blackbirdonline journalFall 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Dmitri in the Year of the October Revolution, 1917

It is 1917. Russians are marching. Tsar Nicholas II has been overthrown. This is the second revolution this year. The marchers are Bolsheviks, and they want to overthrow the provisional government. Their leader is Vladimir Lenin.

Imagine the march. The raggedy, stubborn crowd. Imagine Petrograd, as St. Petersburg is currently known. The weather is chilly. October is November according to the Gregorian calendar. Foot wrappings may have been necessary. Lenin and his followers are now “Reds,” and they organize the Red Army. They move the capital to Moscow. In years yet to come—but wait! it will turn out to be mere months—they will devise the devilish idea of the Cheka, which was supposed to suppress dissent but will suppress free speech and everything else. In December of 1917 Lenin will sign the papers officially recognizing the Cheka.

(Perhaps I should mention that Lenin thought it would be good to silence Beethoven because, he said, Beethoven’s music made him want to pat citizens on their heads. That it did means that Lenin understood Beethoven. If only he had kept listening to Beethoven’s music.)

OK. The marchers march, or, from our point of view, marched, perhaps with élan, perhaps trudging wearily.

Now let’s imagine we are marching in Petrograd, in 1917. We are wearing boots, hats of sable fur from Siberia (so soft, so light as air, so warm, so long-wearing), and maybe greatcoats. Or those black leather jackets that make it clear the wearer is not someone to be messed with. Coats of some kind, anyway. The fellow next to us tells us his name is Dmitri. Dmitri Yakovovich Pokolsky. He too is wearing a sable hat, but he has no greatcoat and no black leather jacket, only a wool jacket stuffed with warm shirts. We comment on it. “It is easier to move around in,” he says. In Russian, of course. Then he invites us to follow him. Aren’t we already following you? “Yes,” we say he says, because we cannot write in Russian. He points to a rustic cabin. We wonder how we have arrived at a rustic cabin. We note that things are very dreamlike around here. We follow his lead, and then we are in the rustic cabin. A donkey and a cow shiver outside. “Sit,” he says, pulling out chairs for us. They are simple chairs, made of pine, the seats handwoven cane. We sit. We start to say “Dmitri,” but he waves to stop us. He places his forefinger on his lips and we are instantly shushed.

Whose cabin is this?

Why are we here?

Why do the cow and the donkey have to shiver in the cold?

Dmitri goes to the door and lets in the cow and the donkey. The room becomes both warmer and smellier.

“Whose cabin is this?” we ask again, this time out loud. “Why are we here?”

And he says again, “Sit.”

“We are sitting,” we say.

“Sit more,” he says.

We do. We sit quietly for at least five minutes.

“Do you hear that?” he asks.

“Hear what?” we say.

“You don’t hear the cannons?”

We look around at ourselves. We cup our hands behind our ears.

“You don’t hear it?”

We shake our heads.

“Maybe they made you deaf. The cannons.”

That makes sense to us, but still, we have not heard cannons.

One of us says to Dmitri, “You get milk from your cow. What do you get from your donkey?”

Dimitri smiles. His teeth are not even but they are as white as a freshly painted fence. “Affection. From my donkey I get affection.”

Several of us hoot. Since when have donkeys been affectionate? Donkeys are rebellious and stubborn. They’ll kick you before they do what you want.

“That may be true of donkeys in general,” Dmitri admitted, “I don’t know. But it’s not true of my donkey.”

We tried to imagine an affectionate donkey. It just didn’t parse.

But Dmitri said, “In fact, my donkey sleeps in my bed beside me.”

This time we didn’t hoot. We thought Dmitri might have lost his mind. Someone clapped a hand on his shoulder, as if to calm him down or remind him that reality was real.

Did he really sleep in the bed with his donkey? Wasn’t that uncomfortable?

“Feel his coat!” he commanded. “Not soft. But warm! And see how small! We sleep together. My donkey’s heart beats! Mine too!”

“You don’t need to shout, Dmitri. We can hear you.”

“Because I shout!”

“No no, we hear you better when you don’t shout.”

Dmitri reduced the volume, saying in a more conversational voice, “My donkey is sweet. Please, scratch the head, the ears. My donkey likes that. And my donkey is a hard worker.”

A couple of us scratched the head, the long ears. The donkey did indeed seem to warm to us. And the donkey was certainly small enough to sleep in a bed.

Meanwhile Dmitri’s eyes were watering. Why did people want to question his love for the donkey or the donkey’s love for him? No questions necessary, he thought. It was obvious that he and his donkey cared for each other.

But Dmitri did occasionally think about something besides his donkey. He had thoughts about his country. No, he did not want to leave it. He loved his country. It was a beautiful country, and so big. He just wished the government wouldn’t intrude on his life.

But of course they did. Though the Russian Civil War came first. Only later would it be followed by the soviets, the spies, the signs everywhere that rebuked or exhorted, the congresses, the red flags, the person who was told to save his life by pointing a finger at another person (so that before long, masses were condemning other masses, and most of them ended up in Siberia).

All these overwhelming and frequently tragic changes would be made. Dmitri grasped the delicate beginnings of them and deliberately ignored them. What Dmitri cared about was his quiet life, his donkey (and his cow), and the warmth of his bed when the donkey was in it. In the mornings, when he awoke, he’d stumble, still half-asleep, to the living room window, from which he’d look at the sky. The blue was absolute: without a cloud, without the sun, maybe with the faintest sketch of a daytime moon. Dmitri imagined himself up there, in the sky, free as the air, but then he remembered his donkey and turned from the window, returned to the bedroom (closet, really), and stroked his donkey behind the ears until the donkey lifted his eyelids. As they looked at each other, it seemed to Dmitri that their minds melded. To know another living creature the way he knew his donkey, or the way his donkey knew him, was to enter a place that was more than a space. A space could be found everywhere. It might be frightfully small, but it was there. A place involved an occupant or occupants, a beginning if not necessarily an ending, and no doubt a recognition. This was why he had decided not to take a wife. Marriage is a long quarrel, and he had too much else on his mind to get caught up in a long quarrel. In Dmitri’s place, he and the donkey recognized each other, which meant that they had met previously (many times as you know from reading this, but with a few computer keystrokes, it could have been only the second time), and Dmitri knew it was a blessing to be one of two in a place of calm and peace.

Dmitri went out to milk the cow. He’d never given his cow a name but today he decided to call her Fleur. She was patient. She let Dmitri milk her and when he was done she mooed with satisfaction. If only, Dmitri thought, he had a grassier yard. Fleur needed the grass to turn it into milk, but though the sky was a stupendous blue, the grass was dry and browning, so much so that the tiniest touch of wind made it fall apart and disappear.

What was he to do, he asked himself. He sat on the bed, beside his donkey. Winter would come. Clouds would crowd the sky. His animals needed food. (He would have killed himself so they could have food before he would kill them so he could have food. That’s how it was. You see, like most Russian stories, this one is existential.)

Dmitri remembered that Dostoyevsky was existential. Before he became religious, anyway. To be existential was to grasp that life is chaotic and meaningless. Given those conditions, a man had to make his own meaning. A world lacking a god to lay down the rules required each man to make his own meaning. Dmitri tried hard to ponder what this meant for him, but his head felt heavy and he decided to take a nap. Surely he would be up to the task after a nap. But when he woke up, he was still perplexed. Here he was, still Dmitri, the same Dmitri, and Dmitri found it difficult to believe in existentialism. Believing in existentialism was believing in loneliness. It would be easier to believe in angels, he thought, though of course he couldn’t say that to anyone (and definitely not after the Cheka barged in and took over; they would have eliminated him. Or, if he were lucky, they might have shipped him to Siberia. But the Cheka was not yet something to worry about.)

Nevertheless, you, the reader, are wondering how the Cheka and Siberia have entered the story. Well, we did let you know that things are very dreamlike around here. Good god, Dmitri would think just two years later, as the first camps were being established, when had the Gulag begun to seem like a piece of luck?! Meanwhile, he was happy to believe in his donkey. And Fleur. And why shouldn’t that make him happy? Donkey and cow believed in him. He was positive that nobody else did, but he respected animals, who certainly had lives even harder than his. And perhaps his love for them hinged at least in part on their need for him. Love is always a transaction, spoken or not. Without a transaction, love falls on its face. Falls flat. Dissipates. Turns sour. Leads to divorce. And now, lover and beloved stop talking to each other, silently replay former arguments in their minds, speculate, look around for a new partner, cheat on each other, get found out, fight, and one or the other stomps out of the room. But it is snowing, because it is Russia, and it’s too cold to stay out, so one or the other comes back in and then they stare balefully at each other until spring comes, and by that time they’ve forgotten what they were so angry about. This is life in Russia. It is not, however, life for Dmitri, because his heart could not stop loving. Every cell in his being was full of love. Love radiated from him. Did that make him womanly? But Dmitri is relatively tall (for a Russian), muscular (especially his shoulders), unconcerned with government pettiness (which is rather dangerous, we know: being unconcerned is dangerous), sharp-eyed, solid on his feet, and unafraid to feel. Surely nothing more can be asked of a man.

A knock on the cabin door. Dmitri pats the donkey on its head and goes to the door. First, he looks out the door. He sees only one person, a man well-wrapped for winter, his face hidden behind the collar of his coat and the shadow cast by his sable earhat. Snowflakes almost as big as fists (a baby’s fists, anyway) fall on this strange person. We say “strange” because Dmitri has no idea who it is. The snow muffles sound. If this person has said anything, Dmitri has not heard it. Dmitri sees his only option is to open the door.

He opens the door.

The strange person is still wrapped to the gills, and Dmitri still can’t think who it might be.

The person steps inside. If this person has said anything, Dmitri has not heard it. Dmitri takes a step back, but before he does so, he peers outside and observes that a contingent of policemen has accompanied the strange person.

Who is this strange person? Dmitri wonders if he is about to be arrested.

This person steps inside. He stamps his boots on the trestle, shaking the snow off. He removes his gloves, with their comforting inner fur. He spits to the side, the mess glistening atop the panorama of whiteness. Who is this person? Because of the contingent, Dmitri knows immediately that, whoever he is, he is someone of importance. Dmitri pokes his head out once again, this time to glance at the sun. There is no sun today. He pulls his head back in, which brings him face-to-face with the stranger. Who, it turns out, is not a stranger, although Dmitri has not met him before. The stranger wears a short beard, a goatee. The stranger is Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin is not wearing medals on his chest, but for a second, Dmitri envisions the great leader wearing medals. Maybe Dmitri has simply assumed that Lenin would be wearing medals on his chest. If he were, and were the sun shining, the Great Leader’s chest would be riotously glinting. Alas, there are no medals.

Facing him close up, Dmitri assumes that Lenin is here to arrest him. It’s a reasonable assumption. As Lenin enters further into the cabin, Dmitri steps backward, finally falling into one of his chairs. He immediately gets up again, suggesting that the esteemed Lenin should rest in it. “Thank you,” Lenin says, not the least worried that Dmitri has no place to sit.

“You must need something to drink,” Dmitri says.

Lenin, now comfortably seated, is thinking of a warm cognac.

Dmitri goes back outside. It is a while before he comes back in, holding a glass of milk.

“But this is milk!” Lenin says, spitting again, this time onto the floor. Dmitri finds a rag and wipes it up. Lenin does not interpret this as a rebuke. No, he feels it is normal and right that people should clean up behind him.

You may have gathered by now that Dmitri has a classic Russian soul, that he is servile to those who are more important than he is. What Americans fail to understand is that Russians consider themselves fortunate when they are demeaned. Being demeaned means someone is looking out for you. And who is looking out for Dmitri? None less than Lenin himself!

One must also understand that Russians have moods.

Many, many, unforeseen moods.

Sad moods. Vigilante moods. Crazy moods.

And they are always changing.

For example, Dmitri believes that either the planet is beautiful or it is scorched and foul. Either life is great or it is the prelude to death.

He, and other Russians, have both high moods and low moods. Or, rather, sky-high moods and self-blaming moods. Moods as high as Mt. Everest and moods as low as underground tube wormlets in the hadalpelagic zone.

That accounts for what happens next.

For a moment, he felt slightly seasick, despite the absence of a sea anywhere around. No sea in this neighborhood! Lest he tip over and faint, he grabs his little donkey. He hugs the donkey. His donkey convinces him that life is beautiful. He loves his donkey’s ears and tugs on them gently. He loves his rough but warm coat. He loves his sweet but beady little eyes.

“You have a donkey,” Lenin says, as if Dmitri did not already know he had a donkey.

Dmitri says, “Yes.”

“Its ears are pointy,” Lenin says.

“So they are,” Dmitri says.

“The coat is somewhat rough.”

“So it is,” Dmitri says.

“His eyes are small.”

“That they are.”

“Does he kick?”

“From time to time.”

“Would he kick me?”

“My donkey does not kick me.”

“Hmmm,” Lenin says.

Dmitri, weeping silently, brings the donkey forward to Lenin. Lenin takes hold of its reins.

The donkey did not want to leave Dmitri. It hee-hawed and kicked, kicked and hee-hawed. It kicked again, and this kick landed on Lenin’s knees. “Who did that?” Lenin shouted. “Who dares to kick the Leader of the Revolution?”

Surely, Dmitri thought, Lenin already knew. He supposed that the Leader of the Revolution just wanted the world to know he was the Leader of the Revolution, but it still seemed to Dmitri a silly thing to say since the only audience was himself, the donkey, and Comrade Lenin. The little donkey, alas, could not reply, so Dmitri said, “It was I. I kicked you.” He knew he might be killed for this, but better himself than the donkey. “Please kill me,” he said, raising his hands, “not my little donkey.” The donkey drew still closer to Dmitri and nuzzled Dmitri’s waist; perhaps Dmitri had hidden a treat for the donkey.

Lenin whipped out a pistol, and as if they heard, although surely they had not, the regimental contingent, still outside, raised their Kalashnikovs, first invented by Mikhail Kalashnikov, a tank commander and poet. (Is that not wonderful? Kalashnikov was a sensitive man who wrestled with the benefits and deficits of inventing a gun that soared in popularity. At ninety-four, on his deathbed, he was still troubled.) (We may note that in 1917 Kalashnikov was not yet born and therefore unable to invent the gun until later, but Russian narratives are not sticklers for ordinary time. The country is so expansive, with several time zones, that most of the country people are happy to ignore time. Also, no matter what time it is there, the country folk know they can never change their situation. Only someone else can change it, and that makes it pointless to pay attention to the time. They plow their fields, they drink tea from samovars, and vodka, and when they can get it, cognac, and it is always the same day, or the same night. Yes, the weather changes, and then they know if it is winter or summer, and they take off or add on clothes, or stuff paper in their shoes for warmth, but the details—month, date, clock-time—are beside the point. The point is that by and large nothing changes.)

(Things are different in the cities. In the cities, there is not only change but also upheaval. And not only upheaval but also rout, revision, and reformation.)

The little donkey brayed. Dmitri took a long last look at his sweet companion and then, from the one window, a wider look at the tundra and the long grasses blurring in the wind and the trees twisting in the wind. Here and there his glance rested on a handcrafted one-room house, smoke billowing from the chimney, a pig in a sty. It seemed to him that in this moment all of Russia was his. It did not belong and perhaps would never belong to the fanatical element that hoped to control his country, to wring every last bean from every last bean sprout. To keep tabs on every single person, down to the elderly woman who raised her family, saw them leave, and was now lying untended in her lonely bed. All the way down to the orphaned child who never had enough to eat (and would have been grateful for beans.) Those self-serving elements, worse than any beast, did not own it, at least not in this wafer-thin moment. Even in his cabin, he could smell that the temperature was headed further down, that the wind, already blowing, was about to blow harder and faster.

But Lenin and his henchmen had not yet executed him. Why were they taking so long? He slowly lowered his arms; it was tiresome to keep them up. Lenin said nothing, and Dmitri felt he could ask him where he’d been before he came to the cabin.

“Petrograd.” Lenin said the name proudly. Five days after his death, the name would be changed to “Leningrad,” which doubtless made him prouder, if also deader. These days, the name is Saint Petersburg.

Meanwhile, it is 1917 and Dmitri is feeling helpless. Why does Lenin want to take the donkey away? To eat it? But Lenin, of all people, has plenty of food at his disposal. Everybody else may be on the brink of starvation, but Lenin can dine, if he wishes, on caviar, chocolate, and steak, or the tenderest and most succulent of lamb chops. To lie next to the donkey in bed? But he has his followers and henchmen all around, and doesn’t need a donkey. He probably wouldn’t want it known that he was sharing his bed with a donkey. What would people think of him then? That he cared more for a donkey than for his country? Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, but the last person in the world Lenin wants to be associated with is Jesus!

Thinking about this is making Dmitri tired. He imagines minuscule bugs—small beetles or lice or earmites—raking his scalp, making his head itch. He knows that this is not the case, that this is only what thinking feels like, at least for him, but he feels overcome and drained anyway. He is worn out. Lenin is still here and he doesn’t want Lenin in his cabin at all. Then he hits upon a solution. If Lenin won’t leave, he will. So he falls asleep, right there, on the floor, snoring loudly. Surely Lenin can take a hint? But even if he can’t, Dmitri is elsewhere. It is a dream, perhaps, or an out-of-body experience.

He dreams he is flying in a troika, skimming the cream off the snow, flying faster now, faster and faster. He is high in the sky, his face warmed by his Siberian earhat, the sweet, soft, feathery mink delicately touching and lingering upon his face and ears. Why, the touch is almost like a woman’s! Where is he headed? Not even he can say. Just somewhere where Fleur will be content and his little donkey can curl up with him.

You may wonder whether such a flight can take place, but of course it can, because this is a Russian story, and events both magical and miraculous turn up frequently in Russian books. In Soul, Andrey Platonov convinces us that Nazar Chagataev can locate and bring back a lost nation.

Then Chagataev gathered everyone together and asked whether they intended to live of their own accord or were they still living merely thanks to such outside forces as food, air, water and habit acquired at birth. . . .

Many pale eyes were straining to look at Chagataev, trying not to close from weakness and indifference. Chagataev felt the pain of his sorrow: his nation did not need communism. His nation needed oblivion—until the wind had chilled its body and slowly squandered it in space . . . . He went off to one side and lay face down on the ground.

It is likely that Dmitri felt the same way Chagataev felt, except Dmitri was younger and more active, hence the troika. Also, Platonov had not yet written Soul. But, and here’s the thing, Dmitri had his own Russian soul. He considers taking Lenin’s pistol from him, then shooting himself and his donkey. He discards the idea because Lenin could shoot first and take the donkey, leaving Dmitri’s body to stink when spring came.

Aha! In a pinch, Dmitri thinks of a better plan.

He excuses himself from Lenin, disappears outside, and returns with a rope. He throws one end of the rope over his donkey’s unresisting head. He throws the other end of the rope over his own. “Here we are,” he says to Lenin.

“What?” Lenin says.

“We come as a pair,” Dmitri explains. “We are both hard workers. And we are accustomed to working as a pair.”

“I don’t need you.” Lenin’s voice has turned somewhat snarly. Dmitri expects him to spit, but he doesn’t.

“But my donkey does. I can keep him from kicking you. I can keep him from biting you.”

“Biting! Do donkeys bite?”

“I don’t know in general. I only know my donkey.”

“So he bites.”

Dmitri says nothing.

“What else?”

“He likes to eat.”

“Of course. Even donkeys have to eat.”

“But you may not know that this donkey prefers caviar and wine.”

“Wine! What donkey ever drank wine?”

Dmitri looks at his donkey and smiles. He would swear the donkey smiled back.

Lenin is now raising a fist and shouting: “Donkeys do not drink wine!”

“I know that’s true of most donkeys,” Dmitri said, in his most amenable voice.

Lenin, still shouting: “All donkeys!”

“Yes, sir. If you say so, sir.”

Lenin: “I say so!”

“Yes, of course. Of course, sir.”

Lenin’s face was a little less red. Was that good for the Leader of the Revolution? Dmitri wasn’t sure.

The donkey hadn’t moved at all, and certainly it hadn’t said anything.

Dmitri extended the rope to Lenin.

Lenin looked at the rope, then at Dmitri, then at the donkey.

“I’m not sure what is going on here,” Lenin said.

“With your permission,” Dmitri said, “a transaction. We shall be honored to follow you out the door of my little cabin.”

Lenin looked around at the cabin. “What the hell am I doing here?” he said.

“You have come to collect me and my little donkey. Poor Fleur, there will be no one to milk her.”

“You have a cow as well?”

“I do.”

“Then it is your responsibility to milk the cow.”

“Yes, sir. But, sir—”

“But what?”

“You were going to take us to Petrograd.”

“Oh no, you must be mixed up. I’m not taking you or your donkey or your cow to Petrograd. You’re on your own. Yes, you are a fine example of Russian manhood, tending your animals and gardening. I trust you garden?”

“In the spring.”

“Of course, of course. Well, goodbye then.”


Dmitri held the door open for Lenin and Lenin vacated the cabin.

Dmitri patted his donkey and whispered in its ear. “Everything is going to be all right, little one. Everything. All is all right.”

Dmitri was still bent over, and the donkey licked its master’s ear. Donkeys are cautious and thoughtful. Often, when they seem to be balking, what they are actually doing is meditating. You may think that we have made that up, but no, just recently there was an article in the New York Times saying that very thing. Dmitri tucked the donkey under his arm and carried the donkey into the bedroom, which was also the closet and also the kitchen and also the room in which he read by candlelight. He knew Lenin was gone. He knew the henchmen had left with Lenin. He still hears cannons, but now he knows they are not aiming at him. He knows that he and the donkey will have a good sleep and that he will milk Fleur in the morning.   

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