Shards from the empire

5 February 2010 | Fiction, Prose

‘Imperiets skärvor’, ‘Shards from the empire’, is from the collection of short stories, Lindanserskan (‘The tightrope-walker’, Söderströms, 2009; Finnish translation Nuorallatanssija, Gummerus, 2009)

Gustav’s greatest passion is for genealogy. He dedicates his free time to sketching coats of arms; masses of colourful, noble crests.

Gustav asked me to do a translation. I sat for ten days trying to decipher a couple of pages from a Russian archive dating from the 1830s. Sentences like, With this letter, we hereby give notice of our gracious decision.‘

The intricate handwriting belonged to some collegiate registrar or other. Perhaps Gogol’s Khlestakov.

Gustav belongs to a renowned noble family. His ancestors made pea soup for Erik XIV.

But Gustav knows nothing of my ancestors. To his mind I have no auspicious roots, though I too am a shard from the empire. Not the Romanov Empire, of course, but the ‘empire of evil’: I was a one-time Homo Sovieticus.

In 1436 Gustav’s forefather received a letter from King Kristofer of Bayern, who happened to be visiting Åbo. From then onwards, the distinguished roots of the family have been carefully documented. Members of the family have included judges, priests, military men, public servants in high places…

My father’s father was the last nobleman in the family whose surname I bore for twenty-five years.

He was born in 1916, and there was just enough time to register his name in the annals of the family history before the revolution.

Shortly after his birth, one of his relatives, together with a band of conspirators, murdered Grigori Rasputin – an aristocratic achievement that weighs far heavier than serving Erik XIV with a little pea soup.

But it wasn’t my noble grandfather who first told me about Rasputin. In my entire life, I only met my grandfather twice.

It was my mother’s father who told me about Rasputin. My mother’s father was the son of a shoemaker from a poor Belarusian village. As an eight-year-old he saw newspaper photographs of the Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna kneeling beside Rasputin’s battered body after it had been pulled up through the ice.

My school years were spent listening to the upbeat tones of Boney M. Their hit song about Rasputin (with stress on the -in), Russia’s greatest love machine, was something even those who didn’t know a word of English could mumble along to. In the final chorus, my forefather and his co-conspirators finally killed Rasputin (with stress on the -in): And they shot him till he was dead.

Boney M’s lyricists clearly didn’t know that the capital of Russia was in fact St Petersburg. That being said, to this day I still feel an involuntary complicity in the course of Russian history every time I hear that song.

After the October Revolution, my mother’s father began his studies at a Rabfak – a preparatory course for young people from the working classes. From there, his academic path led him to the chemistry department of the University of Leningrad.

In his youth, my mother’s father travelled the length and breadth of the country distributing anti-religious propaganda. It was no wonder Rasputin didn’t die from the poisoned pastries he had been given, he explained to the uneducated peasants. The pastries had contained iodised salt, which weakened the effects of the cyanide.

During this time, my father’s father – at this point still a minor – was growing up in Tobolsk, where his parents had been sent into exile. It was there that he received an exemplary aristocratic upbringing: 1920s Tobolsk boasted an entire colony of exiled noble officers and their families.

As fate would have it, both my mother’s father and my father’s father applied to the University of Leningrad at the same time. Friendship never developed between them. However, the subject of their acquaintance came up when, one day, my young mother came home with a fiancé – the son of my aristocratic grandfather. It was as though this simple fact elicited greater trust in my mother’s parents.

My mother’s marriage lasted for one hundred days.

Like Napoleon’s Second Empire, it ended badly. Despite his illustrious family tree, my father turned out to have a whole host of negative personality traits. He drank, cursed and fought with the neighbours. He tried to poison one of them by sprinkling generous amounts of carbolic-soap shavings into his borstch.

‘How was I to know?’ my mother sniffled. ‘Everyone in Leningrad said that noblemen were a breed apart, honourable and generous…’

My father married my mother largely because of her origins: she was the daughter of a professor of chemistry with working-class roots. For some reason, my father believed that my mother’s father was working for the KGB and would therefore be able to help him scale the career ladder.

After these aspirations had been dismissed (my mother’s father had nothing to do with the KGB, and he despised the idea of nepotism, for that matter), my father stopped ‘having anything to do with that family’. Before I was born into the world, he had found himself another fiancée – the daughter of Professor Sredizemnomorskiy, a decorated nobleman.

Whether or not Count Sredizemnomorskiy worked for the KGB, I do not know. Be that as it may, my father never did forge any remotely noteworthy career for himself.

In the aristocratic circles in Lenin’s city, hair-raising rumours began to circulate about my father’s first marriage. These included the contentions that my mother could neither read nor write and that she would wipe her mouth with the tablecloth instead of using a serviette.

Even after her divorce, for some incomprehensible reason my mother continued to admire people with blue, noble blood flowing through their veins. She wanted me to study every last detail of the family tree on my father’s side (for some reason my mother’s side was not deemed to be all that important).

For my part, I was troubled by my noble surname. I couldn’t understand what it had to do with us. My contact with my father was limited to the financial support that by law he had to pay for my upkeep. Other than that, it seems that he had decided once and for all that his first marriage had been a regrettable mistake – and that included me.

My mother became a victim of Soviet prowess through the noblemen who appeared during the Khrushchev Thaw. As for me, I became a victim of the prowess of Finnish men who popped up in Leningrad during the 1980s.

My current surname is anything but noble. I use my former husband’s Finnish farmer’s name, primarily for practical reasons; my daughter Sini also uses this name. After the divorce I wanted to move back to Leningrad, but my ex-husband decided to play stubborn and wouldn’t allow me to take Sini, a daughter he hardly sees.

Despite his auspicious lineage, Gustav is far from rich. He selected me from among other available translators simply because I charge less.

Gustav is not rich – and therefore he is unmarried. My ex-husband thinks all Finland-Swedish men are gay. But they can’t all be, can they? Otherwise they would have become extinct a long time ago.

Gustav ekes out an existence as a programmer for the social insurance institution. He recently helped my with my tax declaration. As a freelancer, I always have trouble with it.

Gustav lives somewhere in Kronohagen, in an apartment he inherited from his mother’s mother. He also owns a tract of forest. He seldom visits it, but he doesn’t dare sell it.

And even though his inheritance costs him far more than it brings in, he doesn’t complain.

‘If you need a Christmas tree, you only have to ring,’ he says.

Neither does he complain about the fact that, during the 1980s, his father squandered the entirety of the family fortune. In other respects, too, Gustav is more of a stoic than a spoilt dandy.

‘Life might have been more fun if I’d lived on my family’s land,’ he says ponderously.

‘Why’s that?’

Gustav laughs.

‘You never know, I could have ended up a contestant on Farmer Wants a Wife.’

In that case, it would have been called Baron Wants a Wife, I think to myself, but don’t say anything.

I’m unsure what to make of his words. Is he joking? Or is he trying to draw my attention to the fact that he is single and open to suggestions?

The tactics used by my former husband couldn’t have been more different. When he needed something, he just charged on without a care. What’s more, he is ten years older than me.

My former husband is a locksmith. He had installed the locks in all the
holiday villas constructed by his erstwhile Finnish employer on the outskirts of my hometown. Every last one of them.

He can’t do anything else. His area of specialisation is very narrow. That’s why he was constantly out of work in Finland. Eventually it all ended in divorce. Alcohol has more than a little to do with it.

My business relationship with Gustav is over, but for some reason he continues to call me. He is interested in the history of St Petersburg. He comes up with all manner of reasons for us to meet, for instance to explain some of the details in my translation of the Russian archives documents purportedly written by Khlestakov.

We recently visited the House of Nobility together. Its interior is covered with countless coats of arms, all surprisingly jolly, kitsch even. Flea market heraldry, if you ask me.

Afterwards we sat for a while in Café Engel. I learned that Gustav is not only employed by the social insurance institution; he also used to be a policeman. In his younger days, he studied at the Police Academy in Tampere. After three years as an officer of the law – mostly as a traffic policeman – he became disillusioned with the job and applied to the university.

He seems like a sweet man, capable of feeling real emotions. And he is handsome too: blue eyes and black hair, peppered with grey.

But his hobby has me perplexed. All these family trees… In the beginning I had the misfortune to demonstrate a scant knowledge of the subject, out of sheer politeness. The colours in coats of arms are called tinctures, while the lines are called divisions. That much I knew. Now there’s no going back. Gustav is eager to tell me everything about the noble families of Finland, those that are still thriving and those that have long since died out. All I can do is nod.

How can I explain to him that I detest genealogy? All those grandiose oak trees, those unicorns with enormous backsides and all the other heraldic flora and fauna.

Lion, crossbow and sword. It’s thanks to my mother’s enthusiasm that I relate to myself through those symbols.

When I was younger I went through a period of trying to be proud of my roots. I maintained an interest in looking after our family graves and raking around in archives. I tried to make contact with my old aristocratic great aunts. I travelled to Vasily Island to meet one-hundred-year-old Kira Franzevna, a woman who had known my father’s grandfather.

My father’s grandfather served in the Finnish Life-Guard regiment in St Petersburg. By the time he ended his service in the regiment, his father had achieved the rank of Major General. For a time he was the Chief Military Officer of Vyborg.

Finland, Vyborg… The Empress’s lady-in-waiting Anna Vyrubova, who became a nun at a Finnish cloister. This all felt so close, so familiar. Perhaps my forefathers knew Gustav’s forefathers; they might even have been related to one another.

But I don’t think I’ll be looking into the subject. I’m worried that Gustav’s interest in me will take a heraldic – and irrevocable – turn. Imagine if he tried to produce an analysis of my coat of arms and started questioning me about my father and my father’s father.

All’s fair in love and war, but I’m not planning on telling him the first thing about my lineage.

Instead, I ask Gustav to help Sini with her Swedish. She’s soon going to be taking her high-school exams, but when it comes to Swedish grammar, she seems at a loss.

One Sunday Gustav knocks at my door.

‘It’s hard to teach someone your mother tongue,’ he sighs sheepishly as he accepts my offer of a cup of tea.

‘I have no methodology,’ he adds.

That doesn’t stop him drumming Swedish grammar into Sini’s head, adorned with black and purple dreadlocks.

He declines the offer of dinner, as indeed he does my offer to pay him for his trouble. On the dot of eight of clock he bids us good night.

From the kitchen window I can see the tram stop. There I can make out his slightly stooped figure in the dark, threadbare coat.

If he turns around now, we’ll end up together, I think to myself.

He doesn’t turn around. A tram arrives and obscures him from view.

My eyes follow the tram as it pulls away. Surely I shouldn’t believe in such superstitions at my age?

‘Didn’t he come by car?’ asks Sini.

‘He doesn’t have a car,’ I answer. ‘He lives downtown. He normally walks or takes the tram.’

‘Hmm. Is he one of those… from Ulrikasborg?’

‘No. He lives in Kronohagen.’

‘Is he rich?’

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Because you know he came to see you, not me,’ my daughter replies emphatically.

‘No, he’s not rich in the least,’ I muse.

‘So why does he always take the tram then?’

I can’t stop myself from smiling. Here in Helsinki, the definition of being rich is the polar opposite of that in St Petersburg.

‘The tram? That’s just the way it is. It’s because he’s… a shard from the empire.’

Translated by David Hackston


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