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Chapter Six - Das Vadanya





Chapter Six

Маленький темный век


St. Petersburg, 1905

For the last few years, Mishka had lived near the hulking, soot-stained factories of the city. It wasn’t just the factories that were dyed a chalky black, however. Everywhere you looked, the buildings, the rough cobbled streets, even the people were covered in soot. When the old babas coughed, you could practically see the puff of smoke emerge from their mouths.


Thus, even when you weren’t working, even when you couldn’t work, you could never get away from the thick, gritty atmosphere which hung over the district. Some people had been here so long that they were simply inseparable from the malaise. Years of working the machines of the factories had left their backs hunched and their fingers crooked and blackened. There was a weariness in their souls that could only be alleviated by the bottle, or by puffing on cheap cigarettes that only added to the haze.


Mishka was one of the lucky ones. Before he had died, his father had been a school teacher, and so, unlike many of the workers here, he could read and write very well. He didn’t have to do the most back-breaking of labor, and he got paid better than the average factory worker. That didn’t mean he was well-off, however. Mishka had lived here in the slums since he was fifteen, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to stay here all his life. He’d turn eighteen in just a few months, and he had to save any penny he could spare to afford admission to the Imperial University.

So there was no fancy apartment for him. He lived in a single room with seven other people. Old, moldy blankets divided the room into different spaces, but even then, being a single boy, he had to share his space with a roommate.

Vasily was two years his senior, and had been a factory worker nearly his whole life. Despite this, he had an odd sort of energy about him that couldn’t be crushed, no matter how many hours he spent toiling around dangerous machines. Vasily was also a little better off than most, but his second source of income was not one you could just bring up. Though sometimes the words nearly forced themselves from his throat, Mishka refrained from asking where on earth he got the white powder that he kept in a box under his bed, his “chest of treasures” as he called it.

The man really was an enigma, and very rarely spoke of himself, but he was a small bit of sunshine peeking through the eternal smog of the district. He had helped Mishka immensely when he had first come to this part of town looking for work. In fact, Vasily was the one who had first called him “Mishka.”

“Mikhail is so long, and stuffy,” he said, scrunching his nose. “I know! I’ll call you ‘Mishka’ instead.”

“Isn’t that a bit... familiar?” Mishka had asked, feeling meek against Vasily’s boisterousness.

“Maybe,” he shrugged. “But I have a feeling we’ll become good friends, so why wait until then?”

And wouldn’t you know it, he was right. The two became inseparable. It got to the point where the neighbors just started referring to them together, and occasionally, when they thought they weren’t looking, gave them curious side glances.


Even at the start, however, the two knew that it wouldn’t last. As much as he liked Vasily, liked their little room in the midst of all the others, Mishka was getting out as soon as he could, the very first semester after his eighteenth birthday. But still, he felt awful about leaving his friend behind in the soot and sadness. They passed the old beggars whose hands were too shaky to work the belts, and Mishka couldn’t help wondering if that would be Vasily in forty years.

“I won’t leave you here,” he said one night as they sat on the roof of their building, enjoying the only remotely fresh air they could get in this part of the city.

“What brought this on?” Vasily asked, coughing slightly from his first puff of a cigarette.

Mishka hesitated. “Just... thinking about next fall, I suppose. But listen: I’ll get my degree, get a well-paying job, and I’ll find something for you, something that’s not... here.”


But Vasily just shook his head and scoffed. “And what makes you think any respectable business will take on an uneducated gear monkey like yours truly?” he gestured to himself sarcastically.


Mishka no longer remembers how he responded to that remark, but it was a conundrum that puzzled him for several months before he was just about ready to give up on the puzzling and hope that a miracle would occur. And then, right before his eyes, it seemed very suddenly like it had. For that’s when he first heard of Father Gapon.

Life was miserable for the workers, it was true. But that didn’t mean that they were entirely beaten down. Several groups had arisen claiming to act as unions for the rights of the people, yet all of these were quickly stamped out by the police. Father Gapon was the leader of one of these groups, but his would not be squished so easily. His was government approved, which meant that it was very religious, the rhetoric was very much in line with what the government—and the tsar—wanted, and there were constantly undercover police spying on the meetings.


And yet, Mishka decided to attend one of these meetings, and dragged Vasily along with him. The older boy protested at first, but once the Father began to speak, Mishka glanced over only to see Vasily enraptured by his words, and frankly, Mishka was too.

“This situation has become unlivable,” the Father preached. “We are all cold, hungry, and dying. I watch the people of Russia toil away day after day in the factories and on the railroads, and yet still struggle to feed their families, to keep a roof over their heads. Capitalism is a blight upon our beloved country, cutting off our holy connection to the tsar.”


That was his theory, at least, that it was the bureaucrats’ fault that the people suffered, that the tsar wasn’t even aware of their plight because those same bureaucrats were keeping it from him. If they were to partition the tsar directly, he would understand and fix everything.

In hindsight, Mishka knows that it was a simplistic and convenient way of thinking. Yet it was one that he latched onto. He only had another year here in the slums, after all, and being able to simply fix all of Vasily’s problems would make leaving that much easier. Plus, it was comforting, he supposed, to imagine that there was one person out there who could snap their fingers and make everything better.


Vasily was slightly more skeptical towards the idea. “Change like this takes time,” he insisted. “You can’t just say: ‘stop mistreating your workers’ and expect the factories to listen. However,” he admitted, scratching the scraggly hairs on his chin, “having the backing of the tsar would not be insignificant. I’m behind the Father, but I’m not sure the man knows how deep in he’ll have to get.”

As the months went on, the meetings became more serious, more—for lack of a better word—revolutionary. Learning that they had the support of each other and hopefully the tsar himself emboldened the workers, and Mishka watched as the content of the meetings became less hypothetical. Though they had to be careful of the secret police, it sometimes sounded like they were making plans.


Then, in the month of January, the spark came alight. It happened suddenly, and with such a very small thing. Four railway car-men were dismissed from their positions for being ‘lazy.’ It was an everyday occurrence. But they were Gapon’s people, and he elected to intercede on their behalf. Suddenly, thousands of workers at their plant were on strike, and as he heard the news, it seemed to Mishka like the worker’s revolution had finally come.


And it certainly had. Over the next week, more and more workers went on strike. Thousands, tens of thousands, each hoisting the flag of revolution like dominoes. If there was any time to petition the tsar, right now they were igniting a problem that he couldn’t ignore.


There was silence in the room as Father Gapon announced that on a cold, January morning, he would be leading a peaceful march straight up to the doors of the Winter Palace, copy of their petition in hand. “I don’t expect all of you to come,” he bowed his head in a show of humility. “Many of you have families to worry for. But I believe in our justness. I believe that we have the tsar and the grace of God on our side, and they will hear our prayers.”


Every single person in the room promised to attend.

As the day crept closer and closer, however, anxieties began to arise. There were whispers that they would not be allowed to march at all. But they were rumors only, it seemed, for preparation still continued.


“I don’t like this,” Vasily admitted to Mishka privately one night as the lamps burned low. “The police, the politicians; they’ve been too quiet about the whole thing.”


“Do you not want to go?” Mishka sat up on his hard, lumpy mattress.

Yet Vasily just gave him a grim smile. “Oh I’m going, alright,” he said. “But at the first sign of trouble, we’re going to run as fast as we can.”


“It’s not much of a protest if everyone scatters as soon as there’s danger,” Mishka frowned.

“Maybe not. But always remember this, Mishka: Your own life is more important than any cause.”

Though Mishka wasn’t sure if he agreed with him or not, he kept his mouth shut on the matter and promised not to be an idiot.


It was cold on the morning of the eighth of January, much colder than normal, Mishka thought. Under his coat, through the holes in his gloves, the icon around his neck was cold too. But unlike the surrounding air, it was comforting. It reminded him he was alive.

All around the city, the people were assembling, and taking the long walk to converge before the bridge to the Winter Palace. It was deathly silent, save for the crunching of the snow beneath numerous feet. The unease was electric. Eyes darted back and forth, teeth were clenched. Though they marched resolutely, the crowd was fearful. There had been unrest in St. Petersburg for decades, but no protest of this scale had occurred in any of their lifetimes. How would the government, the military, the bureaucrats act? How would the tsar? Was he truly just not aware of how his people suffered? Did he even care at all?


Mishka felt himself in danger of freezing up any second, but the presence of Vasily beside him kept him putting one foot in front of the other. The older boy was scared as well, Mishka could feel it, though his expression and pace were steady as stones. Ultimately, it made him feel a little better to know he wasn’t alone in that regard.


Slowly, the columns converged, and more and more people joined the crowd. With them came a little bit of confidence. With these hundreds, maybe thousands of people, the tsar couldn’t help but listen, right?


Father Gapon stood at the very center of the crowd, praying for blessings from god to aid them on their mission. Hopefully, even god would be on their side today.


His rising heart froze in his chest, however, as the crowd filed into the square just across from the bridge. A whole host of soldiers, armed with sabers and sitting astride enormous horses, were standing in a line, blocking access to the bridge.

The crowd slowed, and then stopped as the soldiers didn’t budge an inch. Finally, one lone man stepped out of the crowd and approached the soldiers. Holding his silver icon in a shaking hand, the man called to the guard. “Please let us through, brothers,” he shouted, fear and cold turning his voice hoarse. “We have come to speak with the tsar.”

One soldier, seemingly the leader of the unit based on his decorated uniform, shook his head. “Turn back,” he said. “The tsar does not wish to speak to you.”

A low mutter arose from the crowd.


“But he must!” the man raised his voice further. “The connection of the tsar to the people of Russia is absolute! Nothing can come between it, save the will of god.”


“I have my orders,” the soldier replied curtly. “Turn back or we will be forced to fire.”


As the murmuring of the crowd swelled, another man came forward, and another.

“I am not afraid to go to God,” shouted one. “I have nothing but pain on this earth anyhow!”


All at once, more and more shouts arose, and people around Mishka shuffled restlessly, almost causing him to lose Vasily in the crowd.


“Stand down! Stand down!” screamed the soldier. “We will shoot!”

But the crowd barreled forward, closing the distance between them. Several men at the front bared their chests, daring the soldiers to fire.

Mishka didn’t know what they had expected; they were the first to go down.


It happened suddenly. Over the din, Mishka saw the soldier raise his arm. One shot rang out, then another. There was a low thump as a body fell to the ground.


Then the crowd started running.

Panicked screams filled the air as chaos took control. The workers scattered, heading for every street and alley. But some fought, breaking the soldiers’ formation and throwing everything into disarray. Horses whinnied, people shouted and cried and screamed. But the worst part was the gunshots. It was just a series of loud, heavy pops, yet each one thumped into his chest as if he were the one being shot.

Mishka probably would have just stood there, stunned, had Vasily not grabbed his hand and yelled at him to move. The older boy dragged him off, bobbing and weaving through the panic. Because of the pandemonium, it took Mishka a second to realize what the metal thing in Vasily’s hand was.

“You brought a gun?” he demanded.

Vasily looked back at him for just one moment. “You can’t honestly tell me you didn’t think this would happen?”


“I didn’t!”


“And this is why I have the gun and you don’t. Just consider yourself lucky that one of us has any brains.”


But brains did not amount to skill, at least not in the middle of a free-for-all. All that mattered was sheer luck.

The two almost made it out of the square and into the relative safety of a nearby alley. There it was, right in front of them: the blessed dark. But it seemed that they were not the only ones who thought it would be a good escape. A large shadow stopped them in their tracks. Taking a step forward into the light, a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a shock of blond hair so pale it was almost white, stood in their way.


Though he was not on horseback like the others, it was clear the blond man was a soldier. Panicking, Vasily fumbled with the gun in his hand, sweat causing his fingers to slip over the safety.


He didn’t intend to shoot him, Mishka knew that, just to threaten him so they could pass by unharmed. Mishka knew, but the blond man didn’t. Faster than anything Mishka had ever seen, he grabbed his own pistol, readied it, and fired.

The noise was so loud that Mishka remained stock still, stunned, at least until he heard the sickening sound of something falling to the ground. He turned, but Vasily was no longer standing next to him.


Mishka fell to the ground, reaching for the gun, but the blond man kicked it so it skittered a few inches away. Mishka slumped down next to Vasily’s head, defenseless. His eyes were unfocused and blood dribbled down his chin.

“No, no, no. No, no.” Mishka slapped his cheek. “Vasily, look at me, look at me! Don’t go anywhere, don’t go!” But despite his pleading, the light was quickly fading from his eyes. Feebly, his hand grabbed at Mishka’s coat, and the latter realized that his mouth was moving. He leaned in, and just barely caught the last hint of a whisper as his friend’s body went limp.


It had all happened so fast. One second he was the pinnacle of health, running through the crowd, and the next, Mishka’s clothes were covered in his blood. And it was all because of...

The first thing he saw as he tore his eyes away from Vasily was the barrel of a gun pointed directly at his face. But surprisingly, that didn’t hold his attention for long, because he felt himself caught by the intensity of the blond man’s icy blue stare. Mishka didn’t think his heart beat for a moment, from the sheer terror he felt staring into those eyes. Because there was nothing there at all. Not anger, not fear, not even pleasure. They were eyes that had killed before, and would just as readily kill again.

Mishka had no idea how long they stayed there, Mishka lying in a pool of his friend’s blood, and the blond man pointing a gun at his head. And then, he spoke for the first time, words that would echo around in Mishka’s brain for years to come.

“Consider yourself lucky,” his words were slow, each one piercing into Mishka’s chest like an icicle. “I don’t shoot children.”


Without even a second glance, he turned and walked away.


Suddenly able to move, able to feel again, Mishka looked down at his hands, his threadbare gloves now dyed red. One feeling began to consume him. A surprising one. Not sorrow or fear... something new. Something as red as the blood soaking through the wool.

“I’ll kill you!” he screamed at the blond man’s retreating back. “Come back here, you son of a bitch, I’ll kill you!!!”

Mishka dived for Vasily’s gun, now able to stretch the extra few inches, but by the time he had a hold of it, the blond man had disappeared into the frightened crowd. He took several steps in that direction to go after him, but something tugged on his chest like a tether. Vasily was still there.


He was all alone, primed to be trampled by the crowd. Mishka couldn’t leave, not when he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find his body again. And he couldn’t stand the thought of it, abandoning Vasily to the cold, unforgiving snow, right where that man had left him...

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