A little after three o’clock, as crowds of workers amassed along the Nevsky avenue and mingled with the usual merry bevy of cadets and women in festive attires, a young man could be seen walking in the direction of the Alexander Garden where many participants of the protest march and onlookers had, too, gathered, though he had nothing in common with the quiet, determined workers or the bright-eyed boys who climbed the trees to gaze upon the unwitnessed sight. He trod with a brisk gait, having wrapped himself in a gray overcoat with blue collar patches, which, as well as his haughty bearing, unmistakably betrayed his vocation. He had a boyish figure, slender and not too tall, but what he lacked in constitution, he made up with that air of unreflecting self-importance about him which was not uncommon in men of his age and profession. His pale handsome face, adorned with a small elegant mustache, though usually prepossessing, was cheerless and his lips were unattractively compressed. A black lambskin cap with a broadcloth top was atilt on his head as if it were donned in a great hurry. But deep down, beneath the veneer of preoccupation and determination, the young man was at a loss – in the tumultuous crowd, he alone seemed to have no reason to be on the Nevsky. He was swept along by the flow of people – an unwitting observant caught in a dizzying whirl, witnessing the coming of something formless and terrifying, something he dared not name.
His name was Vladimir Obukhov.
After he crossed the wide expanse of Nevsky and, with the same rapid gait, approached the Dutch Protestant church, he was dismayed to learn that a tremendous crowd barred his way forward and on the bridge across river Moyka and around it, the half-company of idle life-guards kept watch. The back rows pressed against the front rows as the crowds swelled, the people chafed, troubled by all sorts of rumors about the artillery near the Alexander Garden. Vladimir twisted his head round, but he couldn’t find any other means of crossing the river and, turning his eyes to the church, resolved on waiting until the way was clear.
The entrance of the church was decorated with a four-column Corinthian portico, a proud inscription in Latin “Deo et servatori sacrum” and an ornamental tympanum on which angels perched up like ordinary birds, but no other inscriptions or signboards with which its grand facade abounded testified to the holy purpose of the building. On the exterior wall which overlooked the Nevsky, hung signboards of a furniture storehouse and Felten’s printing and engraving store which was held in high repute in St. Petersburg society. It was quiet on the Nevsky, inasmuch as a discontent crowd could be quiet; the thundering thud from the horse-drawn trams, dray wagons with enormous wheels, and light droshky did not torment the ear. The firmament above had cleared and to Vladimir’s eyes appeared a natural phenomenon which he never witnessed till that day – three fading suns past zenith, equidistant from each other, almost identical to each other, and the larger sun was between two smaller suns, splendid in its pale radiance. There was nothing uncanny about these mock suns, these wondrous mirages, to a learned man who read Cicero and Aristotle, but to Vladimir their appearance in that hour seemed an ominous sign. He had heard disconcerting rumors at the headquarters about an attempt on the Tsar’s life, about a sudden seditious petition of one priest Gapon who was believed to be on good standing with governor Fullon, about a great many things, each more unbelievable and disheartening. At the sight of the many suns, he was overcome with a gloomy foreboding, and he was certain all of a sudden that the day would end in misfortune, as if the mirage in the sky had irrevocably confirmed his misgivings.
In the meantime, a colonel in an impeccable overcoat who was pacing along the line of his troops, vigorously twirling his thick mustache and glancing occasionally at the people, who began gathering round and demanded to be allowed to pass, ceased his aimless pacing and ordered, “Fire a volley into the crowd!” The order was so sudden and so senseless and the colonel’s voice so shrill and unpleasant that Vladimir didn’t understand him at first and when the terrible truth struck him, he was certain that the soldiers would throw down their rifles, laughing, or something as unthinkable would happen and put an end to the colonel’s madness. He was surrounded by university students in dark-green and dark-blue uniforms who flaunted their light coats in biting frost, rich workers in dark waistcoats and so-called ‘finnish’ caps and poor workers in rags and bast shoes, lively children, women in fine fur coats – people who wouldn’t usually mingle together, yet who have been brought together on that fateful day by a strange concurrence of circumstances. The workers were gloomy, quiet, driven by some insurmountable sentiment, but they didn’t carry red flags and shooed off an occasional revolutionary propagandist. Vladimir agreed with the official decision to discourage the crowd from any and all seditious activities, but ‘sedition’ was an awful, mysterious word, a bleak, oppressive fantasy against which he knew no defense. ‘If I were the Tsar, I’d go to the people,’ he thought. ‘I’d go to them fearlessly, holding up my chest to the bullets… But they didn’t come with the bullets! Why, such folly! They went to him with tremendous love in their hearts, and he should have met with them to show them that he’s not an outright scoundrel or a coward. Maybe I believe in such nonsense because I’ll never be our Tsar. But I saw what remained of Plehve after that eser threw a bomb into his carriage and I still believe in such nonsense.’ And, watching the soldiers put their rifles against their shoulders and aim at the people, Vladimir thought, hopelessly, ‘Maybe, we – and I most of all – are to blame and not the Tsar.’
The abrupt bloodcurdling sounds of gunfire resounded across the street and the discordant, dissatisfied murmur in the crowd erupted into screams of pain, into moans of the wounded and the dying, into streams of bitter curses and gibes. “Here’s the regiment that is retaking Port Arthur!” someone yelled, and a few voices echoed the sharp-witted giber: “Colonel, run, the Japanese are near!” The throng shrank back from the bridge, froze with fear, and at last the people scattered every which way, but the bullets reached them everywhere, and all around Vladimir, men and women fell prone on the ground, tottered, clutching at their bellies, crawled in the snow, shaking their fists at the sky, ran somewhere or limped, waving their arms, took off their caps, bowed to someone, threatened the soldiers with the heaven’s dreadful wrath, begged for help, or stood in torpor like Vladimir, staring wide-eyed at the pools of blood, at the blood-stained faces, clothes, and bodies, dark and terribly quiet in their indifference to the vanities of life. The bugler gave a signal to cease fire, the wind blew away whitish smoke, and Vladimir saw the colonel’s contorted face: he seemed to be now laughing, now weeping, his eyes were wide, unseeing, and he now and again raised his hand to wipe his damp forehead with a handkerchief. To his left, the life-guards stopped two coachmen and onto their droshky, a few men loaded the wounded. The other life-guards dawdled, shifting from foot to foot and rubbing their hands together, and the bayonets on their rifles kissed the snow. It occurred to Vladimir that he should get off the streets and return to his apartment, but a growing sentiment stronger than common curiosity compelled him to continue his way, though he didn’t contemplate where he would go.
The stone angels looked down from the tympanum with reproachful light in their eyes – or was it just the play of shadows, the illusory glare of the mock suns?
A well-dressed man shoved Vladimir aside and, having approached the colonel, quietly asked his permission to cross the bridge, but the colonel struck him in the face with the grip of his revolver. Vladimir hurried to turn round the corner onto the quay, but there lay more bodies and a wounded woman, clinging to her daughter’s corpse, outstretched her arm towards him and grasped him by his overcoat. She didn’t say a word to him, but such dread gained mastery over him that he forgot himself and rushed headlong in the direction whence he came. Vladimir could no longer take a hold of himself, and his fear and mute astonishment gave way to indignation from which he went hot all over and tears welled up in his eyes – a kind of senseless overwhelming indignation which wasn’t directed at one object or person but at everything and everyone around him: at the soldiers, at the unfamiliar colonel in his impeccable overcoat, at the Tsar, at the incomprehensible absurdity of it all, at the sky with its false suns and at the guiltless coachman who turned his horses back and refused to stop when Vladimir hailed him.
The colonel stared at Vladimir with lifeless eyes; his face was white as a sheet, but he was evidently more composed than before.
“Colonel Riman, Semyonovsky Life-guard Regiment,” he introduced himself to the stupefied young man, but suddenly his face was contorted with spite and he drew his revolver. “What are you about? Away with you, goddammit!”
“We have to call for help!” exclaimed Vladimir. “There are wounded, women and children -”
“Don’t concern yourself with them. Now, get out of my sight!”
The burning indignation which overcame him was unbearable, but Vladimir couldn’t say anything sensible; he hung his head in shame and made himself scarce. One of the side streets seemed empty and he dove there, not once turning to look back.
The surreal images of the massacre and confusion followed Vladimir. A man who leaned against the brick wall, having turned his face away from the Nevsky, was fervently crossing himself. Another man in a worn coat shielded a boy with his body, and Vladimir heard frantic words: ‘Remember, son, remember the bloodshed… Then swear, son, swear!” before the crackle of distant gunfire drowned out the voices. A few people were running towards him, shouting: “They’re shooting everyone at the Palace Square! Save yourselves!” A panic-stricken coachman whipped his wretched horse, which snorted and refused to budge as the way was barred by a small cluster of people who knelt around three or four corpses laid out on the snow as though for a splendid occasion and sang a solemn hymn. A sledge loaded with the wounded and the dying swept past Vladimir and vanished in the whitish fog.
Near the Pevchesky Bridge, Vladimir stopped to get his breath back, and he remembered hearing a story from someone that the bridge was built after an Active State Councillor of Tsar Nikolay I couldn’t make it to the Winter Palace for dinner because he fell into the river and got soaked to the skin. The thought was absurd and inappropriate for the occasion. On the bridge, the frenzied cavalry guards and dragoons threw themselves at the crowds: they cut down each and all in front of them, coming in dark waves with blood-red froth on the gentle, glittering curves of their sabers. Not too far from the spot where Vladimir stood, a dragoon swooped down from his horse, struck a man in a dark coat on the head with the hilt of his sabre, and, whooping, turned around to face a band of insolent boys. One of the mischief-makers hurled a rock at the dragoon, agitating his horse, and the rest of the boys, puffing their cheeks, laughing and sticking their tongues out, jumped off the low bridge onto the frozen river and scattered every which way. The horse arched its proud neck, pawed at the pavement, dancing under the skilled rider who frantically looked round himself, baring his strong, white teeth. His face was flushed with cold and excitement.
It was then that Vladimir saw the student.
The airy arch of the single-span bridge rested on two granite abutments; the sidewalks were fenced off by a delicate grating owing to which the entire construction appeared even more whimsical, especially in summer when the bright light coming through the grating cast long, fanciful shadows onto the pavement. In the pattern of the openwork grating, some would see the steady hand of Italian genius Carlo Rossi, and others the birth of a Russian motif, emerging in the fanning out palmettos and elegant frills with the fancy and surety of youth. In the evenings, the bridge was illumined by gas streetlamps, four in total, on identical cast-iron lampposts with a sturdy oblong base. The streetlamps stood across from each other on the opposite sides of river Moyka, like silent guardians of the bridge. A tall, lean student had climbed onto one of those bases, having wrapped one arm around the lamppost to support himself, while enthusiastically waving the other arm in the air. He wore a gray cap and a light coat not at all suited for winter; his face was pale and chapped, but the high-minded expression on it, the spark in his blue eyes, the hint of a perfect forehead under the tousled brown hair made him seem angelic. He spoke in a high-pitched voice, every now and then breaking into a scream, and a few men and women had gathered round to listen to his emphatic, harebrained speech.
“Soldiers! You’re the children of Russia!” he yelled, fearless, and a few spectators eagerly nodded their heads. “We’re all her suffering children. We are impoverished, starving, abandoned without bread, without work. We’ve come before you, naked, with no ill will. All we ask of you is a little bit of compassion. Soldiers! Our fathers and brothers! Why do you shoot us? Have we not given enough to Russia that you’d take what’s still left of us – our breath! our heartbeat! our souls!”
Sitting astride his mighty horse, the dragoon, too, saw the student. He reached for his revolver, took aim, twisting his face, and shot.