Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Book: Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore Read Free Book Online
Authors: Simon Sebag Montefiore
    The streetcar stopped with a ringing of bells and a little meteor shower of sparks from the electric cables above. A woman got out. The spook beat his gloves together, his Cossack earring catching the light of the streetlamp.
    The streetcar creaked forward. Suddenly Mendel ran toward it, his bad limp giving him a peculiar gait. His body twisted like a human parabola but he ran very fast for a cripple.
    The streetcar was moving now. It was hard to run in the snow and even though Mendel did not look back, he knew that the young, fit spook had already spotted him and was giving chase. Mendel grabbed hold of the bar. The conductor, shouting, “Well run, old man!”
    seized his other arm and pulled him up.
    Sweating inside his sheepskin, Mendel glanced back: the spook was running behind—but he was not going to make it. Mendel saluted him, noblestyle, touching his brim.
    He traveled two stops, then slipped off the streetcar at the pink Stroganov Palace and again checked his tails. No one—though they always found him again. He passed the colonnades of the Kazan Cathedral, where he sometimes met comrades on the run from exile. The snow was slicing at the orange lanterns and he had to keep rubbing the lenses of his pincenez. He saw only the shops of the bloodsucking classes—the Passazh with its English tailors and French jewelers; the Yeliseyev Emporium piled obscenely high with hams, sturgeons, cakes, oysters, clams, Indian teas and Fortnum & Mason fruitcakes; the labyrinthine Gostiny Dvor, with its bearded merchants in caftans selling antique icons and samovars.
    Mendel heard the clipclop of horsemen—two gendarmes on patrol, but they were chatting to each other loudly about a whore in Kaluga and did not see him. He waited at the window of Yeliseyev’s till they were gone. Then a RollsRoyce sped by, and coming the other way a Delaunay: perhaps it was Zeitlin?
    He reached the Hotel Europa, with its doormen in scarlet greatcoats and top hats. Its foyer and restaurant were the most heavily spiedupon square feet in the whole of Europe—and that was why he felt safe. No one would expect an escaped exile to linger here. But his coat was ragged and darned, while the folk around here were in sables, frock coats, guardsmen’s rig. Already the doorman, who was a police agent, was staring at him.
    Mendel heard the dry swish of the sleigh. He limped over to a doorway to watch it come, searching for signs of shpiki and fileri , external agents. But the sleigh looked kosher, just one old hunched coachman.
    Mendel hailed it and climbed in.
    “Where to, sir?”
    “The Taurida Palace.”
    “Half a ruble.”
    “Twenty kopeks.”
    “The price of oats is up again. Can hardly feed the horse on that…”
    Oats and more oats, thought Mendel. Prices were rising, the war was disastrous. But the worse, the better: that was his motto. The coachman, decided Mendel, was really a petit bourgeois with no role in the future. But then in Russia there were so few real proletarians on the Marxist model. Nine out of ten Russians were obstinate, backward, greedy, savage peasants. Lenin, with whom Mendel had shared sausages and beer in Cracow before the war, had mused that if the peasants did not accept the progress of history, their backs would have to be broken. “Cruel necessity,” muttered Mendel.
    Mendel was grey with exhaustion and malnutrition. It was hard to sleep, hard to eat on the run—yet somehow this existence suited him almost perfectly. No family—but then children bored him. Marriage—yes, but to Natasha the Yakut, another dedicated comrade whom he met only sporadically. Always on the move, he could sleep as easily on a park bench as on a floor or a sofa. Lenin was in Switzerland and virtually the entire Central Committee—Sverdlov, Stalin, Kamenev—were in Siberia, and he was almost the last senior veteran of 1905 on the loose. But Lenin had ordered: “You’re needed in Piter: escape!”
    He had sent Mendel a hundred

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