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One Imperial Ruble

Mark Budman's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such magazines as Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney's, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou'wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction(UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of a flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton. He is at work at his novel about Lenin running for the president of the United States. Visit his site at markbudman.net.

April 23, 1879. I just turned nine. That evening, I sat on a wooden zavalinka outside my house. Mosquitoes bit me all over, even through my pants and thick shirt. They could be vicious in East Russia, but I was too busy to pay attention.
A light touch on my shoulder made me jump and turn around. I'm faster than a rattlesnake. I know all about them. They are no mosquitoes. They don't bite unless provoked.
"What are you doing, Vladimir Ulyanov?"
It was my eldest brother, Alexander, or simply Sasha, my idol, resplendent in his high school uniform with its spit-shined brass buttons, each with the Imperial double-headed eagle. He never called me by my nickname, Volodya. Only by my full name. Even adding our family name sometimes.
"I'm playing a game. You wouldn't like it. It's boring for big boys."
I had played this game since I turned six or seven. It required nothing more than sheets of paper, pencil, and eraser. I didn't even need a partner. I drew maps and populated them with warring countries. Not the real, modern countries like the Austro-Hungarian or the German empires, but countries from the past: Assyria, Babylonia, Israel, Macedonia, Burgundia, and so on. Then the countries battled each other. They formed alliances. Huge armies--cavalry, riflemen, canons, baggage trains, field hospitals--crossed the borders. I didn't throw dice or anything like that. I didn't leave anything to chance. I was the absolute, unquestionable ruler. No, not a ruler. Ruler was like a tsar. I was the leader. The alliance I favored at the moment would always win. The maps were re-drawn. The alliances shifted. I would favor another alliance next time. I was the generous and just leader.
Only when I was absolutely stuck and unable to make a decision, I would toss the silver Imperial ruble with the face of our Tsar Alexander II, the ruble that Sasha gave me for good luck.
"May I join?" my brother asked.
I scratched my chin so Sasha couldn't see how hard I had swallowed.
What else could I say?
That game was a disaster. Sasha wanted his alliance to win. I argued. I thought I was quite convincing, eloquent even, but Sasha insisted on winning. That was a revolt. Anarchy. Then Sasha left, I quickly re-drew the maps, letting my own alliance win.
A few months later, I invited my younger sister Olga to play. It was a harsh January day in Simbirsk. The flames danced in the fireplace like drunken peasants.
This game went much better. She wanted to win, too. I could easily gain the upper hand because I controlled the maps, but that would be too easy.
"My country is the country of workers and peasants. Yours is the country of the bourgeoisie. Whom do you want to win, Olga? The exploited or exploiters? The oppressed or the oppressors? The rich or the poor?"
"The poor," she whispered.
When she left, crying, I took out a new piece of paper. I was running out of names for my countries. I had to invent some. I liked America, but the United States had been already taken. I wanted to come up with a name that had the word "union" in it. A soviet--a council--was a nice word, too, but nothing interesting that had both words came to mind.
I extended my hands toward the fire. Flames were like cavalry now, pursuing the fleeing tsar and his servants.
I stroked my beardless chin. I would come up with a catchy name sometime. I had time. Games aside, time is always on the side of revolutionaries.
Then the flames formed an image of a hanged man in the middle of a city square, surrounded by a wall of the Imperial soldiers. The man was unmistakably Sasha.
I got up and ran to the next room. I had to warn my brother. Surely, I would save him. But the faster I ran, the slower I moved. I wasn't dreaming; my muscles just refused to obey. A riot. A revolt. A revolution. I wasn't a counter-revolutionary, of course. So I tossed my lucky ruble. Tails.
I returned to the table. The flames--that was nothing. A meaningless flight of fancy. An old wives' tale. I took a new piece of paper and began to draw.
May 5, 1887. I'm seventeen. Today they hung my brother, Alexander--we call him Sasha--for attempting to kill the tsar. My brother was twenty-one. He got a gold medal in zoology in college. He asked for clemency, at my mom's insistence, but the tsar hung him anyway. When a person is hanged, his jugular vein and carotid arteries are blocked and the blood flow to the brain is reduced. He hardly feels anything.
I sit at the table at my house in Simbirsk with my brother Dmitri and my sisters Maria and Olga. The evening presses on us like a barrel of stones. The Swiss kerosene lamp gives more shadows than light. The Swiss are so arrogant. The quintessential bourgeois.
The kids look at me. I just broke the news to them. My mother is in St. Petersburg. I'm the oldest brother now. I don't know what to say. I should have said, something like: "There is another way. No more terror. No more killing." That would look good in the history books.
"I'm scared, Volodya," Maria, my youngest sister, says, taking my hand. A doll in a red-and-gold Russian dress sits in her lap. Maria's nine and her hair curls like the hair on her doll.
"Who has to pay for my brother's death?" I say. I free my hand. "The whole tsar's family. That's who. It's simply an ingenious idea. They should be shot."
Death by shooting is painful. Bullets tear the body, and death may not come quickly. They should suffer.
Maria begins to cry. I see tears coming to Dmitri's eyes. He's thirteen, so he should know better. I can't stand tears in men. In women either, but they don't know any better. I should have slapped Dmitri. I've heard whispers that my mother's father was a Jew. It looks like Dmitri has some Jewish traits.
"It's impossible to have a revolution without a firing squad," I say.
Now, Dmitri cries aloud as well. I get up, leave the room and close the door behind me. I lean against a large wooden chest, my fingers digging into the silver Imperial ruble. Sasha and I played four-hand piano. It's not possible to win playing piano, but we also played chess. He always won.
"Sasha," I cry silently. "I love you."
No one shall ever see my tears.
Vladimir Ulyanov
It's April 22, 1930. I'm turning sixty today. When you're getting old, the anniversaries multiply like worms in the spring.
I sit at the head of the table with my wife Nadia, my mistress Inessa and my secretary Vera. Yesterday, we celebrated Vera's twenty-fifth birthday. I could have invited dozens of people. Even the former tsar would have come, but I like a tight family circle.
Vera raises her champagne flute. She sits under the watercolor of a certain German painter Adolf Schicklgruber. Nadia brings all kind of junk from our travels.
"To Vladimir Ilyich," Vera says. "To the best lawyer in the entire Russian Democratic Republic."
Oh, exaggerations of youth. I'm maybe the second best. Who can measure things like that anyway? Not that we run popularity contests among the attorneys.
I nod. We all raise our flutes. Vera and I haven't had sex for almost seven years now, ever since she married that Georgian priest Joseph Dzhugashvili, but she still looks sexy in her Bullocks Wilshire evening dress. The priest is on business in the Vatican now, thank God. Sometimes he behaves like a highway robber and his sardonic mustache looks ridiculous.
Nadia takes my hand. Inessa places her palm on my left knee. I can't see it under the table, but I'm sure that Vera wants to touch me as well.
Yesterday my brother Alexander called. He could have returned from his exile after the tsar was overthrown back in 1917, but he prefers to remain in his Manhattan apartment.
"Wouldn't it be funny if they did hang me back in 1887?" he said. "Would you have become a revolutionary, Vladimir?"
Is he getting senile? He asks this question every year.
Yes, I was pretty angry back then, but got over myself. Who knows what would I have become? It's important to know what I am. I'm a millionaire. I've been the lieutenant governor of our region for eight years. I've been a deputy to the Duma. I've traveled all over the world. I had sex with women of every country in Europe. I've never embraced Marxism. I go to church on Sundays and preach reciprocal altruism.
I close my eyes and envision a younger me, standing on top of an armored car, making a fiery speech, urging the mob to overthrow the Kerensky government. Joseph is next to me. I might even choose a different name for myself. Maybe after one of Russia's great rivers. Something like Obin, or Lenin, or Amurov. How ridiculous. How dangerous. How bloody.
I lower my flute on the table, place my hands on my wife's and mistress's knees, and extend my leg under the table to touch Vera's foot. Bliss is when you're content with what you have, but don't close your eyes at opportunity.
But I feel the lucky Imperial ruble burning in my pocket.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Author Comments

I grew up in the former Soviet Union, and Lenin and Stalin were practically looking over my shoulder. I wrote about Stalin in my novel "My Life at First Try," and I turned my attention to Lenin after that. "One Imperial Ruble" is a triptych where Lenin grows from a boy to an old man, and where the stories are shifting progressively into alternative history arena. What would have happened if Lenin's brother wasn't executed? Would Lenin still become a revolutionary?

- mark budman
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