The Black Raven
By Orest M Gladky
Nadyezhda Vikyentyevna Mikhnyevich1 was a Moscovite.2 In her gray-blue eyes and kind smile always shined the joy of life. She lived by a deep faith in God and in Mother Russia. She guided herself by faith in the family and in school, already teaching a second generation of children. Jokingly, she would tell her adult former students that she probably would teach their grandchildren and to develop their minds and thirst to learn. Her faith came from deep in her soul, heart and mind without turning her life into an extreme of self-denial and austerity. Within the family and in the company of good friends, one could hear very often the ringing peal of her laughter.
She loved the Russian olden times and held firmly to their time-honored customs and traditions. She perceived extraordinary beauty in that time gone by and was able to present its richness in a symphony of words in which one heard sincere love for the mother country.
In a simple child’s story, “Kolobok,”3 that she often told to her small son Igor, even the adults would escape reality. Her speech murmured as a happy stream, and one didn’t know where one was, in the world of Kolobok of childhood fantasy or in the reality of a comfortable living room chair.
And in velvet tones, which flowed as the waves of the River Don, she would tell a Russian epic, bylina of “Illya Muromets.” Then from the dead past would rise the ancient Russian heroes with the strength and glory of Holy Russia. That could be followed by the story of “Boris Godunov,” or by “Poltava”—the same Russia in the rhymes of poet genius Pushkin—that in her marvelous narration would transform the listener to a participant in past-time deeds.
It was not by chance only that Nadyezhda Vikyentyevna was the reader of the text accompanying the magic lantern shows for the pupils that were shown in those days before motion pictures. Then the stationary figures appearing on the screen would come to life and the “three maidens sitting under the windows” suddenly would begin to spin swiftly, their smiles to breathe with life, their eyes to sparkle with maidenly eagerness, and almost could be heard the dear-to-heart Russian voice saying, “If I was the Tsarina…”
She knew more than anyone all the ancient ceremonies and folklore of good and bad omens. Sometimes, just before the New Year, she would align a dozen of cups with the chopped onions and foretell, “June will be rainy, and July – dry; there will be good crops and harvests in good weather…” And it happened that way.
Life was simple but overflowing with the riches of heritage from the past. It was a good life! And she always raised and poured forth her gratitude to God for granting prosperity to her native land in her prayers.
During the difficult years of war for the honor of motherland and for the celebration of the orthodox faith, her face was overshadowed with indelible wrinkles. Somewhere, far away on the front, Russian fighting men were dying. Was it possible to be indifferent during those years, which weighed so heavily on the country? And in her fervent prayers, she was not the only one who with eyes wet with tears appealed in prayers for granting victory to the soldiers of Russia…
But then came the year of 1917—incomprehensible, terrible, and ugly. It resurrected the year of 1905 from the darkness of Hell. Her wrinkles and gray hair tripled. Her rolling and ringing laughter could be heard no more. And there was not even a hint of her sweet smile.
And in faraway Saint Petersburg, that by the will of the Tsar was renamed now as Petrograd, a cynical and sinister farce was playing out on the stage of history. Suddenly, a defender of the criminals, who called himself Lenin, emerged as head of the Russian State; he was as a jester in a funeral procession shouting disgusting profane, demeaning drivel.
Thus, did Russia stumble into the abyss…
At times at the dinner table, Nadyezhda Vikyentyevna would take a piece of bread, look at it sorrowfully and say, “Now even the word ‘bread’ is not the same—without the letter ‘yat’ and without the ‘hard sign’ letter.”4 ‘Yat’ was the inside of bread, its soft part, and the ‘hard sign’ letter at the end was the crust… One would eat it and know that it is bread in your mouth and not the worthless chaff of revolution.”
More gray hair, deeper wrinkles on her face, her heart bleeding from the terrible premonitions…
One day one of the local super-revolutionaries asked her casually, “What is the matter, Nadyezhda Vikyentyevna? Why have you become quiet? Where is your laughter full of life? Where is your joy for life?”
“Russia is on its death bed; one needs to cry and pray to God for salvation!”
“No, Russia is on the operating table.”
“That’s even worse. Father Krylov used to say in his fable: ‘It is a misfortune when a shoemaker starts to bake the cakes and the pastrymaker to repair the shoes…’ You will kill Russia on your operating table!”
During Christmastime, as usual, the small apartment resounded with the strident voices of youth. From the other towns, students from gymnasiums, royal, commercial and technical schools, and various specialized courses, the sons and daughters, nephews, and nieces, friends and girlfriends would come home and gather together. A place was found for all—only the noise and the energy of youth was not to be contained within the white walls of the rooms and so to burst forth into gloriously frosty days and star-covered nights.
The Christmastime celebrations were over. The year of 1918 was nearing fast—and then, the thirty-first of December. It was the last day of the year 1917, the year that birthed the monstrous child that was destined to grow too evil to be christened.
Toward midnight the ring of youthful voices echoed in the rooms. They had opened wide the porch door and aroused the household:
“Let’s do the fortune telling!”
“Let me be the first today,” said Nadyezhda Vikyentyevna. “What will happen to Russia?”
On the upside-down dinner plate, a crumpled piece of paper burns in the yellow flame. It emits smoke, becomes black, and transforms into a fragile mass of indefinite form. Dozens of eyes intensely seek to catch and identify the contours of its shadow from the candle light. Suddenly the contrast is clear and contours on the wall appear as a burial mound, atop of which a black raven is sitting…
Sorrow engulfed the hearts of all present and the fortune telling on the eve of 1918 went without the usual laughter, without secret expectations and joy, without the nebulous desires of love and youthful dreams…
“Russia is going to perish.” With this painful thought, Nadyezhda Vikyentyevna left from this life to ask the Omnipotent in the next life to save her Mother Russia.
She left not without hope. She believed that the spirit of the Russian heroes would arise and that the courageous, epic heroes would awaken and enter the fight with the Fiend of Hell to raise once more that great Russia with her immense richness of her past.
1. Mother of Orest Mikhailovich Gladky.
2. Resident of Moscow.
3. Russian folk’s story about many encounters of a curious rolling dough-ball, named Kolobok, with all kinds of animals and who at the end was swallowed by a cunning fox.
4. The two letters that the new Soviet government had banished from the Russian alphabet as symbols of the old Church Slavic language. Both letters were a part of the old spelling of the word khlyeb (bread).