Our Little Paris – Extracts

“You see, there was a time, once, that people lived like this…”
(From a conversation)

First off, I want to say it’s hard for me to write,
and what I’ve wrote, I won’t read back through,
I write, and I try and make sure the line’s not crooked,
and I try not to lose my thread,
or I’ll forget what I’ve wrote about…

(Cossack A. V. S-v, 95 years of age.)

FOREWORD

In March 1982 a package sent from a village in the Tambov region found its way to me. It contained a little veneered box, inside which a string of dried mushrooms lay atop some notebooks and sheaves of paper – this was the manuscript of Valentin T., a man I once knew who had grown up there, way out in the sticks. He had returned home to his native Tambov a few years previously. His widow had scribbled a quick note, a request: “If it’s not too much to ask, have a look through all these papers. If you find anything worthwhile, use it as you see fit. If they’re no good to you or anyone else, there’s no need to send them back.” It was clear enough. She’d used to berate her husband – “leave off your daft meddlings, history’s no use to anyone” – and now that he was dead she was getting rid of everything she no longer needed.

This was the first time I had read Valentin T.’s manuscript. He burnt the original version, but five years later something gnawing away inside him (perhaps a pain as strong as he had felt while he was incinerating the pages, or perhaps, also, a sense of guilt towards the people who had repeatedly lain bare their lives before him) compelled him to bow down once more in obeisance to his beloved Kuban. I don’t really believe those first instants of writing – the freshness of the subtlest sensations, all aquiver – can ever be successfully resurrected, and I felt for my late comrade, who must have been in anguish throughout the long hours it took to restore his composition. Nearly twenty years he’d spent on Cossack soil, delving into its history. Day in, day out, his shy, gentle nature would soak up the flow of a human lifetime, and seemingly because of this, on the basis of an on-off commitment to a cause not his own, he had been so bold as to bring back into sharp focus the hazy years that had been lived through by his elderly acquaintances. His manuscript is a model of artless love for humanity, for the memory of all that is dear, and it must be read in the same vein in which it was written.

I spent a whole year sitting at my desk, working diligently on Valentin T.’s manuscript. I had not only to reshape the composition and make many corrections, but also to rewrite a few chapters. Maybe, here and there, I’ve left the imprint of my own hand, not being able to enter into the author’s spirit after all. I’ve preserved two or three chapters in their incomplete state, thereby making it clear that the recollections they contain are not fully finished either. I confess: several times I abandoned my charitable endeavour. And, once, I thought to myself I’d just put all the papers into a folder, tie it up with string, and take it off to the local archive. But every month an obstinate guest would visit me: the ninety-five-year-old Cossack A. V. S-v whose words Valentin T. set as the epigraph to his novel. “Look, there he is again!” my little Nastia would tell me, pointing her hand towards the door as though he were a ghost. I’d make my way out to the doorstep, and my heart would be seized with compassion: this tall, half-blind old man had, by some miracle, made it from his stanitsa Ivanovskaia into the city and then, his stick tapping along the road, he’d walked to my street, and then he’d made his unsteady way across the yard, in search of the stairs to my flat. What could you do with him! He’d been waiting many, many a year for a book about his dear old mother the Kuban, and when he’d found out it was being written at last, he’d gone from shack to shack in his stanitsa, to let the old men know the news. Now, I’d become his main hope.

“Well, what now?” I would exclaim with affectionate strictness as I led him to my study. “You’ve already told me everything.”

“I’ve came to tell you the rest of what I didn’t tell Valentin. I’ve came to tell you as how my old man stitched a pair of trousers out of his last military tunic. And to tell as how Chepig’s Oak was felled in that storm not long ago, what grew in Glukhoi alley, down by the Karasun canal where ataman Chepig used to live, in his shack. And I’ve wrote down some bits of Cossack stories. And as how the Cossacks fought on the Turkish front. And about Bursakov’s Leap. I daresay it’ll be my swansong… Anyhow. Are you going to get Valentin’s papers put straight soon? We’re grateful to you for remembering the olden times. I’m the ancient of days, me, I get so scared, I get so scared of a night-time that I won’t live long enough to pick up these stories that are so dear to me and read them through the scalding tears of my emotion…”

That’s exactly how he put it: “… through the scalding tears of my emotion…”

And so, under the gentle prompting of A. V. S-v, as though he were standing outside my door, I did put Valentin T’s manuscript in order. Will the Cossack have chance to read it all?

1983

OUR LITTLE PARIS

– … Our little Paris! .. What did this mean?

A joke? Mockery? A naive, populist frame of mind, building up your own little part of the world enough to make it that bit easier to love?

And wouldn’t these words be uttered by a man who had never even seen Paris, inspired to brag by just the names of the hotels and cellar bars? The down-at-heel hotels among the streets and markets may be small, but there’s no shortage of charisma in their signs, and what an exotic existence they set their eyes on: “Hotel France”; “Hotel New York”; “Toulouse”; “Trabzon”; “Venice”; “Constantinople”! Bring in your bundles and your cases, stay with us as long as you like. And everything else in Ekaterinodar is just like it is in distant mighty Paris, but just a little bit odd, in its own southern Cossack manner. Do they have squares, and statues, and palaces there, in Paris? Well, we’re not far behind. We’ve got the square by the fortress, where stands proud Catherine the Great; we’ve got the Tsar’s triumphal arch on the incline leading up from the station; there’s the obelisk to Cossack glory that stands at the dead-end of Krasnaia Street; there’s the unassailable palace of the viceroy ataman; and there’s the Assembly Rooms, where all the local beau-monde gathers for the calico balls. There’s Chistiakovskaia Grove, not far from the pig farm, and the city gardens with the “Twelve Apostle” oaks. And just like everywhere else, just like in Paris itself, overindulgences have been laid on for the common people: the Old Market, the New Market and the Hay Market, and little restaurants, taverns, and the red light districts where Dunia & co. wait with smeared make-up and permits from the police… How is that not Paris in miniature?

Oh, and what about the Cossack women of Ekaterinodar! Yes, they are more beautiful, more seductive than your skinny Parisian women, and it’s not for nothing that Ekaterinodar is famed throughout Russia for its desirable single women. Who else has such fresh, healthy cheeks? In who else’s eyes shine such plenty, such coquettishness? Who else is more fiery? While the pale beauties of the northern forests and central Russian plains are still wrapping themeslves up in furs and lying on couches with their feet in blankets, our Cossack lasses are in light shoes, thin stockings, and sheltered from the sunshine by wide brimmed hats. They promenade along Krasnaia street, or flit in carriages to Panskii Kut, or for that matter to Anapa or Gelendzhik, while boorish junior officers, lawyers, merchants’ sons and other such tourers dream of kissing their bare arms. Where else will you hear by moonlight, gone midnight, the inviting sounds of songs and serenades drifting through house windows? Where else do moustachioed cossacks clip-clop past on well-fed horses on their way to the annual camp in the endless steppe, bringing their song to a close and leaving pangs of longing in young women’s hearts as they disappear from view? Where else will you see the regimented parades when the Host assembles, and the youngsters’ daring riding? Let the Petersburg gentlemen laugh at our country ways and grating accent; let our local newspapers excoriate the town, let them clean our yards and roads with their steel nibs, and damn the owners of the nightsoil carts, and from the height of the fire brigade watchtower frown at the swine pushing at their enclosures, but we – the loyal residents of this city – we’re happy that someone set forth a word on the breeze: “Our little, little Paris!” As we return in hansom cabs at four in the morning, we’ll always be thinking that yes, that’s how it is, and we’ll carry this innocent conceit about Ekaterinodar across the whole wide world, and that conceit will stand higher than any of the question marks, mockery, or truth from the newspaper hacks. It’s duller here in winter, but when the cherry, lilac, and acacia bloom in the city, when the streets narrow under the arch of their branches, and the paddle steamers Dietzmann and Golubev sail away down the Kuban river to the Azov Sea; when the public in their finery stretch out in a broken chain along both sides of Krasnaia Street from Grafskaia to Sobornaia, and over the houses, over the watchtower and the city council there glows a lilac-coloured, positively Parisian haze; where, then, would you find the strength to abandon your blessed abode and change it for some god-forsaken place like Tambov?

Something for everyone! For the delightful old women: church services; for the senior officers: circulars, receptions, and ceremonial parades; for the shop assistants: evenings playing cards at the clubs; for the poor peasant from Orel: staging posts; for the grammar school boys: amateur shows; for the homeless: shelters; for the cripples: the pavements and church fences. Here, alas and alack, there’s a rug for every bug. Just like in Paris. If your pocket allows, you’re at liberty to buy American shoes with a six month guarantee from Sakhav the Armenian; or order a Swiss watch from Leon Gan the jeweller; or obtain whatever thing your heart desires from the Bogarsukov brothers or the Tarasov brothers. Ring Mertsalov or Usan about sturgeon and imported wines, while the Koroghlus at the Turkish bakery will do you an Easter cake a metre high. Something for everyone!

And what a long, long summer we’ve got! How many gifts from the land! You’re still asleep, but Cossack wagons move along the city’s flagstones from all four directions, making the windows rattle. It’s not yet gone five, the peacocks are quiet in Kukharenko’s garden, the church bells are just beginning to sound, but the market has its bustling traditions. Market gardeners, Cossacks from the villages, and Bulgarian allotment-holders transport their produce to the three markets. There you’ll find grapes in baskets; sacks of potatoes, peas, sunflower seeds and sorrel; live poultry in cages, and carts laden with melons. Moldovans carry sheep carcases on their long wagons, followed by Circassians with Astrakhan sheepskins and vats of rich, white cheese. Who needs Paris now?

And, tell me, how is that not Paris? It’s the same sort of polyglot city, where Armenians, Turks, Greeks, Bulgarians, Jews, Germans and even Persians got mired, began to call home, and grew rich.

Plus, they say, our Ekaterinodar tucked itself away on the same latitude as Paris.

But what of the tale about the Cossack who, along with his horse and lance, sank beyond trace in the mud in the middle of Krasnaia Street?

Oh, Lord, that’s just a joke, a shaggy-dog story, nothing more. In drink, or in days of exile, in notes to the young ladies or in conversation with incomers, we never cease to boast, and in high notes sing our constant refrain: “our little, little Paris!”

OLD MEN’S SORROW

Luka Minaevich Kostogryz had served for almost thirty years in His Imperial Majesty’s Lifeguard in St. Petersburg. Twice, at his own request, they had released him into the Host reserves, only to take him back again. He was in his seventy-fourth year, but he was still in fine fettle, and it was said that a pair of oxen hadn’t been able to pull him out of a hole in the ground on his last birthday. Maybe this was just people spinning a yarn after a drink or two, but everyone believed it. You couldn’t have called him a tall man, but he had been a strong man all his life. The Tsars had liked this jocular Cossack – Luka had been honoured with the most gratifying words from Alexander III: “Thank you, Luka, for your valiant service. You have watched over me like my own Nanny.” On that fateful day for Alexander II, 1 March 1881, the explosion had thrown Luka from his horse and deafened him in his right ear. He had stood sentry at Alexander III’s palace in Gatchino, and in the colonnade of the Kazan Cathedral in Petersburg. He had ridden alongside the phaeton during the Tsar’s tour of the Caucasus and on the footboards of the Empress’s train; he had even been abroad. In 1896, before the coronation of the last Tsar, his son had died in his home stanitsa Pashkovskaia, and Luka had asked to be sent home for good – to finally grow out his toplock and to keep bees. Through all the history of the Lifeguard, there had been quite a few his equal in the lower ranks, but none of them had managed to rise higher than the rank of sergeant. This made Luka a little unhappy. But still, on feast days, he would brag about his signed watch with the royal coat of arms, and the tiny silver chest that had been bestowed upon him from the Tsar’s own hands. His big chest was where his old lady had put his awards: his Order of St. George, third class, four gold and silver medals “for zeal”, fifteen miscellaneous orders, medals and awards from Russia and overseas, and his stripes. There was never a celebration or dinner held by the Kuban Host at which Luka did not give one of his speeches, both proud and funny.

While he was still assistant to the regional governor, Babych used to take Luka Kostogryz hunting in Krasnyi forest. There was no-one else on the hunt who could move him with recollections of “the good old days” or make him laugh over dinner like this Cossack could. He was probably the last by now in the whole of the Kuban who still wore a toplock (his hair was that thick, it could have been a young woman’s tresses.) Following the Zaporozhian tradition of familiarity with the leaders, Babych would sometimes allow a humorous manner as though between equals, and he would even allow some worthy elders to smoke in his office. And every now and then a familiar figure in a Circassian coat would appear in the doorway, spread wide his arms like he was at the market, let fly a word or two in greeting, and then there was no pain in breaking off for a while from the official order of the day.

“Glory to our heroes, glory to the Kuban!” was how Kostogryz greeted the sentries on the porch, according to the local custom that had developed. “Oh, you wretched souls, there’s not a single fine Black Sea Cossack left amongst you. Oi-oi, I’ll go in to see him. Oh, not to sin or swear, but may I never see my old lady back home, nor my children, nor my grandchildren, nor Pashkovskaia, if I don’t get in to see him. So there! Why won’t you let me in? Is the old man in? What’s going on in there, what are they writing with their fox brushes?”

The metal monogram “AN” on his left breast drew respect from the sentries. It was a monogram issued in commemoration of 1 March, 1881.

The clock struck twelve. Babych had already dismissed his last petitioner, and was sitting in his armchair. Around him was fluttering Vasilii Popsuishapka with a tape measure, taking the size of the ataman’s head for his order of a Tibetan goatskin hat. Popsuishapka was an impossibly garrulous individual. For the last half hour he had been bringing the general up to date on various mundane stories of life in the city, information from which Babych was unwillingly distanced by dint of his high position. Despite the official reports, the newspapers that were crammed with gossip, and the complaints of the village dwellers, there was a lot of the most simple information that Babych missed. Ah, the burden of office. He travelled along Krasnaia street in his phaeton, he did not jostle elbows at the market, and in the villages he would be surrounded by the local officials. He’d long since lost that freedom which any impoverished citizen enjoys.

“And so, your Excellency, I didn’t finish what I was saying… About this man Foss. ‘I am Foss. Foss never pays.'”

“Go on.”

“When Foss has lunch, the waiter will find he’s short of a tablecloth, or maybe some silver teaspoons. Anyway, he’s signed a contract, and he is touring Russia giving lectures about his adventures. Which honour he has now conferred on the Kuban. Yesterday, in the ‘New York’ restaurant, he put forty billiard balls away in a sack as though that’s just the way things had to be, and they’re worth a thousand roubles. There’s no Superintendent Tsitovich who can cope with the likes of him. He left three suitcases with the porters at the Black Sea railway station, and took three more with him into town, but no hotel would take him in, so back he went. He sat down in a corner of the first-class waiting room. A crowd of gawpers gathered to look at him: Foss himself! ‘I,’ he says to them, ‘have come from Tsaritsyn, I had hoped to get away from idiots, but it seems Ekaterinodar is not short of them, either.’ And he spat to the side. But the barman kept running up to fetch him bottles of kvas! ‘Tell them,’ he says, ‘that in order for them to contemplate my being I will take a fiver from each ugly mug…'”

“And how do you come to know all this, young man?” asked Babych in surprise.

“Hmm… Well, I live here. Someone on their way home from the market might pop into our workshop. And they talk to us. There was something in the Kuban Courier about how some locals from the Black Hundred went up to Tsarskoe Selo. Seems they arrived, and waited about an hour for the Tsar to emerge. There are lackeys in gilded livery carrying tea, everything dazzling all around. And while they waited, apparently they got talking to these lackeys. They found out that the sovereign is often sad. There isn’t a soul who knows how to keep their mouth shut.”

“Officers have no business mixing with newspaper hacks, ” said Babych. “I read the ‘Kuban Regional Gazette’… Oh, let him in,” Babych commanded his adjutant, “or else he’ll start shouting through the door, and his jokes will make this fine craftsman drop his tape measure. Let him in, why has he come?”

After a minute, Luka Kostogryz stepped, beaming, into the office.

“Oh, those wretched souls!” he said, as though swearing about the sentries, “Shielding our gaffer behind cannons and sabres. I can’t deal with that anymore. Back in the day, I’d have laid ’em out in piles, and that’d be the end of it! I’ve no more strength, gaffer. Ugh, I barely made it in here, Mikhailo Pavlovich, I’ve run out of steam! Hello!” He made a low, theatrical bow. “Glory to our heroes, glory to the Kuban! And to you, too,” turning his head to look at Vasilii Posuishapka and running a finger down his long, drooping mustache.

The viceregal ataman had already stretched out a flabby, fat-fingered hand; Kostogryz approached and took Babych’s hand in both of his, lifted it to his breast and, trembling, eventually spoke, looking him fearlessly in the eyes like he would a comrade:

“I read the ‘Gazette’ and the decrees, and I think, how come Mikhailo Pavlovich hasn’t called for me? Has he forgotten? Well, I’ve meant to come I don’t know how many times. I’m in town, at the market, and I think should I pop in? No, never mind, I won’t disturb him. He has other things to worry about than me, I reckon. And then I hear you’ve gone around the region to keep the atamans on their toes, and, oh, I could have galloped about the steppe! But my legs, gaffer, my legs are giving out. I’m not the man I used to be. Time was, I could get up at dawn, lead my lazy old horse out and give him a proper exercising, oh yes!

“Don’t pretend to be worse off than you are, Luka.”

“I’m not really pretending much, you know what I’m like. This is how it is. I’m still pretty handy with my fists, though. And at a wedding I’ll still cut a decent jig to the sound of a squeezebox. Aye, and if I grab a young man by his toplock then I can bring him to the ground. But that’s not the point!”

“Not the point?” chuckled Babych.

“Not the point. Not the point at all!”

Popsuishapka the hatter marvelled to see how freely Kostogryz ran off at the mouth to the viceregal ataman. Probably they’d both come under fire in the same battles. But they’d attained very different ranks. Or maybe Babych enjoyed demonstrating to strangers that he, too, was a simple man? But he always looked like he was glowering, be it on parade or at the theatre. In a word: leadership.

“And you, my lad, you could make an Astrakhan hat for me, too!” Kostogryz brought Popsuishapka into the conversation. “My old lady took mine out onto the steppe, hung it on a stick to scare the birds, and I’ve nothing to wear on parade.”

“I’d be delighted to,” said Popsuishapka, acquiescently. “What sort would you like? Black or white? Do you want lambskin from Moldavia, or from Reshetilov? Crimean or Bukharan? He even bent down in front of the old man, his eyes shining: his moment had come, the master craftsman. “My brother and I make all kinds. We recently made one for Sultan-Girey. Or we could do you a broad-brimmed hat. Just say the word.”

“I want the kind that I only have to so much as pick up and it will make me look like a Cossack again! Next time I come for a steam in the bath-house, I’ll come and find you, lad.”

“Please do,” said Popsuishapka, nodding his head. “We’d always be glad to see you, Luka Minaevich.”

“And how come you know who I am, laddie?”

“Hmm… The whole Kuban is proud of you. The things you say at ceremonial lunches get repeated in every bath-house. You were bodyguard to Alexander the Second, weren’t you? And weren’t you wounded on the First of March, and deafened in one ear? Well, then.” Popsuishapka raised his head out of pride in his memory. “I might have only had three kopeck’s worth of education from the deacon, but I can keep up with the rest.”

“What do you mean, three kopeck’s worth?”

“My mother whitewashed the deacon’s shack for three kopecks, and he found me a place in the parish school. So that’s why I tell everyone I only had three kopeck’s worth of education from the deacon.”

“Take a seat, Luka,” said Babych, and he made his way from behind the desk and sat in a chair by the wall on which a full-length portrait of the sovereign, Nicholas Alexandrovich, hung resplendent.

“That I will, although I ought to stand in your presence, but all the same I will sit, thank you, gaffer.”

“Tell me your news. You can go,” he said to Popsuishapka, “my adjutant will come to see you.”

“Thank you,” Popsuishapka, flattered by the attention, bowed in reply, and scurried crab-wise to the door. “I am grateful, your Excellency, and glad to fulfil your order to the best of my ability. And do feel free to come, Luka Minaevich, I’m with Hotmacher on Krasnaia street, opposite the Zaporozhian shop and the Sarantidi brothers music shop. By the ‘London’ hotel. Will you remember? We’ll make you such a fine Kuban cap that everyone will be envious.”

“Oh, I’ll call in with pleasure, next time I’m bringing honey to market. Was it to Hotmacher that our ataman from Pashkovki brought his Cossacks for hats? He was getting them ready to be posted.”

“Of course it was! They took thirty. And the ataman from Vasiurinskaia brought in his lot, thirty of them also got measured up. And they buy from us in Elizavetinskaia – they’ve a strict ataman there, he’s a tall man, and as an individual, well, quite remarkable…”

“I marched with his father against the Shapsugs. He crushed his watch into tiny pieces at the Host circle. And you, Mikhailo Pavlovich, you should remember that, too. Ah, it was such a laugh. We’d been on parade, see, carrying the charter from our mother Catherine the Second. He, may he rest in peace, goes: ‘I think there’s something in my boot, it’s giving me blisters.’ But there was no time to take it off and have a look. There were people everywhere, and then a meal with the officers. So we drank and ate our fill at the Host’s expense, and by the time we got home it was dark already. His old woman started tugging off his boots, when some kind of thick yellow powder fell out. She took a closer look, and it’s only his gold watch! He’d bought it across in Turkey. It had fallen out of his pocket down the top of his boot, and he’d crushed it.”

“You’re having us on, Luka!” Babych stamped his foot.

“May my old woman stab me with her antlers – it’s true! I’ll make my way to you, I will. Get your skins ready.”

“With pleasure,” and again the hatter bowed. “My brother will dry out some Tibetan goatskin for you so well that when you look at it, it will be so white it brings the tears to your eyes.”

“Off you go, now, get to work,” Babych stood and led Popsuishapka to the door, what with Vasili having become engrossed in a potentially lucrative conversation and thus forgotten where he was.

“You’ve got to be doing something while you’re young,” pontificated Popsuishapka, like an old man. “Earning some money. You just have to watch yourself, and good will come of it. Get ready for autumn, get ready for winter. Don’t play cards. Start playing cards, and you’ll miss one market after another, and your goods won’t go anywhere. Don’t sit with your mouth open, that’s not where happiness lies. I stood through the market at Berezanskaia, and then at Nikolskaia, in Temriuk. And after the Nikolskaia market came Troitskaia, Prepolovenskaia, and that takes you through to the autumn. Anyway, good-bye, I am humbly grateful.”

“They’re good hatters, those,” said Kostorgryz, in praise of Popsuishapka. “All Pashkovka buys their hats from them.”

“So what brings you to me, Cossack?”

Kostogryz sighed, put his hand to the toplock on his head, and twirled its end around his ear, which brought a smile to the general’s face.

“To share my sorrows.”

“And have you brought verses again?”

Kostogryz began reciting. “I turned seventy-two years old today. I bought vodka and wine, and was happy to pay. And then at two, or three, was it? I thought I’d ask Nahum to visit.” He pursed one eye, and with the other asked, “How’s that, gaffer?”

“Why Nahum? Who is Nahum? And you’ve knocked off two years from yourself.”

“Well, I had to, so it would scan.”

“Rather than wasting your time on doggerel, Luka, you would do better to leave us some notes spilling the gossip about the Black Sea Host.”

“I’m a Cossack and never learnt to write a lot. I’ll say four words: “Taras! Stop spinning yarns!” And that’s plenty.”

“So do you think anyone will remember about us?”

“Well, who do we remember?” Luka went on to the offensive. “Do you see, gaffer? Who do we remember? In fact, that’s why I came.”

“Then tell me.”

“If I was to tell you it all, gaffer, it would mean me sitting here until the evening, and we’d not get by without a drop or two of the good stuff. But you’re on duty. You need to talk quietly to officers when you’re letting some bullet fly, they won’t hear clearly and won’t get angry. I’m a Cossack, though, and I shout.” This was true. Like the majority of Cossacks, Kostorgryz would rend his voice as though furious, and cover any jocular or tender words in vulgarity.

“Shout away, shout away, you won’t scare me. What sorrow can you have? Your children are on the reserve list, your grandchildren are in the Host. I’ve had no reports that they have blotted their copybooks.”

“Oh, God grant they never do. If they sat in the Bear tavern and washed down six crayfish with beer, they would keep track of their boots.” All of a sudden, Kostogryz furrowed his brows, fished his pipe out of his pocket and jabbed the mouthpiece towards Babych. “Where is the grave of our ataman Bursak, Mikhailo Pavlovich. Do you know?”

“Where..?” Babych lifted his hands off the desk a little. “Where Chepig’s grave is, where all the early atamans lie buried, that’s where Bursak’s grave is, too. In the Host cemetery, over there,” he pointed a finger, “next to the old Church of the Resurrection.”

“But where exactly, there? That’s the point, it’s not. And that’s why I came. Now I’m going to tell you an interesting dream.”

“Just a moment,” Babych sternly tried to apply some pressure on the conversation. “In Russia they’re trying to find Rurik’s grave, and you want to dig up Bursak? I see.”

“He asked me himself!”

“If you’ve come to tell tall tales, Luka, then I haven’t got time for it today. Bursak died way back! A hundred years ago, now. And you want to spin me some yarn?”

Since taking up the post of ataman, Babych had been excessively busy. The month of May saw commemorations and celebrations piling up one after the other, all of which required his input, his participation in excursions, in ceremonies and the like: the sixth was the sovereign’s birthday; the fourteenth his sacred coronation; the twenty-third was Ascension Day; the twenty-fifth was the Tsarina’s birthday. Year in, year out, the same ceremonial, the same religious services, the same instructions to traders to close their wine stalls and restaurants. What could he do? His desk was covered with Cossack petitions, gendarme reports, and requests, telegrams and circulars from Petersburg. Each day brought something new. What’s more, he was faced with the prospect of a bumpy journey to Temriuk for the opening of the prison there; he was meant to greet governer-general Count Vorontsov-Dashkov at Tikhoretskaia station as the latter travelled through on his way to Tiflis; he was supposed to be handing out certificates and transcripts in person to the young women graduating from the Mariinskii Institute; he had to find somewhere to act as office space for the local branch of the Union of Archangel Michael, while today at seven o’clock in the evening he was to host, along with his wife, a meeting of the Society of Fraternal Aid to Fallen Warriors in his personal apartments. There was no end to it all. Three of his former comrades-in-arms, Cossacks from the stanitsas of Kushchevskaia, Vasiurinskaia and Kanevskaia, implored the Lord to preserve him for many years to come, “for the good of the Host” and then, (crafty devils) begged him to send some pedigree Simmental bulls as a gift to the stanitsas. As though Babych had nothing else to be getting on with!