impregnated with dynamite and put his head in his hands. Sonia let herself drop to the floor
beside him and burst into tears:
      “A massacre...innocents...all for nothing,” she sobbed, the hot tears stinging her cheeks,
feeling like a tormented child. “And I agreed, yes, I agreed to it!”
       Then abruptly quite another emotion and even unexpected passed through her making her
tears dry up. Glaring up at him she raised her voice so that it was almost a shout:
      “You made me agree to it! Is this what we must do?” She covered her face with her hands
and once again whimpered, “I’ve not got the strength to go on! Murderers, we’re just
murderers. Now I’m as guilty as you!”
      But when Zhelyabov pulled her onto his lap and began to caress her with all the tenderness
of a mother, stroking her forehead and passing a soothing hand over her back she found her
anger dissipating so quickly that she wound her arms around him and clung to him with all her
might and let her tears cascaded down her face unchecked.
      She loved him.
      She was no less guilty than he.
      She would follow him even to the gallows.

      That night she dreamed she was in the palace cellar.
      She saw the dead lying in untidy heaps of twisted limbs, thrown together pell-mell.
        Suddenly the Tsar loomed over her. And yet all she could see was his eyes, like iceflows
on the surface of a blue lake.
      She heard voices crying out in chorus:
      “Hang her! Hang her!” and woke with a shout.


      Zhelyabov was holding her in his arms.
      “If either of us gets caught or killed,” she whispered, leaning over him and running her
hand over his chest, “the other one must first avenge and then....”
      “Take over the leadership of the party,” Zhelyabov whispered.
      “But you see, I cannot imagine,” she put her head on his shoulder, “living without you.”
      How had she managed to become so dependent on him? And where had he led her?
      “Do you love me?” She asked him, plaintively,”Or do you think only of the revolution?”
      He kissed her and then whispered half in jest:
      “To the death!” Though there was a catch in his voice.
      “To the death!” she repeated.




      It was a cold February day.
      “I forbid you to go out!” Katia shouted after Sasha announced he wanted to go for a
walk in the Palace Square.
      “I need to get some air in my lungs before going to work in my study,” he insisted,
looking at her like an injured child with his mild blue eyes.
      “Can’t you think of your children and me?” She asked, ignoring his expression and
struggling to regain her composure. “You know you are my everything, my life.”
      He drew her to him, his eyes softened as he gazed into her face and after kissing her
lightly on the lips, he declared, “I will not be intimidated.”
      She knew that he was now a virtual prisoner in the palace.
      That they both were.

      After he left Mouche came in to see her. A month earlier she had quietly married a
certain Count Berg, a pleasant young man, who, though he appeared to be quite oblivious to
the scandal around her sister, seemed equally uninterested in paying a visit to the palace with
his bride.
      “Listen, Katiushka,” Mouche exclaimed as she sat in the gilded armchair favored by
Sasha and placed her little bag on the small marble table.


      Instead of looking at her sister’s anxious face, Katia’s eyes were drawn to the little table
held aloft by a thick gilded column resting on a tripod with massive lions’ claws anchoring it
to the floor. She did not know why but it caused a wave of fear to strike her with terrible
      “ The panic is growing,” Mouche was saying. “Everyone is talking about how frightened
they are of being blown up by some hothead or other. After that explosion on the Imperial
train, people are afraid to travel by rail!”
      Katia walked over to the window and placed a hand on the thick velvet curtain as she
looked down at the square below. Her head throbbed painfully. Through the double panes,
which let in the fading afternoon light, she heard the faint sound of passing sleighs.
      “People don’t even go out much anymore,” Mouche said. “Everyone is in a real frenzy,
afraid that Sasha is bringing disaster onto his head as well as onto ours. You see, he must
grant some kind of reform.”
      Katia passed a hand over her forehead in an effort to calm herself, turned to face her and
winced when a stab of pain shot through her temples:
      “I know. I’ve tried to convince him. But he thinks if he makes any concessions they’ll
become bolder.”
      “Well it can't be any more disastrous than what's happening now,” Mouche countered.
      She had, Katia thought, suddenly irritated, grown unusually determined. Berg must have
put her up to it.
      “What more can I tell him?” Katia snapped, pulling a handkerchief out of her jacket
pocket, twisting it nervously and then raising it to her temples in a vain attempt to stop them
from throbbing.
      She was aware of Mouche’s eyes riveted on her.
      “Tonight Sasha’s to go to a dinner with the Empress’ brother so I won’t have time to talk
to him.”
      Then, turning to face the tall gilded double doors leading to the children’s quarters, and
concentrating on the golden rosettes and the leaves carved on them, her mood changed once
more and she whimpered and submitted to the full force of her headache:
      “You can't imagine how frightened I am, especially at night.
      We lie in that enormous bed I hate so much—you know one can get quite lost in it--
under that huge canopy, which sometimes feels to me like a tomb and he tells me all the time


that if not for me and the children, he would despair. It’s such a torture to live like this. All
this unnecessary luxury….” She raised her eyes to the intricate blue, white, and gold
moldings around the ceiling, which appeared to shimmer in the play of light from the vast
chandelier suspended on its golden chain and shook her head in disapproval. Then her
attention was drawn down to the velvet settees, surrounded by too many gilded armchairs.
She glanced, with a sigh, at the blue and gold brocade covering the walls and at the marble
side tables with their gold curved griffon-like legs. And finally she settled her gaze on the
high mantelpiece dominated by a clock whose shiny gold face was enfolded in the upturned
arms of a naked female figure. Her knotted handkerchief dropped to the floor.
      “Everyone's whispering that Marie Alexandrovna can’t last much longer,” Mouche said
in a clumsy effort to comfort her.
      “To think my salvation lies in the death of that poor woman! God knows I may be
punished for such as wish,” Katia muttered, turning again to the window and staring out at the
darkening sky.
      The words, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay!” flashed through her mind.
      “I don’t suppose the Empress will leave her rooms for the reunion?” Mouche asked,
sounding distracted.
      It was evident, Katia thought bitterly, that she wanted to get back to her husband--her
happy, carefree husband. But she would not let her go. Not yet.
      “You know, I can feel his wife’s presence, like a ghost's. In the middle of the night I
wake up terrified that she might come into our room to surprise us. Sometimes I wake Sasha
because of a shadow on the wall and he laughs, though, of course, I don't tell him that I
thought it was her.”
      She walked up to the bronze-framed mirror over the mantelpiece, glanced first at the
Greek perfection of the face of the golden female figure holding up the clock, then past it to
her own reflection. The light of a wall sconce accentuated the dark hollows under her eyes
and she frowned.
      “Yes, tomorrow. Tomorrow, yes, I'll talk to him,” she repeated, emphatically.

      That evening, in Sasha’s absence, she decided to dine together with the children and their
new English governess Miss Elgin.


      Maria Levovna, the children's maid, and nurse Vera Borisovna had been busy setting the
table for dinner. But Miss Elgin excused herself to Katia, saying that she had a migraine.
      When the sound of a muffled explosion shook the room baby Ekaterina had just been put
to bed, Gogo was busy playing with toy soldiers, and Oly had climbed onto Katia’s lap.
      The loud crash of table lamps falling to the floor and plunging them all into darkness
paralyzed her as did Maria Levovna’s hysterical screams.
      Then she felt Oly fling her arms around her neck, and heard Gogo cry out “Mama!” from
the other side of the room as he rushed toward her, bumping into the table and letting out a
howl of pain.
      At first she was too shocked to react and it took her a minute to see through the darkness.
But with Oly still clinging to her, Katia sprung to her feet.
      Maria Levovna crying, “My God, My God!” opened the curtains to let in the light from
      “It’s the end, Katia mumbled, “It is the end!”
      “Sasha! Sasha!” she shouted as she dashed into the darkened corridor with Oly’s arms
wrapped tightly around her neck and Gogo running by her side and reaching to grasp her
hand, yelling, “Mama, Mama, where’s Papa?”
      The windows at the far end of the broad landing threw a beam of moonlight along the
long corridor and she ran toward them. Reaching the stairway she saw smoke billowing up
the staircase, breathed in the acrid fumes, coughed, heard the sound of dull thuds, of things
collapsing, of screams, and the clamor of rushing footsteps on the floor below.
      “It’s the end! The end!” She mumbled under her breath and then shouted with all her
might: “Sasha! Sasha!”
      As if by magic, she saw Sasha bounding up the stairs toward her.
      Letting Oly slip to the ground and releasing her grip on Gogo’s hand, she threw herself
into his arms.
      “They're in the palace now!” Sasha coughed.”
      “Mama, Mama,” Oly whimpered clinging to her mother’s skirt, while Gogo grabbed his
father’s leg with all his might: “They won’t come in, Papa!” The terrified child piped up. “I
won’t let them!”


      They were sitting on the bed, still dressed, while Sasha went over the events of the
      “I made an inspection of the damages,” his voice was hoarse, “first in the yellow dining
room. The chandelier had collapsed over the table. It was our good luck that I was still
waiting outside to receive our guest when we heard that terrible noise. I rushed out into the
corridor. People were running in all directions. It was chaotic. The lights had gone out and all
I could think about was making sure that you were safe.”
      “When I got back the guards and the firemen were already working to put out the fire. I
went down into the hall of the ground floor where the soldiers had been eating.”
      He coughed for s minute and then grasped her hand, rigid with tension.
      “The scene was infernal, the smoke choking, a real massacre. But the screams of the
wounded and then the dead.…”
        He leaned over and buried his head on her chest while she stroked his hair, anxious,
listening to him wheeze. He raised his head once more. She had never seem him so haggard,
with such deep hollows under his eyes, more like those on a death’s head than on a living
      “At least a dozen men killed, the smell of gas and smoke everywhere. I didn’t want to
leave. But there wasn’t much I could do until more help arrived. Just before I came back
here the firemen told us that if the charge of dynamite had been stronger we would have all
been killed.”
      All evening she had forced herself to be calm for Sasha's sake. Her head throbbed. But
though she had kept the fear at bay, it suddenly emerged with such force that she heard
herself shout,
      “You must,” her voice suddenly cracked, “you must make reforms.”
      “Or else they'll succeed in killing us all?” Sasha uttered her unspoken thought and sat up.
“But will anything be enough? Will these beasts be satisfied with anything less than my



      “Everyone is in an absolute panic. They say the police are thoroughly demoralized. Of
course the police claim they’ve arrested all the suspected radicals and that the criminals of
that People's Will have been crushed. But no one believes them.”
      Ten days had passed since the explosion. Louisa, sitting officiously in Sasha’s armchair,
was warning Katia, as though she were herself the emissary of society at large:
      “You must understand,” she glanced at Katia reprovingly, “that husbands are sending
their wives and children to their country estates.” She raised her chin and closed her eyes: “Or
even abroad!”
      Vera Borisovna had just placed a cold compress on Katia’s forehead to soothe her
nagging headaches, which tormented her almost daily. But even though she glanced at her
sister-in-law with a mute entreaty, Louisa pressed grimly on:
      “They’re distributing all kinds of threatening pamphlets. It is essential, absolutely
essential. Yes, you must use your influence. It is necessary that the Tsar grant some kind of
reform to quiet the public.” Then the accusatory glint in her eyes faded, giving way to one of
deep anxiety. “I should not be the one to remind you of the Sybil--that Neapolitan Sybil. It’s
all is just superstition after all, but…
      “You’re right,” Katia interrupted and sat up rigidly as if to soften the jolt of fear, which
shook her. “But Sasha is so stubborn,” she leaned back again in her chair, sighed and adjusted
the cold compress on her forehead. “He’s absolutely convinced that the police can quell all
the trouble,” she said forlornly.

      That night they had already retired, when she decided that the moment had come to warn
him, to “use her influence” as Louisa had put it.
      “You know that you can trust me to tell you the truth. I always have.”
      She was sitting up in bed, looking at him sternly.
      “If you really cherish….” she hesitated.
      She was not going to say “our family” again. She must invoke something grander to
force him to pay attention to her.


      “If you cherish our Holy Russia,” she declared, “you have to make reforms—a
constitution. Whatever will stop this terror!”
      Though the word “constitution” sounded foreign to her and she would be hard pressed to
explain its meaning, if it meant saving his life….their life….
      He sat up, shot her a glance so venomous that she felt the blood draining from her face,
pulled away the covers angrily, jumped out of bed and began to dress.
      “I’m going to work tonight. I’ll be in my study. I want no one—not even you—to
disturb me. I would have thought that you would not betray me, that you would not place
yourself at the disposal of a faction at court. You’re in no position…”
      Never had he spoken to her with such vehemence. But bounding out of bed, with grim
resolve, she faced him scowling and shouted:
      “I see things better than you. I listen to people who know, not to people who tell you
what you want to know. You say that you cherish me for my honesty. Well, I’m being
honest. You’re bringing disaster on all our heads. If you can’t trust me then….I might as well
take our children and…leave.”
      He glared as he finished buttoning his coat and without another word rushed out of the
room and slammed the double doors shut behind him.
      She did not sleep that night.
      What if he decided to let her leave, after all?
      Where would she go?
      Did he no longer care about his family?
      Had he stopped loving her?
      Had he so little respect for her?
      She felt tears of rage and despair run down her cheeks as she sat on the edge of the bed.
      “Is he not deliberately putting me through such torment?” she whispered to herself and
thought, for a moment, to ring for Vera Borisovna to come to comfort her.
      But what could the old niania tell her? Surely she too agreed with Mouche, with
Louisa--with all society--that changes must be made, or else….
      All night she debated with herself, first deciding that she should threaten to leave; then
remembering his kind and mild expression, the long years of love, of companionship, his
continuing passion for her. But finally, exhausted, she lay back on her pillow and unable to
keep her eyes open, drifted off to a restless but dreamless sleep.


      She was wakened by a hand pressing down on her arm.
      She opened her eyes.
      Sasha had crept into the bedroom to wake her and was sitting up beside her on the bed
with such a mournful expression that he looked as though he was on the verge of tears:
      “I’ve made a decision. I'll summon a special meeting,” he whispered as he lowered
himself gently beside her, like a guilty child asking for forgiveness.


      She waited nervously in the salon for the meeting to end, chewing her fingernails.
      At last he entered and settled himself opposite her in his usual chair and raised his hands
behind his head:
      “ Everyone pontificated,” he began, “but no one made clear suggestions about what to do
to stop the terrorists. The only silent one was Count Loris-Melikov. I took his silence as a
sign of thoughtfulness, of real intelligence. So I asked for his opinion. I know that he’s a fine
soldier and a clever governor. And he’s not connected to any court cabal. In fact I’ve heard it
said that he’s being snubbed as a ‘wily Armenian.’ But for that very reason he may be the
right man to deal with the crisis.”
      “And what did he propose?” she asked pressing her hands together prayerfully.
      “He said that all power must now be concentrated in the hands of a single man who has
my full confidence.”
      “And what else?”
      “Just what you’ve been repeating to me: That we must begin some reform to defuse the
unrest. But he also thinks we can make the government more efficient.”
      He sat up, placed his elbows firmly on the armrest and and cupped his hands. His eyes
lost their focus.
      “Yes, I think we might have found our man,” he concluded and then turned to her and
smiled warily.


      She jumped up to embrace him. She had won!
      For a second the exalted thought flashed through her mind that the headstrong girl, who
had wanted to join the Imperial guard, had, after all, managed to protect the Tsar--in her own


      Every day brought more encouraging news but she was not free from concern. Sasha was
looking more and more worn out and glassy-eyed. She feared for his health, for another
asthma attack or even worse.
      “People are saying that there's renewed confidence in the government.”
      She knew Sasha was making an effort to reassure her after he had dismissed the valets
and they were alone in her apartments, sitting side by side on the divan and drinking coffee.
      “Loris-Melikov has decided to announce to the press that the reform movement it to be
called ‘The Dictatorship of the Heart.’”
      He tried to sound cheerful but his voice betrayed a lack of confidence.
      “He assures me that the fanaticism of the revolutionaries will be broken through reform,”
he said glancing at her askance.
      She scrutinized his face worriedly and blurted out an idea which had come to her after a
conversation with Louisa in which Loris-Melikov had been described in the unflattering terms
of the court:
      “May I meet your Loris-Melikov soon?” She asked.
      Sasha frowned. Did he think it unseemly to introduce her, she wondered? Still, she
needed to see for herself the man Sasha had appointed to save the autocracy.
      “What if he leads our vast empire into anarchy?” Sasha said, suddenly putting down his
coffee cup into the saucer with such force that it cracked, spilling drops of brown liquid onto
the silver tray and the little tabletop, which held it.


      She made no move to pick up the pieces and he pretended not to notice the violence of
his action and instead began stroking his mustaches nervously with a faraway expression in
his pale blue eyes.
      “Let me talk to ‘our anarchist’ myself,” Katia responded, sitting up and placing her hand
gently on his arm. “I dare say that he’s as concerned about himself as he is in saving us all.”

      Loris-Melikov impressed her at once. His was an imposing figure surmounted by a large
head with a long face, half hidden under bushy sideburns and a flowing black beard. His
prominent nose and hooded eyes were suggestive of an oriental pasha though the rigid way in
which he carried himself revealed him to be every inch the soldier.
      Eager to make a good impression, she had put on her new gown. Now she worried that it
was too tight in the bust and feared that he might think the Tsar’s hated mistress dressed
vulgarly and had grown buxom. Instead, she was pleased to see that his expression indicated
he was clearly enchanted. After all, she thought, no one had ever been summoned to the Tsar's
private apartments to meet “that shameless adventuress!”
      He bent over her hand and she caught him raising an eyebrow as he noted that her nails
were chewed like a child’s. She also sensed that Sasha, behind her, was restraining himself
from putting his arm protectively around her shoulders.
      Could she be sure that “the Armenian,” was the right man for them?
      Vava had told her, and Louisa had confirmed, that the courtiers around the Tsarevich,
called him “the juggler” because of his lack of polish. She wanted to be certain that she had,
after all, given Sasha good advice.
      She examined Loris-Melikov's face carefully. His smile was certainly ingratiating, but
there was also a sparkle of mischief as well as intelligence—or perhaps slyness--in it.
      “Alexander Nikolaevich finds you so honest and loyal that I’m jealous of his
admiration,” she began.
      Louisa had advised her to address him with flattery, like the ladies at court. But despite
her best intentions she could not stop herself from coming to the point and blurted out:
      “And I don't expect that you are someone who looks only to his own advantage.”
      She heard Sasha behind her laugh and felt him place his hand caressingly on her


      “She says what’s on her mind, my little Katia. A most endearing, a most unusual quality,
don’t you agree?”
      Loris-Melikov smiled, clearly embarrassed.
      She turned around to look at Sasha and saw his eyes twinkle merrily. But still, she felt
the need to correct herself so as not to appear frivolous or naive:
      “What I mean is that Alexander Nikolaevich says you have no pretensions. That you’re
an honest and brave soldier.”
      “And you, Princess Yurievskaia,” Loris-Melikov replied, inclining his head and then
raising his hooded eyes to hers: “have my respect as a woman who does not flatter, as his
Imperial Majesty has pointed out to me, but tells the truth.”
      Then his expression turned serious as he addressed Sasha:
      “A ruler cannot be surrounded by a more trustworthy person than one who does not
mince words!”
      Katia sighed, well satisfied with this introduction, smiled warmly at Loris-Melikov, and
indicated that he take a seat at the table where the valet had brought coffee.
      “There are so many kinds of devils around Alexander Nikolaevich wanting to destroy
us,” she complained as they all sat down.
      “But I want to assure you, Princess, ” he smiled with a hint of calculation she was quick
to note as he directed his eyes from her to Sasha, “ that we three can rein in all these wild
horses, whether at court or among the revolutionaries.”
      She knew, of course, that he was speaking to her as to an equal only because she had the
ear of the Tsar. But still, she felt flattered
      Then, to her astonishment, Sasha declared:
      “When the Empress dies, I intend to marry Princess Yurievskaia and crown her
      His sudden announcement took her by surprise and shocked her by its bluntness.
      She shot Sasha a reproachful look. Never had he spoken so frankly to anyone but her.
      “But the Empress?” she heard Loris-Melikov stutter and noticed his eyelid twitch, “she’s
      To her dismay Sasha bent over and covered his face with his hands.
      “I don't ask to be crowned empress,” Katia objected, taken aback by the turn the
conversation had taken.


      Loris-Melikov smiled slyly:
      “Of course, if your Imperial Majesty wishes that too will be possible and with
constitutional reforms held out as a promise, the public...” he hesitated. “Yes, we must strive
for the confidence of the educated public and in that way create a void around the radicals.”
He leaned back in his chair with a mournful sigh.
      So that’s how it was to be! She would turn out to be useful to him and he to her.
      Most importantly he would save Sasha from the terrorists.
      As to being crowned empress and ruling over a court, which despised her—No, she had
no such ambitions!


      They had moved to the palace in Tsarskoe Selo in anticipation of the warm weather and
she was readying herself to go with Sasha to the Belvedere, to relive the memories of their
lovemaking there. He had winked at her when he suggested the outing that morning but when
he appeared at the door of their apartment, she blanched to see him so pale.
      “Marie's dead!” he announced. “She died utterly alone.”
      Her heart started pounding so hard that it seemed to be bounding out of her chest and her
first thought was to order Vera Borisova to take the children to their room. But Gogo refused
to go.
      “Who died?” he asked
      Sasha walked up to his eight-year-old son, tussled his hair, and gazed at him tenderly.
      “Auntie died, I know, Auntie died. Mama's been talking about it to Vava forever so long
now,” Gogo burst out.
      Katia glanced at Sasha warily and opened her mouth to protest. But before she could
form the right words Vava swept in from the next room looking alarmed:
      “The Empress?” she asked.
      “But Auntie was so ill,” Gogo would not stop, “that Mama said the angels would soon
take her.”


      Suddenly Sasha bent over, covering his face with his hands, his body racked by sobs.
      “Gogo, come with me!” Vava ordered, and taking him firmly by the arm, led him away
but not before he looked at his father and said with a strange smile:
      “And now Mama will be empress.”
      Katia held her breath while Vava glanced at her apprehensively.

      “A terrible thunderstorm all the way to the cathedral,” he said, returning a week later
from the funeral, looking guilty and dispirited. “Such terrible flashes of lightening! And then
the sound of the thunder drowned out the priests’ chants. Her body, so wasted… And her
face, Oh! her sad face… ” He did not finish.
      Katia bowed her head. She knew what he was thinking. And the words: “Vengeance is
mine,” flashed through her mind, their echo reverberating in her ears.
      “The children wanted to know why they could not go with you to see Auntie,” she
muttered, trying to drown out the frightening thought. “Gogo's so puzzled about her. He's
probably even now worried she’s upset you by dying. He seems to think that she was your
      Sasha slumped in his armchair and bowed his head.
      “I loved my mother, you know that,” he mumbled.
      But she could tell that he was irritated with her.
      She closed her eyes. She could not seem to find the right words to console him.
      “And I know that I didn’t treat Marie well. Perhaps I’m a monster.”
      He raised his head and she saw that his eyes were filled with tears. But when she came up
to embrace him he gently pushed her away.
      He did not come to bed that night. She lay awake reproaching herself. Why had she
talked to him so thoughtlessly?
      Next morning, exhausted from lack of sleep and filled with anxiety, she found a letter
from him on the breakfast table and tore open the envelope with trepidation.
      “I love you and all my life will be spent in loving you, for it is an adoration and an
attachment that cannot decrease. It is so good to be so madly in love and have nothing to
reproach oneself for. I feel that a weight has been lifted from my heart.”
      He had forgiven himself, she thought with a sigh of relief.
      And forgiven her as well.


      But still, she needed reassurance.
      What if he decided not to marry her after all?
      What would become of the children?
      What would be her fate, friendless and despised as she was?
      And yet, she continued at the same time to reproach herself. How could she doubt him
so? Perhaps it was because of Vava and Louisa, who continued to warn her about the court’s
displeasure with him, about his own family’s anger, about the Tsarevich’s hatred of her as an
“impudent upstart.”
      What if he bowed to their wishes, to the wishes of his own son?
      Finally, she turned to the person who had succeeded in navigating the politics of the court
with such skill and had been calming public opinion so successfully.
      She would ask Loris-Melikov for his opinion.

      “I shall speak with you frankly,” she began in as confident a tone as she could muster
while the maid, who had served them tea, left the room with a sidelong glance. “Sasha,
Alexander Nicolaevich, The Tsar, I mean, promised fourteen years ago that he would marry
me. I know he'll keep his promise…” She hesitated, lifted her chin in anticipation of the
question that she was about to ask and said: “But how long must we wait? You see he hasn't
mentioned anything more to me about his plans since the Empress’ death and I worry about
plots to keep him from....”
      “Worry that the Tsar won't be an honorable man?” Loris Melikov interrupted, with
feigned surprise and began to stroke his mustache thoughtfully. “Of course you must wait the
correct period of time.”
      “That’s what I must know. How long is that to be?”
      Was she sounding unseemingly calculating?
      Was she making a mistake in taking him into her confidence?
      “Quite right to worry!” he exclaimed.
      He had not answered her question and she felt a sharp pang of fear tear at her temples.
      “The court gossips and the Tsarevich pretends you don't exist. But the thing we must be
most concerned about is not your marriage,” he continued, “it is His Imperial Majesty's desire


to crown you as empress.” Then he turned his dark eyes on her: “And were the Tsarevich to
learn that there are plans afoot for you to marry and to be crowned Empress...”
      “That...that...must never, no never, be made public,” she stuttered, lifting her hand to her
lips in alarm
      “Oh, but Princess, you will become Empress,” Loris-Melikov declared gravely. “Still
that can happen only if public opinion is prepared.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial
whisper, “Prepared for the new order, perhaps even a constitutional order, which your
coronation will inaugurate.
      You see, between us we can change the course of history!”
      The conversation had not reassured her. Instead it had left her frightened. The pact he
suggested depended on her powers of persuasion, on forcing Sasha to accept some form of a
constitution, a limit on his powers. She trembled at the thought that her fate, the fate of her
children, her marriage, even, might well depend upon her ability to persuade him of the
necessity of such reform.
      Suddenly the terrifying spectre of the Empress came to haunt her thoughts and kept her
from sleeping.
      “Vengeance is mine,” it seemed to repeat to her in a voice like the metallic grinding of
heavy wheels approaching to crush her.

      She had said nothing to Sasha about marriage, though, for once, he never asked for the
reason behind her increasing nervousness, nor did he notice her own pallor. And for once too,
she feared putting to him, in her usual direct manner, the one question, which tormented her.
      When would he marry her?
      Would he marry her?
      And then, how was she to go about convincing him to make more reforms as Loris-
Melikov had suggested?
      When would she find the opportune moment?
      What if the Tsarevich was even now discouraging his father from marrying her?
      She tried to consult with Louisa before talking to Sasha about the constitution, though
she did not tell her what Loris-Melikov had advised. Vava suggested, with unfeigned
enthusiasm, that she read about constitutions in the West. But she found it impossible to


concentrate on the books that Vava brought her and when she did they seemed quite
      Maybe Loris-Melikov was wrong.
      Maybe Sasha would never agree to a constitution, to a limitation on his rule.
      Maybe the Tsarevich would never let her marry him.
      She couldn’t drive these gloomy thoughts out of her head and began to feel more and
more listless, surrounded by traps she could not avoid and dangers over which she had no
      She would pause, as she dressed in the morning or played with the children, to ask herself
what had happened to her, the fearless child in Teplovka, the proud adolescent who made a
Tsar wait for her favors. Was this where her longing for freedom brought her? And freedom
from what, she wondered? And to add to her self-doubt Sasha appeared preoccupied and did
not seem to notice the change in her mood. The idea of broaching the subject of reforms
tormented her but even if the moment seemed right for a conversation, which appeared more
and more hazardous to her, she was no longer sure of her powers of persuasion.

      They had just finishing a game of checkers though Katia’s heart was not in it. Still she
was quite startled when she saw Sasha looking at her with a careworn expression and ask why
she was so distracted. At last, she thought, he had noticed! But she did not answer, afraid of
pouring out her griefs to him, making an unnecessary scene in which she would be the loser
and instead left the table, settled on the thick red and gold Persian carpet next to Oly, and
picked up a book the child had been trying to read.
      From beneath her eyelashes she was aware of Sasha drawing himself up to his full height
and throwing his shoulders back. The expression on his face must have been stern for Vera
Borisovna picked up baby Katia, called to Oly, who simpered, and Gogo, who mumbled
peevishly about being treated like a baby, and left the room.
      Katia’s heart started to beat so loudly in her ears that she feared she might faint.
      Was he about to announce to her that he would never marry, that his coldness of late
meant that he no longer loved her?
      That he might even banish her?
      “In another few days it'll be a month since Marie died,” Sasha declared solemnly.


      He paused, her heart skipped and seemed ready to jump out of her chest before he
      “So let’s get married!”
      She had remained seated on the edge of the carpet watching the children led away and
when she heard Sasha’s words she fell back, hitting her head on the marble floor and
oblivious to the wave of pain, which radiated out to her temples, she began to laugh with
      She was saved!

      The wedding was to take place the following week.
      She was waiting, in a room next to the salon, chewing her nails, listening to the Court
Chamberlain, Alderberg, whom Sasha had convened to discuss the details of the ceremony.
With Sasha’s longed-for announcement her self-confidence had been rekindled. And the
renewed ardor of his lovemaking freed her to be playful and candid with him once more. His
guilt over Marie’s death, he confessed to her, had plagued him for the past weeks and kept
him apart from her. But now she longer had reason to doubt his love for her. It was strong
enough to make him antagonize his own son by going through with this “premature”
      The double doors were slightly ajar so she could hear the conversation clearly:
      “It is an ill-advised idea to remarry so soon,” Alderberg exclaimed. “The court and
public opinion will be outraged.”
      Then after a moment of silence during which her fingers began to tremble she heard
Sasha snap:
      “I did not bring you here to ask your opinion.”
      All at once, a spasm of rage jolted her into action. She sprang up and without waiting to
be summoned, burst into the salon. All the years of fending off disapproval, all the years of
cares over Sasha’s health and wellbeing, all the years of fears about his devotion to her
became distilled into the figure of the stooped, grey-bearded man.
      She saw his close-set eyes glare at her with unconcealed hatred and felt her jaw tighten:


      “I’ve endured fourteen years of contempt for my devotion to his Imperial Majesty,” she
spat out words that came to her spontaneously. “Who among you have shown the love and
companionship that I’ve brought him?”
      Alderberg’s eyes narrowed. He looked to her like the very personification of the Devil.
      “Does it not matter to you that you will destroy the dynasty,” she heard him hiss, “bring
about another series of terrorist attacks upon his Imperial Majesty, force the Tsarevich to flee
his own land as he has threatened to do should his father legitimize a union so opposed to...”
He was addressing her as impudently as if she were a servant.
      Her hands had tightened into fists. She felt ready to strike him.
      “We will marry! Your views are of no importance at all! I—we—are free to do as we
wish,” she shouted, her fists now so tightly clenched that the ragged nails tore into the palms
of her hands. “Not since I was a child have I cared about the opinions of society or I wouldn’t
have devoted myself to the Tsar for this many years. He and I are one, we belong to each
other and no one else and that’ll never be changed by your intrigues!”
      She saw Alderberg run his tongue over his thin dry lips. He looked unwell. But she
could not resist the urge to continue releasing upon him all the years of pent-up anger.
      “I’ve done nothing that gives me shame, unlike those at court, with their marriages
contracted for money or rank. Tell them that Sasha and I are free of such concerns. We marry
for love!”
      If Sasha had not curtly ordered the shocked Court Chamberlain to make all the necessary
arrangements at once she might well have rushed up to the man and slapped him.

      It was the night before “the great day.” She lay completely still, afraid to move lest she
wake Sasha. She remained awake, vigilant, listened to his breathing, as if fending off an
attack of asthma that might delay the ceremony. But before daybreak, finally slipping off to
sleep, she had a vivid dream.

      Alderberg with a long black beard-- more like the tail of a rat then a beard—stood
over her, cradling a great golden orb surmounted by a cross in his arms. Behind him


glaring down at her stood the Tsarevich, wearing a crown over the traditional chapka*
and dressed in the long fur-trimmed and gold embroidered robe of a Muscovite Tsar.
      A wave of terror washed over her so that she could not breathe and she wanted to
scream but found she could make no sound.
      Suddenly a great black thundercloud swirled in through the tall window in front of
the bed. Out of it emerged a group of black-clad monks singing a funeral dirge as they
bore a coffin on their shoulders. They placed the coffin at the foot of the bed. She felt
its cold hard surface pressing against the soles of her feet. And to her horror she saw
the skeletal figure of the Empress, clad in a white sheet, rise up out of the coffin and
stand over her, her eyes glowing like red- hot coals in her shrunken bloodlessface. Her
unruly mass of long white hair coiled and uncoiled snake- like over her shoulders as she
stretched out her arms.
      Shrinking back beneath the bed covers Katia felt Sasha sleeping peacefully beside
her. She tried to pull at his arm, to warn him but he would not wake up. Then she heard
a faint sigh. The Empress slowly raised her arm. At that moment one of the black clad
monks behind her leapt forward and seizing the orb, which Alderberg handed to him, he
threw it at Sasha's head.
      Suddenly the room splintered into a thousand slivers of gold and then black and
then red, and only then did she manage to scream.

       Sasha was cradling her in his arms.
      “Nothing to fear, nothing to fear. Tomorrow all will be put right,” he whispered.
      But an old woman's voice, which she recognized at once as that of the Neapolitan Sybil
whispered in her ears:
      “Ai! Ai! Ai!”

      All morning she felt weak and dispirited from lack of sleep and the effects of her dream.
It was still only twelve o' clock and Sasha would not to fetch her until two. Her mouth was
dry and she asked Vera Borisovna to fetch a glass of water. He had assured her that only his
faithful General Ryleev would attend the ceremony. He and Vava were their witnesses.
Neither Louisa nor Mouche had yet been told to assure absolute secrecy.


      Just as Vera Borisovna brought her the glass Vava came up behind her and took it from
the tray. Vera Borisovna grimaced.
      “I have bad news,” Vava announced.
      Katia froze as she sat before the mirror of her dressing tble arranging her hair. She
dropped her hands to her sides, sending a hail of pins cascading to the floor.
      Had Sasha decided against the wedding?
      “Oh, you foolish woman, don't worry,” Vava read her mind. “There'll be a wedding but
His Imperial Majesty has decided that the Court Chamberlin must also attend. And Alderberg
has, most reluctantly, agreed.”
      Her nightmare came flooding back and she winced.
      “What do you think that man can do?” Vava asked dismissively. “He can’t stop the
      But Katia was not to be reassured. Suddenly she looked suspiciously at the glass Vava
handed her.
      “Is there nothing in the water?” She asked Vera Borisovna.
      Vava looked at her with compressed lips: “Who do you think would want to poison you
      “Alderberg and the Imperial family,”Katia answered.
       But she was irritated to see Vava”s patronizing smile and hear her say:
      “You know full well we don't live in Muscovite times!”
      Then suddenly remembering something Katia rushed to the desk:
      “The wedding ring, where's the wedding ring?” she cried out, rummaging frantically
through the top drawer cluttered with various odds and ends.
      But the pink velvet case was not to be found.
      “He took it with him by mistake!” She groaned. “Yes, he must have taken it.”
      “Taken it, taken it!” She heard Vera Borisovna mutter aghast. “A bad omen, yes, a bad
omen. ‘The ring is gone, the husband will be lost,’” she chanted.
      On the verge of hysteria, Katia searched through the desk, opening all the drawers,
spilling their contents out onto the floor.
      “It's gone! It's gone!” she wailed.
      “Come to your senses!” Vava scolded. “A frantic bride and a benighted peasant! What I
have to endure!”


      For once Vava’s words of disapproval reassured and calmed her.

      At precisely two o' clock, Katia emerged from the bedroom. Glancing at herself in the
great gilded mirror over the fireplace in the salon she was relieved to see her eyes clear, her
cheeks flushed, her hair, a gleaming cascade of curls. She turned to see Vava follow,
stepping as lightly and happily, as though she herself were getting married.
      Sasha, in his favorite Hungarian blue jacket of the Guard Hussars, beamed like a young
man as he came to meet her, took her arm and kissed her on the forehead.
      “The ring, the ring! Do you have the ring?” Katia whispered nervously.
      “They were taken to the priest,” Sasha said, squeezing her arm.
      He seemed surprised at her anxiety.
      “This is the happiest day of my life,” she murmured, taking a deep breath and clutching
his arm as they walked down the long corridors toward a small room far from the prying eyes
of the servants and courtiers—and the Tsarevich.
      The ceremony began at once with General Ryleev and the court Chamberlain Alderberg
holding the nuptial crowns over the bride and groom. In her state of euphoria Katia hardly
glanced at either of them. She savored the priest’s every word as he pronounced the marriage
rites. Then, faint with joy, she held tightly onto Sasha's arm to keep from stumbling as they
returned in silence to their apartment.
      “I'm almost frightened by my happiness. I fear it may be taken it away too soon,” Sasha
declared when they were finally alone, sitting side by side on the little velvet divan in their
      The door opened unexpectedly and Gogo looked in shyly while they could hear the voice
of the new French governess, Mademoiselle Robert, whisper urgently, “Viens ici.”
      “My darling son, promise that you'll not forget me!” Sasha called out as the door closed
behind him.
      To Katia his words resounded through the room like a gunshot.
      And her happiness dissolved, as a familiar foreboding returned to mar the end of her
long-awaited wedding day.



      A week after the wedding the valet brought her a letter written on costly stationary.
      She picked it up off the silver tray, tore open the envelope, which exuded a strong scent
of lilies-of-the-valley, and her eyes passed rapidly over the unsigned note containing just
three sentences written in a flowery hand:
      “A Dolgorukov princess was poisoned after she married Mikhail Romanov. Another
caused the death of Tsar Peter II. You see, my dear Princess Ekaterina Mikhailovna, there's
an ancient saying among the peasantry that any tsar who marries a Dolgorukova will die!”
      The sheet of paper fluttered to the ground and she buried her face in her hands. The
invisible circle drawn around her by the court had tightened like a noose. They would do what
they could to torment her. She dared not show the note to Sasha but its words continued to
haunt her for the rest of the day and into the night.
      That afternoon, Mouche arrived with more disquieting news:
      “They say,” she declared, her eyes wide with anxiety, ‘that you are planning to entrust
your favorite, Loris-Melikov, with dictatorial powers.”
      Katia laughed nervously. So it was her political influence that they now feared! They no
longer blamed her for “debauching” the Tsar ; instead they now accused her of weakening
the autocracy with reforms. How little they knew about her life of constant anxiety.
      How they tortured her!


      Several months had passed since the wedding and it appeared as though calm had
returned to the capital.


      Loris-Melikov’s reforms had their desired effect and Katia’s fears began to wane, though
she still insisted on special precautions to be taken every time Sasha left the palace.
      Then, one day, Vava rushed into the salon:
      “They’ve arrested the chief of The People's Will last night,” she announced.
      The book Katia had been reading to Oly slipped out of her lap:
      “Who is he? Did Mikhail Tarielovich tell you?” she asked, making an effort not to lose
her composure in front of the child as Oly, her huge blue eyes fixed on her mother’s face,
leaned against her knee.
      “Loris-Melikov is on his way here,” Vava declared with unconcealed excitement.
      “Where's Sasha? Does he know yet?”
      “He's meeting with his sons and no one's to disturb them.”
      Then, quite unexpectedly the door burst open and without being announced Loris-
Melikov entered. He looked unexpectedly haggard.
      “I must tell you, Princess, that we’ve caught the principal miscreant. There's still danger
from his band--that Perovskaia woman. But they'll not succeed.”
      And without being given permission he collapsed onto a chair next to her.
      Vera Borisovna and Mademoiselle Robert had taken the girls out of the room, though Oly
kept muttering that, “Mama did not listen.”
      “Vava's told me. The People's Will!” Katia said.
      “His name is Zhelyabov. Apparently close to the Perovskaia woman. One of my men
recognized him. There’s clearly a plot afoot. We must not let His Imperial Majesty out of the
palace until we’ve found the others.” He raised himself carefully from the chair and winced.
“I cannot attend our lunch today. My liver is telling me to go home and rest.”
      She rose and puts her hand on his shoulder.
      “Mikhail Tarielovich, you must take care of your health for our sakes as well as yours.
And about the document...the constitution…?”
      He grimaced in pain and stutters: “It's…it’s…ready for him to sign.”
      He winced once more, and easing himself to his feet, bowed stiffly and left.

      “I forbid it, I absolutely forbid it!” Katia shouted.


      Sasha put down his coffee cup and glanced at her guiltily:
      “Mikhail Tarelovich sent a message to say there's no danger,” he replied, covering her
hand with his. “And, more importantly, I have some news which will delight you,” he
announced with a mischievous wink. “I’ve managed to convince my son. He says he’ll bow to
all my decisions, and furthermore the family's even ready to see my dear little wife crowned
      She knew that he wanted her to be elated by the news. But instead she turned away as the
thought flashed through her mind that the reactionaries around the Tsarevich and indeed the
entire Imperial family would never accept her as empress.

      Just a month earlier, at a painfully awkward dinner, long delayed and long dreaded,
when Sasha introduced her formally as his wife to his family, she had been met with coldness,
unpardonable rudeness, and unconcealed contempt.
      She had smiled nervously as she took her seat beside him at the head of the long table
flanked by stern-looking valets, rigid in their blue and gold uniforms. A blur of faces were
turned expectantly toward her and she began to recite the speech she had memorized before
entering the room.
      “Sasha and I are so pleased to see you here…”
      But before she could continue the voice of one of the Grand Duchesses was heard to say:
      “That impudent thing calls Alexander Nikolaevich by his nickname. She’s just as gauche
and ill bred as I’ve heard.”
      Horrified, Katia glanced in her direction just as the woman drew herself up and pursed
her lips indignantly until Sasha’s icy stare forced her to lower her eyes.
      The rest of the speech froze on Katia’s lips. She felt the blood drain from her face. But
she restrained the urge to lash out at them all, to let them know how little she cared for their
respect, how ill mannered they were. Sasha had quickly grasped her trembling hand, squeezed
it reassuringly, leaned over, and urged her to try the wine being poured for her by her valet,
and then looking up with a friendly smile began to tease his two young nephews sitting with
their parents.
      “I suppose that you will soon be ready to escort your cousins to the winter balls,” he
addressed the little Alexander Mikhailovich.” The boy blushed and Sasha added


mischievously: “Though the way you stare at my darling little wife I would presume that you
might want to invite her to dance as well!”
      “I would if she would let me!” his cousin Nikolai Alexandrovich suddenly piped up from
across the table while the valet behind him was filling his plate.
      “Well,” Sasha laughed, “at least you two show yourselves properly smitten by my dear
      He looked around the table mockingly.
      Katia blushed and forced herself to follow his gaze. But the women met her eyes coldly
and the men simply averted their faces.
      After dinner, dreading being left in the company of the women while the men went to
another room to smoke Katia had arranged for Miss Elgin and Mlle Robert to bring in the
three children to meet their ill-disposed relatives and perhaps, she hoped, soften their hearts.
      “Well now, you must first meet my Gogo,” Sasha said as he rose from the table, winked
at Katia, and lifted the wriggling boy into the air and put him onto his shoulder.
      “Tell us what your full name is, Gogo!”
      “I’m Prince George Alexandrovich Yourievsky,” Gogo shouted out proudly, sticking his
chin up in the air, slipping to his father’s knees, and then rising to brush his whiskers.
      Katia smiled. For a moment she could savor the discomfort of those around her.
      “And would you care to be a Grand Duke, Gogo?” Sasha asked taunting the family
members, who looked clearly shocked by the child’s free and easy manner with his august
      But Gogo, Katia noted with satisfaction, was too busy playing with his father’s
mustaches to answer.
      “They will change their attitude once you are empress,” Sasha whispered to her as the
children were led out of the room.
      The guests, however, remained seated and the conversation suddenly became unusually
animated, revolving quite pointedly around some family matters from which Katia could be
      After the ordeal of that dinner, the circle drawn around her, which had previously been
invisible, began to take the form of a bristling barricade.


      She had refused to move into the old Empress’ apartments out of superstitious fear. But
Loris-Melikov’s frequent visits had given rise to the widely held opinion that she had become
the eminence grise behind the throne. Mouche now started to complain of being snubbed in
society and Louisa too said that since the news of the Tsar’s “illegitimate” wedding she had
received fewer rather than more invitations.

      Even now with Sasha’s sudden and unexpected announcement that the Tsarevich would
bow to his will and accept his new wife, Katia could still not lay aside her concerns.
      What if the Grand dukes and Duchesses convinced the Tsarevich to change his mind?
      And worse still, what if the radicals succeeded in their assassination attempts?
      As the valet had cleared the table, Sasha took her hand, comfortingly, waiting for the
doors to close:
      “You know that you can’t forbid me to go out. I know how you torment yourself over
my safety. But I must be free. I can’t live like a prisoner. I must show my people that I’m no
coward and that no band of radicals, no People’s Will or whatever they chose to call
themselves, can intimidate me. Anyway Loris-Melikov has advised you that they’ve caught
the leader. So there’s no danger now. Besides, I do so look forward to the razvod*{footnote}.
      It’s absolutely necessary for our troops’ morale to see me. And I will go!”
      She drummed her fingers on the edge of the table, but out of the corner of her eye, she
saw him glance at her with unconcealed irritation. She could not really blame him. She had
prevented him from going out for weeks. But the prospect of his leaving the safety of the
palace gave her no rest:
      “I'll be surrounded by your escort of Cossacks,” his expression abruptly changed and he
winked at her. “I'll sign Loris-Melikov’s proclamation right away and it’ll be published on
Monday.” He pressed her hand tightly and murmured: “I’m so happy, my darling imp. I’m so
happy today that it makes me afraid.”
      She shuddered as he left with a sly smile, saying he had “that urgent business” to attend
      She decided to take her mind off her fears by changing into a brown wool dress, which
the dressmaker had brought that morning and asked the maid to tighten her corset more than
usual. How her waist had thickened! She would wear the new dress for their walk when he
returned from the Mikhailovski Manege.


      She dismissed the maid just as Vava walked into the room:
      “I passed Mikhail Tarielovich. He looked quite ill but practically pushed me against the
wall on the stairs and started rattling a portfolio in my face and shouting:
      ‘We're saved! Russia is saved! We’ll soon have our constitution. He signed the
      Katia’s spirits soared. Perhaps Sasha would change his mind. Perhaps he would not go to
the razvod after all!
      “We'll celebrate this signing! It's a great day,” she laughed running to embrace Vava.
“Sasha will be the Tsar Liberator, once again!”
      For once Vava’s eyes registered approval.

      “We can spend the afternoon with the children. We can celebrate at home!” She
announced after Sasha burst into her bedroom to break the news.
      “Later, later,” Sasha laughed as she twirled around the room in her new dress feeling like
a young girl again.
      Sasha caught her:
      “There’s only one way to celebrate with an imp like you,” he whispered, “and it can't be
done in a new dress.”
      He started to unbutton her collar but she wriggled out of his arms and made him chase
her across the room, upsetting the card table with his picture on it. It startled her but she could
not stop to pick it up as he caught up with her and pulled at the buttons of the bodice.

      “I'm afraid for my happiness,” he later sighed once more.
      “Then why go to the parade?” she coaxed him, frowning as she recalled the fallen
      “I promise to be back by four-thirty exactly and you must be dressed and ready,” he
answered with a mock command.
      She made a face, and declared sternly:
      “Mikhail Tarielovich says you must go by the Ekaterinskii canal. He says it’s safer that


      She watched from the window as he drove away from the palace in his small black
bombproof carriage.
      Six Cossacks were riding on each side and, behind him, two large sleighs were filled with
police officers. At her insistence Loris-Melikov had ordered them to accompany him and this
had put Sasha into an ill humor.
      “Like a tortoise in its shell,” he had muttered as he had left their apartment. “Makes me
look like a coward.”




      Sonia was sitting next to Vera Nikolaevna at a kitchen table in the dingy two-room
apartment that she and Zhelyabov had just rented. In the dim light filtering through a grimy
windowpane they counted a packet of rubles, which Vera Nikolaevna had received from a
      They had just finished placing them in two neat piles in the middle of the table when Sonia
recognized the urgent clatter of Zhelyabov’s footsteps on the stairs and ran to open the door.
      He was out of breath.
      “They're after Mikhailov!” He panted.
      She looked at him dumbfounded.
      “I met him at Zubov’s tavern and he told me to make a run for it through the back door. It
seems they’d been following him.”
      She put her hands to her face and cried out:
      “So they may be following you as well!”
      “No one followed me,” Zhelaybov said firmly, closing the door, drawing fast the latch and
making his way past the women to the low window.
      He stood cautiously to one side looking down onto the alley and passing his fingers
nervously over his beard.


      “But if they’re after Alexander Dmitrievich they’re also looking for you,” Sonia
exclaimed, observing his hand shake.
      Vera Nikolaevna, who appeared to be rooted to the chair, suddenly groaned:
      “Mikhailov! My God! Mikhailov’s in charge of our safety!”
      Then she hit the edge of the table with her hand so hard that the two piles of banknotes
collapsed into an untidy heap.
      “Remember, you and he are our best organizers,” Sonia interjected, fearing that a fight
between him and Vera Nikolaevna seemed inevitable. “You’ve told us all that if one of you
gets taken, the other—I mean others....”
      She shuddered, lowered her eyes and blinked back tears while Zhelyabov pulled her into
his arms. She drew away, embarrassed, seeing Vera Nikolaevna looking sternly at him:
      “Remember Mikhailov kept you in check, Zhelyabov.” Vera Nikolaevna muttered
threateningly. “But I’d better go at once and warn the others.”

      The full account of Mikhailov's arrest reached them only the next day.
      “Now you and Vera Nikolaevna and I are left to take charge,” Sonia said anxiously to
Zhelyabov when they were alone late that evening, lying with their arms around each other in
the flimsy cot, which served as their only bed.
      Neither of them had undressed for the night as though expecting a police raid at any
moment. Her head was spinning and she felt herself besieged by ever more disturbing thoughts
even as she lay pressed so close to him:
      Now she had become no less a hothead then the men she had wished to keep in check.
      And, moreoever, she had done it for the love of Zhelyabov.
      She would have no desire to live if he died.
      And surely it would be only a matter of time before the police captured them both—
perhaps the whole group as well.
      Zhelyabov kissed her forehead:
      “Mikhailov won’t talk,” he said as he undid the tight knot of her chignon and buried his
face in the mass of blond hair spreading around her head.

      At the urgently called meeting in their apartment, she counted only ten members present.
Some were standing by the door or the window, others occupied the few rickety chairs around


the table including a new recruit, a young Pole, Ignati Ioakimovich Grinevitski, brought in a
month before for educational work.
      “We must proceed with other plans!”
      Drawing himself up imperiously, Zhelyabov opened the meeting. His full brows were
drawn together in a deep frown and his eyes glittered as they swept over the anxious faces
turned toward him.
      “We need to get better information on the Tsar's movements,” Sonia added half-heartedly,
glancing nervously at Zhelyabov, who stood at the door of the room with his head almost
touching the low ceiling.
      But the only thought that occupied her was how much she loved him and how afraid she
was for him.
      “We must find a link to the palace,” he announced, running his hand through his beard.
      She could see that despite his forceful words he was unsure of himself and was determined
to hide his apprehension from the others.
      “I’ll take charge of that,” Vera Nikolaevna offered with an irritated expression.
      She, too, Sonia guessed, was having second thoughts.
      Suddenly Grinevitski’s high-pitched voice with its Polish accent startled everyone:
      “The best way to dispatch the Tsar would be with a grenade, a hand grenade!”
      The vehemence of the pale young man and the burning look of a wild animal in his bright
blue eyes electrified her and she glanced around the room to see the astonished expressions
fixed on him.
      “It would be suicidal!” she burst out, wrapping her arms tightly around her waist.
      “And who would deliver this coup de grace?”
      Zhelyabov cocked his head at her ironically.
      “I will!” she heard Grinevitski declare.
      For a second she was distracted by the fury expressed on his face.

      “I’ve heard that the Tsar is deliberately making his daily movements unpredictable,” Vera
Nikolaevna reported when Sonia met her the following week just inside the lobby of the
library, where they had, half-heartedly, agreed to do some research on the theories of a French
anarchist. “But he never fails to attend the military drill at the Mikhailovski Cavalry barracks


on Sundays,” she continued, “and to get there he has to pass through Malaya Sadovnaya
      The next day, Sonia walking the length of Malaya Sadovnaya Street, spotted a “for rent”
sign on a small basement shop.
      That evening she described the place to Zhelyabov.
      “We will need to place a bomb under the road as the Tsar’s carriage travels from the
barracks,” she began, placing her hand gently on his arm as though in anticipation of his
objection. “Of course it would involve digging a tunnel. But we’re all used to that ,” she made
an attempt at a sardonic smile. “And then no one would risk their lives with hand grenades,”
she concluded.
      “Malaya Sadovnaya’s too close to the center of the city for that,” he replied, stroking his
beard and shrugging off her hand. “I prefer Grinevitski's idea of hand grenades. They’d be
easier to use and they don’t require digging tunnels. Besides you know very well there are
constant police inspections on the Tsar's route.”
      Sonia jumped up from the edge of the bed where they were seated side by side:
      “Grinevitski's idea is quite mad!” she burst out. “I absolutely won’t stand for more
pointless deaths! Besides, a tunnel would work far better for us. That way the Tsar wouldn’t
escape and we would!”
      She could see Zhelyabov looking skeptical. And then a terrifying thought occurred to her:
      Perhaps he was planning to sacrifice himself just like that mad Grinevitski.
      Perhaps he did not love her, after all, as much as she loved him.
      “We need you more than ever with Mikhailov gone,” she found herself pleading, blinking
back tears, as she sank back onto the side of the cot and tried unsuccessfully to pull him into
her arms. “No one is more suited to recruit than you! And besides, I love you….”
      She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. A wave of despair swept over her when he
stood up, rigid, and without even a glance at her walked to the window, leaned his arm on the
sill and gazed out at the dingy alley below.
      She could not imagine living without him.
      That night Zhelyabov made love to her with such passion that she did not doubt his lack of
feelings for her. But as she lay awake, listening to his quiet breathing with the weight of his
hand on her breast, her doubts continued to gnaw at her.


      Could his love for her be linked in some mysterious way to his obsession with
assassinating the Tsar?
      Could his thirst for terrorism be behind his desire for her as well?
      Could such sexual and murderous passion be so closely united in one person?

      At the meeting of the Executive Committee, she already knew that Vera Nikolaevna would
take her side. Still she was relieved when several of the other members chimed in.
      “We’ll have no trouble mining the street,” one of the men declared cockily, looking
askance at Zhelyabov who had taken his usual position standing by the door, this time with one
massive foot on a rung of the chair.
      For a second, seeing him flex the muscles in his arm, her thoughts went back to their
lovemaking and she lowered her head and blushed as if worried that others had seen the glint of
desire in her eyes.
      “But if the fuse is faulty or there is some obstacle under the road?” Grinevitski’s shrill
voice pierced through the sudden din of voices.
      Sonia glanced at him. How she hated him with his pink boyish face, his glistening high
forehead, his weak beardless chin.
      She looked up and heard Zhelyabov reply calmly:
      “Then we can have a plan for the second stage. And that plan will be to use hand
      “I suppose if that fails you’ll use daggers or revolvers.” Sonia lashed out enraged by his
unswerving assurance.
      “Yes, that’s what I have in mind,” Zhelyabov retorted looking at her defiantly.
      It felt to Sonia as though he had stabbed her instead. Her mouth was dry with anxiety.
Maybe she was mistaken about him, after all. He was fooling her, using her. He did not love
her. His passions were elsewhere.
      “Then you might as well know that you’ll not have my support!” She burst out, blinking
hard to keep those around her from seeing her eyes fill with tears of rage and bitter
      Behind her Grinevitski's voice rang out once more:
      “I must be allowed to throw the grenade.”


      But before she could pull herself together, remind herself of her important role in the party,
and bring the group to order Zhelayabov flashed her a conciliatory smile:
      “All right! I agree with Sonia Levovna. I’ll grant her that. First we’ll plant the bomb, but
we’ll also have grenades ready, and if Grinevitski wishes to have the honor... But then one of
us must be ready to use a revolver to finish the job if need be,” he declared. “And that’ll be my
role!” He added looking sternly at Sonia from under his eyebrows.
      “Then I can take a dagger or a pistol as well and finish the job,” she cried out, well aware
of the hysterical tremor in her voice.
      She leapt to her feet and pushed her chair away with such violence that it fell behind her
with a clatter as loud as a shot.
      Her outburst was met with shocked silence.
      Zhelyabov gave her a meaningful glance:
      “Remember,” he muttered, his eyes betraying deep emotion, “We pledged ourselves to
the cause. We’re bound together to the death!”

      The next day Sonia convinced two trusted members of the Executive Committee, Anna
Vasilievna Yakimova and Yuri Nikolaevich Bogdanovich, a medical student, to pose as a
married couple from the provinces come to the capital to run a cheese shop in the basement of
the house at number fifty-six Malaya Sadovnaya Street. The “goods” were easily acquired and
even inexpensive. Everyone agreed that nothing could be less conspicuous or arouse less
suspicion than a cheese shop.
      Still she had insisted to the group that she should be allowed to take charge of the
operation. Only then could she have the authority to rein Zhelyabov in. And, she had already
made up her mind. If everything failed she would die with him.
      There was no alternative for her now.
      It was that simple!



      She returned again and again to Sadovnaya Street to examine the shop carefully and to
make sure that a tunnel could be dug through the storeroom. The windowless space smelled of
mold, its walls were wet with humidity, but it appeared to her ideal for the work that had to be
accomplished without disturbing any neighbors.
      She went into the neighboring shops: A butcher’s drew in customers at all hours of the
day; a bakery attended by an old woman who sat behind the counter heaped high with loaves
and knitted what appeared to be an interminable scarf, looking up mournfully when Sonia make
her purchase; and further down the street a milliner’s shop displayed a few faded hats on hat
stands but she could not bring herself to enter. The neighborhood looked inconspicuous, not
poor perhaps but neither did it seem to draw the servants of the rich to make their purchases.
      In sum, a cheese shop would attract little attention.
      She knew that the plan must succeed or if she lost Zhelaybov would be lost to her as well.
      Only when she was fully satisfied did she take on the task of helping Bogdanovich and
Yakimova to move in.
      Meanwhile, she sent Vera Nikolaevna to raise money from her “friends” to buy the
provisions of cheese.
      But the night after the men entered the storeroom to begin excavating she was alarmed to
see Zhelyabov appear after midnight at the door of their lodgings looking grim.
      “Dammit all, if we just used bombs or hand grenades as I suggested we’d have no need of
all that stinking cheese or of that dirty little shop. And now, because of that scheme of yours,
there’s a man on the corner, watching us two. Someone’s tipped off the police.”
      Sonia rushed to the window.
      A tall figure stood in the shadows beneath the lamplight.
      She drew away, her mind racing:
      “I think we can escape by the landlady’s back door into the courtyard,” she whispered, as
though fearing that she might be overheard by the man outside. “I’ll…I’ll ask her to come
upstairs. I’ll tell her…I’ll tell her that I don’t feel well. You…” she glanced at him with a
mixture of guilt and calculation, “go hide on the landing. Then you must run downstairs while
I keep her here. I know that the back door’s always unlocked. I’ll… tell her that I’m worried
you’re still not back and ask her to let me go to her room and have some tea with her.”


      “But how will you get away?” Zhelaybov’s anger had turned to concern. He reached for her
and put his arms around her. “I won’t leave you…”
      She pulled away. But his solicitude had reassured her.
       “I’ll tell her… I feel faint,” she stuttered, “and that I need to get some fresh air. Let’s
hurry now! I’ll meet you at Luzhin’s tavern on the Haymarket.”
      They rushed to pack their few belongings into a bag, bumping into each other in their
haste, stumbling over the chairs spread haphazardly in the main room. When they were finally
ready to leave she watched nervously as Zhelyabov unlatched the door, tiptoed to the landing,
and, with great difficulty, squeezed himself into the broom closet at the head of the stairs.
       Then she ran down to the landlady’s.
      Everything worked as she had planned.
      When she caught up with Zhelyabov she grasped his arm tightly as they walked through
the crowded Haymarket. He was looking down at her with a look of such deep affection that
she imagined for a moment they might be just another happy and newly married couple
strolling through the streets before going home to dinner.
      “We’ll go to Grinevitski’s and find somewhere to stay from there,” she whispered as he
clutched her hand so tightly that she winced with pain and, inexplicably, began to laugh.

      Among the members of the Executive Committee hastily gathered at Grinevitski’s she
sensed at once an atmosphere of gloom and urgency. The short-lived euphoria after their clever
escape quickly faded. Sitting beside Zhelyabov aware of the grim expression on his face Sonia
bit her lip so hard that she drew blood. From time to time she could not keep from glancing at
the door fully expecting a police raid.
      “They'll get you next, Zhelyabov,” Grinevitski was saying gloomily.
      Shaken by his warning Sonia exclaimed:
       “Then you others must pledge to take our place!”
       “They seem to be gaining on us,” Zhelaybov mumbled dejectedly. “But we can’t give in
either. We must follow through with the plan. “ He hesitated and Sonia glimpsed a look of
reproach in his eyes. “So there’s no time to waste. I’ve written to an old acquaintance from
Odessa. Trigoni is an expert on explosives and he’ll help with placing the mine.” He stood up


and pushed his chair away from the table. Looking directly at Sonia, he declared, “We may go
down but the struggle will continue!”
      A wave of absolute terror washed over her. She looked around. Grinevitski was pacing
back and forth, his hands clutched behind his back and a determined look in his eye, as though
he had heard nothing. Vera Nikolaevna stared fixedly at her, frowning and apprehensive.
      It was up to her reassure them all, to demonstrate that she was in charge of the operation
and that it would succeed despite the obstacles and dangers. Still she did not know if, at that
moment, she was capable of summoning up either the energy or the courage. And had it not
been the sight of Zhelyabov staring fixedly into her eyes, challenging her and galvanizing her
into action, she might well have insisited on abandoning the whole enterprise.
      She raised her chin and announced in a voice unnaturally steady and stern:
      “We’re with the party to the very end!”
      The others muttered their assent.
      “But after we have succeeded with our plan we must also think about broader strategies,
we must exploit our victory,” she continued, her eyes fixed on Zhelyabov. She had to remind
him that there was also another way to reach their goal.
      “We have to strengthen the organization and concentrate on recruiting and if public
opinion is with us, we must immediately exploit our notoriety.”
      She thought she saw Zhelyabov’s eyes shine as though the deed had already been
accomplished, the Tsar lying bloodied in the snow. And despite herself, she shuddered. Surely
it was not this, not his blood lust, that had attracted her so to him.

      She was standing in the store pretending to buy some Roquefort cheese to observe other
      Yakimova sat behind the counter, her hair covered by a clean white handkerchief. But the
counter was almost bare and Yakimova was quite flustered and apologetic when one customer
entered and asked for some Edam cheese. The woman insisted indignantly that every cheese
shop worthy of the name must have it. Then she stormed out, muttering that the authorities
should not allow such a poorly stocked establishment to open.
      “We don’t have enough money for stock,” Yakimova complained to Sonia as she tightened
her kerchief around her hair.


      Then, two days later the tunnel caused a problem.
      They had not thought the plan through carefully enough and now found that the excavated
earth had to be packed into barrels, which they smuggled in at night.
      But an unexpected occurrence made their work even more difficult. Zhelyabov, exhausted
after a night of digging, came back smelling as though he had fallen into a latrine and collapsed
on the bed. When she wrinkled up her nose in disgust, he burst into laughter:
      “We were digging under the pavement and we hit a huge drainpipe and smashed it open. It
turned out to be a sewer! We crawled away as fast as we could but the whole place was filled
with an awful stench. Once again, we’ve proved that we’re no good at this kind of plan,” he
said reproachfully.
      “Maybe it’s all hopeless!” she sighed.
      Still, with the worry that Zhelyabov would once again press them to use hand grenades or
bombs alone, she could not let anyone give up.
      But the following morning when she went to the shop to see about the cheese supply she
learned that the men had concocted a scheme in which the sewer would be partly blocked,
leaving enough space to crawl past, and, with the aid of a respirator, they could reach the
middle of the street.

      Next day when she returned to check on the operation she found Yakimova very pale:
      “When I opened the shop this morning I saw these three policemen arrive,” she muttered.
“They claimed they represented the sanitary commission investigating complaints about a bad
smell.” She glanced worriedly at the door to make sure that no customer was coming in.
      “Bogdanovich had his wits about him and pretended to be indignant and I has the idea of
throwing my apron over my face, like I was ashamed but it was really just to hide my terror.
Bogdanovich grabbed my arm and said that I’d feel the back of his hand later. Well, of course,
they laughed! But then they went into the storeroom and wanted to know why it’s so damp and
smelly. I almost fainted from fright when I saw one of them running his fingers over a wet spot
next to the largest barrel.”
      “We must all be quite mad,” Sonia said under her breath. “But it’s too late to give up
      “Well Bogdanovich, who has such a good head on his shoulders, shouted at me that I’d
spilled some cream and said something like ‘women and cream spoil too fast.’ Then one of


them asked if we sold Limberger since it was popular with those stinking Germans. And they
all laughed. So Bogdanovich asked them impishly if they wanted a taste and I shuddered
because we had none. But, Thanks be to God, they declined and left.”

      Three days later at a meeting of the Executive Committee in Grinevitski's rooms, Sonia
was unpleasantly surprised to find Zhelyabov arriving a good half hour after her with three
young workingmen, she did not recognize.
      “We’ve only this week to organize everything,” he announced without introducing them.
“We must be ready by the first of March. Sonia Levovna and I hiding the dynamite in our new
lodgings. It remains only to assemble the mine.”
      She had indeed reluctantly agreed to store the bottle of nitroglycerene brought to their
lodgings by Bogdanovich and placed inside a tiny cupboard among their clothes, though it
made her terribly nervous to have it there.
      Now it made her even more nervous to see Grinevitski grinning like an excited schoolboy
and the three newcomers looking around the room expectantly.
      “And now for the formalities,” Zhelyabov went on, still ignoring the presence of the young
      But she thought to excuse him seeing how exhausted he looked. The dark hollows under
his eyes were so etched with wrinkles that in the past week he seemed to have aged by ten
      “The mine will be placed in the evening. My friend Trigoni’s coming tomorrow from
Odessa. He’ll set it up and detonate it. Sonia Levovna and Vera Nikolaevna will be lookouts
outside the shop and Yakimova will be inside to give the signal to Trigoni. In case the bomb
doesn’t explode we’ve agreed,” he glanced wearily at Sonia who winced, “that Grinevitski will
throw a bomb. It’s easier to assemble than a grenade. Our three volunteers here,” now, for the
first time, he motioned to the adolescents sitting together at one end of the table, “will be
provided with bombs and I myself will lead them.”
      Sonia closed her eyes.
      Once again he had acted without consulting her, bringing in these new recruits for so
crucial an undertaking without first introducing them to her.
      Was he taunting her now?


      Once again unwelcome doubts about him resurfaced as she scrutinized the bomb-throwers.
Not one of the three looked up to the task! The youngest a rough-looking youth wearing a
student’s uniform, with coarse features and an unruly mane of matted yellow hair, was rubbing
his nose with his calloused thumb and smiling happily as though he’s been awarded some
magnificent prize and just could not believe his luck. Next to him a boy, who looked to be his
brother and seemed to be less sure of his good fortune, frowned and rubbed his shoulder with
his muscular arm, then tugged nervously at his blond forelock. The third and oldest, slumped
in his chair, passed his hand through his thick black hair and looked steadily down at the floor,
clenching and unclenching his jaw. And then she turned to look at Grinevitski whose eyes
glittered as though he was about to fling the bomb into the Tsar's face.
      What had she been seduced into accepting?
      Was this noble task to be undertaken by young thugs or maddened Poles?
      And what of Zhelyabov? Had he not simply bewitched her, cast a spell over her. For a
second the face of her niania appeared vividly before her eyes and her words rang in her ears:
      “When you meet someone who is just as you want him to be…”
      Had she always wished for a man, an epic hero, like the Ilya Muromets of her childhood
      Vera Nikolaevna’s voice broke through the torment of her thoughts :
      “Mikhailov always warned us that tasks of such importance should not be given to new
recruits,” she objected through pinched lips.
      Sonia noticed the young men turn to Zhelyabov.
      But Grinevitski interjected:
      “What they lack in experience they’ll make up for in their dedication.”
      “And what if you all lose your nerve?” she heard her own voice as though from a great
distance. “This is a task for heroic…”
      The brothers both burst in before she could finish:
      “We be ready to lay down our lives,” the younger one protested. “And we done rehearsed
it in our minds,” the older one added in a sullen tone of voice and glanced at her with an
expression that brought to her mind a criminal about to strike at his victim.
      “What if you miss?” Vera Nikolaevna drew herself up haughtily, turned to Sonia with a
complicit half smile: “and blow yourselves up instead.”


      The oldest one jumped up and looking over at Zhelyabov for approval declared self-
      “I’ll have my dagger. The Tsar won’t escape.”
      Sonia found herself staring through the dirt-encrusted window. The grey winter light
      threatened snow.
      Like a shroud, she thought, her heart beating painfully.

      She could not fall asleep that night but lay listening to Zhelyabov’s irregular breathing.
Exhausted, he had not gone to the shop and that, too, worried her.
      She imagined the mine failing to explode.
      She imagined the boys running at the Tsar’s carriage with their bombs.
      She imagined Zhelyabov dashing toward the Tsar with his dagger drawn.
      She imagined the guards shooting him full in the chest.
      She imagined him lying in the snow, covered in blood.
      But he was not sleeping either, and from time to time he stroked her hand. They did not
speak, as if guessing at each other’s thoughts. Finally, she dozed off, thinking that now they
were alive and together and in a week, perhaps....
      She woke with a start to hear him pacing up and down the room.

      Two days later, just as Zhelaybov returned from his nightly work in the tunnel, Trigoni, the
bomb expert, arrived to see him and take away the heavy bottle of nitroglycerine.
      Sonia examined the tall gaunt young man with prominent dark circles under his eyes
warily. She noted his delicate small white hands with long tapered fingers. Hardly the hands of
an explosives expert, she thought. But Zhelyabov had told her that Trigoni came from an
aristocratic family, and that, like her, he was devoted to the cause, their cause.
      But she was shaken when Zhelyabov hoisting the bottle into Trigoni’s arms suddenly
staggered and almost fell.
      “You’re pushing yourself too ruthlessly,” she chided him. “You must preserve your
      “I’ve got to let off steam working tonight,” he answered, impatient. “And then later I want
to talk things over with my old friend.” He gave Trigoni a complicit look and patted Sonia’s
shoulder. “I promise that when this is over we’ll both be able to go to some village in the


South, to somewhere on the coast to recuperate. We’ll sit on the porch of our little house,” he
glanced knowingly at Trigoni, red-faced as he strained under the weight of the nitroglycerene
bottle in his arms, “and we’ll just watch the seagulls flying over the sea and then we’ll….”
      He winked at Trigoni who looked embarrassed and exasperatated at the same time.
      Zhelyabov kissed her chastely on the cheek, and reaching for his friend’s arm to help him
carry the bottle, opened the door, turned to give her a mischievous smile, and left. She stood
quite still, listening to their heavy footsteps echoing down the stairs accompanied by the
ringing sound of Zhelyabov’s laughter.

      But the next evening he was finally too exhausted to dig and stayed home. He would not
come to bed, insisting that he was unable to sleep. Instead he paced up and down in their
narrow living room, separated from their bedroom by a flimsy worn chintz curtain.
      “You must take care of yourself,” she called to him helplessly. “Because if you don’t all
our efforts...”
      “Will come to nothing,” he snapped.
       She got out of bed, pulled the curtain aside, and put an arm around his waist. He was
      “Come to bed and rest, please! Tomorrow....”
      “Tomorrow I'll be back at work.”

      It was already nine o’clock, when they were awakened by someone knocking on the door.
The landlady, bringing them a bottle of milk, stared at Sonia still in her nightgown and hearing
Zhelyabov stir in the bed behind the curtained partition, left with a grin.
      As soon as she closed the door Zhelyabov jumped up, stretched, and then, quite suddenly,
      “You must drink some milk and eat some bread or I won’t let you leave,” Sonia scolded,
grasping his wrist and pulling him toward the table.
      “I’ll go see Trigoni first and we’ll go together to the shop in the evening,” he muttered,
shaking off her hand.
      She forced him to gulp down a glass of milk, watched him grimace and wipe his mouth
with the back of his hand as he put it back on the table.


      “I’m meeting Vera Nikolaevna at the Public Library,” Sonia reminded him. “I meant to tell
you that she’s raised more money. Of course we’ll need some of it for ourselves. But I’ll tell
you about it later.”

      As they emerged from the narrow littered courtyard of the apartment building the snow
was coming down hard. It was very cold. Zhelyabov still looked terribly pale and she insisted
on a cab to the library. It was an extravagance but from there he had not far to walk to reach
Trigoni’s lodgings.
      As long as his nerves did not give out, she prayed!
      As long as he did not fall ill with a fever!

      The cab driver pulled away from the steps to the library, cracked his whip and the sled’s
runners scattered dirty snow onto their feet. It seemed to Sonia as if passersby bundled up in
furs and snow-covered chapkas glanced at them suspiciously. Zhelyabov squeezed her hand,
grinning to cheer her up, and promised to meet her later at the shop. He drew up the collar of
his cloth coat, and she reached up to push his worn fur hat down firmly over his ears.
      Then he set off.
      As she walked up the steps to the entrance of the library she stopped and scanned the
crowd to glimpse his massive figure, bent forward against the wind, disappearing around the
corner. A sharp gust blew icy snowflakes into her eyes and she turned away.
      Vera Nikolaevna, wrapped in a bulky fur coat and broad toque, stood at the front desk
looking around wild-eyed. It was not like her to appear so agitated.
      She ran up to Sonia, clutched her arm and whispered,
      “We must go to my place immediately. I’ve already sent messages to all the Executive
Committee. We need to talk. There’s been another police search at the shop.”
      Her lips were trembling. The woman behind the desk eyed them suspiciously. Sonia cast a
wary glance in her direction. Perhaps she was surprised to see a wealthy woman talking so
conspiratorially to a peasant girl with a flowered kerchief covering her braids and a threadbare
coat of the roughest cloth, not long enough to cover the hem of her homespun skirt.
      Outside they lowered their heads against the driving snow.
      “Tell me what you know,” Sonia asked urgently.


       “Yakimova said that she heard from the neighbor's servant girl that some ‘socialists’ are
about to blow up the Tsar,” Vera Nikolaevna said, blinking away the snowflakes falling into
her eyes and passing a gloved hand over her lips. “She said her master was suspicious about all
the comings and goings in the cheese shop.”
       “My God! We're so careless!” Sonia muttered, tightening her headscarf, blown loose by
the wind.
       She was thinking about Zhelyabov. What if he collapsed? But now it was too late to call
the whole thing off.
       Vera Nikolaevna sounded angry as if her struggle with the snow striking her face was
somehow tied to the events she was recounting:
       “I told Yakimova, who was in a panic, to get everything put away immediately and that I
would let as many people as possible know that they should stay away for a day or more.
Trigoni’s been informed. But I couldn’t get a hold of you in time...”
        “I should go to Trigoni's lodgings right away,” Sonia said, recalling the figure of
Zhelyabov disappearing in the crowd.
       “Trigoni will warn him, anyway,” Vera Nikolaevna insisted, not hiding her ever present
irritation with Zhelyabov.

       Settled on a divan in Vera Nikolaevna’s apartment, next to a blue tiled pech, which
crackled and emitted waves of heat around them, they were discussing Plekhanov’s latest
article on the necessity of educational work when there was a knock on the door and when Vera
Nikolaevna cautiously opened it, three members of the Executive Committee crowded in. They
looked tense but did not say a word while they took off their snow-covered coats, releasing
pools of water at their feet. Right behind them others arrived together with a wild-eyed, bare-
headed Grinevitski, his hair and eyelashes caked with ice.
       “They just got Trigoni and Zhelaybov,” he panted.
       At first Sonia did not grasp what he had said. An eerie silence seemed to have enveloped
       “Did you say Zhelyabov?” She heard herself asking, though though her voice came to her
from a great distance.


      Grinevitski nodded and lowered his eyes. She noticed that drops of water were dripping
from his hair onto the little Persian carpet where he stood, making the red and gold designs
swirl and twist. Like a nest of serpents, she thought.
      She folded her hands in her lap, and looked down at her feet.
      She seemed to forget how to breathe.
      It was not possible! She had just seen Zhelyabov off, not even two hours ago.
      She looked up to find a clock. But her eyes focused instead on a vase filled with white
lilies. She remembered that lilies were also placed on top of coffins.
      The musky smell of Vera Nikolaevna’s perfume as she placed her arm gently around her
shoulders and the hum of agitated voices broke through the fog into which she had been
plunged, though the sound seemed far away.
      She listened to Grinevitski’s hysterical voice rising above the others:
      “I was at the tavern near Trigoni’s flat,” she heard him say, “when a woman came in and
told the waiter she needed a glass of vodka, a full glass. She said that the police had been
renting an empty flat from her because they suspected that one of her tenants was a terrorist.
      Well this morning early they had gone into the flat and been waiting until he, Trigoni, that
is, received a guest, a big burly fellow with a long beard. It seems that Trigoni came down to
ask her for a samovar. That’s when she saw the police drag him into the empty flat. Then, she
said, she kept peering out for a good hour until she saw the burly fellow stumble down the
stairs as though he were sick or drunk and try to open the front door. She almost cried out, she
said, when she saw three policemen rush out of the flat and drag him inside. She heard one of
the policemen calling the man Zhelyabov.”
      “No! No! No!” Sonia cried out.
      “We must empty your apartment at once,” Vera Nikolaevna’s voice sounded in her ears
      But somewhere inside her another voice, an unfamiliar voice, called out:
      “The Tsar must die!”
      And all at once the cloud, which had enveloped her lifted.
      She felt absolutely calm as though Zhelaybov himself were holding her tightly in his arms.
      She knew exactly what she must do. Had they not rehearsed it, the two of them?
      She turned to Grinevitski and declared, her voice, eerily steady:
      “Tomorrow is Sunday and the Tsar’ll be coming down the Malaya Sadovnaya. Go and get
the rest of the bomb-making materials out of our apartment!”


      “What if the Tsar changes his route?” Vera Nikolaevna sounded nervous as she pressed her
arm tightly against Sonia’s shoulder.
      “And who’ll lead the bomb throwers?” Grinevitski asked.
      Sonia noticed the flicker of doubt in his eyes and a surge of anger brought her to her feet:
      “I will!”
      There was silence, broken only by Vera Nikolaevna, behind her, calmly announcing:
      “Sonia Levovna’ll be in charge. She’ll also direct the bombers. But if all goes well the
mine will do its work.”
      No one seemed to object.
      “We’ll alert all the bomb throwers to assemble tomorrow and decide who’ll be the first.
Meanwhile, we need to lay the mine,” Vera Nikolaevna continued.
      But even as she listened, other thoughts were rushing through Sonia’s mind:
      Why had Zhelyabov abandoned her? Surely now she too would die.
      Though first she must avenge him.
      Yes, she recalled, had they not pledged to stay together, to be with each other “to the
death, if need be?” Still she must not think about him either or she might fall into despair.
      And there remained only one day to complete the task!
      Out of thin air the words, “Vengeance is mine! I will repay!” reverberated in her ears.
      She was in charge now. She must do her duty.
      “Everything’ll have to be done here. If need be, we’ll work here all night to make the
bombs.” There was a steely determination in her voice. “Someone must inform the rest of the
Executive Committee and, of course, the bomb throwers. Vera Nikolaevna’s not suspected. If
her landlady asks about us, Vera Nikolaevna can tell her that she’s planning a party. The mine
must be laid by tomorrow morning and the bombs loaded.”
      “We’ve never used these kind of bombs,” someone objected. “It might take us longer...”
      “We’ve no more time,” she responded without turning to look at him. “They’ll have to

      But after she had occupied herself helping Vera Nikolaevna prepare the apartment for the
night's labors, pushing a highly polished mahogany table and high-backed chairs against the
wall, removing vases of flowers from two side tables, rolling up the Persian rugs, she suddenly
felt compelled to take something of Zhelyabov’s, some momento of him.


      “I’ll go to our lodgings to make sure that Grinevitski has taken everything that could
incriminate us,” she muttered, on the verge of tears, her lower lip trembling uncontrollably.
      Vera Nikolaevna stopped in the midst of covering the seat of a elaborately guilded
armchair, looked hard at her, and frowned:
      “And get caught by the police!”
      “They won’t send anyone for a day or so.” She turned her head away to hide the tears
forming in her eyes. “Anyway, I’ve already made up my mind.”
      “You’ll put us all in danger for that man!” Vera Nikolaevna objected as Sonia pulled on
her coat and tied a scarf firmly under her chin.

      It had stopped snowing. Still the cold wind had not died down. But she barely noticed. It
was a long walk and she craved the solitude. Despite her resolution not to think about him she
could not help summoning up Zhelyabov's face, his eyes looking at her tenderly--like Mama, it
occured to her. She almost bumped into someone coming toward her and looked up to see a
frail old lady, wearing a heavy fur hat, who smiled at her sadly. Unexpectedly her thoughts
turned to Anna Karlovna. Her words, spoken so long ago returned to her:
      “She will bring disaster down on herself and others as well!”
      Then to add to her misery she recalled her sister Masha’s resentful face and her darling
Vasilii, too, her kind-hearted brother who had sacrificed his studies for her.
      Was she not indeed the cause of disaster?
      But was she not fulfilling a role that providence had assigned to her?
      When she arrived the flat was in complete disorder. Grinevitski must have taken a cab
because he had already left. There were small puddles of melted snow and wet cheese labels
littering the mud covered floor and fuses scattered on the table. He had been careless. Still, by
tomorrow, what would it all matter?
      Going into the bedroom she saw Zhelyabov's old jacket and a shirt neatly folded on a chair
where she had placed them before leaving that morning. At first she considered taking them.
But then she looked at the rickety little bookshelf and saw a volume lying opened on top of it.
She picked it up. It was one of his favorites, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. How often he
had read to her from it! She wanted to sit down on the bed, open it randomly and recite a
sentence or two. It would give her courage. It would make her feel that he was at her side. But


she heard someone at the door and rushing into the next room, grabbed the fuses off the table,
threw them into a cupboard and stuffed the cheese labels into her purse.
      “It's me, Gerasim,” a man’s gruff voice called out to her.
      The porter had seen her, after all. She was still in her coat when she opened the door and
stepped out into the hallway.
      Gerasim looked her over suspiciously:
      “Police been here,” he said. “Where’s your man?”
      She pulled nervously at the damp scarf covering her hair.
      “He’ll be back this evening.”
      “Must know as soon as he come in,” Gerasim peered into the room. “Got somethin’ from
the police for ‘im to sign.”
      “I’ll tell him,” she answered, her voice unnaturally steady.
      Perhaps the police had seen Grinevitski. Perhaps they had even captured him. Vera
Nikolaevna was right. She had been reckless. They might follow her now. She must find a way
to give them the slip.
      As Gerasim shuffled back to his lodge she stepped into the room to take a last look.

      She spent two hours walking around the steeets in a daze, barely conscious of the weight
of the snow-laden kerchief over her hair, of the numbness in her feet as the snow covered her
boots, of her whole body shaking with cold. She imagined Zhelyabov entering Trigoni’s room
and collapsing into a chair. Perhaps he became ill and Trigoni had gone down to get a samovar
to revive him. She saw him stumble downstairs to find Trigoni. She could almost feel the arms
of the policemen grasping at his back and shoulders. She seemed to hear him cry out.
      Then she reminded herself of her duty to him.
      “Vengeance is mine!” She repeated out loud.
      By the time she got back it was dark. Only once she had entered the warmth of Vera
Nikolaevna’s apartment did she feel her hands and feet tingle with pain. But she was relieved to
see Grinevitski and several of the men busy assembling the bombs.
      The mine in the shop had already been laid and Bogdanovich was to send a messenger to
assemble the bomb throwers, Vera Nikolaevna assured her as she threw a thick woolen shawl
over Sonia’s shoulders and removed her wet boots and then continued her work of mixing


chemicals and cutting up paraffin cans as containers. The whole room was filled with a strong
smell of gunpowder.
      “Certain you weren’t followed?” Sonia asked Grinevitski, still shivering as she drew the
shawl tightly around her.
      “Certain!” Grinevitski did not look up from his work.
      “The porter told me the police were waiting for Zhelyabov to return,” she said.
      They all stopped what they were doing.
      “And you weren’t followed either?” Vera Nikolaevna asked searchingly.
      She shook her head and as the numbness left her fingers, she started helping with
assembling the bombs. She cast weights. She trimmed kerosene cans. But the general tension
in the room and the ever-reverberating shock of Zhelyabov’s arrest gave her no respite. The
constant interruptions when people arrived and she was required to give orders, to which Vera
Nikolaevna often objected, irritated her. But by eleven o’ clock the parade had ceased and
they could concentrate fully on their individual tasks. Two people left to make sure that all was
well with the mine in the shop.
      “Go lie down!” Vera Nikolaevna ordered, and before she could protest, took her firmly by
the hand and led her into the bedroom where she put her to bed like a child.
      She drifted into a dreamless sleep, too exhausted to concentrate on her grief.

      She woke up with a start to find Vera Nikolaevna lying asleep beside her and slipped
quietly off the bed, flinging the shawl around her shoulders.
      The men were still working. They had only completed two of the explosive charges and
she watched in silence, repeating under her breath the words:
      “Vengeance is mine! I will repay!”
      It kept her mind from wandering. It kept her from sinking into despair.
      By eight o’clock that morning the work on the bombs was completed.

      She insisted that in Zhelaybov’s absence she must perform the dangerous task of
delivering the bombs to the four volunteers.
      Then she would set off to oversee that the plans for mining the tunnel in the shop had gone
as directed.


      “Vengeance is mine!” she muttered under her breath as she braced herself against the
sides of the cab, holding the bombs tightly in her lap, and stiffening at every jolt on the
cobblestones. “I will repay!” The words gave her courage.
      It was a dreary day.
      As the cab passed passed down the wide Nevsky Prospekt piles of snow blackened by the
traffic lay along the sidewalks. Groups of peasant women on their way to church services
hurried past shops bustling with clients. Well-dressed men in top hats and heavy fur-trimmed
coats dodged into the entrances of cafes to escape the sharp gusts of wind. A lady, clad in a
sable coat, got into a carriage lifting her skirts to reveal fine leather boots.
      How ordinary, how simple their lives appeared! How little they imagined the great event
about to take place!
      A great event, yes, a great event!
      But no sooner had the thought echoed through her mind than it was followed by a
disturbing one: Was this great event not simply murder? Could it not once again claim innocent
      “No!” She said out loud and shook her head as though to rid herself of doubt. “It is,” she
muttered under her breath, “an act of revenge.”
      Revenge for prison, hers and the hundreds of others like her.
      Revenge for the life of a fugitive, hers and hundreds of others like her.
      And revenge for…Zhelyabov’s capture, for her mother’s suffering, for her father’s
      A surge of exaltation came over her and her heart began to hammer in her chest as though
about to explode.
      Yes, she thought, it was, above all, revenge for…Mother Russia, for the repression of all
that was good in her. It was revenge against the powerful, those despots who had mined her
treasures and starved her people. She, Sonia Levovna Perovskaia was on a mission, a great and
necessary mission to avenge her motherland.
      She felt her heart rise through her chest and into her throat and from her lips a single long
sigh emerged, carrying with it a single word:”Mama!”

      When she reached Grinevitski’s lodgings the three young bombers, the brothers Emilyon
and Timofei Mikhailovich, Mikhailov, and Nikolai Ivanovich Rysakov were already waiting.


The small room was filled with the sour smell of unwashed bodies and damp clothing. The
samovar on the table was not lit and what little heat escaped from the pech in the corner of the
room was dissipated by a draft coming therough a rag-stuffed crack in the window next to it.
      “Where’s Zhelyabov?” Rysakov, running his hand through his hair, demanded peevishly
as she placed the four cases on the table.
      Despite her orders, Grinevitski had not informed them of the arrest. Perhaps, she
wondered, he worried that they would not listen to a woman.
      “They got him. But now we’ll get them!” she announced fixing her eyes on them sternly.
      Once more the steely determination had a hold on her. She could not now allow herself to
be deterred by any reservations.
      The Mikhailov brothers, still dubious, both broke in:
      “Who’ll give the signal? Who’ll lead us?”
      “Zhelyabov and I think as one,” she answered. An unbidden pang of despair mounted to
her throat and she took a deep breath to key it at bay. “The Committee met last night at Vera
Nikolaevna’s and put me in charge.”
      Rysakov narrowed his eyes suspiciously:
      “You haven’t seen us practice. You don’t know....”
      “The Committee has decided,” Grinevitski declared.
      She hated the way he bent his long neck to one side and scratched it with a bony finger.
      “Besides,” he continued, “she has the coolest head of us all. And she has all the
information Zhelyabov gave her.”
      She nodded approvingly to Grinevitski. At least now he was on her side.
She began her instructions in a tone she hoped gave them the impression of calm authority:
      “The bombs are made with two tubes, crossed and placed in the kerosene cans. They’ll
explode whatever position they’re in. The person who throws won’t escape alive. But be
careful to aim directly to make as few victims as possible.”
      She turned to Rysakov:
      ““You will be the first thrower.”
      She recalled that Zhelyabov had told her that he was the most reliable of them all.
      Rysakov managed a crooked smile and straightened his back self-consciously.
      “You will be bomb-thrower number two,” she went on, glancing at the pale Grinevitski
who was rolling a cigarette nervously between a yellowed thumb and forefinger.


      His eyes reflected a deep hurt and disappointment. After all, it had been his idea—his
fault-- and perhaps she was punishing him for it. But he nodded curtly to reassure her that he
was ready for the challenge. Then he reached into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out
a crumpled sheet of paper. He ganced at it mournfully, raised his head:
      “I have a last letter I wish to share with my comrades.”
      “Read it later!” She interrupted him harshly.
      She could not bring herself to forgive him for putting the idea into Zhelyabov’s head. But
the plans were completed. She must execute them. She turned to Timofei Mikhailovich,
standing in the corner of the room, his clothes crumpled, his cap tucked into the belt fastened
around his shirt. He was the only workingman in the group but he was also the most nervous.
She frowned. Could she count on him?
      The map Zhelyabov had given them was placed on the table and they crowded around it.
She felt the air tense and fetid with their quickened breathing.
      “We’re counting on the Tsar taking his usual route from the palace to the Mikhailovski
Manege along the Nevski and the Malaya Sadovnaya to the Italianskaya.”
      She pointed her index finger to the center of the map. She was astonished to see that her
hand did not shake.
      “Grinevitski and Timofei Mikhailovich will take up positions at the corner where the
Malaya Sadovaya runs into the Italianskaya.” She quickly withdrew her hand, fearing that it
might at any moment betray her anxiety. “Emilyon Mikhailovich and Rysakov will stand closer
to the Nevski. You’ll all wait for the explosion of the mine and then you’ll move toward the
sound. If the Tsar isn’t wounded, you should attack at once!”
      She paused to look at the tensed faces around her.
      “If the Tsar takes another route, I’ll walk down the Malaya Sadovaya and give a signal.”
She hesitated. “I’ll blow my nose on a ...white handkerchief.”
      She reached into her pocket and pulled out a clean lace handkerchief. She recalled how her
mother had slipped it to her before the policemen had taken her away.
      “Or wave it!” Grinevitski said.
      “No!” She objected. “The streets will be full of the Tsar's people. They’ll notice
immediately. As soon as you see the signal, you must go to the Ekaterinskii Canal and place
yourselves at intervals between the Teatralny Bridge and the Inzhenernaya Bridge. I’ll be on


the other side of the canal where I can see the Tsar arriving and I’ll blow my nose again to let
you know.”

      It was only eleven o’clock and still plenty of time before going to the shop. She removed
the bombs carefully from the cloth bag in which she had transported them, checked that the
layers of newspaper were tightly wrapped around them and handed each of the men a package.
      “Let’s go and have coffee and cakes!” She heard herself propose as if Zhelaybov himself
had at that moment put the idea in her head, forcing her to pretend that they were planning a
happy outing--that it was all a prank.
      Yes, Zhelyabov would like that, she thought! “The great event.” Not murder, not
assassination, even.
      A reckoning, a just reckoning.
      But only Rysakov and Grinevitski agreed to accompany her and she glanced guardedly at
the two Mikhailovski brothers, who slunk off carrying their packages in front of them with both
hands as though handling a crate of eggs.
      Would they do as they were told, she worried?
      Rysakov alone seemed to be going along with the pretense. He looked quite cocky and
even made her laugh at the way he carried the bomb, like a loaf of bread, tucked nonchalantly
under his arm. But from time to time his mouth twitched nervously and he ran his hand through
his unruly mop of hair.
      Grinevitski appeared so forlorn that she felt vaguely sorry for him. As for her, she felt
nothing at all anymore, neither fear nor excitement, nor even a sense of exaltation.
      It seemed to her that she was walking not through the familar streets of St. Petersburg, not
amid a bustling, jostling throng, but through a waking dream.
      They had reached a crowded cafe on the corner of the Nevski and found a table in the
back. The men placed their bombs carefully under their chairs. She smiled, thinking that
Zhelyabov would have done the same, but that he would have winked at her, squeezed her
hand, and then burst into laughter.
      The waitress brought them the platter of cakes she had ordered and set glasses of tea in
front of them. Out of a sense of duty Sonia put a slice of poppy-seed cake on her plate and
while taking a careful bite out of it, glimpsed out of the corner of her eyes, Grinevitski pull the


 letter from his pocket. She saw it fluttering as he handed it to her. She lowered her head
 holding the slip of paper close to her face:
       “To my Comrades,
       Alexander II must die and with him we shall die, his enemies and his executioners. What
 of the future? I, with one foot in the grave, am afflicted with the thought that after me there
 will be many further victims. It will not be my lot to take part in the final battle. Fate has
 alloted me an early death. I shall not see the day nor the hour of our triumph. But I believe that
 by my death I am doing all that I have in my power to do, and that no one on earth can demand
 more of me.”
        When she raised her face to him she found Grinevitski's eyes brimming with tears. She
 sighed, blinked several times, folded the paper and put it into the bodice of her dress. He had,
 despite herself, moved her to tears.
       But she quickly noticed Rysakov staring at her with a puzzled expression.
       “The letter will be read to the Executive Committee after.…”
       She did not finish her sentence. Her mouth was suddenly dry. She coughed as she
 attempted to finish her cake and putting her fork down sat with her hands folded in her lap not
 daring to look back at Grinevitski.
       “Something wrong?” Rysakov whispered.
       She shook her head, and with a supreme effort smiled, and called to the waitress for the
 bill thinking that the dynamite in the tunnel under Malaya Sadovaya Street must do its work!

    She found everything in the cheese shop was ready.
    Bogdanovich was looking strained. Sweat was running down his temples and he kept
mopping his brow with a stained rag. She went into the back room, where three other men were
huddling, their faces expressing nervous excitement rather than fear.
    “We checked the bomb four times,” Bogdanovich said as he followed her. The wires are in
place. It’s ready to blow!”
    She went back into the shop, and without knowing why she threw her arms around
Yakimova and kissed her. Yakimova, even more pale than usual, was terrified that a customer
might arrive at the crucial moment.
       “Close the shop a half hour from now,” Sonia instructed her, patting her arm. “Put a sign
up that you will return within the hour and hide in the back room with the others.”


      She left without daring a backward glance, as if to do so might bring bad luck.
      “Vengeance is mine!” The words spun around in her head as she set off alone down the
street toward the Winter Palace. She reached it just in time to see the Tsar getting into his
carriage. Suddenly she recalled his mild blue eyes and shook her head violently.
      No, it was not murder. It was a reckoning!
      But instead of passing her on the Nevski Prospekt as she had expected, the convoy set off
to the Ekaterinskii canal.
       Her heart started to race.
       Her plan, the arduous work of digging a tunnelhad been all for nothing. Now there was
only one last chance: She must give the four bomb throwers their orders at once!
      No, she assured herself, it was not murder--it was a reckoning,
      Rushing onto Malaya Sadovaya Street, trying not to break into a run and bump into
passersby, she saw Grinevitski, standing on the corner of Italianskaya Street, his cap drawn
over his face.
      “Timofei Mikhailovich has not shown up,” he said tensely.
      She glanced over her shoulder to see if anyone in the crowd behind her was watching.
      “Go immediately to your position on the Ekaterniskii and wait for my signal. Be ready.
Do your work!” She muttered, grasping his hand, squeezed it reassuringly, and then walking
on as calmly as she could in case they were being watched.
       She was relieved to see Rysakov and Emilyon Mikhailovich in place and gave each of
them their orders. Then she proceeded to the other side of the of the Ekaterinskii canal where it
had been arranged for her to give the signal when the Tsar’s convoy returned, driving down
Inzhenyernaya Street and turning right to where the three men were now stationed. She
supposed that it might well be an hour if the he stopped at the Mikhailovsky Palace as was his
      She reached her observation post, stopped, and fumbled in the left pocket of her coat for
the white handkerchief. But instead her fingers touched the ragged edges of a rip in the fabric.
Her heart stopped. Had it dropped out? Had she lost it? In a panic, she reached deep into the
right pocket of her coat and with a sigh of relief, drew the rumpled handkerchief out and
clutched it tightly in her fist.


      The wind was beginning to blow hard and she shivered with cold. She pulled her headscarf
firmly down over her forehead. Then, peering down the canal she was assailed by frightening
      What about Timofei Mikhailovich? Why had he not shown up?
      Had he been caught by the police?
      Was that why the Tsar had changed his route?
      Were the police informed of their plans?
      Were they about to descend on them all?
      She waited, her heart pounding, stamping her benumbed feet and folding her arms around
her waist to keep the wind from reaching through her coat. Her eyes swept over the angular
lines of the grey stone buildings on the other side of the canal and focused on the regularly
spaced triangular gas lamps. It suddenly occurred to her that their posts resembled crosses.
      Time seemed to have stopped.
      Crosses! Who was it now on the cross? Was it Zhelyabov? Was it her? Was it…the Tsar?
      No! It was not murder, it was a reckoning!
      “Vengeance is mine! Vengeance is mine!” She repeated mechanically to herself and
thought she heard it echoing back, now in a woman’s voice, now in a man’s.

      Suddenly she heard the sound of galloping horses and a violent spasm jolted her spine. The
Tsar's convoy was rushing at full speed down Inzhenyernaya Street, mounted Cossacks in front
and on either side of the carriage.
      The party turned the corner.
      Her hand trembled so that she had difficulty raising the handkerchief to her face and then
waving it. No, she remembered, she was not to wave it, she was to put it to her nose. But a
feeling of absolute indifference came over her. She no longer cared if she was noticed. She
was only aware of one thing to be done and she was doing it.
      She was completing a simple task, long overdue, centuries overdue.
      Her eyes were fixed on the small black carriage racing down the street, its wheels visible
through the stone balustrades, she imagined she saw the Tsar wave back at her while the words,
“Vengeance is mine! Vengeance is mine! I will repay!” throbbed at her temples.
      All at once a thunderous roar shook the ground. She saw a cross-supported lamp post snap
in two. She felt as though she was being cut down as well.


      “Zhelyabov!” She called out. “Zhelyabov!”
      The scene across the canal was unfolding before her like a vivid nightmare.
      The Tsar's carriage stopped. But it was intact! One of the Cossacks had fallen and
terrified horses reared up around him, trying to escape the cloud of black smoke. Then she
gasped as she saw a little boy lie on the ground, motionless.
      Suddenly she heard a loud shout and the Tsar's carriage raced away with the coachman,
bent forward, and whipping the horses on.
      “My God!” she cried out, “It’s simple murder! We’ve failed again!”
      Her eyes returned to the child lying on the pavement. She thought she could hear him
moan. What had she done!
      Then just as suddenly, out of the corner of her eye she saw the carriage came to a stop
farther down the embankment.
      People were rushing into the street like a tidal wave. She caught sight of Rysakov,
struggling, restrained by four policemen.
      “My God! What have I done?” She cried out once more and then looking in the direction
of the Tsar’s carriage, her legs almost buckled and she grasped the top of the stone balustrade
to keep from falling.
      A tall figure was making his way back along the embankment. He was limping.
      “There’s still a chance!” She heard herself say, as though it were someone else, someone
standing over her, someone looking down at her, asking:
      “Where is Grinevitski?”
      She could make out the tall figure of the Tsar approaching Rysakov as the crowd parted in
front of him. Now he was addressing Rysakov and Rysakov was talking to him. What was he
      “Where is Grinevitski?” She heard herself repeat.
      She held her breath: The Tsar was walking along the pavement toward the child. She
caught sight of Grinevitski leaning against the ballustrade of the canal.
      The Tsar was approaching him. Grinevitski was reaching down, picking up something
wrapped in newspaper and then hurling it with all his might.
      Her heart stopped beating.
      She could not breathe.
      She was choking.


      Everyone and everything rushed toward the billowing cloud of smoke into which the Tsar
and Grinevitski had disappeared.
      She was engulfed in screams.
      “Vengeance is mine,” she heard a voice above her, below her, surrounding her.

      “It’s over,” she said no longer able to keep her legs from buckling as she fell heavily onto
the snow-covered pavement and felt herself sinking into a whirlpool, drawing her ever farther
into darkness. A voice, not her own, a man’s gruff voice was shouting above her:
      “It’s the Perovskaia woman, all right!


The Peter-Paul Fortress, April 2, 1881
      “My dear adored Mama,
   The thought of you oppresses and torments me always. My darling, I implore you to be
calm and not to grieve for me, for my fate does not afflict me in the least and I shall meet it
with complete tranquility. I have long expected it and known that sooner or later it must come.
And I assure you, dear Mama, that my fate is not such a mournful one. I have lived as my
convictions dictated and it would have been impossible for me to have acted otherwise. I await
my fate, therefore, with a tranquil conscience.”


                            AN HISTORICAL POSTSCRIPT

      On April 3, 1881, Sonia Perovskaia and Andrei Zhelyabov were driven to Semenovski
Square on springless carts, handcuffed and fettered. On a cord around their necks hung placards
with the word, “Regicide.” Level with their carts marched drummers beating a solemn roll
while twelve thousand troops lined the streets. In the square eighty thousand people waited.
The black wooden platform with the gallows stood in the middle of the crowd. Sonia
Perovskaia and Andrei Zhelyabov were chained side by side to posts at the back of the scaffold.
      Then the lengthy sentence was read out by an official.
      Andrei Zhelyabov whispered something to Sonia Perovskaia and kissed her goodbye
before she was led away.
      He was hanged immediately after her.

      In April of 1882, as a persona non grata at the court of Alexander III, Princess Ekaterina
(Katia) Yurievskaia, the widow of Tsar Alexander II, was obliged to go into exile with her
three children and remain there for the rest of her life, all but forgotten in her native land. She
died in Nice, on February 4, 1922. Her obituary in the local paper read: “Her Highness, who
lived in Nice some forty years…possessed a golden heart, opened to all misfortunes, as her
charitable character was well known.”


      She is buried beside her sister, Marie (Mouche), in the romantic hillside Russian cemetery
among other Russian aristocrats who had fled the 1917 Revolution.

      In March I, 1887, six years to the day after the assassination of Alexander II, Alexander
Ilych Ulianov, a student, was arrested for an attempt on the life of Tsar Alexander III. He and
his associates were executed. Ulianov was the older brother of Vladimir Ilych Ulianov who
would, in 1917, become one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution, under the name of
Lenin. In 1918 Lenin ordered the killing of Alexander III’s son and heir, Nicholas II.
      And thus was ended the reign of the Romanov dynasty.


Joanna Hubbs
18 Hulst Road
Amherst, MA 01002
Tel: (413) 253-9816/ Fax: 413 253-4924

                                A RUSSIAN AFFAIR


                                 A RUSSIAN AFFAIR


      Based broadly on the individuals involved in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II (called
the “Tsar Liberator” for freeing the serfs in 1861), “A Russian Affair” is an imaginative
reconstruction of the lives of the two young women who were most immediately involved in a
national tragedy, which led, thirty-eight years later, to the revolution of 1917.
      In alternating chapters, each of the two characters begin by reflecting back on the event
that produced the tragedy:
       “Katia” reflects on the destiny of a young, naïve, and headstrong princess, Ekaterina
Mikhailovna Dolgorukova, who became the aging Tsar’s mistress and the mother of his
illegitimate children, and with whom, just before his death, he contracted a morganatic
marriage. The affair and subsequent marriage so scandalized society that it led to a widespread
disrespect for the once popular Alexander II and led to his demise at the hands of the
      “Sonia,” while delving into the roots of a young woman’s resistence to a cruel and
tyrannical father, reflects on the manner in which the mind of an individual can be distorted by
hatred to produce what we now call a “suicide terrorist.” Sonia Levovna Perovskaia, the
daughter of the governor of St. Petersburg, initially involved in educational activities among a
newly liberated serf population finds herself in a passionate affair with a peasant revolutionary
who convinces her to plan and direct the assassination of the Tsar.


      In each case “A Russian Affair” is topical in its focus on terrorism while at the same time
exploring issues common to all times: the often incompatible demands between public
responsibility and personal freedom.
      The novel is written for a general reader with no knowledge of Russian history or culture.
However, the story contains all the elements associated with the popular image of the Tsarist
past—opulent Imperial celebrations, tragic love affairs, court intrigue, revolutionary plots, and
the ever-present threat of terrorism and upheaval associated with young and idealistic
individuals in the service of a liberation movement in which women played a key role.


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