The Nevsky Wall
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Chapter 2   -  Black Raven, I'm Not Dead

June 21

‘I know I can trust you to protect them …’


His father’s words were on Viktor’s mind that day at the wall. Before he rounded the corner parapet of the fortress, he turned to see his brother cross the bridge and disappear into the city. Their meeting had gone well, he thought, as well as could be expected. But he worried about Alex, in the way that an older brother is taught to worry and watch for signs of danger. He could see the sadness that Alex still carried around with him, a sadness that shown in his eyes – troubled, weary eyes like their mother.

He and Alex had always been so different. People never took them for brothers at first meeting, though if you looked closely there was no mistaking the resemblance. They met the world at different angles, one direct and the other oblique, and it shaped the men they had become. Growing up, he protected Alex from the street toughs and school bullies, handing out beatings until the mere threat was protection enough. But he could not protect him from the events of the past few years, or keep the two of them from drifting apart. He loved his brother, but he no longer understood him. All he could do now is worry.

On his way home to the Petrograd section, Viktor passed Alexandrovsky Park and the towering iron gates of the zoo, a place where he often took his son. Vasha was keen on every kind of animal, but his favorites were the old lion and the elephant, both well past their prime but still exotic to a little boy. Viktor would lift Vasha up onto his broad shoulders so he could see eye-to-eye with the elephant. “Now he can hear me when I talk to him,” Vasha once said, and his father laughed. “With those ears, I think he can hear you from our apartment.”

Viktor turned the corner onto Bolshoi Prospekt. The block of five-story buildings had been converted in the late 20’s from a shoe factory into worker housing. The pale-yellow stucco was scaling and crumbling on a facade that was crisscrossed with a puzzle of conduits and pipes.

He entered a passage between buildings, above which the designation ‘Yard No. 5′ was partially visible through the mottled stucco. The yard was a weedy space, open to the sky and surrounded on all sides by the high walls of the apartment block. Boys were playing football, the outlines of goals painted on the north and south walls. It reminded Viktor of a prison exercise yard, but it allowed the mothers in the block to watch their children from the overlooking windows and call them in at dinnertime.

The buildings still smelled of cured leather and glue, but there was some relief in the upper floors, which caught the winds off the gulf. The larger of the old workspaces, like the one on Viktor’s floor, had been divided, then later redivided, into communal flats. Some were relatively spacious, and some, like the ‘bachelor cells’, were little more than broom closets with a bed and a lightbulb.

Before climbing the five flights of stairs to the apartment, he glanced over the news board that stood just inside the entrance to Building 7 – a reflex really, but a necessary reflex if you didn’t want to run afoul of some new directive or local regulation posted there. It was as his father had taught him, “Bad luck is one thing – you can’t control it – but there’s no excuse for being ignorant.” Among the layers of overlapping posters and announcements someone had placed a note: Taken – our dog Anzor. Why? Please bring him back. with a detailed pencil drawing of the missing pet.

The steep metal stairs groaned with each step. Viktor stopped at the third floor landing to catch his breath, then continued. Laundry was hanging down the middle of the long hallway that led to the apartment. When he walked in, Marina was mending a school uniform, and little Vasha was swooping around her, arms outstretched, pretending to be an airplane on its way to the North Pole on yet another death-defying expedition. “Look Papa, I’m Chkalov! Mama’s an iceberg!” and he swooped and banked and made a churring sound. “Oh, that’s not entirely true,” said Viktor, as he grabbed Marina from behind and gave her a kiss.

“Is that so?” she said, and she took a playful swipe at him. “So how is your brother? I hope you told him about today. She expects him to …”

“He seemed fine, but I don’t think he’ll make it this time. I did my best.” Viktor removed his shirt, walked across the cramped living space, and took a clean one from the shelf above Vasha’s bed, which was folded up against the wall. An archway covered by a thick curtain led to the couple’s small bedroom. A door opposite opened to a kitchen that was shared with two other families. The ceiling on this floor was high, but only the original factory walls extended to it – the walls dividing the rooms were shorter and open at the top, so the intimate sounds and smells of daily life were also shared between neighbors. Secrets were impossible.

The most distinctive feature, the saving grace of their living area, was the nearly floor-to-ceiling window that looked out to the southwest and, on a clear day, offered views of the Neva and beyond to Vasilyevsky Island. For Vasha, it was the view from his cockpit window as he soared above the trees and the buildings, up and over Finland and the frozen icecap, all the way to America and back. He could stand in front of the window for hours watching the clouds or the ebb and flow of the early summer fog.

“We should probably be on our way. Come on, little pilot, let’s find a patch of ice. Wheels down!” said Viktor, and he gently taxied Vasha to a chair to put on his shoes. He squatted next to the chair and looked into Vasha’s eyes. What goes on in that head of yours, Viktor wondered, trying to see himself at that age. The world must be a very different place in there.

Vasha tied his shoe and looked to his father. “Can I have a brother, like you have Uncle Alex?” It had been a while since he’d asked the question.

“Well … Mama and I have talked about it. We’d like to. Someday. What about a sister?” Marina came over to listen to their conversation.

Vasha thought. “No, I think a brother is better. You can play with a brother. You can teach them things.” He leapt from the chair and ran to get his cap.

Viktor collected the small gifts they were bringing for his mother – a box of writing paper, sweets, a lavender sachet (Marina’s idea), and a tin of her favorite coffee. He had the money Alex had given him earlier that day – in the likely event that he wasn’t able to stop by to give it to her himself. He also remembered to bring a pack of cigarettes for Old Nicosian.

He had worked hard to convince his mother to join them on the afternoon outing. He thought it would do her good to take the air and be among people, and it would give him a chance to check on her. Vasha looked forward to seeing his grandmother, but was especially excited at the prospect of taking the trolleybus instead of the ‘slowpoke tram’, which is how he and his mother usually travelled when he came for his weekly piano lesson. The electrified trolleybus – rolling and sparking at its top speed on the Prospekt, the black and white world turned to a soft gray blur – was as close as he could get to the true sensation of flight.

Viktor’s mother, Elena Rostova, was a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music. It had been renamed several times since her graduation. Her style at the piano was described as “technically precise, analytical, but lacking the ultimate passion of a concert performer”. She was not the blustering genius, like her classmate Prokofiev, whose light had burned bright early and, in doing so, seemed to have consumed his better nature. She was well-liked within the right circles, and after graduation was offered an instructor position, first in piano, and later, when the Civil War and subsequent purges had thinned the ranks, in the composition faculty. Shostakovich, another restless talent in a hurry, had briefly been her student, as had many whose names were no longer mentioned in the right circles – living abroad, exiled, or worse.

Though she still lived a short distance away, Elena had not been through the doors of the Conservatory in almost four years. She would walk blocks out of her way to avoid its surrounding streets. On the long summer evenings, when the air was thick and sweet as honey, she could hear the faint sounds of brass and strings drifting across the rooftops from the practice rooms.

The spacious three-room apartment where she and Anton had raised their boys was now a communal residence that she was forced to share with two other families. The Frids, a quiet husband and wife in their late 60’s, occupied what had been the boys’ room. He had worked as a railway conductor for many years and was now a semi-invalid cared for by his wife. The Durakovs, a louder family of four, had Elena’s old bedroom and most of the pantry. Elena was left with the living room, where she slept on a small divan behind a makeshift curtain hung from the ceiling. The room also contained her only true possession, a petit-grand piano. Though the room was hers, the layout of the apartment meant a constant flow of comings and goings that left her little peace and virtually no privacy. The common areas of the apartment – the kitchen, bathroom, and hallway – were shared in an uneasy, often contentious manner.

The Durakov’s were deeply committed to the Bolshevik cause – they would tell you as much as a sort of unapologetic introduction. Mr. Durakov, a stump of a man with a shaved head, bushy moustache, and permanently blackened hands, was a machine operator at the Kirov works. Two years previous, he had most unexpectantly been cited as a ‘hero worker’, and his reward was a place in Elena’s apartment. In truth, the space was no larger than their previous accommodations in one of the outlying districts, and the children had been forced to move to a new school and abandon their friends. But this was a great honor for him and for the family, and one, frankly, that could not be refused. Mrs. Durakov understood this immediately and moved forward, staking out and marking their new territory like the ferocious, wire-haired dog she resembled. The 10-year old twins, Yuri and Sonia, were under her control, which is to say they ran wild whenever she was out of sight.

The trolleybus ride was every bit as thrilling as Vasha had hoped, and he and his mother took the stairs up to Elena’s apartment while Viktor went down to chat with Old Nicosian, the yardman.

Every apartment building had a yardman, whose official job was to keep the grounds and hallways clean and orderly in exchange for a small living space, often in some corner of the basement. The unofficial job of the yardman, which was well known to the residents, was to be the eyes and ears of the local precinct and report any unusual activities. Old Nicosian had been installed at the building in 1929, and he had formed a grandfatherly bond with both Alex and Viktor in the years that followed. They made a point of bringing him something – a pack of cigarettes or perhaps a tin of meat – whenever they visited their mother.

“Young Viktor Antonovich, you are most kind to an old man,” said Nicosian as he accepted the cigarettes from Viktor. He rose with some effort from the chair in his tiny space near the coal furnace and straightened his tunic.

“Please, sit. Rest yourself,” said Viktor. “We’ve come to take my mother out, and I just wanted to stop and say hello. Things are well with you?”

“Complaints. Everyone has complaints,” said Nicosian as he turned off the radio.

“Anything I should know about?”

“Oh, that wretched Durakov woman has been burning my ear about your mother. Complains about the music all the time – and such beautiful music it is! She says they need more space – talks about having another child. Nonsense! Of course, I listen. It’s nothing that need reach a higher set of ears, you understand, just annoying,” he said in disgust.

“I’m glad you told me, old friend,” said Viktor. “Let me know if Alex and I need to get involved. We want our mother to be happy in her own home.”

“Don’t you mind. I will do what I can, Young Viktor Antonovich. Send my greetings to your brother, and to your wife and son. He grows so fast, that one. I see your father’s face in him … if you don’t mind my saying so.”

He took the old man’s hand and wished him health, then joined his family upstairs.

Viktor greeted his mother warmly, and she commented again on his decision to grow a moustache, saying “Is that really the best look for you, Vitya?” Vasha called for his father to listen, and he played part of a new song he was learning on the piano. Almost on cue, the door to the communal kitchen opened. Mrs. Durakov stuck in her head and was about to say something, but seeing the imposing figure of Viktor glaring back at her, she quickly closed the door and could be heard yelling at her son instead. Zuzu, Elena’s long-haired cat, ran and hid behind the bedcurtain.

The four of them walked down to the Fontanka with Vasha taking the lead. Marina and Elena followed like shepherds trying to keep him in check and Viktor trailed with the lunch basket. The Fontanka, one of the tamed and channeled branches of the Neva, shimmered in the midday light. Rowboats, hired for two kopecks an hour, drifted lazily from bridge to bridge. As he ran along the embankment, Vasha kept trying to jump and lift his head above the wall to see the boats. “Mind how you go, Vasha,” said Marina.

They stopped at Elena’s favorite garden, a small patch of green near the embankment that had been a private refuge in this once affluent neighborhood. Viktor knew this place would bring back happy memories for his mother. He set down the basket and Marina laid out the cloth on the grass. She had prepared a lunch of beet salad topped with eggs, and there was pelmeni stuffed with cheese and a loaf of rye bread. They settled on the lawn and Marina made up plates for everyone, recalling at the last moment that Elena was not so fond of eggs.

“Thank you for remembering, dear,” said Elena.

Like the lazy boats, the talk drifted from one subject to the next – Vasha’s last day of school, the rising price of meat, Viktor’s new job. He reminded his mother again that he did not run into burning buildings, merely drive the truck. Knowing Viktor, she was not entirely comforted. They had argued when he made the decision, a day after leaving the army hospital, to join the city fire brigade. She thought he might go back to school, perhaps become a teacher or an engineer like his father, but he had other ideas and he was happy with his choice.

“Papa has a pointed helmut,” said Vasha, turning sad at the thought, “but I’m not allowed to wear it anymore.”

The conversation turned, despite Viktor’s attempts to deflect it, to news from the European war, which Elena found to be increasingly troubling. “A friend of a friend gets the real news,” she said. “He says there’s no stopping them now. The madmen are winning and there’s no stopping them. He says we have no idea … Paris occupied, people lying dead in the streets of London. To read the newspapers here, you’d think there wasn’t a war at all.”

“Vasha dear, go over and watch the boats. Please, go on,” said Marina abruptly, and Vasha happily set down his plate and ran to the embankment. “We try not to upset him with these things, Elena. He’s … sensitive. You understand. “ She looked to Viktor for support, but he avoided her gaze.

“I understand,” said Elena, “But you can’t protect them from everything. Even children need to know about the evil in the world. Perhaps them most of all.” She watched her grandson and waved back at him. “We make a mistake by shielding them from the unpleasant side of life. I always wanted my sons to know the truth, both good and bad.” Her eyes fell on Viktor.

“He’s a young lad,” Viktor replied. “He still lives in a child’s world. He’ll learn about life in good time … and when the time comes, I’ll teach him myself, the way Papa taught me. I remember once when he told me about – ” and Viktor caught himself.

“Yes, maybe we should talk about something else,” said Elena, with a sudden air of fatigue.

The conversation was spare after that. Marina tried to draw out Elena with talk of Vasha’s summer lessons, but it was no use. The shadows in the garden had lengthened, and soon Elena felt a chill. They packed up the basket and began the walk back to her building. Vasha let his grandmother hold his hand most of the way.

Vasha was finally asleep, and before Viktor left the apartment to meet his friends at the beer hall, there were a few brief minutes of intimate calm. Marina lay exhausted on the bed, sprawled on her back on the sea green coverlet and still wearing the skirt and sweater from the day’s outing. Viktor sat at the end of the bed and with his rough, wide hands rubbed first the soles and then the tops of her feet in slow circles. The pleasure on her face was tempered by his sense of concern.

“She still has the look,” he said, placing his hands on the bed.

“What ? …Viktor please, why do you do this to yourself.” Marina pulled herself up onto her elbows to look at him.

“I mention his name and that look comes over her. I start talking and I forget I’m talking about him, and by then it’s too late – she’s off in another place. Promise me, if something ever happens, you wouldn’t …”

“Ever happens? I almost lost you once, don’t forget.” She caught her voice rising and quickly returned to a near whisper. “I think I know how she feels. Your mother is coping the best way she can. We’ve talked about it … she tells me things that she can’t tell you.”

“You mean the two of you have secrets?”

“Not secrets. Things a mother can’t share with a son. Things from the heart. Your mother and I haven’t been very close until just recently. She’s a hard woman to get close to. But she’s started to talk to me about the past – not about your father, of course, not yet – and I think it helps to ease her mind.”

“I’m glad of that. I’m glad she can talk to you. Too many things are left unsaid. Sometimes I wish I was brave enough to say everything.”

“You were brave enough to marry me. I don’t think I was your mother’s first choice back then.”

“Are you serious? She’s always liked you – she just didn’t want you to know how much. ‘Marry a girl who’s smarter than you,’ she used to say. She saw that in you from the first day.”

“Well, you may not be a genius, but you do have your talents,” she said playfully.

He began to move his hand from ankle to calf in long strokes, and her leg shuddered.

“That feels … ahh,” she said, dropping her head back down to the pillow. “If you’re leaving, you’d better go now while you still have the chance.” Viktor rose, somewhat reluctantly, to leave. She reached out her hand. “Wake me when you come home … if it’s not too late.” He pulled her close and bent to kiss her.

The sky was still brightly lit as Viktor left the apartment building, but the empty playground of Yard No. 5, surrounded by its high walls, was as dark as the bottom of a well. The children had gone home, and in the upper floors, people sat by the windows that opened to the inner courtyard and took the air.

The streets in the Petrograd section were crowded with after-dinner strollers who seemed, in Viktor’s eyes, to be in an unusually friendly mood. Some spilled from a corner café, and through the open door he could hear the smoky voice of Mark Bernes singing Clouds Rose Over the City on the record player inside. He arrived at the beer hall to find two of his friends, Lev and Kirill, waiting outside the barn-like structure under a street light that couldn’t decide if it were day or night.

“Have they thrown the two of you out already?” said Viktor with a laugh.

“Kiss my Georgian ass, big man,” said Lev, and there were embraces all around. “The rest of the battalion are inside.” The guard at the door waved them through.

By day, the hall was a gymnasium for amateur boxers and wrestlers – some of the best in the city had trained there since the time of the late tsar’s grandfather. The overhead fans hadn’t worked for years and the warped wooden floors reeked of old beer, sweat and rosin. At night, the plank tables and benches were set up in long rows and the boxing ring at the far end of the hall became a bandstand. On warm nights like this, the large doors on either side of the hall were rolled open. It was a neighborhood establishment, one that catered to factory men, soldiers, ex-soldiers, off-duty policemen, and those who worked on the edges of Leningrad’s criminal underworld.

Viktor drank with his army buddies most weekends. Tonight was a special occasion, because Lev, one of his oldest friends, had been posted with his unit to the outskirts of Kiev and they were set to leave in the next few days. All of the remaining members of the 23rd Battalion had come to give their brother a proper sendoff. Lev and Viktor knew each other from school and they had been teammates on the junior squad for Zenith, the city’s premier football club, where Viktor had anchored the backline. They served together in the reserves and fought together as members of the 23rd in the Karelian campaign a year earlier.

Three rounds in, and the toasts and insults came with equal measure, primarily at Lev’s expense. “To our brother Lev! The girls in Ukraine have never met him. If he begs enough, they just might let him. When he drops his pants, they’ll soon forget him.” His response was a succinct, “Fuck you, one and all!”

Kirill pitched in, “Let’s raise a glass to our brother Viktor and the brave, brave men of the fire brigade!” There was loud laughter and whistling from the table. “No, I’m serious, a man could get hurt tripping over his own hose, isn’t that right Viktor?” Viktor laughed loudest of them all, but there was a sting to Kirill’s words. Soldiers respect their own, and since his medical discharge from the army, Viktor felt himself more and more outside the world of the battalion and his friends. Against all reason, he found himself missing the army life – the intensity of the firing line, the brotherhood of the trenches, and the sense of a common fate. Memories like these were like shrapnel burning close to the heart. Driving a ladder truck for the fire brigade simply could not compare.

The hall quickly filled to capacity, and some men were forced to wait outside for a spot to open up at the tables. This caused ill feelings that the application of alcohol would only inflame. Stout-armed waitresses moved through the aisles with trays full of tall glasses of beer, and the men drank as fast as it could be delivered. A member of Viktor’s group had smuggled in two bottles of samogon, a type of potent home-brew he had gotten ‘on the left’. It was top quality pervach, not the usual backwoods variety that could blind a cart-horse. The bottle and a glass made the rounds under the table as the night wore on and the voices in the hall grew louder. Up on the bandstand, a trio of musicians began to tune their instruments.

Viktor raised a glass to Lev, “You know, my old friend, part of me wishes that I was going with you.”

“No, you don’t mean that, big man. Don’t let these idiots fool you with their jokes – there isn’t one of them who wouldn’t trade places with you if they had the chance. What you have, my friend … how’s your little soldier these days?”

Viktor pulled a photo of Vasha from his pocket. “He’s good … wants to be a pilot.” He held up the picture so all could see.

“Smart lad. Stay above the shit, it’s safer that way. To the little one!” Lev shot back a glass of the samogon and passed the bottle to Viktor, who poured one for himself.

“Here’s to staying above the shit!” said Viktor as he downed another glass. “Let’s hope it never happens … let’s hope we’re always ready!” He sat back unsteadily and looked over the faces of the men at the table – men who had fought and bled with him, men who had dragged him, barely alive, from the frozen marshes. He thought of those who were missing – Valerie, Sergei, Lieutenant Tihkvin, and many more – buried in unmarked graves somewhere in the north. Through the pervach haze, he saw their hollow faces, their shattered, shrieking bodies, and the red blood turning black in the snow. He poured another drink.

As midnight approached, a fight broke out near Viktor’s table. Insults flew, then fists, and what started with two men soon became four, then eight, as associates of the men joined in. “Estonians,” said Kirill above the shouts, “probably some kind of black market dispute. It’s best not to get involved.” One man was already face down, unconscious and bleeding on the floor. The guards who had been working the doors waded in, but they could not separate the men. One of the plank tables overturned with the shattering of glass. The fight went on and threatened to escalate, spilling over to adjoining tables, when the sound of a whistle – loud, long, and repeated – was heard in the hall.

The blue-capped NKVD officer with the whistle was accompanied by an armed police escort. They moved through the hall, which quickly fell silent. The bloodied fighters stopped mid-punch and shambled to either side of the clearing made by the overturned table. The officer never spoke. He stood and, without haste, surveyed the scene with the cold eyes of a judge. He pointed to several of the bloody men and they were taken away through one of the side doors. The unconscious man was pulled from the floor, put in a chair and carried away by the guards. When the police were gone, the fighters who had not been taken slipped away quietly into the night. The drinking resumed, and the trio once again took up their instruments.

The men of the 23rd Battalion, spurred on perhaps by the adrenaline of the fight, spontaneously broke into an old battlefield song passed down from soldier to soldier since the days of Napoleon’s invasion:

Oh black raven, why you flying?
Soaring high above my head
I’m not going yet to heaven
No, black raven I’m not dead.

Why you flying, oh black raven?
Why you aiming at my head?
Do you see your future prey here?
No, black raven, I’m not dead.

Better fly back to my homeland
Go to see my dearest one
Tell her, oh my darling raven
That you’ve seen her dying son.

Others in the hall began to sing along and soon the musicians had been drowned out by the rising chorus. Viktor’s deep voice and those of his brothers echoed through the cobbled streets and yards of the Petrograd section.

Outside the hall, the men taken by the police were hooded and their hands bound by thin wire. They were beaten, methodically and expertly, with short wooden clubs and thrown, one atop the another, into the belly of a black van. The queue of men waiting nearby took no notice.

The van flew by, almost hitting Viktor as he staggered from the hall. He cursed their mothers and spat into the gutter. Snakes, goddamned snakes! – no sense of honor or courage in any of them. No soldier, no man, could have respect for these cowards, these fucking bluecaps. He steadied himself at a lamppost until the rush of anger receded.

Taking the long way home, he once again passed the iron gates of the zoo, and he could hear the sounds of the nocturnal animals as they stirred in their cages. The soldier’s song kept playing and playing in his head, and he sang it loudly to the empty street. His voice seemed to rouse more of the animals, whose roars and bleats and shrieks became increasingly agitated as he finished the tune.

Better fly back to my country
Go to see my darling wife
Tell her, oh my dear black raven
That I’m parting with my life.

I’ve got all my final blessings
From a ball of foreign lead
Go ahead and take my heart now
Yes, black raven, now I’m dead.

Viktor tottered into a sidestreet and made his way back to the apartment. He climbed into bed, took Marina in his arms, and quickly fell asleep. Vasha, awakened by the sounds of the night, rose and went to the window, which was swung open a few inches. He quietly pulled up a chair and watched as the fog slowly extinguished the lights of the city. The low hum of aircraft caught his ear, and he felt himself lifted, floating above the buildings, as he, too, drifted into sleep.



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Chapter 2   -  Black Raven, I'm Not Dead

One Response to “Chapter 2”

  1. Subin says:

    pratix mnogo dalag sms,nadiavam se niakoi da go pro4ete.Edinstveno ne moga da rabreza za6to e nujdo da e v kletka,kato toi e paraliziran taka ili ina4e ne moje da se dviji ..choveshkata jestokost e bezkraina,no nie 6te se borim za tova .LETb4S ADOPT nie xorata obichasti jivotni sme s vas i hi4 ne sme malko!!!

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