At this stage I feel obliged to point out that I have been to a number of dodgy parties in my time. I’ve been to office parties where the booze ran too freely and student parties where the booze ran out too soon. I’ve been to house-warming parties that wrecked the house and garage parties that wrecked the whole street. In addition it’s worth noting that the Everingham family has a particularly long and honourable tradition of awkward family gatherings, a notable lowlight of which was my cousin, Leanne’s 30th birthday party which just happened to take place during the death throes of a ten year relationship with her fella, Steve. I won’t go into all the gory details but suffice to say that what started out as merely an uncomfortable evening of awkward conversation and forced jollity descended rapidly into a bitter vortex of violent recrimination which not only killed off any chance of an amicable separation between the once happy couple but also did for Leanne’s prized Renault Clio, my Uncle Greg’s two front teeth and the relationships of at least four innocent bystanders by way of collateral damage.
Not, of course, that any of this has much to do with the events of Petrograd in December 1916. I merely mention it so that you will know that when I say that the few hours I spent just before dawn at the Yusupov Palace that night constitute probably the worst party I have ever experienced, then this is not a remark I make lightly.
The festivities, such as they were, took place in a large, glitzy reception room on the first floor. Various vodkas, liqueurs and several cases of champagne had been brought up from the basement, along with Sergei Mikhailovich, who, unlike his host, had kept to the vodka and champagne and so promptly collapsed on a chaise-longue in the corner and remained there, half-comatose, for the rest of the night.
Sadly for the rest of us, Prince Felix showed no indication of following his example any time soon. He fizzed manically about, throwing out suggestions for games, gags and stunts as fast as his fevered brain could conjure them up. It was like being asked to preside over the birthday party of a particularly spoilt toddler, if the toddler in question had a taste for sex and violence and carried a loaded pistol wherever he went.
Grishka, who was clearly well-practised at the delicate art of handling his master, at least provided a calming presence in the background. He deftly corralled the small army of palace servants, directing them to satisfy the Prince’s less dangerous whims whilst smoothly deflecting his more outrageous demands, confident that if he could only distract him for long enough then Prince Felix would almost certainly forget whatever it was that he had asked for and move on to the next insane demand.
Unfortunately the one thing Prince Felix seemed incapable of forgetting was the fact that he was still owed a Rasputin. He returned time and again to the subject, frequently threatening to take to the streets of Petrograd in search of his quarry. With hindsight it seems obvious that Secretary Pokrovsky’s tactic of parrying these threats by continuing to insist that the last Rasputin was on his way was only storing up trouble for the future but I don’t think you can blame the Secretary, or indeed any of us, for failing to foresee quite how events would pan out.
After a couple of hours of this mode of partying everyone except Prince Felix was flagging badly and we had taken to chaperoning the Prince in shifts. I had just put in a twenty minute turn with His Highness at the billiard table before passing the Princely baton over to Michael. As Michael drew Prince Felix over to the grand piano in a far corner of the room I retreated to the opposite corner and flopped down onto a sofa alongside a frazzled-looking Secretary Pokrovsky. A moment later Olga Fyedorovna, who had been gazing idly out of the window, came over to join us.
For a moment all three of us sat in weary silence, listening to the erratic tinkling of the piano keys, before Olga Fyedorovna leaned towards Secretary Pokrovsky and remarked, “Are you aware that those two policemen are still waiting outside?”
Secretary Pokrovsky responded with a gesture that indicated that if he knew he didn’t much care.
“Aren’t you afraid they might cause us some difficulties?” pressed Olga Fyedorovna.
Secretary Pokrovsky repeated the dismissive gesture. “Relax. They cannot enter the palace without either permission from the Prince or a warrant from the Minister of Justice,” he replied. “And neither of those will be forthcoming any time soon. What difficulties can they cause us whilst they are out there and we are in here?”
“But if we are to get Prince Felix out of Petrograd then we cannot remain in here forever,” Olga Fyedorovna quite reasonably pointed out. “That is where our difficulties may start.”
A look of distinct dismay passed over Secretary Pokrovsky’s face.
“Don’t you think you should make some sort of effort to move the policemen on?” prodded Olga Fyedorovna.
“But how?” complained Secretary Pokrovsky. “You know I have no direct authority over the Police.”
“I understand that but perhaps some sort of inducement might be offered to encourage them to leave,” suggested Olga Fyedorovna. “You might at least start by asking them their price.”
Secretary Pokrovsky adopted a pained expression. “Now Olga Fyedorovna, you know how I feel about that sort of thing,” he protested. “It’s precisely that kind of corrupt, underhand dealing that is holding Russia back in the modern world. I prefer that my department is run crisply, efficiently and entirely above board.”
“I appreciate that but I presume you would also prefer that your department isn’t exposed to public disgrace by the drunken ramblings of a blood-crazed aristocrat,” noted Olga Fyedorovna impatiently. “Which is what will probably happen if Prince Felix ever comes into direct contact with those two policemen outside.”
“I take your point,” conceded Secretary Pokrovsky. “But I can’t go bartering in the street with these policemen. Suppose somebody should see me? I have a reputation to uphold.”
“Well I wouldn’t think of inviting them into the palace if I were you,” returned Olga Fyedorovna. “It would be fatal for us if they began to poke around.”
There was a long and thoughtful pause during which the raspy tones of Prince Felix could be heard trying to marry some dirty lyrics he had heard down at the Café Troika to the tune Michael was playing on the piano.
“Perhaps if you were to go outside and talk to the policemen Olga Fyedorovna…” Secretary Pokrovksy finally suggested.
“Me?” retorted Olga Fyedorovna sharply.
“Why yes. You have my complete authority to act on my behalf,” said Secretary Pokrovsky. “And you know precisely what we have available in the office funds as well as anyone.”
“But supposing I was to be seen bartering in the street?” complained Olga Fyedorovna. “What about my reputation?”
Secretary Pokrovsky allowed himself a complacent chuckle. “Come, come, Olga Fyedorovna. What reputation? You hold no position of responsibility. You are only a typist.”
“I may be only a typist but I still have my self-respect,” returned Olga Fyedorovna stoutly.
“Of course, of course,” replied Secretary Pokrovsky with a patronising smile. “And so you should. But, let’s face it, who is going to even recognise you? You need have no fear. After all, if anyone did happen to pass by they would probably only mistake you for a prostitute negotiating her pitch or something like that.”
Olga Fyedorovna turned a distinct shade of red and fixed her boss with a glare that should have warned even the blithely insensitive Secretary Pokrovsky that he was busy putting his foot in it. Unfortunately before she could properly let fly she was interrupted by a shout from the opposite corner of the room.
“Hey Pasha! Come help me sing our English friends a proper Russian song,” cried Prince Felix. “How does that one about the young virgin of Kazan go again?”
Having finally noticed that Olga Fyedorovna was about to explode, Secretary Pokrovsky readily snatched at the offered distraction. “I’m afraid I don’t think I know that one Your Highness,” he hastily called back to the Prince. “But I’m always happy to help.”
He stood up to move towards the piano but then paused to glance down at Olga Fyedorovna with a disingenuous smile. “You see, I would willingly deal with the policemen myself but my duty is here Olga Fyedorovna,” he told her in a low tone. “Fortunately I know I can rely on you to do what is necessary for the honour of the department.” And before she could make any further objection he set off towards the piano, calling cheerfully out towards the Prince, “Perhaps we might try some more traditional songs Your Highness?”
Olga Fyedorovna sat and fumed silently for a little while longer before she finally bowed to the inevitable and slipped unobtrusively out of the room to tackle the policemen. The party went on without her.
After the singing came dancing. First Prince Felix spent a considerable period of time trying to teach Secretary Pokrovsky and Michael a Cossack dance he’d seen performed at the Café Troika, a process complicated somewhat by the fact that he could barely remember the steps himself. Then he got Grishka to crank up the gramophone again and insisted that I accompanied him in a waltz or two. Such was the concentration required to keep up with the Prince’s erratic tempo that I entirely failed to notice Olga Fyedorovna’s return. She sidled discreetly back into the room whilst Prince Felix and I were busy dancing and carefully drew Secretary Pokrovsky to one side. After a few moments of hushed but urgent conversation it was the turn of Secretary Pokrovsky to slip unnoticed out of the room, leaving Olga Fyedorovna behind.
It wasn’t until later that I was to learn the details of what had passed between them. After more than twenty minutes of hard bargaining Olga Fyedorovna had come back to report that she had finally struck a deal with the policemen to vacate their post outside the palace for a few hours. Unfortunately, the police inspector, with all the diligence to be expected of someone of his rank, was unwilling to accept the word of a mere typist and was refusing to leave until the details of the transaction were confirmed by Secretary Pokrovsky himself. Secretary Pokrovsky, still being reluctant to be seen out in public with the man, was not at all happy about this proposition but it seemed he had no choice. The policemen were adamant – no Secretary Pokrovksy, no deal. So out went the Secretary.
All of this, as I say, occurred entirely beyond the notice of either Prince Felix or myself. We continued our waltzing, blithely unaware of such matters of state, for a short while beyond the departure of Secretary Pokrovsky before I finally begged a well-earned break and passed the Prince back over to the care of Michael. As Prince Felix and Michael returned to the piano I found myself a bit hot and flustered after all that exercise. So I wandered over to one of the broad windows overlooking the canal, flung it open and gratefully stuck my head out into the cool night air.
The contrast between the close, stuffy atmosphere of the reception room and the icy chill outside was a sharp one. For a moment I closed my eyes and enjoyed the pleasantly tingling sensation of the freezing air on my hot skin. When I eventually opened my eyes again and looked down I was just in time to see the two policemen strolling away along the embankment, having finally given up their vigil. To my surprise a slightly sinister figure densely swathed in a heavy fur coat and hat seemed to have taken their place opposite the palace.
It was a minute or two before the realisation sunk in that this figure was in fact Secretary Pokrovsky. Still concerned about being caught in a compromising situation he had made sure to swaddle himself in concealing furs before stepping outside. The policemen disappeared around the corner but Secretary Pokrovsky lingered on beside the railings, perhaps also enjoying the cool fresh air after the heavy tension of the Yusupov Palace. His reluctance to return to the party was to prove fatal.
I hadn’t heard Prince Felix’s approach and entirely failed to sense his presence as he drew alongside me. In my defence, neither Michael, playing blithely away at the piano to himself, nor Olga Fyedorovna, still quietly fuming over Secretary Pokrovsky’s cavalier treatment of her, noticed the Prince’s movements either. To be fair to all of us, it had been a long night and nobody’s senses were quite as sharp as they might have been.
So there was no chance of any of us noticing that Prince Felix had, following my gaze, spotted the suspicious figure in heavy furs lingering on the street outside the palace. Even if we had I’m not sure that any of us would have been quick enough to realise that the Prince’s addled brain would immediately equate the figure on the street with the long-awaited final Rasputin and conclude that the open window provided the perfect opportunity to finally finish off his evening’s work.
The first indication I had of trouble was a sudden cry alongside me of, “Aha, so the swine is here at last!”
By the time I turned to the Prince he had already pulled the ivory-handled pistol out of the waistband of his trousers and was aiming it with a surprisingly steady hand at Secretary Pokrovsky below. The sharp crack of the first pistol shot came before I could so much as open my mouth in protest.
Despite the poor light and an awkward angle the shot was an impressive one, striking the Secretary on the shoulder. He spun round slightly and tipped his head back, giving just a glimpse of a pale, startled face somewhere amongst the thick swathes of fur, before the second shot hit him squarely in the chest. At the first yell from Prince Felix Olga Fyedorovna had leapt up from her seat whilst Michael darted over from the piano. They both arrived at the window just in time to see the stricken man stagger back, slip on the ice and plummet over the railings into the darkness of the canal below.
“Ha-ha! That got him!” yelled Prince Felix triumphantly.
For a second the rest of us continued to gawp down at the now-empty street. It was Olga Fyedorovna who eventually reacted first, releasing a sharp gasp before she turned and darted for the stairs. Michael and I followed hot on her heels.
“Wait a minute! That wasn’t…?” exclaimed Michael, catching up on events as we pelted along the mirror-lined corridor.
“That was,” I confirmed as we dashed past a rather bemused grey-haired old porter and out of the front door.
“Dear God!” exclaimed Michael.
There was a light sprinkling of blood in the snow by the railings opposite the palace door. We each leaned against the railings and peered hopelessly into the icy blackness of the river below. At first it seemed there was nothing to see but then Michael gave a yell and pointed out a fur hat bobbing gently among the thick floes of ice.
“Christ, what do we do?” I cried.
“We need a rope… or a pole of some sort…” said Michael, glancing desperately around.
We flapped anxiously about for a moment before Olga Fyedorovna sadly shook her head. “No, it’s no good,” she said simply. “He is gone.”
With a sinking feeling I realised that she was right. A sudden plunge into the frozen river like that would probably have been enough to finish off a Secretary Pokrovsky in the best of health, let alone one who had just had two bullets pumped into him. Nothing we might do could save him now. Not quite knowing how to react the three of us continued to stand and stare at the gently drifting hat for a few moments.
A cry from the street behind us finally brought a halt to our silent vigil. “Can you see him? Is he down there?” came the excited voice of Prince Felix.
We turned slowly to face him. “I’m afraid the body is lost,” replied Olga Fyedorovna.
“I got him though, didn’t I?” exclaimed the Prince jubilantly. “Quite a shot, eh? Bagged the lot now. All five Rasputins in one night is pretty good going, don’t you think?”
There was an awkward pause. Olga Fyedorovna glanced uncertainly back at the dark waters that had claimed Secretary Pokrovsky before, seeming to come suddenly to a decision, she turned back to Prince Felix. “Yes, Your Highness, that was very well done,” she said with a forced smile. “All the Rasputins are now accounted for.”
“I knew I could do it!” cried the Prince. “The honour of the Romanovs can finally be satisfied. Are you sure we can’t pull the body out?” he asked, stepping forward to peer at the canal. “I’d have liked to have had the set.”
“I’m afraid it is quite beyond our reach,” insisted Olga Fyedorovna politely but firmly.
Prince Felix sighed sorrowfully.
“And perhaps now that your work is done it is time that Your Highness made a move also,” added Olga Fyedorovna. “I believe it was agreed that you would leave Petrograd as soon as the last Rasputin had been despatched. Steps have perhaps already been taken in preparation for your journey?”
This last remark was directed with a hopeful air towards Grishka who had followed his master out onto the street and was hovering respectfully just over his shoulder. He took his cue perfectly. “Your bags are already packed Your Highness,” he said with a slight bow.
“Ah yes, that’s fine but there are celebrations to be had first,” replied Prince Felix, waving away Grishka’s attentions with an impatient gesture. “Now we can all finally go to the Café Troika!”
“I regret, Your Highness, that will not be possible,” said Olga Fyedorovna. “There are many matters here to be dealt with…”
“Pasha can deal with those, that’s more in his line,” retorted Prince Felix. Then he paused and glanced around with a vaguely bewildered expression. “Where is Pasha anyway? He should be out here congratulating me.”
There was another awkward pause.
It was Grishka who finally stepped forward to head off the threat. “I believe Secretary Pokrovsky is still inside the palace,” he said. “There is much to be done, many people to be notified.”
“Of course! We must get onto the press – release the story right away!” exclaimed Prince Felix. “There, you see, I can’t possibly leave Petrograd right now. I have to be here for the journalists. They will have many questions.”
Olga Fyedorovna gazed with a vaguely horrified expression towards Grishka and for a moment even the stoical butler’s characteristic expression of serene calm seemed to waver.
“If you’ll excuse me Your Highness, I think perhaps you under-estimate the significance of this event,” I said, stepping in. “The killing of Rasputin is a matter of interest not just to the residents of Petrograd, or even Russia for that matter. This will be a story that the whole world will want to know about.”
“Well, naturally, I’ve always said…” began Prince Felix, puffing up his chest.
“In which case it is down to the journalists to come to you, wherever you are,” I hurriedly continued. “In fact, you’ll be far better off getting away from the centre of the media storm. It wouldn’t hurt to make yourself aloof for a bit.”
The Prince’s brows knotted in that tangled way that indicated his addled brain was striving towards some sense of clarity. “Oh, I see what you mean. Need to project the right image, I suppose?”
“Exactly sir,” Michael weighed in. “If you leave Petrograd right now you’ll escape being besieged by tabloid riff-raff. Then perhaps later you might choose to share your story with one or two carefully chosen publications.”
“Haha! You are so right!” exclaimed Prince Felix. “But it does seem a shame to forego the celebrations…”
“I could direct the car to stop by the Café Troika on the way out of Petrograd,” Grishka deferentially suggested. “I’m sure we could pick up one or two appropriate companions to ensure Your Highness doesn’t get too bored along the journey.”
“Ah Grishka, you think of everything! Whatever would I do without you?”
Grishka bowed deprecatingly. “I will make the necessary arrangements Your Highness.”
Although the Prince’s bags were indeed packed we still endured an anxious five minute wait outside the palace whilst the luggage was loaded into Prince Felix’s large silver Daimler. There was a further delay when the Prince insisted that he would not leave without Sergei Mikhailovich and the semi-conscious officer was somehow roused from his couch and deposited in the back of the car. But finally everyone was on board and, with Olga Fyedorovna, Michael and I lined up on the embankment to wave them off, Grishka climbed in alongside the driver and prepared to signal the off.
As the engine revved against the cold night air the rear window rolled down and Prince Felix thrust his head out towards us. “I’ll leave Pasha to dictate the initial press releases,” he said by way of goodbye. “He usually knows what to say. But tell him that he might go easy on the poisonings and stabbings and concentrate on the shooting – that sounds a bit more heroic. I don’t know if he actually saw that last hit or not but you all saw it, didn’t you? You’ll make sure Pasha is fully briefed on my marksmanship before he speaks to the press, won’t you?”
“Don’t worry Your Highness,” said Olga Fyedorovna with one final forced smile before the car roared off down the embankment. “I think I can safely say that Secretary Pokrovsky is only too aware of your skill with the pistol.”
By the time Michael and I returned to the Ministry two days later to report the successful completion of our ‘housing survey’ all Petrograd was abuzz with the news of Rasputin’s demise. Unfortunately, I fear that the story as it was passed round the bars and bread queues of the capital was not quite the one which Secretary Pokrovsky had hoped to tell. Without the Secretary’s guiding hand the news emerged in a rather confused swirl of gossip and speculation. Rumour and counter-rumour zipped about the city, offering a hundred different interpretations on precisely how and why Rasputin had died. And in the end about the only thing that these many versions of the tale held in common was that none of them reflected particularly well on either the Tsar or his government.
The assassin himself, Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, had last been heard of somewhere in the Crimea, where he was apparently taking a well-earned holiday whilst issuing sporadic, contradictory quotes to various journalists that only served to make the issue more confused than ever. It was now being said that the Tsar, in a desperate effort to redeem his tattered reputation, was planning to banish Prince Felix from the Russian Empire altogether. The latest update suggested that the Prince was about to embark for America, where he was considering the offer of a new career in Hollywood. I had an idea he would fit in rather well there.
Upon our arrival at the Ministry we were very promptly shown by an office boy into Secretary Pokrovsky’s office where we found Olga Fyedorovna seated behind the Secretary’s desk, diligently ploughing her way through a small mountain of paperwork. She greeted us with something that came perilously close to a warm smile and expressed her satisfaction that we had been able to conclude our work. “I hope you managed to find everything that you needed in Petrograd,” she said.
“We did, thank-you,” replied Michael. “But what about you? I hope things haven’t been too difficult here since, well…”
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” said Olga Fyedorovna with a light shrug. “There’s always some kind of upheaval going on with the government. I find the best response is to ignore the rumour and the gossip and get on with my work.”
“But what about Secretary Pokrovsky?” I said. “There must have been some awkward questions at least.”
“A rumour is circulating that the Secretary has been obliged to take a sudden leave of absence,” replied Olga Fyedorovna. “Ill-health due to overwork. I have seen no reason to dispute these assumptions.”
“But isn’t anybody looking for him?” asked Michael.
“Secretary Pokrovsky has no family to speak of and as far as the Ministry is concerned, so long as the office is still running smoothly, nobody is inclined to put themselves to the trouble of a search,” explained Olga Fyedorovna. “We continue as normal.”
“Oh well, I suppose that’s good news,” I said uncertainly. “Although I’ll admit I’m more than a little surprised to find they’re happy to leave a woman in charge.”
“Oh but I’m not in charge,” replied Olga Fyedorovna hastily. “Well, not officially at least.”
“If you’re not in charge then who is?” asked Michael.
Olga Fyedorovna responded with the merest inclination of her head. Following the direction of her gesture our eyes fell upon the still motionless figure of the wild-haired philosopher, Dimitri Ivanovich.
“Him?” exclaimed Michael.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” I said.
“He was Secretary Pokrovsky’s deputy,” said Olga Fyedorovna lightly. “I suppose he was the natural choice.”
“You can’t be happy about this, surely,” I protested.
Olga Fyedorovna shrugged again. “He does not turn up late or drunk, he never tries it on and he lets me get on with my work in peace. In many respects he’s the best boss I’ve ever had.”
There seemed little more to add to that so we made our final farewells. I shook Olga Fyedorovna’s hand and while I offered her my best wishes I couldn’t help but think of the turbulent future awaiting not only her but the whole of Petrograd. As we were about to leave I took one final glance around the office and there was something about the sight of Olga Fyedorovna ploughing diligently on amongst chaotic piles of paperwork that, in spite of everything, gave me cause for optimism. Whatever the future brought, I told myself, she would deal with it, probably with a resigned shrug and a few muttered words. After all, if I had learned anything over the last couple of days it was that this seemed to be the Russian way.
Travels Through An Imaginary Landscape will return…