It is Necessary
“IT IS NECESSARY FOR EVERY MAN TO HAVE ONE PLACE,
IF ONLY ONE, WHERE HE CAN FIND SYMPATHY.”*
“Hard, cast in iron, that engineer:
God bless Isambard!
(he) plays the winning card.”
— Ian Anderson, “The Engineer”
As all humanity stands on the cusp, on the precipice, on the shoulders of giants to look toward the 20th century, I find myself stuck in a tea shop filled with so many samovars that one could hardly believe Russians drink so much tea as to need such a backlog of replacements of a rich man’s tureen. But it’s warm inside Seminlova’s and the crowd outside bustles with a restlessness that I’d rather not force my way back through Nevsky Prospect to enflame a different venture.
I do, though, doubt that the guards stationed around the Grand Czar will protect it from these distressed students, but as long as they don’t dismantle it, I can still deliver my goods to Siberia by week’s end. That is, if anything is done to end this strike and to restore some order in the square. But I sympathize with these rebels, as I understand and appreciate their concerns and wonder how we can have free serfs but still have other restraints on people who have long felt their Russian culture being subverted for circus audiences—those around the world who can only see us as fools rather than the intellects I see.
Most will admit, on being pressed, that a calendar’s change doesn’t mean much when it comes to something going in a different direction than before. We’re deep into a winter’s freeze here, with nine more months before Earth gives birth to a new year and a new decade and a new century. But it hasn’t been a quiet winter, although as February’s frost has turned into March’s harsh chill, yelling and beatings and general ruckuses have dwindled a little each day. But that doesn’t mean anyone has had his or her mind changed about what need to happen for a better Russian future.
I fear that some great malady will thrust itself upon Russia and we shall not recover for decades, pushed into situations that demand our attention but receive our contempt and our arrogant demonstrations of violence, desperate conjecture, and distilled rhetoric—as hard as vodka but as soft as a taste bud’s palette. We will achieve something amazing before anyone else anywhere but will falter in too many other ways and become a mockery that we can’t defend with anything sensible. We gave the world Dostoyevsky and Gogol and Turgenev—more polished than other writers elsewhere—but I should refrain from promoting those who have shone a terrible light on Russia.
These students hope to make a mark in nonviolent ways, but they are met with violence from whips and remonstrations that cut at their solidarity and make a man question his virility. They want the politicians and especially Czar Nicholas to realize that while a beggar might not have much, he still has needs and desires. Students might not be beggars, but they desire equal footing to those who are turning Russia’s wheels and fortifying a culture that the world could admire if only it could see it beyond the bloodshed.
But sometimes, people in power don’t realize the errors of their ways until faced with bayonets stabbing and bullets flying. I don’t think much of these young rebels when they don’t have collective desires, such as Trotsky and Lenin, but I don’t think them capable of anything more than something like this student strike. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they proved me wrong. Sometimes, it’s not the will of the people as to who their savior is nor can they demand that savior to do what’s best for everyone.
This is why I believe that only idiots don’t understand irony. You’ll band together with your fellow peers in a struggle against the czar or against some policy you dislike, but once you pull down the curtains and burn the churches and palaces to ash and try to reform a foundation you destroy, each man grabs his own brick and tries to throttle the man next to him with it—that same man who helped him bring down an oppression and to establish something fresh and vibrant. But now that man won’t be there to celebrate that victory because you felt he impeded your own upward movement.
I drive trains. I’ll drive them until I die, which I hope won’t be but for 20 more years, but I do it because I love seeing the landscape change each time I ramble through a town or a city or an offbeat village I would never have seen otherwise. One year, I hoarded samovars and settled in between them in my catbird seat, but it took too much work, too much power, too much management to keep them coddled and warm. I found it easier to take a risk and sit a foot closer to the furnace. Sometimes, I ran into ice or snowstorms, which are as common as the sun rising and setting each day, forcing me to make stops like I am now, although a determined crowd, like that which has bunched up in the square, will make me more cautious than Mother Nature, as she could never withstand the virulent onslaught man can bring upon his own kind, as I fear some wouldn’t even hesitate to kill their own mother if it meant he might enjoy whatever vision progress resembled for him and his comrades of “I’ll soon toss away this rubbish friend” ilk. But it’s not my place to stand on a platform and pontificate about compromise and selflessness and applying alchemy to turn our rusting fortunes into golden opportunities.
“Would you like another tea, dear?” Nicholaveta asks me as I admire carafes aligned across a back wall and refocus on her scarred forearms, looking quickly instead at her flowing gown and her braided black hair and her red herring eyes. But those scars told a story I couldn’t read, as if the Cyrillic strokes were interrupted by an attempt to tattoo a revision over them.
“I’d like a great deal more than another tea, love,” I said, reaching to grab her but noticing a bevy of armed men marching toward my train and toward today’s fresh batch of students as well as some weathered testaments to urgency and dedication. She sat a hot samovar on my table and slipped away while I stared. I wanted to tell her what I thought and what I felt. I wanted her to listen. To reach for my forearm, to read its scars, to touch my fingers, to feel their burn, to arch her arm around my shoulder, to nestle her head deep into my beard and my crook. But she didn’t.
Shop owners and teachers and fishermen began to cascade into the tea shop, dispersing their groups to find an empty table for their own solitude and their own inner thoughts and their own dreams. Sweet faces from beyond this vast room bravely took to their stations and I watched as other men reached for flesh, as if ignored in their own homes and in their own boarding rooms and in their own vessels. I expected to hear a great many recalcitrant reactions, but the clearest sound to me was steam whistling through a vast flute—a tune I knew as well as my own heart song—and I knew all was lost.
*From Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
About the Author: Christopher Stolle's writing has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in the Tipton Poetry Journal, Flying Island, Branches, Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, Ibis Head Review, Edify Fiction, The Poetry Circus, Smeuse, The Gambler, 1932 Quarterly, Brickplight, Medusa's Laugh Press, and Sheepshead Review. He works as an acquisitions and development editor for Penguin Random House, and he lives in Richmond, Indiana.