Andrew had been told he was a fool a few times throughout his life. The first during an uncle’s drunken rant on how it was a shame he was blind so he’d never be let into the army, and he was an idiot so he’d never amount to anything great, such a shame, Andy.
Andrew wasn’t blind; his one working eye saw well enough for both of them, well enough to make up for the deadened eye staring blankly and foggily ahead, but any perception of depth was beyond him.
Andrew wasn’t blind, but he did not need sight or even sound to take in the stories of the world around him, to record and share the goings on of his dear country. And as Andrew delved further into his career in journalism, he was faced with the eternal truth that there were goings on beyond his home, in the dear country of others he had never even met, who knew nothing of idiotic, blind Andrew bent over his notes.
He had been called an idiot for understanding that the land he lived in was a land of differences, that to get the full truth he needed to hear from everyone in his diverse country. Less thoughtful onlookers had said many unkind things when they witnessed Andrew’s conversation, but the sting of indignation he felt was not for himself but for the suddenly withdrawn individual he was interviewing.
Dreams too big and hopes too hopefully.
His boss- irate, mustached, bristling Ronnie Halstead- had not called him an idiot for the interviews he conducted. He called him an idiot as he was marching up the docks to head for France.
This occasion left no ache in Andrew’s chest, only a smile across his face. “I’m getting you this story!” he vowed Ronnie over the footsteps and shouts of fellow passengers.
“You’re a fool!” Ronnie hollered, dark eyebrows knitted in frustration. Andrew’s continued serenity did nothing to soothe him. “Andrew, stay here. You can work from here!”
Andrew merely shook his head, still smiling. “No cutting corners when sharing the lives of others, boss. You taught me that.”
“Since when do you listen? You never listen!”
Andrew tipped his hat. “Won’t be starting now!” He turned, Ronnie’s insults and cries of protest bouncing right off his stubborn back as he marched off, luggage in tow. The moist salty air rustled Andrew’s, danced beside him as he made the short walk to the other side of the world.
Dusk was falling on the world, the winter of life casting a cold breeze on all their pretenses and pageantry, impending snowfalls muffling rattling bullets and the death throes of empires. So it was for soldiers, civilians, nations alike. The globe itself was being carved anew to fit a map shredded and reassembled beyond recognition. It left people displaced, it solidified ties, and birthed generations born to the lands of nowhere.
The great bear of the Russian Empire’s breathing had faltered, slowed, stopped. And those who belonged to it threw themselves to the direction of wind and fate. But what thoughts coursed through the minds of a life turned upside down? Whole new diasporas were appearing of varying social classes, each with the common goal.
It was a time of turbulence and change, and Andrew wanted to be the one to tell their story to the world. And so he sought his sources in Paris, with its newfound population of emigres who fled with varying supplies from their entire fortune of jewels to a single change of clothes.
Those who had jewels to sell, anyway. The rest simply had the tools of their trade and if not that, they themselves gambled their worth for help across the steppes.
This journey by sea was not something the people he had talked to had endured. A small blessing, thought Andrew, as he tried to block out the sounds of nausea and expelled food around him.
But he was tethered to a world writhing in its own mistakes, a man with his own mortality and pursuit of discovery.
Revelation could be found in Paris.
* * *
Revelation could be found in Paris, along with words both foreign and familiar, with the same trepidation Andrew had seen worn by separated sweethearts and glances of a whole new worry unique to France- just as a Frenchman might find the worrisome looks Americans cast each other to be unique to America. And somewhere in this city of love and lights and culture, there would be looks unique to Russia.
At once Andrew was bombarded by the Frenchness of the city. Perhaps because he had spent his whole life in America, and so had grown accustomed to the way his home played upon his senses, but it seemed now the very air, the scents, sights, sounds, the feel of the ground beneath his feet reverberated with a kind of energy that he knew could be found nowhere else, just as the energy of his America could not be detected here.
Strange, though, how the melancholic breeze that haunted him at the beginning of his journey at a harbor in New York seemed to have followed him here.
Andrew’s wide-eyed staring stood out in the sea of disconcertion that was wartime Paris. Ronnie, for all his protesting, had made sure Andrew was well informed of the area and knew where to go to have safe lodgings. He had what he simply called “a contact” in Paris who would take care of Andrew and get him a place to stay while he was interviewing.
Andrew could see why Ronnie might not find that contact, a man named Gabin, agreeable. Andrew himself did not share the sentiment; he found the Frenchman to be amicable, charismatic, charming. And those were the traits that likely drove Ronnie to find Gabin so disagreeable.
“All you need can be found in a holy trinity, so to speak,” Gabin said in an accented voice that was like a purr as he guided Andrew through France. “Rue Daru, rue Pierre-le-Grand, and rue de la Neva.”
“When will we get there?” Andrew asked at once.
Gabin smiled. “You will know immediately.”
At first, Andrew did not understand. “I’m new to the city,” he protested, but he was met with a knowing silence as they traveled on.
And sure enough, like a ripple across a glassy lake, permanently altering the surface, Andrew noticed a shift. Signs bore the Cyrillic alphabet, decorations were noticeably different from the Parisian fads found elsewhere, and the voices on the street were definitely not speaking French. Even the soft lilt of songs sounded more earthy as well. Many buildings were made of the same stone that held up most of Paris, and some bore identical architectural stylings. But not all, and for those that were different, their numbers were significant and so were their deviations. Though of course much of Paris, including this Russian oasis, had long since been built, new buildings cropped up with the influx of white emigres. Along the streets stood buildings of wood, for the true practical Russian knew wood insulated better in the harsh winter, and allowed them to show off their abode’s nalichniki: illustrious, elaborate, intricate wood frames of unparalleled craftsmanship.
Some émigrés had grown up with the late Peter the Great’s old devotion to French customs; they were able to style themselves similarly to native Parisians. But they were in stark contrast to the majority of émigrés who went through life atop the swelling crest of Slavophilia that had spread through the empire before its end, and so their smaller mannerisms were distinctly Russian. While native Parisians flung open their windows with complete abandon during times of even slight warmth, the Russians stubbornly opened only a top panel, if that. Parisian food looked heavy in small amounts; the foods eaten by Russians here were relatively light in shockingly vast amounts, entire tables packed with food. Andrew had only seen a few Frenchmen cross themselves as he traveled through the city; the Russians crossed themselves often: top, down, right then left.
And the bells. Church bells ringing almost constantly, their gilded chimes as present as air- and somehow just as necessary.
“Welcome to the old Russia’s new cultural heart,” Gabin said solemnly.
Andrew spent the rest of the day dissolving his shock in experiences. After accepting help from Gabin in renting a room to stay in just nearby, Andrew took in as much of this corner of the world as he could. The inhabitants of this diaspora spoke primarily in Russian. Teachers taught in Russian. Russian instruments were played. Gentlemen scoffed at Russian newspapers; Andrew caught sight of two men eyeing an article- based on the picture- about the growing socialist movements in Europe with unparalleled loathing. The hate in their eyes was such a force as Andrew would not have imagined possible, and always all displays of anger bore something somehow worse.
Andrew would not have imagined he could walk through France and cross the border into Russia, but it seemed he had. Hesitantly, Andrew sought out anyone who could speak English, found a fair number. Some were willing to talk, some only leveled hardened eyes at him, gave a shake of the head, or else ignored his questions completely and insisted he record only their hatred for the Reds. It was a community united by pain.
“Daytime is not for being candid.”
Andrew paused in his tired march down the street, wheeling round. The man before him was lean and refined beneath an oversized coat, with eyes showing chips of blue the clouds above refused to reveal. Though those eyes were dancing, they too displayed the unmistakable mark of mourning all other residents carried.
“What do you mean?” Andrew asked, readying his papers.
The man’s sad smile grew as he shook his head. “At night is when you can see more of how we endure,” he said. In three loping strides he was beside Andrew, pointing down the street. “Just that way right across the bridge is a club. I will help with your interview there this evening.”
“O-oh! Ah…thank you,” Andrew said hesitantly. He extended his hand. “Andrew Bellows,” he introduced.
Nikolai, Andrew thought to himself as he worked to memorize the face of the one who would be his best source.
* * *
The chatter of Russian Andrew had heard throughout the streets increased tenfold in the nightclub, mingling with the sounds of glasses clinking together and the smoke of cigars. Andrew wanted to say the mood seemed to have improved, but the pained looks he had seen earlier were not easy to forget, and the ache they represented was not easy to shake.
Nikolai, however, was easy to spot, standing coolly amidst the patrons with that same forced smile he had worn earlier.
“I like to wear this to forget I am now just a doorman,” he said as soon as Andrew stepped up to him, waving to his own fine-looking suit.
“What did you do in Russia?” Andrew asked, settling down in a seat across from Nikolai as the other sat as well.
“Served my home,” he said shortly.
Andrew paused in his writing. The man’s thin face seemed tensed now, lips pursed in a hard line.
“I am sure you can guess most of our stories,” Nikolai said firmly. “I saw you running around all afternoon with your notes. So, what is my story?”
Some faraway part of Andrew felt he should address Nikolai watching him for so long. “You needed to leave-”
“No,” Nikolai cut him off. “I was forced to. You can still not do things you need to do. I couldn’t.”
Andrew paused. Nodded. “You had no choice but to leave because of the revolution. Because the Reds-”
“Yes. The Reds.” Something like approval flashed through Nikolai’s features. On stage, the music shifted from a calm, nondescript tune to something faster. The chatter swelled. “They’re someone’s hope. And then?”
“You fled and came to Paris,” Andrew said lamely.
“Precisely. There, another new piece for your newspaper.”
“I’m sorry,” Andrew muttered, head bowed. “I… What was it like? Going from a member of the nobility to doing everyday work like this?”
“I did everyday work for my home,” Nikolai said with a shrug, averting his gaze to watch the stage. “And I then did what I needed to survive.” He dragged his eyes back to land on Andrew. “The Reds would have killed me, you see. Myself and my brother. So, where is the choice?”
“There was none,” Andrew answered firmly, continuing to write. “And so, you all just carry on with Russia here? Make your own Russia in Paris?”
“Until we can go home.” The lazy smile dimmed. “But do you know specifically how we carry on with Russia as best we can here?”
Andrew shook his head.
Nikolai stared at him, Andrew holding his gaze all the while. Almost imperceptibly, Nikolai gave a nod. “Then watch carefully tonight, so you understand.” It was he who broke their improvised staring contest, looking on to the fellow patrons filling the establishment.
At the time, Andrew was not sure if this had been a coordinated effort, but he would later find out what happened tonight was no rare occurrence. Together, everyone in the club, patrons, servers, musicians alike, seemed to experience a communion through artistic expression. And the heartbeat of far-flung expatriates accelerated with the tempo of the music. Everyone was up, dancing, singing, smiling, toasting, hugging, kissing.
The dances were particularly captivating, so many men- once officers, princes, diplomats, generals, even shoemakers, tailors, ladies in waiting, painters, construction workers, negotiators- grouped together, taking turns in a circle of flashing cufflinks and gold buttons and watches, strong legs kicking, backs arching. Andrew could hear the claps and chants in his own chest, the stomping of the dancers’ boots matching the beating of his heart. Drinks were tossed, ladies’ skirts fluttered as they twirled together or with their men, their melodious voices singing of distant birch meadows and emerald lawns.
Some bore jewelry of fine amber; others had sold all their finery. But they carried a glory with them in their moves- including Nikolai, who participated in all of it. Andrew would not have believed this was the same community he had watched rage and whisper and flit and stare with such emptiness earlier today..
When some of the partying had quieted, Nikolai sat on the edge of the stage, melodious voice sounding through the club in a mournful tune of love and land, courtship and country, forever and fragmented. Several other voices joined his own.
Gori, gori, moya zvezda,
Zvezda lyubvi, privetnaya!
Ty u menya odna zavetnaya,
Drugoy ne budet nikogda.
Soydyot li noch na zemlyu yasnaya,
Zvyozd mnogo bleshchet v nebesakh,
No ty odna, moya prekrasnaya,
Gorish v otradnykh mne luchakh.
Zvezda nadezhdy blagodatnaya,
Zvezda lyubvi volshebnykh dney,
Ty budesh vechno nezakatnaya
V dushe toskuyushchey moyey.
Tvoikh luchey nebesnoy siloyu
Vsya zhizn moya ozarena.
Umru li ya, ty nad mogiloyu
Gori, siyay, moya zvezda!
Perhaps for Andrew’s benefit, Nikolai shifted to English, joined by a few.
Shine, shine, my star,
Shine, affable star!
You are my only cherished one,
Another there will never be.
If a clear night comes down upon the earth
Many stars shine in the skies,
But you alone, my gorgeous one,
Shine in pleasant beams to me
O blessed star of hope,
The star of love of magic days,
You will be eternally unwithering
In my longing soul.
By the heavenly strength of your beams
My whole life is illuminated
And if I die, over my grave
Shine, shine on, my star!
Nikolai was not meeting his eyes as he sat, gazing off somewhere else, outside the city, far away from either of them.
Gradually, the flames of music cooled to embers, flickered, dissipated out of existence. A rumbling murmur swelled through the crowd of expats as everyone raised their glasses, Andrew toasting right along with them.
“Za rodinu!” To the Motherland.
* * *
When Nikolai returned to where Andrew was sitting, he seemed more relaxed than before. Some of the tension seemed to have been lifted from his lean shoulders. Without hesitating, Andrew asked, “Does this help you?”
Silently, Nikolai nodded. This time it was with some hesitation that Andrew made a small note.
“Do you want to talk elsewhere?” Nikolai proposed softly.
They agreed to depart for the night, setting themselves up in Nikolai’s flat; it was a modest. As Andrew set himself up at a worn wood table, Nikolai shuffled around lighting lamps. The glow of the flames bathed him in a film of gold, turning azure eyes a smoky topaz.
Job done, Nikolai settled himself down across from Andrew with a tired sigh. In this intimate, informal setting, his finery looked almost comically out-of-place. Except Andrew now knew a quarter of what it meant to still wear such regalia.
“Has today been enlightening for you?” Nikolai asked.
“It has. And I’d like to learn more.”
The question gave Andrew pause. Why? Normally he was the one asking such things, seeking, wanting, needing to know the nuanced reasons that set the gears of history in motion. But now it was Nikolai conducting an interview of his own, this polished Russian presence he had met but hours ago, who introduced himself into Andrew’s life with an authority that came naturally to him.
“Don’t you want me to?”
Nikolai leaned back ever so slightly in his seat. “Do any of you really care?’
“Yes.” Of that, Andrew bore not an ounce of doubt.
Nikolai shook his head. “No. No one has ever cared before. They will not care now. They do not care now.”
“Yes, they do, and they will even more!” Andrew had not meant to jump to his feet or raise his voice, but there he stood with shoulders rising and falling emphatically.
Nikolai stared unblinkingly at Andrew, face not betraying whatever he might have felt at Andrew’s outburst. Slowly, his eyes traveled from Andrew’s stiff frame to rest on his notes. From beneath his shirt, Nikolai untucked a thin gold cross, let his fingertips brush the metal. “Sit down.” So soft was his voice, Andrew thought perhaps it was the murmur of the wind outside. “Please.”
Andrew sat, but on the edge of his seat, leaning across the round, wooden no-man’s-land between himself and Nikolai, landmasses from afar dragged to meet at this impenetrable void. “Why are you so doubtful anyone will care?”
“You idealistic American,” Nikolai sighed. “You think because you write something people will read it? You think because they read it, they will feel something? If they feel something, they will act upon it?” While Andrew leaned forward, Nikolai leaned back, a dismissive, uncaring posture. “No one cares about another country beyond the context of benefiting themselves. No one will care now unless it is to complain about what an inconvenience this all has been for the world.”
He must have sensed the protest welling in Andrew’s throat, for he added flatly, “Oh, don’t look so betrayed. Everyone has that mindset. My home, yours, everyone’s.”
“That’s not true, and you can’t think like that,” Andrew shot back. “If you’re dismissive from the beginning, nothing can get through, nothing has a chance. But there are so many chances for you to be proven wrong. That’s why I’m writing. Because people do care and will care. My writing is supposed to help provide exposure. I can’t be everywhere at once physically, but I can make everyone’s hearts reach across the world.”
“To what end?”
“To the end of…learning! Changing. Caring.”
Once more, Nikolai was not meeting his gaze, eyes trained instead on the flickering of a candle whose light cut deep shadowy gashes across his face, the only thing that could conceal or undermine the dark circles under his eyes.
“You are blindly hopeful,” Nikolai said. “You actually believe it. And… I will have to too, then, for my home.”
A sharp breath escaped passed Andrew’s dried lips. “Thank you.”
“We talked earlier of how we made this corner of the city Russia for ourselves,” Nikolai began, once more lounging in his seat. “How we can still open our windows and hear the call of familiar languages. Smell the candied sweets and fresh bread, visit one another to be served zakuski. Our names follow the same patterns.” A featherlight smile played across Nikolai’s lips. “Fires crackle in hearths, incense wafts around our prayers drifting up to heaven. I mention Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and people say ‘You mean the Riot of Spring.’ The snow falls here too, it crunches with the same crisp sound. We still take off our shoes at the door to avoid tracking it in. The wind still stings, the sun still soothes our bones. But…”
For an eternal instant, a roaring silence deafened Andrew.
“This feeling,” Nikolai said slowly. “This aura in our exiled corner of the world that feels so different from the rest of Paris… It certainly is not France, but it is not Russia either. I have felt the presence of my home, and it is not here, despite all our efforts. I hear the flow of the Seine, but it is not my Neva.”
The gentle smile vanished. “I’ll never see it again,” Nikolai murmured, and with a pang Andrew realized he was witnessing something far too intimate, far too penetrating of the human soul: the dawning realization of a man far from home that he would never set foot in his Motherland again. It was the kind of revelation that stripped a man down to his very essence, beyond thought of vulnerability and protection, for there simply only was the soul and the sinking truth of a longing with nothing to long for because that precious intangible treasure was his no more. Andrew wanted to look away, wanted to save himself from the memory of this émigré’s suffocation in a reality he chased with revelry and mourning of unparalleled ferocity. But his duty was to witness, to put words to Nikolai’s story, not just to hear him but to see his futile homesickness, carry that personal burden with him, to no one’s benefit, not even Nikolai’s.
And as sudden as that realization, so too was Andrew’s awareness that he himself had been changed by what he had witnessed. Like a swift and impersonal step into untouched snow, Andrew was different now, permanently so, and like an imprint in a field of snow there was no way to mask it without changing the entirety. No soothing swipe, no matter how gentle, could erase what had been done without reshaping the landscape of the soul further still.
And so Nikolai searched into the distance, across horizons and nations, reaching beyond comfort of life and acceptance, desperate for a final clasp at the soil he had tread as his own. It was a pain too deeply rooted to ever address, the ache of seeing such futile longing that soared down streets, toppled walls, speared across rivers to glide into the welcoming arms of northern winds and weave among swaying, laughing birches. To hear the call of gulls and feel the rattle of carriage wheels under boots on cobbled streets. To admire ornate wood trim among windows swinging open to welcome the sound of a returning loved one.
Silence filled the distance between them. Andrew felt his nerves tense with every shift in Nikolai’s posture, the hunched shoulders, bowing head. The delicate gold cross glinted in the firelight, and for the moment, Andrew was sure Nikolai was bowing in prayer. But who or what he was praying for, Andrew could only guess from a growing list.
In spite of the conflict plaguing the world, Andrew was not without hope; quite the opposite. He simply believed hope should come from within.
But in this instance of mournful communion with a displaced soul, Andrew too let his gaze drop and his hardened heart be humbled. He too prayed, for the first time in a very long time.
When at last he saw Nikolai he knew the man before him had arisen as someone else. Andrew’s hold on his pen was steady as he set the tip to his paper and wrote, the scratching of the pen giving sound to the nails raking across the homesick and the weary.
Could others really see this? Ought others read it?
As if sensing Andrew’s uncertainty, Nikolai’s eyes locked onto his own, trapping him here, in Paris, a lifetime away from home just as he was. “What else?” The northern winds weaving between beloved swaying, laughing birches carried his voice from Russia to Andrew’s instance of Paris, bringing a realization of such surety that it startled Andrew.
It was endurance.
Cowing down would have been easy. Succumbing to his own secondhand despair would have been quick. But if Nikolai knew the importance of shouldering on, of carrying his loss not as a cross but as a crutch, then Andrew could too. He knew this injury was a shield, that their wounds would heal over into something tougher.
And Andrew would make sure their strength was honored.
Andrew nodded, producing a separate sheet of questions he had prepared ahead of time. Into the night he and Nikolai spoke, Andrew asking every question on his list and twice as many not. The interview turned into a dialogue that turned into a conversation between two souls with something to offer the other.
Andrew used up all of his notepaper, readily resorting to napkins and all other manner of improvised writing surfaces. Nikolai displayed patience with his nervous scrambling.
When he was done, he simply stared with a grim determination down at his notes. “Thank you, Nikolai,” he said softly, solemnly.
Nikolai nodded. “My pleasure.” Nikolai’s smile was genuine and his hold on Andrew’s hand was firm as he shook it.
They stared at each other, two strangers far from all they knew. “What will you do?” Andrew asked, pen and paper packed away. This answer needed no recording.
Nikolai thought for a moment. “Continue,” was all he said.
Andrew nodded. Continue. All Nikolai knew to do to live.
“Keep in touch, please,” Andrew said in a harried hush.
His lips parted slightly in mild surprise, but Nikolai nodded. “Will you send me what you wrote?” he asked thickly.
Andrew tried for a smile and was surprised when he saw a slight flicker in Nikolai’s eyes to realize he must have succeeded. “Of course. As long as I keep getting letters.”
* * *
Andrew met with Nikolai a few more times during his stay. He discovered, betraying his revelation with barely more than widening eyes, that what he, Andrew, needed to understand was that he was fighting an uphill battle; he had entered Nikolai’s life when his spirit had been battered and tested and betrayed from all around, and it was only natural for the stronghold’s defender to amass barricades. Andrew was an ally trying to wend between the defenses.
Andrew learned more about Nikolai’s life back home, his true home. He learned, in what Nikolai called a cruel twist of fate, that his favorite color had been red. “Beautiful,” Nikolai said softly. “The word for red also meant beautiful.” Now it was the green of sweeping swaths of swaying grass he and his brother would run through, the woods in which they snuck off to pick mushrooms. When Andrew asked about meeting his brother, Nikolai clammed up, shaking his head solemnly, and saying only, “I want to keep him out of this.”
It was not until Andrew was back in America that he would realize why Nikolai had not wanted his involvement.
But his time in Paris, in Russia outside of Russia, would reveal to him what exactly being alive meant, the responsibility it came with. He marveled at Nikolai’s strength; he himself felt drained by the end of most days after interviewing the emigres, yet here Nikolai was, having lived through the real thing, carrying its weight on his shoulders every day.
Nikolai taught Andrew some rudimentary Russian, treating Andrew to his startlingly breathy laughter when Andrew botched a word. Andrew got to run a thumb over the fabric of Nikolai’s thick, flowing greatcoat, smelling the garment and taking in the scent of chamomile and birch, of tea and freshly baked bread, snowfall and earth.
Andrew told Nikolai about America. Nikolai told Andrew about Russia. His Russia.
Personal treasures had made the journey with them, Nikolai knowing some were irreplaceable memories of home and others were their only financial means of starting over.
They kept their promise to each other, when Andrew left, to keep in touch. They did not keep their promise to each other, when Andrew left, to part with ease.
Andrew could barely drag his gaze up from the tops of his shoes, up, up, up Nikolai’s stately figure to meet those mournful eyes; he could feel them burning holes into his head, and only when the expectant scrutiny became too much did Andrew look up. Nikolai set a hand on Andrew’s shoulder, and perhaps Andrew was imagining it, but the gesture felt like Nikolai’s attempt to anchor him there, to keep some transient part of his life rooted in his faux home away from home.
Andrew’s hand rested atop Nikolai’s. “Thanks,” he said hoarsely. He cleared his throat. “Remember…you promised to keep in touch.”
“I shall.” Nikolai paused. “Will you ever come back to Paris?”
“I’ll try.” It was all he could offer.
Nikolai seemed to understand. But understanding granted no luxury of ease.
Two souls from two different lands crossed paths in a country not their own. One soul left. The other’s land continued to transform.
* * *
Twilight falls on the Russian Empire, and her people must flee what lurks in the coming night.
His readers appreciated the metaphors.
When speaking of the White Russian emigres, the many facets of their experiences grow almost too numerous to comprehend. Except we know it is within the human capacity to endure, because we have thousands upon thousands of examples of such endurance in these uprooted souls.
Call it what it is.
For though the fundamental struggles of this revolution’s turbulence remains universal among the Russian people, each individual’s story is unique, and no two journeys trace the same path across the maps of Russia and the globe. It is a common trait among them that all matter of choice was seized from them- it was their choice or their lives. But from there, the threads of human experience diverge. Perhaps most encapsulating of this unifying spirit is the communion of the emigres under the stars with artistic expression. They live through dance and music, the tunes of the heart displaced beyond its sanctum. Their joy highlights their suffering; their suffering strengthens their joy in what they have.
Andrew was heralded as a hero upon the release of his debut article on the Russian emigres in Paris; yes, debut, for others followed by popular demand. Ronnie offered a begrudging clap on the back; from the gruff editor, he might as well have hoisted Andrew onto his shoulders and paraded him through the office.
There is a revelry to their mourning, a lively defiance to their solemn eulogy celebrating the continuation of life amidst the death of life as they know it. They face the fate handed to them and accept it without ever succumbing to it, saying with every song and dance and trinket from home that they will remember and will triumph.
Andrew had taken enough notes of Russian Paris to last several articles, including three frontpage ones. It pleased him to see one of his articles featuring Nikolai was among them, where he referred to him as N.V
And his chest felt an icy relief that he did when, in 1930, White Army General Kutyopov was snatched from the streets of Russian Paris and never heard from again.
Even when he continued to get letters from Nikolai, violent pangs would shoot through his stomach as he imagined what might have happened if Nikolai’s identity had been released, if yet another white emigre would join Kutyopov.
N.V. asked me, ‘Why do our greatest joys provoke the most potent hurt? Why must what we love and dare to hold so close come with such barbs? Do all precious, beautiful things worth treasuring in the heart bare the same thorns to pierce us with?’ And he answered his own question with a resounding ‘Yes. Yes, they must, for the fire they set before us that we walk through is proof of their worth. I have suffered for my home as I suffer now, and know more than ever no other land besides Russia could be more dear to me.
They kept writing to each other, all those years. Andrew liked to pretend the tone with which Nikolai might speak his letters was cordial, that he might have found some peace in the routine of Paris. That maybe time could heal all wounds. If he did not look inward, Andrew could fool himself for a bit. What started out as delight at the public’s enthusiasm gradually dissolved to a twisted kind of bitterness, a cynicism that surprised himself. Anger flared within Andrew every time he saw a paper bearing an article about the emigres tossed aside in the trash, stepped on, left forsaken on a table.
Nikolai was right. It was perhaps the hardest blow of all, to decide Nikolai had been right, that people did not care.
Andrew tried not to let it show in his letters to Nikolai, to try and keep up the optimistic front Nikolai had scoffed at. And though it was hard to tell from mere letters, Andrew thought perhaps Nikolai appreciated it. He asked more and more about America, about his work, about the articles, with every passing correspondence. Andrew answered, and politely asked how Nikolai’s life was, how Paris was, how the Russian community was. Once and only once Nikolai accused him of still seeking material for his articles. Andrew’s hurt must have been palpable in his reply, because from then on Nikolai answered all his questions in earnest and never raised such an accusation again.
Then news of General Kutyopov’s kidnapping reached Andrew, well after rattling the entire émigré community in Paris. Nikolai’s letters to Andrew became shorter, Andrew’s letters to him became more frequent, failing to mask his concern.
At last, Andrew received the shortest letter yet from Nikolai.
You can finally meet my brother.
Andrew composed a final passage for his stories.
We carry our homes within, even as its walls crumble and rise anew. And though the wind smells of different scents, the voices call in different tongues, the road beneath our feet is alien, an indispensable eternal shard of home lives not without but within. Time can heal much, but sometimes it is to elsewhere we must turn to try- not necessarily succeed, but try- to tame that longing with so much to long for.
The Russian language has a word for emotions of such profundity it changes the soul to acknowledge. Of particular relevance is the existence of a word that, according to N.V., describes an ache as deep as the soul, as restless as the wind, as untamable and implacable as the raging tides. It describes the child trapped in a world speaking a completely different language, unable to communicate frustration or love. It describes the swell of a lover’s heart as they hide in a luggage carrier with their entire world held in a single briefcase and their beloved’s warm palm.
It describes the sense of mingled emptiness and indignation characteristic of fleeing from what you love most in this world. This Russian word is “toska” and it lives on in even the most displaced soul.
Author’s Notes: Toska is what happens after listening to “Land of Yesterday” and “Stay, I Pray You” from Broadway’s Anastasia. Both songs are direct responses to dire circumstances uprooting entire communities. They share a commonality despite their major differences in tone…though, at their heart, there is something both defiant and grieving in both. “Stay, I Pray You,” in particular, has been praised for capturing the immigrant experience – and the remarkable, jarring emotions that come when a person leaves everything they’ve ever known.
Writing this started as one thing but I actually felt rather proud of it so I altered it into its own independent work. I hope I have touched those who read this and you might share your story and provide a listening ear for anyone wishing to tell their own stories. Thank you.