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“What exactly is the purpose of your visit to Petrograd, Mr. Connor?”

The English of my interrogator was impeccable, and I immediately noticed the familiar inflections but decided to keep my mouth shut. Even if he also attended Eton, he was not likely to set me free just because we both graduated from the same school.

I wondered whether my interlocutor, unusually elegant for a Bolshevik and seemingly my age, also studied at Oxford or Cambridge.

As if on cue, he raised the steel mug with a vile concoction of chicory and acorns, drink de rigueur in the 1918 Petrograd. I was given the same but have not touched it yet.

“In Oxford, I was taught the method of critical analysis,” he said dryly. “I believe you know what I am talking about, Mr. Connor.”

I just nodded. The said analysis would instantly find gaping holes in the story I have been using. An Englishman with no knowledge of Russian would not have been able to get from Archangel, occupied by the British troops, to the revolutionary Petrograd, especially considering the absence of trains and the general unrest in the Russian north.

The interrogator opened his cigarette case, and I managed to read the inscription in Russian, which commended the owner’s bravery on the frontline. The date was 1915.

He quite amiably offered me a roll-up. The sour smell of tobacco smoke filled the bare room, equipped with a shaky table and two flimsy chairs, similar to those I sat on in Viennese cafes where my late grandfather took me in 1913 when I entered Cambridge.

The naked bulb under the stone ceiling of the cellar room did nothing to disperse the shadows obscuring its corners. I did not believe in ghosts, but the old prison building in the center of Petrograd, where I was brought after the routine checking of the documents on the street, emanated an air of desperation and suffering.

Finishing his fake coffee, my interrogator pulled the wool tartan scarf around his neck. He wore a ubiquitous black leather coat, so beloved by the commissars I had seen on my way to Petrograd.

“First,” he showed me a finger with a neat nail. “You say you deserted the Royal Dublin Fusiliers stationed in Archangel, but you cannot prove your claim. Second,” he exhaled the cloud of smoke in my face. “Having no knowledge of Russian, you would end up as a corpse in the first bog on your way here, Mr. Connor, yet you are alive and kicking. So far,” he added menacingly.

“And third,” he leaned across the table. “I highly doubt Connor is your real name, Mr. Spy.”

I sucked the last precious bits of smoke from my roll-up. My late grandfather, the celebrated London private detective Max Grenville, would have said I found myself in a pickle. The Mauser gun, lying on the table between us, only worsened the situation. 

I was aware of the recent arrests made by Cheka after the assassination attempt on Lenin. Moreover, the same Cheka killed British naval attaché, Captain Crombie, during their raid on His Majesty's Embassy in Petrograd. In short, any Brit was bound to raise suspicions, and I did not blame my interrogator.

Deciding against throwing a butt on the floor, I extinguished it in the sort of ashtray already filled to a brim.

“I will answer your questions,” I said, switching to Russian .”However, I have one of my own first.”

My interrogator remained unperturbed, and I had to commend him for such a presence of mind.

“Why do you, a member of the titled nobility,” I pointed at his cigarette case, “align with the Bolsheviks?”

A cold shadow darkened his eyes. 

“I left Oxford in 1914 to go to the front lines,” he answered. “My family has been serving Russia since times immemorial, and I became convinced that Bolsheviks also care about my country and my people.”

“In 1915, I was sitting in the trenches in Northern France.” I took off my coat. “Here you go.”

I hid the letter in the secret pocket sewn into the lining. Were it to be found in Archangel, I would have been shot on the spot either by the British officers or their White Guard henchmen.

He extracted old-fashioned steel-rimmed glasses from his pocket.

“I see,” he perused the letter. “So, you participated in the Easter Rising, Mr. Grenville.”

“I was recovering in Dublin at that time after being wounded in France,” I answered. “The British shot my mother during the Rising.”

“But you have Russian ancestry,” he said, and I nodded.

“My grandfather served as a police investigator here when this city was still called Saint Petersburg, and then he became a private detective in London.”

His smile was brief but sincere. 

“So, one can say you returned to your roots, Mr. Grenville.”

“Maxim Mikhailovich, please,” I also smiled. “I want to join your struggle, but we must liberate Ireland first.”

“Admirable intention of a true comrade,” he rose. “Please excuse me for a moment. I will ask to bring you something to eat.”

A burly guy in a sailor's jacket appeared with a bowl of steaming buckwheat. I even found some strands of meat in the gruel.

My spoon scraped the bottom of the bowl, and the door creaked.

“Comrade Grenville,” said somebody in the accented English, “I am pleased to meet you.”

I recognized the mane of curly hair streaked with grey and the famous pince-nez. Leon Trotsky also wore a leather jacket.

Shaking my hand, he tilted his head a little.

“Anyone able to get from Archangel to Petrograd amidst the intervention and the civil war can get even further, “ he said decisively. “Do you want to serve the world revolution, Comrade Greenville?”

“Of course,” I stepped forward.

“We need a trusted courier to bring something to New York,” he explained. “From there, you can get back to Ireland and burn the ground under the feet of British occupants, but the nature of your American mission is quite sensitive.”

My former interrogator, who stood behind Trotsky, winked at me, and I chuckled.

“Am I supposed to get weapons to the US?”

“No,” Trotsky looked at me appraisingly. “Russian crown jewels, comrade Grenville, as a security for a certain loan we hope to receive.”

“I am ready, comrade Trotsky,” I said without hesitation, and he patted me on the shoulder.

“Welcome to the future of humanity, comrade Grenville.”

The End


Nelly Shulman has published numerous short stories in literary magazines and anthologies and authored two collections of short stories titled “The Voice” and “The Drought.” She is a reader for Uncharted magazine and the Mud Season Review.


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