For You, Madam Lenin
ISBN: 978-1-60489-100-3 Trade paper $19.95
ISBN: 978-1-60489-099-0 Library binding $30
Kat Meads is the author of four previous novels and several collections of poetry and prose. She last published with Livingston Press writing as Z.K. Burrus. A native of eastern North Carolina, she lives in California and teaches in Oklahoma City University’s low-residency MFA program.
When the tsar’s government ordered us from Poland in the spring of 1874, my daughter, Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya, was forced to leave behind her dog.
A mongrel dog with a limp and copious fleas.
Did such defects and disadvantages lessen my Nadya’s love for the beast?
Not in the slightest. Very likely such misfortunes made my daughter cherish her pet all the more. When the two were together, it was my Nadya, not the animal, who served as protector, my Nadya who chased away his enemies, who carried him and his injured paw across river stones, who would not consent to eat until her dog had been fed.
Nadya was five years old when we left Poland to return to Piter. A sturdy, healthy, curious, joyous child of five with dark red hair that escaped her braids no matter how tightly I plaited, her chubby knees accustomed to the joys of dirt and grass.
Five is an impressionable age.
To break the news of our leaving, her father, my husband, Konstantin, led her beyond the verandah of our home into the wilder profusions of that Polish spring. From the window, I watched them settle side by side on a yard bench. Greenery twined above them. Branches of blooms crisscrossed behind their backs.
I could not hear their conversation; I could only chart its effects. With his arm around her shoulders, Konstantin spoke. Thrilled by her father’s undivided attention, Nadya looked up with eager pleasure. And then, from one heartbeat to the next, pleasure turned to grief. Tears streaming, she ran toward the corner bushes and stopped, back to us, body heaving.
I stepped out onto the porch, but Konstantin motioned for me to remain where I was.
He would attempt the consolation of our daughter.
There would be none of that for any of us, either in our last weeks in Poland or in Piter, where the defamation of my Konstantin’s character would accelerate.
Beside the bushes and Nadya, Konstantin once again began to speak. Briefly, briefly, she turned an anguished face toward him, then away. She had been beating her fists against her thighs in protest. That now ceased.
Again I started in their direction; again Konstantin discouraged me. A moment later Nadya wiped her nose on the sleeve of her dress. And then, with the gravity of a seasoned mourner, our daughter squared her shoulders.
Nonsense! you will say. A child of five? Squaring her shoulders? Romantic revisionism!
Do you imagine it pleases me to report the squaring? The necessity of it? To admit my powerlessness in preventing the wrenching that occasioned that squaring?
Konstantin kissed the top of Nadya’s head and left her. The dog approached, ears quivering.
“What did you tell her? How did you explain it?”
“I said that a Polish dog that had enjoyed the run of a yard would not be happy in an apartment in Piter. I said that she must think of the dog and the dog’s happiness before her own.”
In the yard, our child had planted her cheek against what she must abandon. She chewed her lip but there were no more tears.
“May the tsar and his generals dream of vultures! May they toss and turn and cry for mercy in their sleep!”
“Yelizaveta! Your tongue!”
Perhaps you believe that losing a dog is of little consequence in a world of war and slaughter, hunger and neglect, inequity and oppression. In the larger sense, certainly you are correct.
But in the forming of my daughter’s character?
A child of five who gives up a pet for the greater good will either grow into an adult determined to make those responsible for her loss pay or become so accustomed to sacrifice she will cease to define her behavior as such.
In my daughter’s case, the result was not one or the other; the result was both.
City of Tsars
I would prefer to be thought of as the mother, but preferences count so little in times such as ours. If you recognize my name, Yelizaveta Vasilevna Krupskaya, very likely it is because you worship or detest my son-in-law, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, known to history as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.
About that relation by marriage, there is more to be said and will be said, but not instantly.
We had a life, my Nadya and I, before the Simbirsk native arrived in Piter and began issuing directives, and I will not slight who we were before by colluding with the legend that our contributions began only after the great Ilyich crossed our threshold. The balding redhead revealed to us no injustice in our city or in Russia about which we were not long aware, nor was he the first male in the household to undertake reforms. That honor belongs to my late husband, Konstantin.
Before you hear more about Vladimir Ilyich, you will hear more about Konstantin Krupsky.
Konstantin and I met in Piter, both of us orphans reliant upon ourselves and only ourselves. After receiving a diploma from the Pavlovsky Institute, I was employable as a governess and as a governess I earned my living. Although by no means content with my situation, I was far from desperate. Compared to the women and girls forced to sell themselves on the streets in the snows of winter, the mud of spring and the endless nights of summer, my exploitation proved quite genteel. Nonetheless, a governess is viewed as a servant and treated as such.
“Yelizaveta, we are shorthanded today. After lessons, you are to help Alena polish the silver.”
“I have misplaced my embroidery, Yelizaveta. Search for it in the children’s rooms. Perhaps I left it there.”
When Vladimir Lenin married Nadezhda Krupskaya, he gained more than a comrade/wife. He gained a mother-in-law less than impressed with the “unemployed” revolutionary. In Siberian exile, in European exile, in Russia, this quarreling threesome shared close—sometimes too close—quarters.
Which feat proved harder for Vladimir Lenin: toppling the Romanov dynasty or sharing living quarters with his mother-in-law?
For You, Madam Lenin reveals the domestic (as well as the political) side of running a revolution. It incorporates humor (as well hardship). It conspires with the females (rather than the males). In this fiction, the Lenin-Trotsky-Stalin triumvirate doesn’t outshine Russia's long line of radical female luminaries, whom History, a character, interrogates.
In the role of devil’s advocate, History wonders: Why bother to rebel?
The answer: Revolution—sometimes it’s very personal.