Kate Spitzmiller writes historical fiction from a woman’s perspective. She is a flash fiction award winner, with two pieces published in the anthology Approaching Footsteps. Her flash piece “Brigida” has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, Andromache, is set for release in spring 2018 by Spider Road Press. She lives in Massachusetts where she tutors junior-level hockey players as her day job. You can visit her blog at www.katespitzmiller.com.
The House of Special Purpose
by Kate Spitzmiller
My name is Olga Nikolaevna Romanova. If you are reading this, then I am dead.
Yuri has offered to take these papers if something happens to me, and for that, I am grateful. He, like his two fellow guards here inside the house, is a decent enough man, for a Bolshevik. He sneaks in candies for our Alexei, who is quite ill, and tells us of the goings on in Yekaterinburg.
Father still thinks the Whites will save us, and that he will be restored as Tsar. Mother agrees, although in her case, I think it is simply hope that sustains her and not any sort of political awareness.
But I myself can see no farther than the four stout walls that confine us. There is not even a window to look out of—the guards have covered them all with newspaper. I can see no future beyond our captivity just as I can see no tree nor blade of grass outside the blocked windows. I am afraid, and I know my sisters are, too. My brother, I think, is too ill—and too young—to fully grasp the drama around him, and therefore is perhaps not afraid. At least he does not seem so.
Dmitri is another inside guard. He is older than the others, probably Father’s age, with the gnarled hands of a man who has worked the land his whole life, and a quick smile that can lighten the gloom of our dingy and grey rooms. He has sad eyes, though, as if this whole affair pains him. And I suppose perhaps it does.
The third guard who attends to us is Sergei. He is young, no older than me, and has a brilliant shock of red-blond hair. He carries his rifle with him always, slung over his shoulder as if it is another limb.
“Ideas that enter the mind under fire remain there securely and forever,” he said to me one morning.
“Excuse me?” I said. I was in the room I share with Tatiana, folding laundry. Sergei was leaning against the doorjamb, watching me.
“Trotsky,” he said.
“Have you learned any new ideas while here at Ipatiev House?” he said.
I ran my fingertip along the seam of one of Alexei’s sailor shirts. “I’ve learned that a person needs sunshine and fresh air.”
Sergei walked closer to me where I sat on my bed. He looked down and cocked his head. “What ideas have you learned, Olga?”
I looked up at him. “I suppose I’ve learned that the Bolsheviks hate the monarchy.”
“Yes! And do you know why?”
I straightened my back. “No one has told me why,” I said. “They have simply locked me and my family up in this house.”
“A year ago, what did you have for dinner?” Sergei said.
“A year ago…” I shook my head.
“Yes. Think. Imagine back a year ago. What would you have had for dinner?”
“I don’t know. Venison, I suppose.”
“Father likes hazel-grouse. And trout. So perhaps those as well.”
Sergei grinned. “Venison. And grouse. And trout. All at one meal.”
“And what do you have for dinner now, Olga?”
“Potato soup and a bit of bread.”
“Do you see the difference?”
“Of course, I do.” I was annoyed. The food at the house was horrible—the bread stale, the soup watery and often with evidence of bugs having been in the potatoes.
“Even now, you eat better than the average Russian.”
“So, this is the idea your Trotsky would have me learn?” I folded Alexei’s shirt neatly and placed it on the blanket beside me.
“Trotsky would have you—and me—learn many lessons. You are learning valuable lessons everyday here at the house. As is your father. And it is your father’s lessons that are most important.”
He began, then, to tell me all about Trotsky’s life, and I continued folding laundry, only half-listening. One could always expect a political speech from Sergei. But he was kind enough, so I always made a show of listening, while continuing on with my chores.
We are a strange community here at Ipatiev House. There are of course my parents—the Tsar and the Empress—but also my three younger sisters, my little brother, our family doctor Yevgeny Botkin, two of my father’s manservants, my mother’s maidservant Demidova, myself, and our three Bolshevik house guards. There are, of course, dozens more guards outside the house and, Yuri told me once, in the house across the street, but they are not a part of the small social circle that is established inside the house.
Fourteen people living in tight quarters in quite unnatural circumstances.
Mother continues with the charade of being the Empress of all the Russias by sending Demidova along on this task or that, and by remaining as intricately made-up and refined as she possibly can be under the circumstances. Father spends much of his time writing letters. I don’t know to whom, but I assume they are to his European relatives—all monarchs and nobles—seeking assistance. In any event, the letters never leave his room; the Bolsheviks would have laughed at him had he asked for a stamp. My sister Maria spends her time teaching our youngest sister Anastasia how to do fine needlework. How the two of them can stand this pastime in rooms with blacked-out windows lit only by paraffin lamps I don’t know, but somehow they manage it. Young Alexei, bless him, has taken quite ill with his blood disorder, and must remain abed, reading. Tatiana and I do the endless hours of laundry required of fourteen people in two giant tubs in the white tiled room off the downstairs kitchen. The skin is sloughing off my hands from the work. Perhaps another one of Trotsky’s lessons.
We take our meals together, all fourteen of us, in the dining room beside the kitchen. Demidova cooks for us. These meals are odd, as one might imagine. The Tsar and his family dining with three Bolsheviks.
Sometimes there is talk of the weather.
“It is July the first, is it not?” Father said one night. “Perhaps we could open the windows? Let some air in?”
“Apologies, Nikolai Aleksandrovich, you know the rules,” Dmitri said.
Mother, still unaccustomed to the Bolsheviks’ use of our given names, shot Dmitri a wrathful look, but said nothing.
“If only in Alexei’s room,” Father said. “The boy is in a bad way, and the heat does him no good.”
“I’m sorry, no,” Dmitri said.
But the next morning, as I went into Alexei’s room with a fresh pile of folded laundry, I saw that the newspaper on his window was peeled back and that one side of the double pane had been set open a hand’s width. The sunlight streaming through the soiled glass was glorious—like liquid gold. I dropped my laundry onto a chair and went to the window, blinking at the brightness and breathing in deeply of the fresh, Siberian air. I thought I could smell pine trees, ever so faintly, and somewhere, meat cooking.
I looked over at Alexei, propped up on a pillow in his bed, his Springer Spaniel Joy lying beside him. Alexei’s chestnut bangs hung down over his sunken-in eyes as he read one of Father’s English books on birds. I would have to find some scissors and give him a haircut.
“Who did this, Alexei?”
“Did what?” he muttered.
“Your window is open. Who opened it?”
Alexei lifted his eyes from his book and shook his bangs out of his face. “Yuri, I think.”
“Yuri? Not Father?”
“No. Father hasn’t been in here yet today. Only Yuri. And you.”
“Well, don’t get too close to it. Don’t lean out. The guards don’t want the windows open.”
“Olga, a guard opened it.”
“Yes, Alexei. An inside guard. The outside guards are different.” I went to his side and sat down on the edge of his bed. I ran my fingers through his bangs, sweeping them off his forehead. “You know the difference. Just be safe.”
“Al-right,” he muttered.
“How’s your book?” I said.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s about the birds of Britain.” He ran his fingers through Joy’s brown coat. “Did you know that great-grandmother was the owner of all the swans in Britain when she was Queen? It says so right here. ‘All the swans of Britain belong to the monarch and must be left unmolested.’ I think Father should make such a rule for Russian swans.”
“I don’t think swans should belong to anyone,” I said. “They’re far too beautiful.”
Alexei squinted up at me from behind his bangs. “But isn’t that the point? If they belong to the Queen, then they are protected and no one can kill them.” He looked back at his book, opened to a page painted with a portrait of a swan. “When I am Tsar, all Russian swans will be protected,” he proclaimed.
“You are a very thoughtful boy,” I said, smiling.
But he would not be Tsar. I knew that. The Bolsheviks would never allow it. The fact that he and Mother, and to some extent Maria and Anastasia, seemed oblivious to the reality of our situation made my insides ache. My father, at least, seemed aware of the peril, with his endless letter-writing. Tatiana and I spoke often in the laundry about our family’s fate, and we both knew things would never be as they had once been. I wondered then if I should speak to Alexei frankly; let him know the realities of our situation. Perhaps it was my duty as the eldest sibling. But Alexei was just a boy. A very sick boy. And what good would that do? At worst, the shock might kill him. So, I remained silent, sitting with my brother awhile longer as he showed me pictures of birds he would never see in a country he would probably never go to. After a time, I kissed his head again, and rose, telling him I needed to join Tatiana in the laundry.
I warned him again about the window, and then went over to it myself. The shaft of golden light had moved slightly, so now it rested on my arm as I stood facing the naked pane of glass. I could feel the heat of the sun through the linen of my blouse; a sensation taken for granted my whole life, but now, a gift. Through the opening in the newspaper, I could see a tree—a poplar—tall and majestic. There was a palisade fence beyond, and another house. But I could see nothing else of Yekaterinburg.
Reluctantly, I turned to Alexei’s laundry and put everything away in his small chest of drawers. Then I went to his bedside and kissed his head again.
“Be careful of the window,” I whispered.
“I know, I know,” he mumbled.
I left his room and nearly collided with Mother’s maidservant Demidova in the hallway. She was a short woman, mousy and shy, and she shrank away from me.
“Apologies,” I said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
She held a tray with a chipped green tea pot, a cup, and a small dish of sugar. Nodding her head to me, she scuttled off in the direction of Mother and Father’s room.
I continued down the hall and walked down the stairs to the kitchen. Sergei was leaning against the double sinks, smoking a cigarette.
“Ah, Olga,” he said, smiling broadly.
“How goes the laundry revolution?”
“Quite well,” I said. “I think we are winning.”
Sergei laughed. “That’s the spirit!”
He flicked his ash in the sink and then brought his cigarette to his lips again. Exhaling smoke, he said, “My bed linens need to be washed. You will do them?”
“Of course,” I said. “Bring them to the laundry room, and they will get done.”
“We are living the very spirit of communism in this house, Olga, can you see that?”
I thought of Demidova bringing tea to my mother as she always had and shrugged.
Sergei pointed his cigarette at me. “Each of us has a task of equal importance. Without each of us completing our tasks, the community falls apart. No one is more important or less important than any other.”
“I think you are being a bit optimistic,” I said.
“No, no,” Sergei said. “It is quite the social experiment. You, the grand duchess, doing the laundry of me, a miner’s son. Marx would consider this the ultimate socialism. We are all workers now. We are all equal.”
I decided not to argue, and not to mention Demidova. “I’m glad I can help,” I said. “Leave your linens in the laundry room and Tatiana and I will get to them.”
I turned and headed through the kitchen to the laundry room. Tatiana was already there, her arms elbow deep in one of the huge tubs.
“There’s more over there,” she nodded her head toward the long oak table beneath the windows. It was piled high with garments. “Father’s clothing and one of Mother’s gowns. I so wish she wouldn’t change her dresses every day. That one isn’t even soiled.”
Tatiana and I had taken to wearing the same dresses three or four times before washing them, because we were the ones doing the work. But no one else in the house seemed to grasp the difficulty of hand-washing the clothing of fourteen people, especially when a few of those people were accustomed to wearing more than one outfit a day, like Mother.
“Demidova still brings her morning tea,” I said, walking over to the table. “Do you suppose Mother really realizes what has happened to us?”
“Without a staff of a hundred to order about?” Tatiana said. “Yes, she realizes it. I think she simply does not accept it.”
“Alexei’s window is open,” I said.
Tatiana stopped her work and looked over at me. “Open?”
I nodded. “He says Yuri did it.”
“Won’t the guards be furious? I mean, that is their primary rule.”
I shrugged. “Maybe he had permission. Who knows? I told Alexei to stay away from it, just in case.”
“We should close it,” Tatiana said. “It is too dangerous.”
“I think as long as everyone stays away from it, things will be fine. Let guard business be guard business.”
I gathered a pile of Father’s clothes and brought them to the tub beside Tatiana, dumping them in. “You should see the sunshine,” I said. “It’s wonderful.”
“I’ve almost forgotten what sunshine is like,” she said, reaching down and pulling the stopper from the bottom of her tub. “You’d think they’d at least let us outside to hang the clothes.”
I grabbed the box of powdered soap and poured a generous measure into the tub. “I suppose then it wouldn’t be true captivity, would it?”
The water hose was connected to the sink and I walked over and turned on the taps so that the water was warm, but not too warm. My hands were raw and red and I knew they would suffer if the water was too hot. I brought the hose over to the tub and flicked the toggle to turn it on, watching as water rushed into the tub.
Tatiana busied herself squeezing the excess water from the clothing she had just rinsed, and then began pegging the clothes on the line that ran the length of the laundry room.
It was then that we heard the shot.
I shut off the hose, and Tatiana dropped one of Alexei’s shirts on the floor.
We ran to the kitchen, where Sergei was furiously crushing out his cigarette in the sink. He turned and saw us, and pulled his rifle from his shoulder.
“Stay here!” he ordered, and ran out the door.
Tatiana and I ran for the stairs. My heart beat heavy in my chest as we reached the landing. I could hear crying, barking, and Mother cursing. The sounds were coming from Alexei’s room in the middle of the hallway. We reached the room, and I saw Anastasia lying on the floor in tears, with Mother holding her and howling about the barbarity of the Bolsheviks. Joy the Springer stood on Alexei’s bed barking madly.
I looked at the window. The part of the pane that was extended outward was shattered. Glass glittered diamond-like on the unfinished wood floor.
“Cowards!” Mother screamed. “Lunatics!”
I pushed past Tatiana and kneeled down beside Anastasia, half-expecting to see that she had been shot. She was crying uncontrollably, but as I inspected her skirt and blouse, I saw no blood. She was uninjured—merely scared.
“You’re alright, Ana,” I said softly, taking her hand. “You’re fine.”
“Olga! They shot at me!” she cried.
“I know. But you’re not injured. You’ll be just fine.”
“Barbarians!” Mother shrieked.
Joy went into a fresh round of barking at this, and I looked up at Alexei where he lay on his side on his bed, the big Springer looming over him. Alexei’s brown eyes were huge beneath his shaggy bangs, and his face was white as snow.
“Mother,” I said sternly. “Alexei.”
Mother’s eyes were wild and full of tears. Her face was red and blotchy, and her carefully coiffured hair had come down in wisps around her face. But at the mention of her only son, she seemed to recover herself somewhat, and took a deep breath.
“Oh, what have these devils done to us?” she gasped. “My dear children.”
Father appeared in the doorway with Yuri at his side. “What’s this?” he said, looking down at Anastasia.
“Father!” she cried.
“Ana got too close to the window, Father,” I said. “The guards shot at her.”
Father kneeled down and brushed Anastasia’s hair from her face. “There, there, Ana. Are you injured?”
Anastasia shook her head, and a sob escaped her throat.
Father stood and walked over to the window, inspecting the shattered glass. He turned. “Yuri,” he said. “You were so kind to do this. But you should go. Make yourself scarce before the outside guards arrive.”
Yuri nodded his dark head and looked down at Anastasia. “I am sorry, miss,” he said softly.
“No apologies, Yuri,” Father said. “You did the right thing. Don’t forget that.”
Yuri nodded again. “Thank you, Nikolai Aleksandrovich.”
“Now go. Quickly.”
As Yuri left, Sergei appeared in the doorway, his rifle hanging across his chest. His eyes were wide. “The Cheka are coming!” he said breathlessly.
Mother began wailing.
“Olga, the Cheka!” Anastasia’s eyes were huge.
I grabbed her in my arms and hugged her. “It will be okay, Ana.”
But I did not believe it myself. The Cheka were the Bolsheviks’ secret police. They were Lenin’s executioners. It had never occurred to me that the Cheka would be part of the outside guard at the house. And now they were coming inside.
“Come on, let’s get you off the floor.” I put my arm around Anastasia’s waist and hoisted her up. Glass tinkled off her skirt onto the floor.
“Mother,” I said, kneeling, “you must get up. The Cheka are coming.”
The sound of boots pounding on floorboards echoed in the hallway. I looked at Sergei and saw fear in his eyes before he slipped away, out of the doorway.
“Mother!” I said.
She had stopped wailing, but was still on the floor, sniffling.
The sound of boots was louder now and I stood. I wrapped my arm around Anastasia’s shoulders and faced the doorway.
A tall man, dark, with a mop of black curly hair and a black goatee and mustache entered the room. Two men entered behind him, rifles ready.
The man with the goatee brushed past me, sidestepped my mother, and went to the window to stand beside my father. His boots crunched on the shards of glass on the floor. He ran a finger across the bare pane of unbroken, closed glass, stopping at the edge where the newspaper still hung, and then he turned to look at us.
“I am Yurovsky.” His voice was deep. “This house belongs to the Ural Regional Soviet. This window belongs to the Ural Regional Soviet.” He walked back through the room, sidestepping Mother again, and his eyes rested on Anastasia. “The window does not belong to you.”
Anastasia began to sob quietly.
“The child was only curious,” Father said.
“Silence!” Yurovsky barked. “You have no authority here.” He glared at my father for a moment and then spoke again. “You will go to your rooms, all of you. And you will stay there. There will be no more flaunting of rules, and no more privileges.”
I helped Mother stand and brushed off her dress. Father came and took her arm. She leaned heavily against him. They walked to the doorway and turned right, toward their room, Mother’s shoulders hunched. Tatiana, Anastasia, and I followed, and went left, toward our rooms.
Sergei stood in the hallway, his rifle in hand and his face white. He didn’t meet my gaze. Yuri was gone.
Anastasia stopped at her doorway, and I gave her a hug.
“It will be alright, Ana,” I said.
“I only wanted to feel the sunshine,” she said softly. “Smell the grass.”
“I know. We all want that.”
She turned and went into the room she shared with Maria.
Tatiana and I went to our room and shut the door. I sat down heavily on my bed, and Tatiana paced the length of the small room.
“Do you think they’re here permanently?” she said. “I mean, they can’t keep us in our rooms forever. The laundry…”
“I don’t know,” I said.
But they were the Cheka. They could do what they liked. They answered only to Lenin. The situation was far worse than I had realized if the Cheka were here—and now in charge. We had much bigger worries than the laundry, but I didn’t say so. I didn’t want to alarm Tatiana.
Our dinner was brought to us in our rooms that night. Stale bread and broth that probably was meant to be beef but was so watery it was hard to tell. The guard who brought it was a Lett—a non-Russian. Latvian by the sound of his accent. He smelled of vodka and old cigarettes.
When the man came back to pick up our dinner dishes, he had a companion with him. He explained in accented, unapologetic Russian that they were going to search our room. We were to stand in the hallway and make no trouble.
Another guard held a rifle on us in the hallway as the two men turned our room upside down looking for God knows what. The same activity was going on throughout all the bedrooms, and I was able to see the rest of my family for the first time since the incident in Alexei’s room. Mother and Father were guarded by three men at the farthest end of the hallway. Alexei, who shouldn’t have been out of bed, leaned heavily against the wall, Joy sitting faithfully at his side. Two men guarded him, which was absurd. The boy looked like he was ready to fall over.
Sergei, Dmitri, and Yuri were nowhere to be seen.
There was a shout from inside Alexei’s room, and Yurovsky emerged from Mother and Father’s bedroom. He strode down the hallway and stopped in front of Alexei. A Cheka guard came out of Alexei’s room with his palm open and showed something to Yurovsky. They spoke briefly in a language that wasn’t Russian, and then Yurovsky turned to Alexei.
“Where did you get the candy?” he said.
Alexei shrank back.
“I gave it to him!” I called. If they found out Yuri had done it, he’d be shot.
Yurovsky turned and looked at me. Then he looked back at Alexei.
“Is this true, boy?”
Alexei looked at me, and I nodded.
“Y-yes, sir,” Alexei said.
Yurovsky stared down at Alexei for a moment and then turned on his heel and headed for me.
“And where,” he said, “did you get candy?”
“I brought it with me from the Alexander Palace.”
Yurovsky glared at me. His eyes were a smoky, spooky grey. His goatee and mustache were unkempt, and one of his unruly curls had found its way over his left eyebrow.
“Lukas!” he yelled.
The Cheka guard holding the candies hustled down the hallway. Yurovsky plucked a candy out of the guard’s outstretched palm and held it up in front of me.
“You brought this candy from the Alexander Palace?” he said.
My heart sank. The candy was in a cheap blue wrapper with faded red writing.
I straightened my back. “Yes.”
Yurovsky threw the candy to the floor. “This candy can be bought for a pittance at any corner stall in Yekaterinburg. You are lying, miss.”
“I am not lying. It’s Alexei’s favorite kind of candy. We buy it for him specially.”
Yurovsky narrowed his eyes and stared down at me.
“You are Olga.”
“Do not cross me again, Olga. It is a very bad idea to cross the Cheka.”
I swallowed past the lump in my throat. “Yes, sir,” I managed.
Yurovsky turned and walked away, and the tension melted out of my shoulders.
Eventually, we were allowed back into our rooms. And there we stayed. We ate all three meals there—tea and stale black bread for breakfast, a small cutlet for lunch, and bread with watery, questionable beef broth for dinner. The only reprieve we received was when we needed to use the washroom, and then it was a process of knocking on our own door to get the attention of a Cheka guard who would then escort us down the hallway to the washroom near the landing.
We never saw Yuri, Dmitri, or Sergei again.
Life went on like this for two weeks. By day, Tatiana and I read or talked quietly about what the Cheka might have planned for us. Tatiana thought they might be preparing to put Father on trial. I hoped she was right. I had darker thoughts. But I didn’t share these with Tatiana. I simply listened to her, and agreed.
At night, the Cheka not on guard duty gathered in the living room below us and played the piano, drank, and sang revolutionary songs. Usually in Russian, but sometimes in Latvian or Lithuanian. They were at it all night, sometimes until five in the morning. I could never sleep through the racket—I lay awake, listening. Sergei—and Trotsky—would probably tell me there was a lesson to be learned from listening to hour upon hour of revolutionary songs.
And then came the night with no singing.
That night is tonight. July 16th.
The paraffin lamp is running low—I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to write. The house is quiet. Every now and then I hear voices, but they are far away and indistinct.
The Cheka guards have been more reserved than usual today. They have avoided eye contact and not said a word to any of us. Something is wrong.
I thank God Tatiana is asleep. She would sense my nervousness and wonder why I am writing at one in the morning. I would have to explain my fear to her, my sense that something is terribly amiss. My stomach is like a rock. My mouth dry like dust.
Why are the Cheka not singing? More importantly, what are they doing instead? It feels like the house is inhabited by ghosts—ghosts of my family, ghosts of the Cheka. The ghost of Yurovsky. The ghost, even, of Lenin himself.
I prayed to the Virgin Mother tonight. Even though the Cheka have taken the cross I wear around my neck, they cannot take my faith. And I prayed to Her. I asked for mercy for my family. I asked for salvation for my father. And for Alexei, who would be Tsar next—which makes him such a threat to their revolutionary cause.
I hear voices now, on the staircase.
There are boots on the floorboards of the hall. And more boots. A whole army of boots, it seems.
Voices. But not Russian voices. Latvian and Lithuanian. Cheka.
They’re here. In the doorway. Dear God, they’re here…
I am Yuri Ivanovich Sedenov. I made a promise to Olga Nikolaevna Romanova and now I am keeping it.
The family is gone. They were taken three nights ago into the basement of Ipatiev House and executed. I was not there—I was barred from the house for “fraternization” when the Cheka arrived—but I know because the noise from the basement was so loud and horrifying.
I am billeted now at Popov House, across the street, and around one- thirty in the morning on July 17th, the shooting and screaming from Ipatiev House began. The screams lasted thirty minutes. It’s a sound I will never forget. I hear it when I am awake. I hear it in my sleep.
I snuck into Ipatiev House the next day, meaning to fulfil my promise to Olga to retrieve her papers. I found them, under her pillow. I also found Alexei’s dog, Joy, and have brought him with me back to Popov House.
I am a revolutionary. I believe in Marx. I believe deeply in defending the rights of the world’s proletariat. But this… slaughter… I cannot believe in. There can be revolution without the cold-blooded murder of women and children. There must be, or we are all lost.
The Cheka do not represent the revolution I stand for. They are animals. If they are in charge, then perhaps the revolution I stand for does not exist.
Olga was my friend. She was a kind soul. May her papers reach someone, anyone, who will remember her as such.
Yuri Ivanovich Sedenov
20 July, 1918
Copyright 2017 by Kate Spitzmiller