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Authors: Gloria Whelan

The Impossible Journey

BOOK: The Impossible Journey
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Gloria Whelan
The Impossible Journey

For Linda and Frank


Chapter One

Leningrad 1934

Chapter Two

The Search

Chapter Three

The Kresti Prison

Chapter Four

The Bear

Chapter Five

A Letter from Dudinka

Chapter Six

By Train into Siberia

Chapter Seven


Chapter Eight

The River

Chapter Nine

Carried Away

Chapter Ten

The Government Man

Chapter Twelve

The Stranger


Comrade Sergei Kirov was killed on the first day of December. That same night my parents disappeared. The day of Kirov's assassination was a school day and started out like any other. I awoke shivering because my brother, Georgi, who is seven, six years younger than I, had stolen our quilt to wrap himself like a caterpillar in its cocoon. Trying to touch as little of the cold floor as possible, I picked my way across the room. From the window I could see the snow-covered jumble of Leningrad's rooftops and, beyond them, the Neva River. The freezing winds were rushing down from Siberia to lock the Neva in ice.

I pulled on wool stockings and slipped a sweater over my blouse, leaving my hair for Mama to braid. Then I did something wicked. There are people who carefully plan all they do. I'm sure such people never get into trouble. But how do they get anything done? If you think too much about a plan, you think of all the reasons against carrying it out. I rush at things and never make plans. With me everything gets done. The trouble comes later.

I hastily opened a dresser drawer and felt way in the back for the little box I had once discovered there. Inside the box, wrapped in flannel, was a gold locket wreathed with tiny diamonds. I slipped the flannel with the locket into my pocket.

Before I left the room, I poked at the soft lump that was Georgi to awaken him. When he pretended to be asleep, I poked harder. “You have to get up, or we'll be late for school.”

“Marya, let me be,” his muffled voice came from deep inside the covers. “It's too cold to get up.”

I gave the quilt a tug, unrolling Georgi. Ducking the pillows he flung my way, I hurried into the warmth of the kitchen. The tiny kitchen was off our sitting room, where Mama and Papa slept. Down a hall was the washroom, which we shared with the Zotov family. Sergei Ivanovich Zotov was a tall, skinny man like a twist of rope. Olga Pavlovna Zotov was thin like her husband and greedy. If we left our soap in the washroom, it disappeared.

We often found bear hairs in the bathtub, for Mr. Zotov owned a bear cub. You could find Mr. Zotov any day on the Nevsky Prospekt, Leningrad's main street. Holding the cub's leash in one hand and a tin cup in the other, he collected money from the passersby. When a cub grew too large, Mr. Zotov sold it off to a circus. With the money he bought a new cub.

Our warm kitchen was my favorite place. The teakettle was dancing over the fire, the steam from its spout clouding the windows. The day before, Papa had gone to the pawnshop and traded his fur hat to
get money for a winter jacket for Georgi.

Mama was setting out sausage and cheese and bowls of hot kasha. “Let me do your hair, Marya,” she said. Mama was gentle, never pulling too tightly.

Papa watched. “Spun gold,” he teased. “It would take only a lock or two to buy the whole city.”

“St. Petersburg is already ours,” Mama said. “We have the Summer Garden and the Neva and the Prospekt. It's all there for the taking.”

“Katya,” Papa cautioned. “Not St. Petersburg! It is now Leningrad. What if the children should call the city St. Petersburg in front of strangers? The man with the mustache might hear of it.”

The name of our city had been changed from St. Petersburg to Leningrad after Comrade Lenin died. Lenin was the father of the Communist revolution. “The man with the mustache” was what Papa called Russia's ruler, Comrade Stalin. Papa and Mama despised Comrade Stalin, though this was a dangerous opinion to hold.

Stalin's people had turned my grandmother and her friends out of their land, stealing it and forcing them onto a state farm. There the work was so hard and food so scarce, my grandmother had died.

Georgi stumbled into the kitchen, his sweater inside out, one stocking on and one off. He climbed onto Mama's lap like a fledgling into its nest. “I don't think I should go to school today,” he said. “I don't feel so well.”

Mama looked closely at him. “Does anything hurt?” she asked.

Georgi thought for a minute. “My ears and my toes.”

Mama tried not to smile. She felt his forehead. “You're fine, Georgi. Now let me turn your sweater right side out.” She gave Papa a quick, worried look. “Are we having a meeting tonight?”

Papa frowned. “I think we must,” he said.

“Misha,” Mama warned, “these are such dangerous times. Everywhere, you hear rumors that Stalin is
angry with Comrade Kirov for opposing him.”

In this year of 1934 Comrade Kirov was the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad and the city's most important man. I had seen Kirov being driven about the city in a big black car. He was a short, square man in a worn black coat who always had bodyguards around him like a flock of crows chasing a small black bird.

Papa said, “There's much about Kirov I don't trust, but what other hope do we have?”

Impatient with all the talk, Georgi helped himself to more kasha, getting porridge all over the floor. Mama reached for the rag, and no more was said about the meeting.

After breakfast Papa left for Leningrad University, where he ought to have been a professor, for he was very learned. Instead he worked there as a janitor, for Papa's parents had been aristocrats. Stalin said all aristocrats were enemies of the people, so Papa was no longer allowed to teach.

Georgi and I went with Mama, who walked us to school on her way to the hospital, where she was employed as an aide. Like Papa, Mama was very educated, but she, too, was an enemy of the people, for her parents had also been aristocrats.

We hurried down our narrow street and turned onto the Nevsky Prospekt. Streetcars clanged back and forth. Tables were set up along the sidewalk where students sold their artwork and others, hungry and desperate for a few kopecks, sold their possessions. Later Mr. Zotov would be there with his bear cub. The cub came from Siberia, and Mr. Zotov had paid a large sum for him so that he could stand on the prospekt and beg money. I loved the fat little bear, whose name was Russ, but it hurt me to see the iron collar about his neck.

with a twig broom was sweeping dirty clumps of gray snow from the sidewalks. A chill wind blew off the icy Neva, making me clasp my coat more tightly and hold on to my hat. No one looked at
anyone else. They just stared down at the street or straight ahead. Every day there were arrests, so people no longer trusted one another. The stranger you smiled at today might be the one to report you to the police tomorrow.

Still, Mama could not help smiling. She loved the city. In warm weather she took us to the Summer Garden and told us tales of how elegant women had once strolled along the paths in long white dresses accompanied by handsome officers splendid in their uniforms. She never tired of pointing out the Winter Palace, where she had lived when her mother was lady-in-waiting to the empress. “A thousand rooms,” she told us, a dreamy look in her eyes, “and for dinner a platter of roasted pheasants decorated with their own tail feathers.”

“Did you have jam for breakfast?” Georgi had asked. There was nothing he liked better.

“Yes, and hot chocolate and sweet buns to go with it,” Mama said.

“Did you have children to play with?” Georgi wanted to know.

Mama looked unhappy and would not answer him. The locket hidden in my pocket was shaped like a four-leaf clover. Inside each of the four petals was the picture of a girl. When I had discovered the locket, I had asked Mama who the girls were. Tears came to her eyes and she would not answer me. She took the locket from me and put it back in the drawer, telling me it was a great secret and I was not to touch it again.

Later, Papa, who had seen what had happened, told me Mama had played with the tsar and empress's four daughters: Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga, and Marie. He whispered that something had happened to them that made Mama very sad, but he would not tell me what that something was. It was only later in one of my schoolbooks that I read that the tsar and all his family had been enemies of the state and had been executed for opposing the revolution. I could not believe that the four pretty girls, with their sad, sweet
smiles, were enemies of any state.

On this chilly December day Mama did not pause to look at the Winter Palace, or at the mansion, with its tall windows opening onto wrought-iron balconies, where she and Papa had once lived. Instead we hurried on to school, where Mama left us with a kiss.

I took Georgi to his room and headed for my own classroom, where our teacher, Comrade Tikonov, sat at her desk like a queen on her throne. She gave everyone a warning frown, suggesting the queen was sure that we, her subjects, were there only to make mischief. At the front of the classroom, staring down at us, were portraits of Comrade Lenin and Comrade Stalin, the smiles on their faces like the smile on a cat that has just licked up a bowl of cream. Marching across the room was a banner that read L
, L
, L
. Yet everyone knew that for many years Lenin had lain in a coffin in Moscow, stretched out in a glass case like an expensive piece of jewelry.

I placed my assignment, an essay on the leaders of the revolution, on Comrade Tikonov's desk. I had struggled to do it well, but some of the leaders had been exiled from the country and others were in prison or had disappeared, so I had to be careful not to say anything nice about them. I knew that no matter how hard I tried, my work would be returned with angry marks all over it, for I could not keep truth from creeping into my papers.

Comrade Tikonov had taken a dislike to me from the day she had happened to see a picture I had drawn of her with a sour expression and beady eyes. It was exactly like her, but who is happy to see themselves just as they are?

Sitting in the front row was Comrade Tikonov's pet, Svetlana. She was wearing the red scarf of the Pioneers, the Communist young people's organization. Because Svetlana's papa was someone important in the revolution, she turned up her nose at everyone, boasting that her family got to ride about in a big car
and spend their vacation at the Black Sea. She bragged that her family could shop in the special store for government officials, and she laughed at my clothes and at the clothes of the other students.

My anger with Svetlana grew inside me like a poisonous mushroom, leading me to do a dangerous thing. Though Mama and Papa had warned me never to mention such things, I had bragged to Svetlana that my mama once lived in the Winter Palace. Svetlana refused to believe me, accusing me in front of the other students of being a liar.

Now I meant to prove I was not a liar. I felt the locket hidden in its bit of flannel.

We began the class as we always did, by standing and facing Comrade Lenin and Comrade Stalin and pledging to uphold the ideals of the revolution. The very worst thing about Comrade Tikonov was that each morning she asked the class to tell her how our families upheld those ideals. If we were quiet for several days and could not tell her how our mamas and
papas studied the works of Lenin and Stalin or how they worked at meeting the goals of Stalin's five-year plan, she looked at us suspiciously. I knew that children were encouraged to report parents who were not faithful to the Communist Party. You could have crushed me under a herd of elephants and I would never have reported Mama and Papa.

We were returning to our classroom after lunch when I whispered to Svetlana, “I have something that will prove my mama lived in the Winter Palace.”

Svetlana gave me a haughty look. “There is nothing you can show me that will prove it, because it isn't true.”

With several of the students looking on, I dug the square of flannel out of my pocket and unwrapped the locket, opening it to show the four-leaf clover, each leaf with its picture of one of the tsar's daughters.

“Now who is a liar?” I demanded. Even as I said the words, a flutter at the pit of my stomach told me I had done something foolish. Svetlana snatched the
locket out of my hand. I tried to get it back, but Svetlana was already dashing into the classroom. When I rushed into the classroom after her, Comrade Tikonov had the open locket in her hand, holding it as if it were a snake that would bite her.

In her most imperious voice she ordered, “Marya Mikhailovna Gnedich, come here at once.” The look of fury on Comrade Tikonov's face turned me to stone. I couldn't move.

Glaring at me, she demanded, “What are you doing with this? Don't you know these creatures were enemies of the state, living in luxury while the people starved? Have you no shame? This will be reported at once. In the meantime the class will have nothing to do with you. You will move your desk off by itself. I will not have these girls corrupted by such things.”

Svetlana gave me a smug smile. What a fool I had been! I huddled down in my seat, miserable and terrified. I felt as if the whole world were staring at me, though in truth most of the girls were sorry for me and
kept their heads turned away. I was all the more miserable because I had no one to blame but myself; my pride had led me to act without thinking. Would Comrade Tikonov report the locket to the authorities? What would that mean for Mama and Papa? I would gladly suffer my own punishment a thousand times if it would make no trouble for them.

The end of the day finally came, and everyone crowded out of the classroom, brushing by my desk without a look. Trembling all over, I dared to approach Comrade Tikonov. “Comrade Tikonov,” I pleaded, “may I have the locket back?”

With an angry cry she flung it at me so that it fell to the floor. “Take your evil trinket, but you have not heard the last of this.”

I picked up the locket and ran from the room. Georgi was waiting in the hall for me, a big smile on his face. “I got an ‘excellent' for my drawing of a reindeer.” He looked more closely at me. “Why are your eyes all red?”

“Never mind.” I grabbed his hand.

All the way home I tried to think what to tell Mama about the locket, for I was sure the school would make a report to her.

BOOK: The Impossible Journey
13.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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