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February 19, 2024

"Thank You, No. We're Well" 07

By Robert Earle

Ironically, Valery, privately as much an enemy of the czar as anyone, is sent from his post as consul in San Francisco to assist in the American-mediated post-war negotiations between Russia and Japan in Kittery, Maine.

Part II (continued)

Valery had no news from Dmitri but could this all be happening without him somehow involved and pulling Aaron in, too? Russia was caught with its pants down; its fleet was trapped like Antony and Cleopatra's fleet at Actium. The surprise attack cost it ships, as did attempts at escape from the port. Soon the telegraph lines were up again, reporting the brutal truth as Japan pressed its advantages by sea and by land, and America, for whatever reason (things Americans had already read about Russia in its newspapers?), declined to side with the attacked party. Ambassador Count Cassini was furious that Washington would declare itself neutral and he increasingly turned to Valery.

"You're closest to it all, my most direct contact. Have you news?"

Valery did have news but would string Ambassador Count Cassini along telling him nothing, not sharing with him the local Asian community's hatred of Russia's thrust into Asia. "If we didn't stop the Czar, we would become an enormous Sakhalin," one Japanese vice-consul told Valery. A Chinese lawyer lamented to him that his country was now lost to Japan because of Russia's ineptitude. "How could you have let your fleet be trapped in port? Now the Japanese will consume us both!" He shared these things with the address in London, but not with his ambassador in Washington. Meanwhile Russia's military and diplomatic position kept crumbling, and Cassini began talking about panic in St. Petersburg and an astounding decision to send the Baltic fleet half way around the world to reverse the Czar's defeat.

This odious world of international exploitation and counter-exploitation only came to an end for Valery when he turned the corner up the steep street toward the gray frame house where his "three women" lived, one of whom had just said, "Ma-ma," followed by "Soo-za" (for Susan Morgan), "dug-gee" (for duck), and finally "Val-ree" (for Valery Sergey Asimov). He always brought something, a parcel of sea trout fillets, sharp white cheese and sourdough bread, or teething biscuits that were rust-colored and hard as shoe heels. Then the human bundle in his lap took the place of the little bundles in his pockets, grabbing his finger or putting her whole hand on his face or resting her head against his shirtfront and dampening it with perspiration.

She had blonde hair like her mother, darker gray eyes than her father, that physical, direct quality of her mother, and who knew what kind of mind? A somewhat serious, not too tearful child for whom mother's milk was soporific. She'd nurse a few minutes, hold Tina's nipple in her lips another minute -- actually it just stuck there, skin to skin -- and then let go, tumbling off into utter peace, no wars across her horizons or murders in her past.

"My brothers saw me naked all the time," Tina said one evening, tucking her breast back into her blouse. "Couldn't stop them. And I saw them. Summer after summer we played naked in the creek. Other boys and girls, too. Naked as jaybirds."

"Heathen," Mrs. Morgan interjected.

"Just children," Tina said with wisdom beyond her years.

Did she mean that was how Valery was to be? A brother? Again, he urged them to move in with him on Nob Hill, but no, this skinny tilting house suited them. (He brought Deborah a blue rubber ball once and it rolled down the hall all the way to the kitchen of its own accord.) If Tina didn't talk about her childhood in the Missouri Lead Belt, it was about Ivan. She said Ivan made her feel good being quiet. And she said Ivan made her feel good when they were stirred up together. She knew he was special the moment they sat across from one another over breakfast on that train -- his eyelashes, his hands, the six things he seemed to be thinking and keeping to himself. How could he speak English so well? She always wondered that. And how could he have the kind of father Valery said he had ... or Dostoevsky said he had?

Valery said many Russians wanted to be known and loved for their flaws, of which they were highly self-conscious. "To really know, perhaps you should ask Alexei. He only lives, what, eight or ten miles from here as the crow flies."

He worried as he said this she'd now fall in love with Alexei -- who wouldn't? But she resisted. "He probably wouldn't want to discuss his father."

"Grushenka knew him, too, of course."

Tina offered a veteran woman's assessment of another woman's attitude toward an unwanted suitor. "I doubt she knew him that well or paid him that much attention."

She didn't ever want to go back to Strawberry Point. She wanted, in some ways, for things to end the way they ended in a book. There was a final page. There was a back cover. That was it. She couldn't bear the idea of opening it up again by visiting the farm and talking things through with Alexei and Grushenka. She didn't want to know about Mitya taking Aaron on a trip across the Pacific to snoop and make trouble as Ivan had planned to snoop and make trouble. They were characters in a book that was done, written in another language by a writer's whose name she couldn't pronounce.

"Anyway, this is an American baby," she said, nuzzling Deborah. "You're born here, and you are here, and you're red, white and blue through and through."

She had gone back to being as gloriously pretty as she'd been before she was pregnant. In the humidity of San Francisco -- and in the winds -- her hair was so intricately curly it would take a man years to explore: her temples and nape of her neck, her hair pushed back, put up, brushed out, covering her forehead, revealing her forehead ... and then her glistening blue eyes and strong opinions and preferences: yes to Ivan without question, no to Valery also without question. She would accept him as a protector, he could make her laugh, he could hold her attention for a long time as he explained things to her, but she wouldn't accept him as a lover.


He supposed that if one needed great unhappiness in order to understand oneself, he had reached that point. He was a boy now butchered into a man, Ivan his surrogate and alter ego cut away; Tina his simple answer, if you will, out of reach; Katerina Ivanovna? He might be sending Lenin his analyses, and she might be still sending Lenin money, but with Ivan no longer linking them, they were pursuing separate destinies, and his was that of his provocative gadfly father. He was and would be a diplomat. He would write his notes and reflect his skepticism to the world about Russia's course through time because if he didn't do that, what else would he do? He had no idea, yet witnessing Russia's misadventures in Manchuria, he never assumed he would play any role whatsoever other than taking Ambassador Count Cassini's frustrated calls and reminding him he was 9,000 kilometers from what was now a military, not diplomatic, arena. Here came the Czar's Baltic fleet to the rescue ... there went the Czar's Baltic fleet to the bottom of the Straits of Tsushima. Not since the sinking of the Spanish armada had a naval disaster been so complete and wondrous. The little yellow monkeys had won! The bear had drowned! Were they now on the approaches to Ivan's prophecy? He knew nothing about what Dmitri may have done over there in Asia but ...

The blasted phone rang one day. Mrs. Morgan called in to say it was Ambassador Count Cassini.

"Yes, sir?"

"Asimov, we'll talk with the Japanese about peace."

"We will? We're admitting defeat?"

"I didn't say defeat, I said peace."

"Yes, sir."

"The Americans will host. Minister Sergey Witte leads the delegation, and I am to be replaced by Baron Rosen, who will be Witte's deputy. Now all I have is you to keep me informed. I want to know everything. Send me constant notes in St. Petersburg where I can hold things steady. We'll accept America's good offices, but not succumb to them."

"Does America have pretensions in Asia?"

"America has the Philippines, America puts itself between us and the Japanese -- "

" -- but to help resolve this ... ?"

" ... a place called Kittery, Maine ... go there at once ... are we cut off?"

"No, sir."

"Then go there and write me what is said every day, do you hear? Rosen's the man who didn't keep the Japanese from attacking us when he was minister in Tokyo. The agreements he reached with Japan might have been written in water! But I've told him you're the one on his staff he'll be able to count on, and I've told Witte the same thing. They're agreed. Rosen says to send you, and that's what I'm doing."

Having surrendered in his efforts to storm Tina, Valery admitted to her that he was excited about the prospect of going to Maine for the peace talks, and for the first time, perversely, she seemed drawn to him because something apparently mattered more to him than her and than the baby. She liked him in a role that pulled them apart and made her secondary.

"We're not the most important thing in the world," she said.

"To me you are," he said.

"But this gives you a chance to be a part of things and do something. Otherwise all we do is sit here."

He realized that was how she took him. He had to go off the way men go off. It was what women wanted of men, and she was wondering if he would ever do it himself.

At the terminus of train trips through Chicago, Pittsburg, New York and Boston, Valery introduced himself to Sergey Witte, former minister of transport and finance, and now head of Russia's delegation to the talks meant to end a lost war, and Baron Roman Rosen, the new Russian ambassador to the United States and former Russian consul general in New York. He could tell they were as shocked as he to be in Kittery, Maine, which was a kind of Skotoprigonyevsk along the Atlantic Coast. Two private secretaries, whom Valery came to think of as Twiddle and Twaddle, sat behind Witte and Rosen, Twiddle was Witte's man, Twaddle was Rosen's man. They never forgave him for being sent out of the room as his initial conversation with Witte and Rosen began.

"I think the Americans must have thought this was humorous, bringing us together here," Witte said. He was a beautifully bearded man with a majestic forehead and an almost sculptural manner of speech. Even when he said trivial things, he imparted a sense of enduring meaning. In this case, he was alluding to a theme that always would rankle and disturb him: America's rise in influence, setting forth a model for Russian reform.

"... He was a beautifully bearded man ... Even when he said trivial things,
he imparted a sense of enduring meaning. "


"They do have a sense of humor, especially Roosevelt," Rosen said.

The three of them looked at one another over tea in the cramped sitting room of Witte's suite. Witte said to Valery, "I knew your father, of course. It did not hurt for him to be the utopian that he was, but I can't say it helped. I hope you're more of a realist, but I'm told no one really knows, only that Cassini thinks you're the best qualified person on his former staff to spy on us."

Valery couldn't help smiling and didn't answer Witte's charge, which was answer enough.

"He wants me to re-provoke war, not negotiate," Witte continued. "Tear the temple down on our heads. That sort of thing, but I didn't build the railroad through Siberia to end up plunging into the sea."

Rosen said nothing, reinforcing Valery's instincts to keep his thoughts to himself.

"You've been here, and Rosen's expert in Americans, so we have devised a role for you. Your job will be to tell the Americans and Japanese that Rosen is here to keep me on a short leash. No room to concede a thing, a fierce protector of the Czar's prerogatives and equally fierce in his hatred of the Japanese who broke the agreement he negotiated with them. The story you tell is that he's in league with Cassini while I'm the path to a responsible constitutional Russia, a believer in a legislature, free speech, workers' rights ... . If the Americans give me the support I need, I'll go home and reinforce Russia's role as a bulwark against revolution and war in Europe."

Rosen spoke, shocking Valery with his bluntness. He was a fox of a man in looks but a jackal in spirit, "The Czar has no idea how close he has come to losing everything. He faces strikes, a devastated navy, international humiliation, revolution, assassinations, but I want you to make the Americans and Japanese think I'll advise rearming and reengaging in war with Japan. If America wants peace instead of another Pacific War, it will support Witte in his terms. Otherwise, I will report to the Czar that Witte has failed, and we must risk everything in Europe and the Pacific to put this disaster right. The Japanese are not America's friends; tell them that. Tell them they need us. Tell them they won't want to see what we will do to Japan or China on our own. There won't be anything left for them; we'll insist on it all for ourselves after such great sacrifices as we're prepared to make."

Witte said, "In short, you tell them I am the voice of reason and hope, Rosen the silence of rage and disaster."

Valery couldn't help asking, "Are things really so bad in Russia?"

"Bad?" Witte ticked things off he no doubt had written them down somewhere; he was that kind of meticulous man: "Strikes and bad harvests, two navies demolished, the Czar looking to this Rasputin for advice on aiding his hemophiliac son and everything else? Germany bold, its fleet massive? Britain's empire huge and growing? Yes, they are bad!"

"What about these revolutionary movements, the radical socialists, this Lenin?"

"Either we reform in a liberal way or we'll lose our cities and factories to them," Rosen said.

Valery was thrilled and nonplussed. He knew they thought they were talking to his father, not him, but it was him, now wondering if these were men could undo Russia's demise in ways short of the disasters Lenin promised ... better ways.

"Can we trust you?" Witte asked.

"Yes, sir, of course."

"We won't appear to favor you. They," Rosen said, gesturing toward Twiddle and Twaddle beyond the door, "will stick closest to us and do our bidding, not you. You're just here as someone who has been in America and will stay on after all this is done."

"We might send you to New York. Vice Consul General, something like that," Witte said.

"I can't take you to Washington because the Americans would keep trying to use you after this is all over, and I don't want my embassy abused like that," Rosen said.

"If we succeed at this, we'll take care of you. If we fail, all of us, including you, will share in the blame," Witte said. "But we can't fail. We must find a way to hold onto something -- no reparations, that's my ultimate goal, we can't afford them -- to enable me to return to St. Petersburg and lead the country back from the brink."

Valery would get up in the morning, take his breakfast alone, join the party traveling to the talks on the navy base in a big brick building of no architectural interest whatever, and then drop hints during breaks over tea or to his seat mate at joint meals or when he found himself able to sidle up to someone walking along the rocky waterfront. Astonishingly, this once included a direct conversation with Baron Komura, graduate of Harvard Law School and Japanese Head of Delegation and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Valery simply stood by a pine tree toward which Komura was walking and didn't get out of his path as he ought to have by any standard of protocol. Komura was a thin man with a bushy mustache and fluent in American English.

Valery wrote all this to the address in Zurich: Komura said he thought his old friend Rosen had grown hard toward the Japanese without cause, given Russia's outrageous presumptions in Manchuria, and he said somewhat acerbically he took Witte for a man who put practicality first, not issues like prestige. Many Japanese would have committed hari-kari if they'd led the country into such a disaster but apparently that wasn't the Russian way. In response to my comment that Russia would recommence the war if pushed hard enough, he said he feared that would be the end of Russia altogether, which wasn't Japan's goal because Germany would pounce if Russia lost everything.

Then Komura said something that Valery did not write to the address in Zurich.

"Someone I think you know, Mr. Asimov, gave us help when we first attacked. Now be reasonable. Tell me what Russia wants, and let's end this and give America the credit."

Valery's knees grew watery at Komura's reference to someone who could only be Dmitri. Who else did he know in Asia. "Where is he now?"

"That isn't known."

"There was also a boy."

"Yes. We don't know where he is, either, but of course we found out who you are and were quite surprised to meet you here." Baron Komura's voice was penetrating. "Now what is it Witte wants? He can't have everything, but of course we can bolster his honor."

"Witte thinks he can reform Russia if you'll let him," Valery said. "Rosen is here to find a way to stop him. Witte's only demand is no reparations, but you've won the conflict and can have Manchuria and Korea, and there's something else. Instead of reparations, you take half of Sakhalin as a symbol of your victory."

Komura didn't like what he heard. "This war cost us millions! Russia wouldn't discuss not spreading its wings too wide in Manchuria. That's what started it, not us!"

"Well, Russia is offering more than discussions now, and it will cost you more if you push the Russian offer aside."

"Half of Sakhalin is worthless," Komura hissed.

"So is the whole of it, I imagine, but you've always claimed it was yours."

"What do you tell the Americans?"

Valery had told every American present the same thing. "As I'm sure you already know. But what will you do to help me find my friends?" He meant Dmitri and Aaron and the Tiburon.

Komura shook his head. "They sailed into the battle first and never sailed out. A little fishing ship. We gave it a radio, and what they reported was true. Of course, we already knew that, but it was good to hear it from someone else."

"Then you probably know what I'm saying is true, too, so make your deal or don't. Witte's your best chance. Sacrifice millions for peace or lose more fighting more war."

The talks resumed. Valery not only felt, but sensed from Witte and Rosen, that he had completed his assignment. There was nothing more for him to say now and his sensation of excitement dwindled to nothing with what he heard about Dmitri and Aaron. They sailed in and didn't sail out. He wrote to the address in Zurich: The war will come to an end. Witte will return to St. Petersburg as chief minister. He plans reforms, accountable government, an elected parliament, a curb on the military. Rosen believes Japan will give more of Asia up to America than Russia. Witte doesn't care. He will attempt to preserve the image of the Czar's reign if not the fact, a formidable man with a policy on a tightrope.

Where did Valery really fit in all this? He turned aside Rosen's offer to put him in New York as number two. He wanted to go back to San Francisco and try to make Tina love him.

Article © Robert Earle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-10-08
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