Friday, 22 July 2011

A Short History of Russia (before the revolution)

We were sitting – all the family – drinking tea under the limes at sunset.  Beyond the lilacs the mist was already rising from the gully.

The sound of scythes being sharpened came to us.  It was the peasants from the next estate who had come out to mow the merchant’s meadow.  They were not shouting and swearing as they usually did.  The scythes went swinging through the grass, about twenty of them; you could tell by the sound.

Suddenly one of the men started up a song.  Effortlessly, the powerful silvery tenor poured forth, immediately flooding gully, grove, and garden.  What with the lilacs and the mist you could not see anything, but I could tell by the voice that it was Grigory Khripunov singing; only I would never have thought that weedy little Grigory from the factory had such a powerful voice.

The men took up the song.  And we suddenly felt dreadfully awkward.

I don’t know the tune, can’t catch the words; but the song swells and swells.  Never have the neighbour’s men sung like that before.  I feel embarrassed to remain seated, have a tickle in my throat and want to cry.  I jump up and run off into a far corner of the garden.

It was after that that everything began to go to pieces.  The men who had been singing brought in syphilis from Moscow and spread it all through the neighbouring villages.  The merchant whose meadow was being mown took to the bottle and once, when drunk, set fire to his own hay lofts.  The deacon began getting illegitimate children.  The ceiling in Fyedot’s izba fell in completely and Fyedot did nothing about it.  In our family the old people began to die and the young people to grow old.  My grandfather began to say the most stupid things, quite unlike his old self.  As for me, the next morning I went and cut down the ancient lilac.

That lilac was centenarian, aristocratic, the flowers were pale blush and sparse, and the trunk so gnarled it almost defied the axe.  I chopped it all down and beyond it rose a grove of birches.  I cut down the birches too, and beyond them was the gully.  From the bottom of the gully I could now see nothing but my own house rising above my head.  It stood open to every wind and storm.  If I were to dig underneath it, it would collapse and bury me.

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