Ghosts on the roof -- the return of Old Russia

Paul Greenberg

January 03, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

In the March 5, 1945, issue of Time magazine, Whittaker Chambers wrote a fairy tale to explain what was happening at the Yalta Conference. He described a visit by the assassinated Romanovs of pre-Bolshevik fame with Clio, muse of history, atop the Livadia Palace at Yalta. It is time to bring the cast together again to explore what is happening in Moscow these days:

SLOWLY, SLOWLY, like the past returning to an amnesia patient, a family of royal ghosts fluttered down on the heights of the Kremlin, completely at ease, as if this were their home. There, they encountered a statuesque figure draped in classical robes, eavesdropping on the deliberations below.

"Madam," began the woman of the ghostly party, an imperious figure not made any PaulGreenbergthe less so for the cunning bullet hole in her head, "May I ask what is it you think you are doing on my roof?"

"Hush," whispered Clio, muse of history and therefore mistress of irony and redecorator of memory. "I've been reduced to this undignified posture by my curiosity, which cannot depend any longer on the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and Pravda, all of which have begun to agree for the first time in history -- a little hobby of mine -- and therefore lead me to suspect that all are equally deluded.

"Why," Clio continued in an indignant tone, drawing a clipping out of her capacious robes, "just look at this lead by Bill Keller in the Times just the other Sunday: 'For the first time in many months, Mikhail S. Gorbachev seemed today to have regained his footing on the slippery terrain of Soviet domestic policies.' Do they really expect that I -- I -- who saw through all the official releases of Caesar and Louis XIV and Napoleon -- will believe that? Anybody can see the man is operating in the midst of an avalanche, an Iben-Browning size earthquake, and I want to find out what has really happened. That's my line, you know. What's yours?"

"Royalty and repentance," came the reply from the apparition with the beard and spiffy military decorations, "though I am beginning to have second thoughts about the latter. Allow me to introduce myself: Nicholas II, emperor and autocrat of all the Russias, czar of Moscow, Kiev, Novgorod, Kazan and points east, of Poland, Siberia and Georgia, grand duke of Smolensk, Lithuania, Podolia and Finland, prince of Estonia, Livonia and Bialystok, master of all except my own household, lord of . . ."

"Nicky!" cried Clio, who had a weakness for the past. "I never dreamed I would see you in Moscow again, not after that late unpleasantness at Sverdlovsk, which was Ekaterinburg back then and may soon be again. And you brought the family! I see the czarina is as charming as ever, even much improved by her execution, and the Czarevich Alexei, and the girls! It is all as before. The more things change . . ."

"Yes, yes, and you can't make omeletes without breaking eggs and all the rest. I do grow weary of the cliches that you never seem to tire of, Citizeness Clio . . ."

"I grow old," said the muse of history, "and I do repeat myself. That's a well-known fact, or at least opinion. As George Santayana said . . ."

"No, no, anything but that particular platitude. What I want to know is what happens next. My grave is already a shrine; I want to know how long it'll be before I'm restored to my rightful place, which, dear madam, is not at the bottom of a miserable mine shaft somewhere in Siberia -- "

" -- in the dank and cold," added the czarina, who was accustomed to finishing her husband's sentences. "You really can't expect us to go on haunting the Russian Tea Room for the rest of of our deaths, can you? Oh, how I long for some decent French cuisine. I never thought I'd weary of blini and caviar but . . ."

"Of course, of course, your indignant highnesses," Clio soothed. "But I'm afraid I can't tell you what the future holds. I face only one way. It's hard enough for me to piece together the present. You'll have to ask someone more prophetic; they get to see what's coming, if ever so briefly, before it becomes mine. But from all I know -- which is everything that's ever happened, of course -- I would predict that you're well on your way to being rehabilitated, if not worshiped. I'm not sure you'll be up to that any more than you were up to life. Does it matter so much to you any more?"

"Not really," replied the czar, stroking his well-trimmed beard. "Death tends to leave one somewhat indifferent to the opinions of others. But my curiosity, like yours, tends to get the better of my ghostly self from time to time. This Gorbachev, he seems a decent enough chap, reminds me of Kerensky only without the idealism -- a lack that should be a great advantage in politics. Anyway, do you think he'll bring it off?"

"All the newspapers say he will. I know the State Department and George Bush are banking on it even though Americans don't talk to me. They don't think history exists. All the headlines read just like the ones that said you'd preside over a constitutional transition from autocracy to democracy. That's why I'd say the poor sucker hasn't got a chance."

Clio bowed stiffly, unaccustomed as she was to doing homage to others, and began to fade.

"What's your rush?" asked the czar politely.

"I must make way for my sister Melpomene," Clio explained.

"Of course," said the czar, who knew that other muse well, but the wan little princesses looked puzzled.

"Melpomene," Clio repeated slowly for the benefit of the little ones. "The muse of tragedy."

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