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The Incident at Saint Andrew’s : Part 1

by Justin Pickard


Extract from ‘The Woman in Yakutsk’ [1], as serialised in the English broadsheet, ‘The Herald’, over the spring of 1971.

In 1926, I was twenty-two. Still young and idealistic enough to see a life stretching out ahead of me, but old enough to have experienced a little of the horrors of the Red insurgency for myself. And, in this case, a little was far more than enough. But Yakutsk was an entire lifetime away from my childhood memories of blood and gunfire. For the first time since Archangelsk, there was stability to my life and – unlike Archangelsk – this time round, there were no black clouds on the horizon.

At least, none that I could see.

My storm hit one Friday evening in February. The streets were shrouded by a fine, icy mist, and the sky was dull, with only the glow of the new electric lights giving any kind of texture or depth to the evening murk. Having moved the unsold stock of Dubrovski Fashions to the back room for the weekend, I locked up the shop, wrapped my moth-eaten fur coat tightly around me, and stepped out into the bitter darkness. The timber premises of Elena Dubrovski - my diminutive Buryat-born employer [2] - stood alongside a Russian-language bookshop, a rundown boarding house that seemed to be exclusively occupied by wide-eyed rural Yakuts experiencing the city for the first time, and a pawnbroker owned by some greying ex-Czech legionnaire. Further out, the shops slowly faded into a hive of steel and timber; industrial workshops and warehouses that seemed to be piled haphazardly on top of each other. With the clattering of factory machinery in my ears and the smell of oil and wood smoke, my thoughts turned to my mother. She, as the self-appointed matriarch of the Russians of our district, had asked me to meet with Father Danil to discuss her plans for Maslenitsa [3]. Half-frozen puddles splintering beneath my boots, I strode down Drozdovskiy Prospekt towards the Neva. Lined with the skeletal remainders of a row of elm trees, the street was practically abandoned. As I grasped for the iron railings of the footbridge over the river, my gloved hand dislodged a row of icicles, which fell inevitably downwards, shattering into icy fragments. The sudden noise startled a lone ice fisherman, who looked up from his hole in the Neva’s crust, and fixed me with a penetrating stare. The hairs rose on the back of my neck, and I shuddered, before all-too-quickly turning and moving on. As it later turned out, that fisherman was to be the only other person I saw out that evening. Looking back, it seems almost as though he and I were the only two people in Yakutsk either foolish or crazy enough to brave that frozen gloom.

Having crossed the Neva, I reached a point where the silhouette of the Cathedral of St. Andrew loomed imperiously over this district of the city. Surrounded by scrubland and partially clad in scaffolding, 1926 saw construction running a year behind schedule, but – even in an unfinished state – it still managed to dwarf the surrounding mishmash of traditional timber buildings. As things turned out, the wickedness that followed served only to delay things further, with the inaugural services held following the completion of the dome in the spring of 1929. At this point in time, however, the idea of a finished cathedral was but a distant dream and, operating out of the various temporary halls and community rooms of the unfinished edifice, Father Danil was the closest thing our community had to a figurehead.

It was with some relief that I approached the cathedral. Although the heating system was still to be finished, Father Danil had managed to convince one of the younger members of the community to lend him a small, but fully functional, wood-burning stove. Our meetings up to this point had consisted primarily of me shivering by the stove with a notebook, whilst he dictated messages to my mother. It hadn’t been this cold yet, though and, with my hands finally falling victim to an icy numbness, the promise of warmth began to seem more like outright salvation.

As I approached, I noticed that the door to Danil’s makeshift headquarters had been left ajar. Now, this must have seemed strange, even at the time. Surely, even if utterly immersed in his work, he must couldn’t have ignored the icy draft? I pushed into the hall, and the door swung shut behind me. The interior was lit by a simple gas lantern, which cast my shadow, large and blurry, up onto the far wall. The room was utterly abandoned. Sparsely furnished, there was a wood-burning stove alongside several stacks of chairs by the entrance, and a large desk – scattered with papers and the various trappings of the church – and at the far end of the room. I picked up a couple of pieces of dry firewood that had been haphazardly piled on the floor, and dropped them into the red embers of the almost dormant stove. After a couple of minutes they fell victim to the resurgent flame, and the room slowly began to warm. On the desk, the clergyman’s ledger lay open. It seemed as though the finances of the future St. Andrew’s coming to an abrupt halt halfway through a calculation, and the ink was still a glistening wet black on the yellowing manuscript.

From somewhere to my left came a noise, insubstantial and fleeting. Initially dismissing it as an imagining, I looked back down at the documents, trying to make out the words and phrases that had been encrypted in Danil’s tiny scrawl. Then, the noise came again, louder and closer. It sounded like a man’s voice, although still too muffled to understand. By now, I could feel my stomach tightening. Carefully, I put the books down, and moved over to the wall. Another voice, slightly less gruff, responded to the first. The access door to the cathedral rested on the frame, ever so slightly ajar. I stood there for several minutes, straining desperately in an attempt to make out exactly what it was that was being said, but to no avail. Attempting to suppress tears and the beating of my heart, I waited until I could no longer bear the oppressive weight of the silence. Pulling the access door open further, I peered through tears into the black cavern. My first instinct was to call out for Father Danil; too see whether he was in the nave, but this thought was quickly suppressed. If the other intruders were still around, then such a move would only give them an advanced warning of my presence. Slowly and carefully, I made my way back over to the desk where, rooting around in the various desk drawers, I eventually closed my hands on what I was looking for; a long taper. Lighting the taper from the stove, which was now burning furiously, I lifted one of the larger candles down from the desk, and stepped into the main building…

[1] A translation of the memoirs of Natalya Toporov (1904-88)
[2] Ethnically Buryat, Elena had travelled to Yakutsk with her brother in the hope of finding employment. Instead, she had found Lev Dubrovski, a friend of Natayla’s father who had made the Great Eastward Trek with the family following the fall of Archangelsk in 1919. Lev and Elena married in 1922. He died from a fever in 1925, whereupon Elena inherited ownership of the shop.
[3] Pancake Week; a pagan Russian folk holiday co-opted by the Orthodox Church. In Yakutsk, it is observed by the majority of the Russian population as an event more cultural than religious in nature.

* * * * *

Biography extract from libraryalexandria.org

Natalya Anastasia Toporov (April 11th 1904 – January 15th 1988) was a Yakutian journalist and politician. Natayla was born in Petrograd to Viktor Revnik, a journalist for the Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti, and his music teacher wife.

With the outbreak of The First Great War in 1914, the moderate Octobrist faction became something of an anachronism. As circulation of the Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti plummeted, the Revnik family fell on relatively hard times. Her parents took on part-time work in a munitions factory, whilst Natalya was left in the care of her 16-year-old brother, Felix.

In the Petrograd strikes of 1917, Felix joined the picket lines. He was shot in the leg when fighting broke out and, in her autobiography [‘The Woman in Yakutsk’], Natayla details her vivid memories of tending to her brother’s wounds…


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