By Angelina Lesniewski
“Thank you, thank you Your Excellency!” She had knelt at his feet and refrained from kissing his boots only by a tremendous effort of will.
“Thank you, thank you Your Excellency!” She whispered it now, fervently kissing the letter. Manya closed her eyes and crossed herself. By the grace of God and Tsar, her only sister would live.
Pins and needles pricked her skin, making her fidget. She must see Sanya, at once, and share the news! Thinking of Sanya agonizing alone in her cell, expecting the gallows every minute, was unbearable; Manya was free, but imprisoned by that image all the same.
The horses’ hooves churned up chunks of ice and muddy slush, and Manya urged the driver to go faster. It was a long journey, she wouldn’t reach the prison until morning, but Manya was not tired. Something heavy inside her started to break up the further she got from town, like ice floes in the spring thaw. She stood, the fur lap cover falling away, and welcomed the biting air on her face. A queer, explosive laugh erupted from her and settled over the blue snow. It was louder than she had expected – what must the driver think? – so she sat and quickly re-covered herself. But her face was still visible over the dense fur, bright with restrained radiance, biting her lips to keep them silent rather than to keep them warm.
Manya did not sleep. She couldn’t. Instead, she imagined the interview with her sister: tears, laughter, embraces and kisses. Disagreements always ended like that when they were girls, in a crush of ribbons, curls, and mutual apology. Sanya, Manya, and – Well, it would be almost like old times.
When she’d last seen Sanya, she had been escorted with that man, her accomplice, from the courtroom. Accomplice – it was unreal, still. A portrait of their father, commander of the artillery corps, had hung over the proceedings, indifferent to the sentence of death passed on his daughter. And after, when the sisters’ eyes met, there had been no hysterics. After all, what was the use? But Manya had smiled – the hardest thing she’d ever done – taken Sanya’s manacled hand, and said through stretched lips: “Nonsense! They won’t hang you.”
They were paltry, meaningless, futile words, tokens of affection rather than reassurance, reassurance more for Manya herself. All the way home, stunned into silence, she had dwelt on these words, these terrible, empty, pointless words…until she’d realized their importance. They wouldn’t hang her! And Manya had seen to it. Exile and hard labor were better than death.
The worst part of prison visits was waiting. The guards mistrusted her by association, and it made her skin crawl. She always bowed her head and folded her hands, trying to show she knew her place. But not today! Today Manya met their gazes evenly, proudly, even a little defiantly and followed them to the visiting room. Not that she needed their guidance. She could have found her way blindfolded. Of course, anyone blindfolded in this building doesn’t see anything after that...
Oil-painted eyes peered down at her from bright walls. Today, they were like old friends. Bless the Tsar – he had pardoned Sanya! The Tsar through the agency of God and His Excellency the military commandant. Then she frowned. Sanya would despise her prayers of thanks to this triumvirate of God, autocrat, and bureaucrat. After all, who was General Kurlov, Governor of Minsk, but another bureaucrat, working for the autocrat sanctioned by God? And trying to assassinate General Kurlov was the reason Sanya had been sentenced to death.
Suddenly she stood, twisting her fingers and glancing at the door. How could she have been so stupid? Perhaps, if Sanya believed the merciful autocracy had spared her life, she would give up this madness? Manya paced back and forth, covering the little room several times with her long strides. Maybe it was best to go now, to see Sanya another time – though it’s only because of me that there will be more time!
Too late. The door opened and Sanya appeared, led by an officer who looked little more than a boy playing soldier. “You’ve half an hour,” he said.
Sanya sat in the nearest chair and looked up at her so steadily Manya had the uncomfortable impression she was reading her thoughts. In the stillness she tried to recall Sanya as she had been when they were girls, just girls, playing in the corridors of Father’s grand house. They’d worn pretty frocks as they lined up their matching matryoshkas, done their hair in plaits, been a plump, charming trio of – well, they’d been happy and carefree. Now Sanya was thin underneath her shapeless prison dress; her left eyelid drooped; her nutty brown hair was tied hastily on her neck. She looked tired. Almost – but how could it be? – almost defeated.
“It’s good to see you.” It obviously took some effort for Sanya to speak.
Manya smiled, not quite happily, and knelt beside her. She remembered kneeling before the military commandant, and now the memory made her shake. “Sanya, I must tell you what’s happened.”
“I’ve been reprieved.”
“You heard? But I thought – ”
“News travels fast in prison. Perhaps faster than anywhere else.”
“I see.” She could still turn back. There was still time. But what cowardice! No, she was better than that. “But…Sanya, I’m responsible.”
“For what, love?”
“For your reprieve.”
Sanya’s broad features crumpled. “What do you mean?”
She played with Sanya’s skirt absentmindedly, and struggled to meet her eyes. “When they sentenced you…‘death by hanging’, I couldn’t stand it. Not you too. I couldn’t stand it! So I went to see the military commandant yesterday. I pleaded with him, I explained about – well, our circumstances…it being just us two, now. I told him the reaction from hanging another woman would do them no good. It’s not like when they hanged Perovskaya in ‘81; it’s 1906, times have changed. I told him our family has lost enough, that for all your wrongs you’re a good woman, you don’t deserve to die.” Sanya’s body went rigid, and Manya reached for her hands. “Please, you must understand!”
“I understand,” she said, her tone clear and sharp. She stood, disentangling herself from Manya’s frantic grasp, and took several steps before putting her face in her hands.
“Sanya, dearest, what else could I do? Forgive me. I said they wouldn’t hang you, but I worried. I had to do something. You’re a woman of action, you must see that.”
“Ha! You know who else believed in action? Katya! And today you’ve spat in the face of everything she and I held dear.”
Manya put a hand to her throat, strangling more words before they slipped out.
From far away Sanya’s voice cut the silence. “Is that what you’ve come to tell me?”
Breathing deeply, Manya forced herself upright and met her eyes. “Yes, that’s all. I found out as soon as I got home, and came to tell you right away. I was…so happy…”
Sanya’s keen eyes glimmered like a cat prepared to pounce. “So soon? The wheels of Russian bureaucracy don’t move as quickly as that.” She chuckled. “Don’t you get it? Your intervention had no impact whatsoever. I was reprieved before you set foot in that man’s office and abased yourself. I’m so sorry.”
A serpentine knot formed in Manya’s gut which gnawed at her as it tightened. For nothing. For nothing. “No. You’ll live. I’d prostrate myself a thousand times to a thousand officials for that. And abase myself? How? By telling the truth, by defending my own sister?”
“Defend indeed! Betrayed, more like!”
“Betrayed? Oh Sanya, see sense!”
“Oh, I see very clearly. You’ve betrayed me, and what’s worse you’ve betrayed Katya, too. We were willing, both of us, to give our lives for the Socialist Revolutionary party. That was a just punishment for the lives we tried to take. We dedicated ourselves to the movement, Manya, and we didn’t take that vow lightly. We didn’t flinch from the consequences.”
“If I could have saved Katya too, I would have!” Hot splashes of color spread across her face, but she was too indignant to cry. “Both of you, running off to overthrow society and leaving me behind to worry myself sick. No one in the world meant as much to me as you two. When Katya was arrested, and you rescued her, I thought – finally! At last it’s over, I’ll have my sisters back. But it wasn’t enough. First you get yourself arrested trying to shoot General Kurlov, and then Katya tries shooting Commander Chukhin and misses too. But they were less lenient with her even though she failed – God alone knows why. Oh my poor Katya…” Manya pressed both hands to her mouth and muffled a noise of ugly, animal grief.
“Go on. Can’t you say it? They shot her. Executed for her attempted assassination of the Commander-in-Chief of the Black Sea Fleet.” Sanya salued. Manya flinched. “And what was he? A butcher in a fine uniform. Just like Kurlov. Manya, you seem to think our actions were crimes of passion, and failures to boot. It undermines everything Katya and I worked so hard for. When I heard…Karl tapped it through the ceiling of my cell. I couldn’t believe it. I tried so hard to understand…she’s not here any longer. But death is the highest honor we can receive, and I take some comfort in that. And regardless of whether or not you had any influence, Manya you still tried to rob me of that.”
“And what about what I would have been robbed of? One sister wasn’t enough, I had to lose two?”
“If only you weren’t too frightened to go on alone.”
Manya’s lip trembled, but her eyes were dry. “You didn’t care, then. You didn’t care how it would hurt me.”
Sanya shook her head, and her smile was hard. “It was never about you. Or even me or Katya. It was the movement. It was the people. Can’t you see?” She stared at Manya, as if trying to look behind the gentle hazel eyes: liquid, malleable, untouched. “No. I don’t suppose you can.”
No…it never was about me. That much is true. And for what? So some dirty peasants can have a little more bread? And all the while their own sister had pined for the love and closeness they shared. That injustice had either escaped their notice or did not merit their attention. Revolution, that distant, intangible monster, had taken her sisters from her. A white molten flood pitched through her so her dark hair stood on end and her tapered fingers tightened into fists until her nails gouged into her palms. I hate the revolution.
No. Her sister would never forgive that.
“Well,” Manya said, flexing her fingers so the blood could flow, “perhaps I can’t understand. You know I was never much for abstractions. But I understand alive and dead. And I love you, Sanya, no matter what happens. Please see I did it for you, for both of us. We can start again now, I’m sure of it.”
There was something in Sanya’s expression which was impossible to discern: sad amusement, bewildered wistfulness. Contemptuous of herself and everyone else. “Sometimes, when things are very bad, I want more than anything to start again. But I’ve come too far now, worked too hard, to give up. Katya never did, even when they aimed their rifles at her. There’s no braver woman than our Katya. And I intend to honor her.”
“Even if it kills you?”
“Even so. It’s better that way, actually.” She moved to the window and wrapped her arms around herself, shivering in the stuffy room. “It was Vera Zasulich – do you remember her? The girl who shot General Trepov in ’78? She said at her trial that it was a terrible thing to raise one’s hand against another person. Murder is abhorrent, but so is idleness in the face of cruelty. Inactivity is the real problem, more than inequality. We had to take action. Men like Trepov, Chukhin, Kurlov…they have built their careers, their lives, on oppressing others. Murder is the greatest sin but would it not have been a greater sin to let such monsters live and murder thousands more? We were willing to take up the cause on behalf of the people, and we knew the consequences. We, unlike them, understand the weight of taking a life.”
She turned back with such a look of exaltation in her eyes that for a moment – just a moment – Manya envied the conviction which consumed her sisters. There was an air of the justified martyr about her, and Manya felt as if she were in the presence of something holy.
Sanya spread her arms. “We were prepared to die. Wanted to die. I’ve spent so many nights in my cell dreaming, with my eyes wide open. I could almost feel the blindfold over my eyes, or the rope chafing my neck. I was prepared – no, overjoyed, to mount that scaffold or press myself to the post in the name of the people, on their behalf, having done all I could to bring them peace. And you Manya, you have taken that away from me with all your good intentions.”
A shadow passed over her face, the saintly light gone and replaced with a very human cocktail of bitterness and disappointment. Leaning against the wall, her face paler now, she closed her eyes and said: “I suppose you think I should be grateful?”
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Well, not mine.” She turned to face the window, the piles of snow on the panes diluting the weak March sunlight, and Manya saw the squares reflected in her eyes. Freedom is inside her, not outside. She shook her head; what nonsense. “All I wanted was to do something true, something to help the people who’ve been so wronged for centuries, and I was happy to give my life for that. My death would be all the more beautiful thanks to Katya’s before me. I think every day about Kurlov and Chukhin still alive despite our best efforts. In some small way dying would have obscured that. But going on living…that’s just proof of what you call our failure.
“I thought that after Katya’s death, and my trial, you’d have taken some strength from our resolve. You’ve withstood so much…I was so proud of you. When you smiled at me after my verdict, you restored all my strength to carry on, to face what was coming, what I was owed. I never thought you capable of such weakness. You’ve made a mockery of me, for your own self-interest – although the coating of good intentions no doubt makes that pill easier for you to swallow. Not me. I suppose you haven’t yet quite grown up.”
Manya’s face felt stiff and her insides hollow, a matryoshka empty of her sisters. She spread her palms, sighed, shook her head. “Sanya, don’t be a fool.”
Sanya shrugged, but said nothing.
“Is that all you have to offer me? Won’t you try and understand?”
“I do understand. But I don’t sympathize.”
The door opened and Sanya’s guard reappeared, embarrassed by his own interruption but firm. “It’s time,” he said. Sanya pushed herself away from the wall and went to the door.
She’ll never come back to me. Skeletal fingers seem to reach up from the floor and clutch at Manya’s skirts, laughter filled her ears from somewhere far away, the cruel, secretive laughter of faceless little girls.
“Sanya…wait. At least say goodbye.” Reaching out as if to cross the room which divided them, she stumbled forward in somnambulant pursuit, the refrain she’ll never come back, she’ll never come back – impossible, impossible throbbing in her skull. All she could see was Sanya’s wilting bud of faded hair retreating into the dark corridor, shoulders thrown back, straighter than Manya could recall seeing them. “Alexandra, please!”
The guard glanced at Manya, his eyes soft, his lips pulled down at the corners. She recognized his pity, and she despised it.
Angelina will be involved in the following FiLiA session:
Revolutionary Women (Saturday Morning)