Petersburg Escape

Aleksandr Ivanovich was returning home along the empty prospects that ran parallel to the Neva; the light of a court carriage went flying past him; from beneath the vault of the Winter Canal the Neva was revealed to him; there, on the small, curved bridge, he observed the nightly shadow.

Aleksandr Ivanovich was returning to his wretched abode in order to sit in solitude amidst the brown stains and to follow the life of the woodlice in the dampish cracks in the walls. His morning trip outside after the night sooner resembled an escape from the creeping woodlice; Aleksandr Ivanovich’s repeated observations had long ago led him to the thought that the tranquillity of his night quite simply depended on the tranquillity of the day he had spent: only what he had experienced in the streets, in the little restaurants, in the tearooms had he brought home with him of late.

So with what was he returning today?

His experiences trailed after him like a flying, power-laden tail that was invisible to the eye; Aleksandr Ivanovich experienced these experiences in reverse order, letting his conscious retreat into the tail (that is, behind his back): at those moments it always seemed to him that his back had opened and that from that back, as from a door, some giant’s body was preparing to hurl itself into the abyss: this giant’s body was the experience of that day’s twenty-four hours; the experiences began to smoke like a tail.

Aleksandr Ivanovich was thinking: he had only to return home and the events of that day’s twenty-four hours would start to break down the door; he would none the less try to trap them in the garret door, ripping the tail from the back; and the tail would break in all the same.

Behind him Aleksandr Ivanovich left the bridge a-glitter with diamonds.

Further on, beyond the bridge, against the background of a nocturnal St Isaac’s, before him the perennial rock rose out of the green darkness: extending a heavy and green-covered hand the perennial Horseman39 raised aloft above the Neva his bronze-laurel crown; above a grenadier who had fallen asleep under his shaggy hat the horse had flung out its two front hooves in bewilderment; while below, under its hooves, the shaggy grenadier’s hat that belonged to the drowsing old man slowly swayed. As it fell from the hat, the metal badge struck his bayonet.

A vacillating semi-shadow covered the Horseman’s face; and the metal of his face was divided by an ambiguous expression; the palm of a hand cut into the turquoise air.

Since that fraught time when the metal Horseman had come tearing to the bank of the Neva, since that time fraught with days when he had thrown his steed on to the grey Finnish granite40 – Russia was divided in two; divided in two were the very destinies of the fatherland; divided in two, suffering and weeping, until the last hour, is Russia.

Russia, you are like a steed! Into the darkness, into the emptiness your two front hooves have raced; and firmly in the granite soil have struck root – your two back ones.

Do you too want to detach yourself from the stone that holds you, as some of your reckless sons have detached themselves from the soil – do you too want to detach yourself from the stone that holds you and hang in the air without bridle, in order later to go plunging down into the watery chaoses? Or do you want, perhaps, to rush, tearing the mists to shreds, through the air, in order together with your sons to disappear in the clouds? Or, having reared up on your hind legs, Russia, have you fallen into reflection for long years before the menacing fate that threw you here – in the midst of this gloomy North, where even the very sunset is a matter of many hours, where time itself lunges in turn now into frosty night, now into diurnal radiance? Or will you, frightened by the leap, once again lower your hooves41 in order, snorting, to carry the great Horseman into the depths of the flat expanses out of the illusory lands?

But it will not be! …

Once it has soared up on its hind legs, measuring the air with its eyes, the bronze steed will not lower its hooves: a leap over history – there will be; great will be the turmoil; the earth will be cleaved; the very mountains will come crashing down because of the great shaking of the earth,42 and our native plains will be made everywhere humped because of the shaking of the earth. Nizhny, Vladimir and Uglich43 will end up on humps.

But Petersburg will sink.

In those days all the peoples of the earth will come rushing from their places; there will be a great strife – a strife without precedent in the world: yellow hordes of Asiatics, having moved from their long-occupied places, will turn the fields of Europe crimson with oceans of blood; there will be, there will be – a Tsushima!44 There will be, there will be – a new Kalka!45

Kulikovo Field,46 I wait for you!

On that day the final Sun will shine above my native land. If, Sun, you do not rise, then, oh, Sun, the shores of Europe will sink beneath the heavy Mongol heel, and above these shores the foam will curl; the creatures born of earth will once more sink to the bottom of the oceans – into the primordial, the long-forgotten chaoses …

Arise, oh, Sun!

A turquoise breach rushed across the sky; while towards it through the storm clouds flew a stain of burning phosphorus, suddenly changed there into a solid, brightly shining moon; for an instant everything flared: the waters, the chimneys, the granites, the silvery flutings, the two goddesses above the arch, the roof of the four-storeyed house; the cupola of St Isaac’s looked bathed in light; they flared – the Horseman’s brow, the bronze-laurel crown; the lights of the islands died; while an ambiguous vessel in the middle of the Neva turned into an ordinary fishing schooner; from the captain’s bridge a bright point of light shone sparklingly; perhaps it was the glow from the pipe of the blue-nosed bosun, wearing a Dutch hat with earflaps, or the bright lantern of a sailor on watch. Like a gentle soot, from the Bronze Horseman flew a gentle semi-shadow; and the shaggy-headed grenadier was drawn more blackly, together with the Horseman, on the paving slabs.

For an instant human fortunes were clearly illumined to Aleksandr Ivanovich: one could see what was going to happen, one could perceive what would never happen: thus all became clear; fate seemed to brighten; but he was afraid to look into his own fate; stood before fate shaken, agitated, experiencing anguish.

And – the moon cut into a cloud …

Again ragged arms of cloud went furiously racing; the misty strands of some kind of witches’ tresses kept racing; and ambiguously among them gleamed the burning stain of phosphorus …

At this point resounded – a deafening, inhuman roar: its enormous headlamp unendurably gleaming, a motor car raced past, puffing kerosene – from beneath the arch towards the river. Aleksandr Ivanovich studied how the yellow, Mongol mugs47 cut across the square; the unexpected nature of it made him fall; in front of him fell his wet hat. Behind his back there then arose a mumbling that resembled a ritual lamentation.

‘Lord Jesus Christ! Save us and have mercy on us!’

Aleksandr Ivanovich turned round and realized that near him the old Nikolayevsky grenadier had begun to whisper.

‘Merciful Lord, what is that?’

‘A motor car: some eminent Japanese visitors …’

Of the motor car there was not a trace.

The spectral outline of a lackey’s cocked hat and the wing of an overcoat stretched into the wind raced from mist to mist with the two lights of a carriage.