Prologue: Stranger Talk
The Winter Palace
7 November 1917
Alexander Kerensky heard the shot from the warship – probably Aurora – and instinctively ducked.
But no shell came hurling through the window of his office or anywhere else at the Palace, so after a brief moment to regain composure he continued the frenzied collection of his papers.
It had been a warning shot. A miss … or even a blank – this time.
“They are massing again out in the yard”, the female guard muttered near the window where she had been watching the spectacle outside the palace.
She was Anya, one of the few loyals. She was part of a motley bunch of cadets, officers, cossacks and – yes, soldiers from the special woman’s battalion, who were still nominally defending Kerensky’s regime.
But most had been drifting away in the early evening hours, before the inevitable Bolshevik assault.
Just like my ministers, Kerensky mused while packing yet another stack of paper in a his briefcase … and now, just like me …
The Bolshevik ultimatum had come less than an hour ago, and although his cabinet was now holding a brief formal break, while debating how to respond to it, Kerensky harbored no illusion that they would get together again to define any meaningful answer.
Permanent recess, that’s what it was. All over …
“How close are they?” he asked Anya, without looking up from his last stack of papers. It was so difficult to choose. He could not carry too much, and yet …
“About 200 meters,” Anya said tonelessly. “There are some with machine guns but otherwise no artillery – yet.”
“That’s a relief,” Kerensky replied, with a brief smile. Anya did not flinch. The stout farmer woman from Tobolsk had lost most of her family during the war and had gone into the military when the chance arose. It was either that or … alternatives. And starving was one of the better alternatives, or so she had reminded Kerensky often enough when he had tried to get a word or two out of her.
“Now then … “Kerensky said and closed his briefcase, “I think that is about it. The rest of it we will have to burn, or otherwise dispose of if … ”
Then they heard another shot, and this time it was inside the palace.
Anya immediately had her rifle ready. She peeked out through the door to Kerensky’s office. Down in the hallway … shouts.
“They are here! They are here!”
“They must have come in through another entrance,” Anya said without taking her eyes from the great stairway that descended only a few meters away from the door and down into one of the many halls of the palace.
“Can we make it out before they come up here?” Kerensky asked nervously. They were only on the first floor, but …
Anya shook her head, then took aim and fired out the door.
Kerensky felt his heart beat faster. He looked out the grand window himself, down into the palace yard and saw that it was already filling with enemy soldiers – Bolsheviks – revolutionaries.
Like a dam breaking open …
“Anya, I think we should – ” he began, but then he never got to finish.
A brief, sharp crack and then Anya fell to the floor, blood streaming out of a hole in her forehead. Another crack and splinters flew from the door which were now half open.
He could hear more shouts and angry yells … and the clattering of booted soles on the stairway.
Kerensky had sent plenty of people to die in the war already, reluctantly but even so. He had never seen anybody die, though. Not like this. He froze.
The yells outside came closer: “Down with Kerensky! Down with Kerensky!”
Then something happened that made Kerensky’s heart skip just as much as when Anya had been killed.
There was a puff of black … smoke, it seemed. And then out from that blackness emerged a figure.
Right in the middle of the office. He had not used any door.
The figure was a middle-aged man, somewhat foreign looking. He had a small beard and seemed to limp slightly, as he motioned towards Kerensky.
“Mr. Chairman,” the stranger said in a deep voice, with a tinge of accent ” – would you please come with me. This place is about to get rather … disagreeable, I am afraid.”
Kerensky just gaped at the man, speechless. And definitely not moving to come with anyone.
Then the door was kicked in.
“There he is!” a young man with a red-starred cap yelled.
Another man shoved past him, and took aim with a revolver: “It is him!” the man cried. “Comrades! We have found him!”
The young man who had first entered did not seem to want to be left behind in what was about to happen, as more and more people could be heard outside, pushing to get through the door. He took out a revolver of his own and stood beside his comrade and pointed it also at Kerensky:
“Hands up – or we will shoot!”
The stranger sighed as if all of this life-threatening business was utterly boring to him. Boring on a level that was close to insult.
“You young fellows should really find better use for your time,” the stranger said and waved a hand towards them. The gesture was quick and elegant.
To his amazement Kerensky saw the two handguns … change. It was as if there was a slight shimmering of the air around them, and then … they both became black dust in the hands of the two Bolsheviks.
The two men stared at their empty hands, where the guns had been – then wild-eyed at Kerensky and the stranger.
For all their shock and surprise of this unexpected development, the reds were still quick to react. With considerable fury one of them hurled himself towards Kerensky and his mysterious protector, and the younger followed after a moment’s hesitation.
The stranger sighed deeply another time and made a final gesture with his hand. Kerensky felt as if he was in a dream when he saw the two revolutionaries literally disappear into thin air. One moment it was as if they slowed down, as if their movement in the office had become one of the silent movies he had seen a few of, broken and slowing down. Then the two men became … transparent. And then … not at all.
“W-who are you?” Kerensky stammered, turning to the stranger. ” … What are you?”
“Who I am is not important,” the stranger said, “only what I am. And right now I am the man who saves you from the firing squad.”
The stranger reached out, quick like a whip, and took hold of Kerensky’s arm.
Then everything went up into black smoke again …