Chapter Sixteen

Vera Volkonskaia, Orphaned by Revolution

Volkonskaia’s story is one which was replicated in thousands of lives, that of children separated from their families and lost during the cataclysms of the Russian Revolution. She was an orphan with talents which unscrupulous people quickly recognized and tried to use. Her personal tragedy of this period was not her last. She was to endure the 900 day blockade of Leningrad in World War II as well. This is an excerpt from O. [Vera] Volkonskaia, Ta k tiazhkii mlat [Thus the Heavy Mallet]. Paris: LEV, 1979.

The Revolution caught us in a small town in the Ukraine where father also had to come. During the October Revolution he was labeled an outlaw, since he was a prince and jurist, and mother begged him to flee abroad. My oldest sister lived with an aunt in Petrograd and being very gifted and assiduous was studying to be an architect. She knew that she would soon have to become “the father” of our family. She had to concentrate all her powers in order to obtain a good profession. But what could be accurately foreseen in this troubled time?! A huge whirlwind shook Russia, jarring individual destinies as well. Mother caught smallpox and was sent to the quarantine barracks, while we three, two younger brothers and myself, were left alone. The chances for recovery were slim. Our neighbors took us to a children’s home, as orphans. There we merged with other orphans, the homeless and under-aged, young enterprising travelers, removed from the trains on which they had hitched rides.

The smell of carbolic acid, the prickly gray blankets, the thin wheat porridge, the bullying by the other children, were compensated for by the beneficent presence of the Komsomol [communist youth league] member Misha, [diminutive for Mikhail] a kind and fair leader. He organized hikes in the



Chapter Sixteen

woods and fields during which he acquainted us with the healing herbs and described their properties. He spoke of birds, how beneficial their presence was, and how one should safeguard them.

Meanwhile, the food situation worsened and the orphanage was moved to the country. Our instructor was sent to the operational center, while the housekeeping head, without waiting for the arrival of the replacement, fled, grabbing what he could. He was a dodger. His convictions changed depending on circumstance. Taking advantage of the interregnum, those who were drawn to Tashkent, “the city of bread,” walked the eight versts to the station in order to hop freight trains and cling to the railroad car buffers. We decided to make our way to our sister, but were taken off the train in Kiev and sent to a sorting point. This place sent underage vagrants to the families from which they had run away or to orphanages.

My younger brothers were assigned to an orphanage for boys on a dairy farm twelve kilometers from Kiev. It was said that children were well fed there and taken to a school in Kiev with the milk cans. The question of food became dominant for us. I was happy for them. It was good that they, who were inseparable, would be together. They wouldn’t be miserable. Insofar as things concerned me, I was certain from my younger years that I could handle anything. Reminiscence, self-pity, sorrow—I immediately quashed these feelings within myself. I wrote the address of the orphanage on the lining of my white canvas shoes.

I was temporarily left at the site. We, the older ones, were allowed to walk around town provided we were back by six in the evening. On one of these walks I met a short fat lady who was carrying two large packets. Glancing at my uncomely clothes, she addressed me:

“Little girl, help me carry my things. I’ll pay you fifty kopeks.”

Strong and tall, I looked older than my years. “Where do you live? I have to get back to the orphanage shortly.”

“Not far at all.”

We were in the Podol area with the Dnieper flowing below. Despite late autumn, it was as warm as in spring. Having reached a tiny house standing in a small garden, the woman pushed open the wicket gate and we entered. A black shaggy dog rushed out happily in greeting. He treated me with suspicious indifference. We entered with the packages into a room whose table had a huge glass sphere and upon which playing cards with strange drawings were laid out. On an easy chair by the table sat a well-fed black cat with shiny fur. He appeared as suspicious as the dog. I did not even venture to pet it. The woman gave me the promised fifty kopeks. Puffing and panting, she sat down in the easy chair moving the cat aside. “I get tired from walking a long time. Yet, I was a dancer in my youth.” She

Vera Volkonskaia, Orphaned by Revolution


pointed to a photograph hanging on the wall of a young ballerina, thin as a blade of grass, who had nothing the least bit in common with the squat, fat lady.

“Do you want to come here tomorrow? You’ll help me a bit with cleaning, and you’ll get another fifty kopeks.” I happily agreed. I would save some money this way!

On the following day, right after dinner, I went to the small house. I had to sweep and wash the painted floors in three rooms (the fourth was locked) and in the kitchen. “I’ll take care of the fourth one myself,” said Tat’iana Ivanovna, the mistress of the house. I finished my work quickly. In the orphanage I had learned how to wash floors and dishes properly, rinsing them and then wiping them dry.

“Good girl! Sit a minute and tell me about your family. Why are you in an orphanage?” I told her all that I knew. She remained quiet for awhile, then asked: “Do you know how to sing?”

“Yes, I know how to sing everything that my mother sang.”

“Sing something!”

She brought out a guitar and quickly played the chords to Glinka’s romances which I sang for her one after another. I always sang when cleaning or when I was in a meadow or in the woods. But it was very new and pleasant to sing with accompaniment.

“You have a good ear. Have you ever danced?”


“Well, come tomorrow. You can peel some pears for my jam, then we’ll try some dancing.” Squeezing the fifty kopeks in my fist, I returned to the center in an elevated mood. This way I would save money for a trip to Leningrad.

The next day, sitting on a stool in the kitchen, I commenced peeling fruit. Without breaking away from the work, I peeled a whole pan of pears. “So! Now, let’s go dance. Follow what I am going to do and try to repeat it. Watch.” She took off her robe and was left in black tights. She made several movements the probability of which, coming from her, was impossible to conceive. I repeated, as best I could, the steps she had executed. “Not bad. Not bad. The main thing here is to have a musical ear and a feel for rhythm. Besides that, you’re pretty and it is pleasant to look at you.” Everything that I heard was totally new and terribly interesting. “Tomorrow I’ll teach you a simple dance.” Having discovered my “choreographic talents,” Tat’iana Ivanovna offered, “Would you like to stay here? I’ll teach you to dance character dances. Sometimes we’ll perform together and you will make a little money. In the mornings you’ll go to school. I’m alone, you’re alone, we’ll both be happier.” This offer seemed exciting to me. Everything at the center was done quickly. Tat’iana Ivanovna pledged that she would send me to


Chapter Sixteen

school and take care of me, and I pledged that I was willing to live with her. Her address was recorded and we were told that an inspector would visit.

I was given a cheerful room in the small house, with lace curtains and pots of geraniums on the windowsill. A table and chair stood by the window. There was a small closet but I had nothing to put or hang there. A key protruded from the door to my room and Tat’iana Ivanovna ordered me to lock myself in at night.

In the morning she took me to school not far from the Podol. She spoke to the teacher for a long time, then left. There were none like me. All the girls lived nearby with their parents. They scrutinized me unceremoniously with evident contempt. My white canvas shoes in November, my worn dress and old coat did not inspire their confidence. The girl next to whom I was seated moved to the very edge of the seat as if I were a leper. No, I felt better with the street urchins. In that setting everything took place along lines of friendship and appearances had no significance. Besides, everybody looked equally bad.

With an aching heart I decided to ignore them, try to study hard and then leave immediately. But when classes ended, the teacher called me over and told me that I would be eating in school. She gave me meal tickets for a week. This was free for those without parents. She showed me how to get to the dining room. A long table covered with an oilcloth stood in a small clean room. One had to take a plate and go for food to a window which opened into the kitchen. I received a full plate of porridge with sunflower oil and a large piece of bread. Some of the girls ate here also but not even one of them sat next to me. Having finished my porridge, I put the remainder of the bread into my pocket, said thanks at the kitchen window and left. I was also given a notebook and two books for free. Returning to the small house, I saw that Tat’iana Ivanovna was not home. She left the key hanging on a nail in the little shed. Entering, I knocked on her door nevertheless. There was no answer. I took hold of the doorknob, wanting to take a look at the cat, but could not get in. The door was locked. I sat down in my room to do homework. Tat’iana Ivanovna returned at four o’clock. “We will practice the dance now. Did you eat in school?”


“I’ll have some coffee, then I will call you.” The house came to smell de-liciously of coffee and something else that was good. In half an hour she called me. On the table in front of her were tights, tutus, and garlands. “Now try on all of these. I was fifteen years old when I wore these, but I was short and thin. You are so big that they might fit you now.” I tried everything on in my room. The pink tights and the tutus almost fit, and I presented myself to Tat’iana Ivanovna who found this was not bad at all. “You’ll grow a little

Vera Volkonskaia, Orphaned by Revolution


more by spring and there will be no work until then anyway.” I danced in front of her for about an hour, cautiously repeating the movements of the dance. “Good. We’ll work this way everyday. Now go peel some potatoes and boil them. Wash my underwear that is soaking and hang it on the wire in the shed.” I did all this and went to my room. I felt myself very much an orphan and in order to distract myself I began to repeat the movements of my dance.

“Come to supper!” shouted Tat’iana Ivanovna. We sat down at the kitchen table and I was given three potatoes and a piece of herring. “You have the right to get food from the ARA [American Relief Administration]. Ask your teacher tomorrow where you are to go to get it.”

After lessons were over the next day, I walked up to the teacher in order to find out where I should go. She gave me an envelope with an address. Asking passersby, I finally found the street and the building. In a large room on the first floor sat a young woman who gave out food to older children from a list. When my turn came, having read the teacher’s letter, she asked: “Did you bring a bag for the food?” “No, I don’t have a bag!” I must have looked very upset because, smiling, she said: “Wait on the side, I will be there shortly and we’ll find something.” In a little while, another young woman replaced her and she went into the storeroom. Looking in the cabinets she found an old canvas bag. She gave me several cans of condensed milk, a large jar of coconut butter, a package of sugar, cocoa, and coffee. “Do you want some clothes?” asked the young woman, looking at my worn out garments. “We distribute only foodstuffs here, but there are some donated clothes as well, let’s look.” She quickly began to sort through items piled in the corner. Taking two dresses, she measured them up against me. Then she put a thick blue coat on me, completely new and very pretty. “There you go, we’ve dressed you up a bit.” Thanking her, I loaded up my treasures and set off.

It was already completely dark. The unfamiliar streets had an unfriendly look. I became sad that I was alone and had no one with whom to share my feelings and the tasty things. Tat’iana Ivanovna showed no warmth toward me whatsoever. I even wondered why she took me in. At that time I was far from comprehending her desire to make some money off me and have a free servant.

Entering the yard of the little house, which I could not possibly call my home, I saw that there were no lights in the windows. Feeling for the key on the nail, I walked into the house. I was very hungry. It would be good to eat my leftover bread with some condensed milk but I didn’t know what to use to open the can and went to my room. Having eaten my bread I sat down to do my lessons. Tat’iana Ivanovna still had not come. Removing the key from the keyhole of the front door so that she could enter with her key, I went to my room and lay down to sleep. I was exhausted from running around the


Chapter Sixteen

streets, as well as from the cold and the agitation, and I fell asleep the moment my head touched the pillow.

Awakening suddenly because someone was touching my face, I opened my eyes. Light from the street lamp penetrated the room and I saw, standing next to the bed, a small person with a large head and protruding black hair. He touched my face again and I screamed wildly. A disheveled and sleepy Tat’iana Ivanovna ran in, took the person by the hand, and led him away. Returning to me, she explained: “That is my nephew. My sister died and it is a year now since he’s been living here. He’s a midget. He doesn’t do bad things but he looks so revolting that I have to hide him. He is locked up all day and sleeps but wanders around the house at night. This time, lock your door. In the morning, you’ll find cocoa ready with bread and butter.” For the first time in her tone a weak shadow of sincere warmth conveyed itself, addressed to this lonely trusting creature which had so simply followed her without hesitation or doubt.

Everything was going well at school. I did my lessons carefully and was attentive. The girls changed their attitude toward me from the moment that I began coming in a pretty woolen dress, black lacquered shoes and a quality coat. But they no longer existed for me. I almost never talked to them. I hurried to the small house to clean it, prepare my lessons and learn new steps. I liked dancing very much. Sometimes when thinking of my family and nanny and feeling the onset of tears, I would begin to invent numerous new movements.

Once Tat’iana Ivanovna said: “We have a chance to make some money. There’s going to be a big party with entertainment in a private home. You will come with me, sing to my accompaniment, and then dance. You are doing this quite well already.” She carefully unwound the pink tights, ironed the tutu, and straightened the silk rose on the little garland. “Everything is in order. I’ll put some makeup on you and you’ll be a dear.”

Saturday evening came and we set out for the Kreshchatik [main thoroughfare of Kiev] with two round cartons and our dresses. “This is the apartment where we’re going,” pointed Tat’iana Ivanovna to a series of large illuminated windows. We went up through the back entrance and the housemaid took us to a small room next to the kitchen where we changed. Tat’iana Ivanovna put on a long black evening dress, combed her hair very deftly, fastened artificial diamonds to her breast and hair, and became unrecognizable. She also combed my thick hair, binding it into a large knot at the back of my head, fastened the little charm of roses, stretched out the tights evenly, and touched up my cheeks, eyes, and lips. Glancing in the mirror, I barely recognized myself.

We entered the living room. I was carrying Tat’iana Ivanovna’s guitar. The large hall was awash in light from the crystal chandelier suspended from the

Vera Volkonskaia, Orphaned by Revolution


ceiling and a series of lamps with crystal pendants along the walls. The guests were already sitting on the sofas, easy chairs, and armchairs, Tat’iana Ivanovna fawningly greeted the lady of the house, a tall fat woman in an expensive dress. “Good evening, Iuliia Petrovna!” “Good evening, Tat’iana Ivanovna. And this is your orphan?” “Yes.” I curtsied. “Hello little girl.” When all the guests had gathered, Tat’iana Ivanovna gave me a signal and I walked to the center of the hall, having handed her the guitar.

I was scared and uncomfortable, but the feeling of responsibility and being yoked, having become habitual in my solitary existence, forced me to assume the ballet pose I had learned. After the introduction, I sang Glinka’s “The Lark.” When I finished, everyone applauded very loudly. Bowing, I sang another romance. When all was sung, I bowed again, and after an introduction danced a number arranged by Tat’iana Ivanovna. They again applauded enthusiastically. I was surrounded, people smiled, the ladies kissed me. A friendly fat girl approximately my own age brought me a basket decorated with ribbons that was full of money. I thanked everybody again and curtsied ballet-style to all sides. Everyone smiled benevolently again. They then went to eat. The girl took me by the hand and sat me next to her. Tat’iana Ivanovna came over, took the basket from my hands, and transferred the entire contents to her purse. Nina, the girl, the niece of the lady of the house, warned me, telling me that Tat’iana Ivanovna liked money very much and would always take all of it away from me. “She dresses up her midget nephew as a freak and shows him off for money at carnivals. Beware,” said Nina. A young man sitting across from me offered: “If you want, I’ll introduce you to the director of a terrific circus. You’ll make a lot more money there.”

I was not comfortable with Tat’iana Ivanovna from the very start and there were moments when I wanted to leave her and return to the center. But there—again the unknown. Where would I be sent? My goal remained to make my way to Leningrad, the St. Petersburg of my early childhood, to Varia, my older sister. What if I could really make more money in the circus and go to her? We arranged it with the young man that he would meet me in front of the school on Wednesday and take me to the circus director.

Tat’iana Ivanovna, having praised me for the concert, said nothing about the money. She said nothing about it the following day as well. On Monday, when I returned from school in the rain with wet books, I got up some courage and asked her to buy me a bag for my books and notebooks. She looked at me sideways but, nevertheless, bought me a large oilskin briefcase. On Tuesday evening I put my good dress in it, my books, and my white canvas shoes in case I would not return.

My heart, once tender in infancy, had acquired a defensive shield from the shocks and calamities. Not yet in a condition to comprehend life’s


Chapter Sixteen

fundamental dangers, I began to learn how to parry its small jolts and stings. Having finished lunch in school, I walked out into the street with my briefcase. My new acquaintance was waiting for me on the corner. He took me by the hand and we went along the streets. He told me about the circus and said that I would learn much there and make excellent money. We arrived at a small, fairly rundown hotel and knocked on the door of the room occupied by the director. This was a tall, fat man who looked unpleasant. My guide began to talk quietly in German. I could only distinguish the individual words: “Waisenkind” (orphan) and “sehr begabt” (very able). (In my early childhood, K?tchen, my governess, who was to have trained me to be a mademoiselle, had taught me to speak German.) This person instilled such fear in me that I decided immediately to return to Tat’iana Ivanovna. But, after talking for another two to three minutes, the young man, whose name I did not even know, quickly left the room. I jumped after him but the German grabbed me by the shoulder.

“You will remain here. I will teach you acrobatics and you will make good money.”

“I don’t want to stay here! I want to go home!”

“You don’t have a home. Don’t be stupid. If you protest, I’ll give you a flogging.”

And so, a difficult life began. It seemed that nothing worse than this had yet happened. From early morning, training in acrobatics took place. Handstands, faults, somersaults. Falling on one arm and then the other, and depicting a circle with the body and extended legs, one had to get on one’s feet for one second and, again with palms on the floor, make another circle and so on around the whole arena. Each exercise was repeated countless times. My muscles hurt. All of this was done under the hostile gaze of Master Kurt. Unsuccessful movements drew a whip to my rear. Forget about school. I decided to run away at the first opportunity. But such an opportunity did not present itself. I was always under observation. I, of course, did not show that I understood his conversations with his daughter. I slept in the same room with his daughter Irma. The rest of the time was spent in the circus. There was not even a suggestion of my innocent dances. I had to become an acrobat. “She is like rubber,” said Kurt to his daughter once. “She will work wonderfully.”

Irma was lazy, quite dumb but not mean. She did not let me away from her even for a stride during the time that I spent with her. I was always well fed, but the words “Man does not live by bread alone” were especially applicable here. There wasn’t even a hint of any warmth, friendly attitude, or joyous approach to matters at hand. All the circus people, as if specially chosen, were rude, dismal, and jealous of another’s success. And everything was valued strictly in terms of money. Conditions were unpleasant, even oppressive. The

Vera Volkonskaia, Orphaned by Revolution


animals were treated badly also. Everything was based on fear. I was full of compassion for my silent four-legged brothers.

Once I overheard Kurt say: “Two more performances—then out of this swinish country.” My situation was bad. No matter what, I had to try and run away. Irma was going on her regular shopping and I implored her to take me with her. “I’ll carry your packages. I never get to go outside!” She thought about it and agreed. “All right, you’ll carry the goods. But be careful, father whips one very painfully!” We walked along the Kiev streets. Irma stopped in shops, bought the required produce, and loaded me with it. We proceeded. “Walk in step with me,” she ordered sternly. At one spot in the street, at the very entrance to the vegetable market, a truck stood on the sidewalk. Some boxes and bags were being unloaded from it. Throwing the produce on the ground, I slid through the narrow space between the wall and the truck, leaving fat Irma on the other side, and raced up the stairs having jumped into the entrance of the very first building. Screened by the truck, my actions escaped Irma’s eyes.

Reaching the third floor, I read the name V. Volkonskaia on the bronze plate. The first letter of my name, my last name, could these be close relatives of some sort? I rang. A tall woman of about forty opened the door. “Can I come in for a few minutes? I am Vera Volkonskaia.” Down the street I heard Irma’s shrill voice. “Come in.” She let me into the room and closed the door. “Wait here a little. I will ask if Vera Andreevna can see you.” Rapidly, gasping, I began to describe what had occurred, that I ran away from the Germans, that they were probably searching for me that very moment, and that I was very scared. For a long moment, attentively, the lady looked me in the eyes and then said: “All right. We will look after you.”

In a quarter of an hour I was led into a room where an old lady with an elongated stern face, and all in white, was sitting on a bed. She pointed to a chair standing next to the bed, looked at me and smiled. Her smile lit up her face like the sun coming out from behind clouds. Her face immediately became warm and attractive. We were left alone. “Well, tell me everything from the beginning!” I told her everything beginning with my grandmother, my nanny and the estate, and ending with the Germans. It turned out that Vera Andereevna knew my aunt Vera Vladimirovna well. The latter had a model gimnazium in Moscow. We were very distant relatives of their family. “You will stay here for awhile and go to school. It is in the same building. It is our former gimnazium. One of my daughters is its head, another teaches there. You will receive a school lunch from the state. I will write to Vera Vladimirovna and find out about your sister from her. Go now; my daughter Anastasia Mikhailovna, will take care of you.” I thanked her awkwardly and exited.


Chapter Sixteen

At a desk in the neighboring room sat a woman with the same elongated, stern face. I stopped, not daring to interrupt her work. She indicated the chair with her eyes and continued to write. I probably felt the way that village children did, godchildren of grandmother Vera, who were brought in by their mothers to pay their respects. Grandmother would call the child to come closer and affectionately give a pat on the cheek, as he covered his face. “Why is he hiding?” she would ask in amazement. “He don’t dare” [look up], the child’s mother would explain.

In this large, cold apartment with its severe imperial furniture I too “did not dare” after the less than respectable conditions to which I had become accustomed over the past period. Finally, Anastasia Mikhailovna completed her work and, knocking, entered her mother’s bedroom. After a few minutes she came out smiling with the same unexpected, sunny smile as her mother. “Hi Vera, do you want to take a bath before supper? We will be eating in three quarters of an hour.”

I became bewildered in the large, snow-white bathroom. Everything glistened with the surgical cleanliness of an operating room. Could I dry myself with one of the fluffy towels neatly folded in a pile on a stool? Painstakingly I rinsed the bath after using it. For the potential flight from Master Kurt, I had put on my best dress over the dirty tights, sweated through from training. I washed them in the sink, wrung them out thoroughly, and hung them on the radiator. I put the dress on over my naked body. I smoothed out my hair and, looking carefully at everything, checking to see that I had not left any dirty tracks, I walked out of the bathroom. A table was set for four in the large dining room, but nobody was in the room yet. Perhaps I’ll be eating in the kitchen? I’d better get there ahead of time. Entering, I saw Vera Andreevna’s other daughter, Ekaterina Mikhailovna, who had opened the door to my salvation. In a robe and a white kerchief on her head, she was preparing a supper tray for her mother. “May I help you with anything?” I asked. “No, thank you. Go to the dining room, we’ll be eating right away.”

We sat down at the table as soon as Ekaterina Mikhailovna finished with her mother’s supper. There were two sisters, Anastasia Mikhailovna’s husband, and me. The husband was cut from completely different cloth than the Volkonskii ladies. It seemed to me that he did not feel particularly at ease in this situation. Later I found out that he had been a teacher in the former gim-nazium; that he and Anastasia had fallen in love and married after the revolution. They were totally different in terms of their background and upbringing.

Their model gimnazium was transferred to the state but they were left in charge to teach and, by the way, were greatly respected. Their graduates received a good and well-rounded education. Nothing had changed in the apartment or in their unfailingly strict and modest routine.

Vera Volkonskaia, Orphaned by Revolution


After supper I offered to wash the dishes, saying that I had learned to do this properly at the orphanage. While washing the dishes, and alone in the kitchen, I partially shook off my feelings of confusion and restraint. “A real village girl at the lords’,” I thought.

I slept on a small folding bed which was kept in a closet in the living room during the day. In school, I felt that I was way behind the others. I began to be very attentive trying to get at least a reasonable hold on the subject at hand. After lessons, there was a free dinner, simple but filling. Then, we did our homework right in school. It was hard for me, but everyone around me was so busy that I could not ask anyone to explain things. I would see how things would proceed. I did not go outside even once. I was afraid of running into somebody from the circus.

Vera Andreevna found out that aunt Vera had died, but Varia was living in a students’ dormitory. Soon a letter addressed to the Volkonskiis arrived from her in which she thanked them for helping me and informed me that she would come to Kiev for a few days during vacation.

Finally it came, the long awaited day of her arrival. I answered the doorbell and flung myself on her neck. “How you’ve grown,” exclaimed Varia.

The Volkonskiis greeted her very warmly. She spent quite a long time with Vera Adreevna, and came out smiling. In the morning, she and I went to the orphanage to see our brothers. This was a row of small, new wooden houses built next to the dairy farm. On one side were meadows, on the other a pine forest. The boys looked good and, evidently, were not unhappy. The lady in charge, with whom Varia spoke, fully understood how important it was for her to graduate from college before taking the responsibility for us upon herself. “It would be good for the boys if their sister could work in our laundry. If she is sensible, she could work and go to school. And we would pay her a little.” “For the trip to Leningrad,” I thought. We discussed this and decided that this was not bad at all. I would see my brothers and would not be dependent on anyone except for the head of the orphanage, who appeared to be a sincere and kind person. She offered that Varia and I live there for a few days of Varia’s vacation. “There is enough milk and porridge for everybody. Your sister will learn what to do in the laundry.” Varia and I checked the clothes as well as the income and expense books. “When you give out clothes—get a receipt. Keep everything in order and all will be clear.”

We went walking in the woods with Varia and talked of how good things would be when she graduated and began to work. She promised that as soon as she got her diploma she would take me immediately and then, later, the boys. “You understand that I now live in a dormitory and cannot pay for a room until I start working.” “I understand and how!” I exclaimed, kissing her.


Chapter Sixteen

I was happy. There was something new to hope for. I liked the orphanage and the director was a simple and kind lady. She saw to it that the “laundry girl” was allotted a little income. She would come by to see how I was doing. Comfortable about us, Varia left for Leningrad. I wrote a letter to Vera An-dreevna thanking her for everything that she had done for me.

I didn’t see the boys much. They had a precise daily schedule. School in the morning, return, dinner, homework, work in the service shops, a walk, supper, and to bed at nine o’clock. It was worse with my studies. I was able to go to school three times a week. True, the teacher assigned lessons to do at home. I tried to study in the evenings but frequently fell asleep over a book.

During free time in the day I ran into the woods. In the fragrant thickets of pine, walking on dry crunchy needles, I was immersed in a kingdom of silence. The pine forest—a forest that is mysterious, dense, devoid of the singing of birds—the impenetrable forest of nanny’s stories. Ivan Tsarevich [folk tale hero] galloped through it on his gray wolf. Making my way through the reddish trunks of the pines I felt a kind of indescribable joyous agitation, the expectation of “the beautiful” and vaguely foreseen. The most optimistic of hopes, the bravest of plans were born during these walks. With a living force they fed my monotonous existence divided by time spent in the laundry, the kitchen, and doing homework. The days passed slowly, marked like signposts on the road, by Varia’s letters. In her last letter she related to me that a teacher from the Advancement of Arts would be in Kiev on business. He promised to take me with him on his way back to Leningrad. Varia was now living with her high school friend, Vera Naumova. I could live there with her for a while until her final exams. She would notify me about the day of departure at the last moment. I shared this happily with the director. “That is good! You made a little money and you can take it with you.”

Three weeks passed after that. No other news came. Finally a letter arrived from Vera Naumova. She wrote that Varia had contracted typhoid fever, but that she was getting better and that nothing had changed regarding my trip to Leningrad. Ultimately, after another ten days of waiting, I was sitting in a second class compartment on a train heading toward the city of my youth in the company of a quiet, affable companion. The train clicked off the versts, bringing me closer to my longed-for dream.

A damp winter evening had fallen upon the city when, hurried along by impatience, I ran up the steps three at a time. On the fourth floor a business card on the door read: M. Naumov. I rang. They took their time behind the door which was opened by a small old lady. I entered and through the open door of the kitchen I saw the sturdy figure of Varia’s friend, Vera Naumova. She stood with her back to me without moving. Her shoulders shook with sobs.

“Vera, what’s the matter?”

Vera Volkonskaia, Orphaned by Revolution


“Variushka died. She had a recurrent wave of ulcers and could not endure it.”

Stricken as by thunder, I fell upon a stool. It was all over for me. All my plans, all my joys ended in this kitchen. Everything was cut at the root. The old lady, Vera’s mother-in-law, came in. She commenced to take off my damp coat, led me to the dining room, and sat me at the table. Everything occurred as if it was not me but someone else, a mannequin. Vera came in and embraced me while drowning in tears. I seemed to freeze and did not cry. I was given linden tea with something from a small bottle poured into it.

Evidently, I slept for a very long time. I awoke with the thought: Variushka is dead. I could not believe or comprehend this. I got up and walked out of the room. Some people came and talked with me, others wept. I remained quiet, my heart wrung. I could not believe it.

Only at the funeral did I realize the full extent of my misfortune. The open casket stood in the little hospital chapel. I bent over the delicate, waxen face with its closed eyes, long eyelids lowered, the thin hands crossed on the chest, the long white dress, like a bride’s, and a white rose placed at the feet. I kissed her forehead which was cold as marble. And suddenly my heart was pierced by an acute sense of hopelessness and a repressed scream burst from my mouth. Unfamiliar people took hold of me from both sides.

Then, for a long time, we walked along the streets behind the funeral hearse. For a long time I walked despairingly behind the casket of my beloved sister—always so far away and now gone forever.