The Commissar

Inspired by Tolstoy

The old man could see beyond the solitary window. The lime tree, stark and leafless in the winter sunlight, looked lost and homesick. It had been planted here before his birth by his former master, Count Kasparov. The old man had loved the Count, a big, florid handful of a man; kind to all his peasants in an uncomplicated, off-hand manner. Long gone. Swept from existence like chaff on a barn floor. The tree was his only legacy; that and the French windows. Every other architectural feature in the vast country house had been expunged with crusading zeal by the Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Leninists, and Trotskyites. After the impulses of History had faded, the ripples brought the spent tide of revolution to the old estate.

The workers, determined to bear witness to his passing, drew aside as the youngest member of the council approached the bed. He brought an enamel basin and an open-razor, the steel catching daylight from the window. The old man liked young Sascha, a good farmer; a good worker in a community of indolent, lazy peasants. The Workers’ Collective of Varishenko. A community almost bereft of workers. He snorted at the notion, which started a hum of animated conversation in the high-walled room. The old man had been Commissar of this Soviet Collective for more than fifty years. He had survived the Stalin Purges. He had lived to read of the first man in space. He watched the ravens gathered about the old tree. They had arrived this morning, summoned by the aura of his coming death. They walked like hooded monks, pecking at the iron-hard ground. Seeing them, the old man asked to be shaved. The peasants had nodded, centuries of country knowledge in the acknowledgement. Russian peasants know death.

Towering above the bed, Sascha was saddened to see how small the old man looked. Commissar Rushkov had been a tall, heavy set man. He had commanded respect by his size, his bearing and his inherent dignity. Propped up on high pillows, his arms in front of him on the white sheets, he looked like a little bird; a sparrow of the Steppes. He lathered the old man’s face, rasping at the wispy grey-haired stubble. The Commissar turned to face the window.

‘Shave close Sascha,’ he whispered, ‘The Master is calling me.’

Sascha watched the old man’s eyes flare in recognition, though Sascha could see nothing outside except the old tree and the gathering ravens. When they took to the air, Sascha closed the old man’s eyes. The murmur of the witnesses told Sascha of their collective fear. How would they manage without the Commissar?

© franciman 2023
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This is a gem of a story! There is so much in this; a lifetime captured in a moment, together with the uncertainty of being.


Interesting how the Russian system changed but stayed the same after the Bolsheviks took power. Still has kind of serf feel in the relationship between the party member and the workers of the collective.


Well written story, Jim. I really flows well.

Tolstoy may have inspired this, but when I read this, Pasternak’s Varikino country house came to mind.

It certainly captures the atmosphere of both of those fine novels.


So much told in so few words, Jim. I loved the Russian flavour of fatality about this.

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