It’s amazing the effect a single piece of officially signed and stamped paper can have when it comes to poking your nose in where it might not be wanted. The residents of the apartment buildings that crowded around the Tsarskoe Selo Railway Station received us in as many different ways as their respective moods dictated. We were alternately smiled at and growled at, puzzled over, grunted at and moaned about. But not one of them, once presented with Secretary Pokrovsky’s letter of authority, was willing to take the risk of refusing us entry to their property.
I’m sure that to most of them we were no more than a curious novelty, a brief spark of interest in the cold, drab day. Many soon dropped their reservations once we were inside and became inclined to chat, full of fascinated questions about life in England and extended grumbles about the trials and tribulations of modern Russia. Rare indeed was the apartment that we escaped from without enduring an extended digression on the length of that morning’s bread queue or an extensive update on the progress of grandma’s rheumatism.
The one thing we didn’t get from our afternoon’s search was any hint yet of the hidden door that we were looking for but I wasn’t unduly worried. The density of the buildings and the size of the area covered by the co-ordinates were such that it would probably take two or three days of systematic searching to cover it fully. So when the time came for us to call a halt to the day’s proceedings in order make our dinner date I was in fact quite glad to take a temporary break from traipsing up and down dank staircases.
Secretary Pokrovsky had given us directions to a restaurant on the Alexander Nevsky Prospekt and it appeared as a small bubble of warmth and light in the chill black night. Presenting ourselves to the maitre d’ we found that our host had yet to arrive but there had barely been time for us to be settled into a quiet corner table before Secretary Pokrovsky showed up, apologising profusely despite being just a few minutes late.
Against all expectations, I thoroughly enjoyed the meal. The food was tasty and plentiful, the wine excellent. I did perhaps suffer a pang or two of conscience at enjoying such a fine feast in a city full of food shortages and bread queues but I consoled myself with the thought that we had come to Petrograd to help Sturridge and we were unlikely to do his cause much good if we antagonised prominent city men by refusing their hospitality.
The conversational element of the evening proved perhaps a touch bumpy but as usual Michael and I somehow muddled through. At the start I worried that I was sure to put my socialist, feminist foot in it somewhere along the line but fortunately Secretary Pokrovsky was at pains to make himself out to be a modern man and he was keen to prove his cutting edge credentials by accepting some of my more outlandish opinions (such as the notion that women might be entitled to the right to vote or a belief in free universal education and health care) as amusing novelties.
What did prove tricky was Secretary Pokrovsky’s seemingly insatiable desire for details of current English life and governance. I had hoped that Michael, being the only one of us to have been actually alive in 1916, might have been able to take up most of the slack here but, as he pointed out in a mildly irritated undertone whilst the Secretary was ordering drinks, he had been only eight years old at the time so perhaps he could be forgiven his failure to be entirely up to date with all the minutiae of, say, the WW1 Defence of the Realm Act. However, what Michael lacked in knowledge he more than made up for with a certain inspired randomness of conversation that enabled him to steer the talk in unexpected directions whenever we threatened to find ourselves overwhelmed.
So, as I say, one way or another we muddled through and long before we reached the dessert course a combination of the wine and the warm, fuggy atmosphere of the restaurant had served to sweep away most of my anxieties. Secretary Pokrovsky didn’t drink himself, preferring to sip lemon cordial throughout the meal, but he seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself nonetheless and by the time coffee was served he was treating Michael and I like old friends.
“Now I must beg your forgiveness,” he solemnly told us as he accepted a cigar from the box proffered by the waiter. “I have asked so many questions and yet still I have not asked you how your day went. How goes your survey? Tell me, how do you find the people of Petrograd?”
“Full of aches and pains,” I casually replied. “And distressingly eager to show you their varicose veins.”
Secretary Pokrovsky tipped his head back and indulged himself in one of those hearty laughs he was so prone to. “Haha! Yes, there is nothing a Russian enjoys more than a good grumble.”
“To be fair, many of them do seem to have quite a lot to grumble about,” I hastily added, fearing my flippant remark was a touch insensitive. “Life seems pretty tough for a lot of Russians right now.”
“True, true,” conceded Secretary Pokrovsky. “Everyone has it hard these days. What with the war, the winter, the endless work… But the Russian peasant is always complaining. It is a mistake to pay too much attention to him.”
“You’re not unduly concerned about the, er, political situation in Russia right now then?” said Michael, choosing his words with care. I could well understand his caution. We had already learned that afternoon how awkward it could be, chatting with someone whose future was a matter of historical record as far as you were concerned. Our awareness of what was just around the corner for all these Petrograd residents meant the most casual remark could leave us sounding obscure, treasonous or just flat out crazy.
Secretary Pokrovsky waved his cigar in a relaxed manner. “It is difficult certainly,” he conceded. “There have been many leaflets and demonstrations and threats of strikes. But I think you will find much of the trouble is down to a few impudent rabble-rousers stirring up trouble with their cries of freedom.”
“Freedom can often be a rather potent rallying cry,” remarked Michael.
To my surprise Secretary Pokrovsky responded to this with an indulgent chuckle. “Of course, of course! I forget how fond you English are of this word, freedom. But what does it really mean? When the Russian peasant cries for freedom all he really wants is more bread and vodka for his table.”
“I think perhaps some small say in how their lives are run is also what they’re after,” I couldn’t help but suggest.
“Ah, my dear headstrong young Natasha!” exclaimed Secretary Pokrovsky affably. “You must not think that we in the government are entirely indifferent to the modern world. The Tsar is perhaps a little set in his ways and, yes, the war has undoubtedly proved a distraction, but reforms will come eventually. Only these things cannot be rushed. Freedoms are like sweet cakes – too many, too soon are not good for the digestion!” And the Secretary chuckled heartily at his own joke.
“And supposing the people don’t feel like waiting and take matters into their own hands?” I asked pointedly.
“Then they must be dealt with,” replied Secretary Pokrovsky simply. “In a time of crisis every government has a right to defend itself.”
“With what?” I challenged. “Arrests? Imprisonments? Executions?” I was aware it was probably both pointless and foolish to challenge the Secretary on this matter but I found myself somewhat provoked by his dismissive attitude.
“Where necessary, yes,” returned Secretary Pokrovsky, unperturbed. He puffed thoughtfully on his cigar. “Though personally I prefer a more imaginative approach. With a little fresh thinking I believe the emotions of the Russian people can be harnessed for, rather than against, the state. Only we must be prepared to embrace bold ideas, like Dimitri Ivanovich and his problem of free will.”
I stared in disbelief at the Secretary as he continued to puff complacently on his cigar. I wasn’t sure that, in the end, there was really all that much that a Minister like Secretary Pokrovsky could do to safely navigate his way through the political turmoil that was to come but I was at least fairly certain he wouldn’t get very far by following the example of the stuffed scarecrow who had sat in his office without uttering a word for three years.
“Well, I’m sure there’s something to be said for bold thinking,” remarked Michael diplomatically in an effort to defuse the rising tension, “but I wouldn’t wait too long to take action if I were you.”
Secretary Pokrovsky regarded us with a sly smile. “Perhaps plans are already in hand,” he said knowingly.
“You mean you’re ready to roll out democratic reforms?” I said in surprise.
“No, no, nothing like that,” returned Secretary Pokrovsky. “What I mean to say is, there may be a scheme already in hand for dealing with the grumbles of the Russian people.”
Michael and I both looked at him curiously, wondering where on earth this might be going. Secretary Pokrovsky hesitated, clearly itching to divulge his secrets but wary of saying too much. He glanced cautiously around before leaning towards us with a conspiratorial air. “Tell me,” he said, “during your time in the tenements this afternoon did you hear the name Rasputin mentioned at all?”
“Well, yes, as a matter of fact we did,” confessed Michael.
“And what did the people have to say about this Rasputin? They do not like him very much, do they?”
“Well…” I began diffidently.
“Go on, don’t be afraid, you can tell me,” urged Secretary Pokrovksy. “I’ll bet that the people you met this afternoon all hate and despise Rasputin, is that not so?”
“I suppose so,” I agreed. To be honest my hesitation was not solely due to fear of committing an indiscretion but was at least partly due to the fact that I could never hear the name ‘Rasputin’ without it triggering an instinctive chorus of the Boney M disco hit in the back of my mind. It made any conversation on the topic very distracting.
Secretary Pokrovsky took a particularly long and satisfying puff on his cigar. “There you have it then,” he said with the air of a man producing an especially fine specimen of rabbit from his hat.
Michael and I swapped baffled looks. “I’m sorry, there you have what exactly?” asked Michael.
“There you have my scheme for channelling the anger of the Russian people,” explained Secretary Pokrovsky as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. The people need to grumble – I give them something to grumble about.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You’re telling us that Rasputin is just a myth you’ve created in order to absorb the anger of the Russian people?”
“No, no,” returned Secretary Pokrovsky. “Rasputin is no myth – he’s as real as you or I. You cannot hope to focus the anger of an entire people on a mere myth – Russian peasants are not that stupid.”
“Alright,” I said. “But still, you’re saying that you’ve introduced this man into Petrograd society purely with the aim of pissing off the general public?”
“Precisely,” confirmed Secretary Pokrovsky with a triumphant smile. “Although technically Rasputin is not one man but five.”
“You see, we started with just one but it soon became obvious that it is very difficult for one man to embody the grievances of a whole nation. People can never quite make up their minds what exactly it is they dislike about the Tsar and his government. Some gripe about this, others grumble at that…” Secretary Pokrovsky paused to allow himself a slight headshake of wonder at the indecision of the Russian people.
“So we were obliged to draft in extra men to assume the persona of Rasputin, each of whom would embody a different characteristic,” he went on. “Now, as well as Original Rasputin, the upstart peasant from the provinces, we have Drunk Rasputin for those who hate debauchery, Lover Rasputin for those who dislike lechery, German Rasputin for those who are convinced that the government is full of spies and… who else? Oh yes, Ascetic Rasputin for those who dislike excessive piety. Now all the things that the people hate about the Tsar and his ministry are contained within this one figure – Rasputin. Ingenious, isn’t it?”
I looked at Michael and he looked back at me, neither of us particularly eager to be the one obliged to point out any of the million and one ways in which Secretary Pokrovsky’s scheme was far from ingenious. After a long pause Michael tentatively remarked, “You don’t worry that your plan might… how can I put it? Well, that it might simply stoke the people’s anger rather than assuaging it?”
“Aha! But therein, my dear Mikhail, lies the truly ingenious nature of the plan,” announced Secretary Pokrovsky enthusiastically. “Because the people’s anger will be very much assuaged when the hated Rasputin is finally destroyed by a carefully chosen royal hero.”
“You’re planning to murder Rasputin?” I clarified.
“Precisely,” confirmed Secretary Pokrovsky.
“All five of him?”
There was an awkward pause.
“I’m sorry but I still don’t quite see how Rasputin’s murder is likely to improve matters for the Tsar or his government,” Michael finally confessed.
“Ah, well of course it all depends on the manner of the deed,” admitted Secretary Pokrovsky. “Done at the right time, in the right place and by the right person the murder of Rasputin will prove to be a cathartic moment for the Russian people. It will bring them together and show them that the Tsar is still their little father and that his ministers have always their best interests at heart.”
“You’ve got this all worked out then, have you?” I asked dubiously.
“The man and the location have already been selected. It’s just a question now of waiting for the right moment,” explained Secretary Pokrovsky with a knowing nod. “It has to be a member of the royal family, you see. At first I thought of asking the Tsar himself but, well, he’s not an altogether dynamic man and he spends so much time these days away at the front that it makes the logistics quite tricky…
“Then I considered the Tsarina. She’s certainly a very resolute woman in many respects but she is also subject to irrational fits of conscience and so cannot be considered altogether reliable. Of course the Tsarevich, with his youth and his health problems was simply a non-starter… Which just left a number of Grand Dukes, Duchesses, Princes and Princesses to choose from…”
Secretary Pokrovsky took another thoughtful puff on his cigar. “In fact, you have already met the man chosen for the job – he was at my office this morning. Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov. He’s a bit of a hot-head, I cannot deny that. But he has just the sort of dashing good looks that are certain to inspire a royalist resurgence, don’t you think?”
“Hmmm,” I murmured noncommittally. Recalling the red-faced young man in the fur coat I’d encountered that morning it was hard to imagine him inspiring anything very practical.
“Do the Rasputins know what they’re in for?” asked Michael, preferring to address a different question.
“Of course, of course,” replied Secretary Pokrovsky with an airy wave of his hand. “They do not know all the details naturally. That is sensitive information – we cannot risk it becoming known to the public. But they have been fully briefed on the purpose of their role.”
“And they’re alright with that, are they?” I asked doubtfully.
“It doesn’t seem exactly fair on them,” noted Michael.
“Fair? What has fairness to do with it?” demanded Secretary Pokrovksy, suddenly animated. “Life is not fair. If you were Russian you would understand this.”
“All the same…” Michael began.
“They are being well paid for their trouble and their families will be well provided for,” insisted Secretary Pokrovsky. “And they get to die for the honour of their country. What man could ask for more? After all, there are thousands of others doing just the same at the front every day.”
This was certainly a difficult point to refute but fortunately we were saved from the trouble of trying by the sudden appearance of the maitre d’ at Secretary Pokrovsky’s elbow. “Apologies for the interruption Your Honour,” he said with a deferential bow. “But a telephone message has just been received for you. Your presence is requested at the Yusupov Palace right away.”
“Damn it! What on earth can he want now?” responded Secretary Pokrovsky irritably.
The maitre d’ merely bowed again as though to say it really wasn’t his place to speculate.
“Right away you say?” clarified Secretary Pokrovsky.
“The matter did seem rather urgent sir.”
“Damn it all!” exclaimed Secretary Pokrovsky again.
The maitre d’, clearly feeling there was nothing more for him to add, bowed for a third time and discreetly backed away.
“Damn it, I was so much enjoying my evening,” Secretary Pokrovksy muttered distractedly to himself. Suddenly he looked up. “Would you care perhaps to come with me?” he asked Michael and me. “Whatever is the matter at the Yusupov Palace I’m sure it won’t detain us for long. Then I can drop you off at your hotel where we can perhaps conclude our most interesting discussion over a small night-cap. What do you say?”
In view of later events I’d like to be able to say we made at least some effort to decline Secretary Pokrovsky’s invitation and that were only dragged to the Yusupov Palace under extreme coercion. But I’m afraid the truth is that both Michael and I agreed fairly readily to the proposal. The thought of catching a ride home with Secretary Pokrovsky was, after all, infinitely preferable to finding our own way across the icy city and, to be absolutely honest, I must confess to feeling a fair degree of idle curiosity at the prospect of seeing inside the home of the extraordinary young Prince in the extravagant fur coat.
I can only blame the wine and the relaxing atmosphere of the restaurant for my failure at that moment to recall that in the landscape of the imagination idle curiosity can be a very dangerous emotion indeed.
To be continued…