The Kitchen Boy
A Novel of the Last Tsar
Soon to be a major motion picture starring Kristin Scott Thomas, directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters)
"My name is Mikhail Semyonov. I live in Lake Forest village, Illinois state, the United States of America. I am ninety-four years old. I was born in Russia before the revolution. I was born in Tula province and my name then was not Mikhail or even Misha, as I am known here in America. No, my real name-the one given to me at birth-was Leonid Sednyov, and I was known as Leonka. Please forgive my years of lies, but now I tell you the truth. What I wish to confess is that I was the kitchen boy in the Ipatiev House where the Tsar and Tsaritsa, Nikolai and Aleksandra, were imprisoned. This was in Siberia. And...and the night they were executed I was sent away. They sent me away, but I snuck back, and that night, the moonless night of July 16-17, 1918, I saw the Tsar and his family come down the back twenty-three steps of the Ipatiev House, I saw them go into that cellar room...and I saw them shot. Trust me, believe me, when I say this: I am the last living witness and I alone know what really happened that awful night...just as I alone know where the bodies of the two missing children are to be found. You see, I took care of them with my own hands."
Misha took a deep breath, tried to push himself on, but couldn't. Panicking, he hit the stop button on his tape recorder, and just sat there on the flagstone terrace of his home, his eyes fixed straight ahead on the curling waters of Lake Michigan. Despite his determination, he'd faltered, been unable to proceed.
Over the many years since the Russian Revolution, Misha had come to realize that on a single night in 1918 he had witnessed far too much for an entire lifetime, particularly in the tortured silence he had so sternly observed in the ensuing decades. But such was his punishment. He was an old man, certain that this long life and clear memory were the torture he deserved. Yes, there was a God, for if there were not he would have been spared this suffering. Instead he kept on living. And remembering. True, he had gained some wisdom, for over the course of all this time he had come to look at that night as the start of everything horrible that had since befallen his poor Rossiya. As he looked back from these United States and through the distance of the decades, it was all so clear. A great curse was unleashed that night, inundating every corner of his vast homeland. If his comrades could commit such an act, was it any wonder that Stalin could kill upward of twenty million of his own people? No, of course not. On a hot night in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg the individual had become expendable.
Misha was a tall man who walked with the slightest of limps, but over the last fifteen years, of course, he had grown smaller and his gait more halting as his body had settled and lost muscle mass. He'd always been trim, and it was this leanness that had undoubtedly contributed to his longevity and his lack of major illness. His hair, which he had always combed straight back in an elegant manner, had been snow white for more than thirty years, and while it had receded only slightly, it had definitely thinned. His face was narrow and long, his nose simply narrow, while his upper lip was straight and noticeably, almost oddly, small. Since his fifties, the tone of his skin had gone from robust to ruddy to its present parchment color, skin that now hung loosely from his sharp cheekbones. Always a dapper dresser, he wore lightweight gray wool pants and a yellow cashmere sweater over a pressed and starched blue shirt from Brooks Brothers.
Seated in a wrought iron chair on the raised terrace behind his grand, twenty-room house, he stared out over the bluff and at the lake, himself the very image of old Chicago money. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth, for when he'd arrived in the United States in 1920 he'd had but a rucksack, one suitcase, and the clothes he was wearing. And while everyone believed that he'd made his millions on the stock market down at the Chicago Board of Trade, that too was a lie, albeit one that he had carefully cultivated.
Staring out at Lake Michigan, Misha was transfixed by the flashes of light upon the blue water, flashes that sparkled like diamonds. He'd been tormented his entire life because of that night more than eighty years ago, a night which until now he'd never spoken of to anyone except May, his beloved wife. But now he must, now he had no choice. May was already two weeks in the grave, and he was determined to follow her as soon as possible. Before he left this world, however, he had certain obligations, namely, to reveal a kind of truth to their only heir, their lovely granddaughter, Kate. May, who'd also fled Russia after the revolution, fully understood the delicacy of the matter, and even though she'd helped Misha decide just how it might be done, he'd put it off. Now, however, the time had come, he could wait no more: he must give the young woman not simply a way to understand, but a reason to fulfill a pledge he had made so long ago. No, he thought, he had to give her more than a reason. He had to set her on a mission, his mission, otherwise he feared she might flounder in confusion, even despair, and perhaps thereby stumble upon...upon...No, thought Misha, he couldn't let that happen.
He raised his wrist and checked his thick, gold watch, which these days hung so loosely on his thin wrist. It was teatime. And if May were still alive, he would be joining her upstairs. Their maid would bring up a pot of tea, Misha and May would each have exactly two cups, a biscuit or two, and May, who'd been bedridden for the past three years, would reminisce about Russia, as she had done so frequently in her last years, chatting about this and that, but...but...well, she was gone. All that was over. And now Misha needed to take care of this as soon as possible.
Clutching the tape recorder in one of his thin hands, with the other he grabbed the arm of the wrought iron chair and pulled himself forward. With no small amount of effort, he pushed himself to his feet. And then he simply stood there, swaying like a flag in a gentle breeze. Once he'd gained his balance, he started across the flagstones, one hesitant step at a time. At the house, he pulled open one of the French doors, lifted up his foot, focused all his attention on the effort, then stepped into the grand central hallway, a gallery of sorts, that ran from the front to the back of the house. The living room lay immediately to his right, and he carefully made his way into this grand room with its dark-beamed ceiling and matching woodwork. At the far end stood the focal point, the large, stone fireplace amputated from some French château, while a palace-sized Oriental carpet in deep reds and blues ran from one end to the other.
As he moved slowly through the room, Misha wondered what his granddaughter was going to do with it all, these antiques, the oil paintings, the Tiffany sterling and Steuben crystal bric-a-brac that May and he had collected over the decades. Perhaps she and her husband would keep everything, perhaps they would sell it all. He didn't much care, these common things didn't matter. However, the numerous Fabergé items-including the little jade bulldog with the diamond eyes that sat on the coffee table and the cobalt blue enamel opera glasses of the Tsaritsa's sister perched over there on the piano-were an entirely different matter. He'd left detailed instructions in his will, and he prayed Kate would follow his precise instructions. If only his story would induce her to do just that.
On the far side of the living room Misha moved through an arched opening and into his library that was filled with two red leather chairs, a large desk, and a massive built-in walnut bookcase that held his entire collection of books on the Russian royal family. Focused on the task at hand, he went directly to his desk and put down the small black tape recorder, laying it next to a manila folder-his dossier-which contained a variety of historical documents. Sure, a thousand truths, that was what it was going to take to convince his Katya, daughter of his son, which was precisely why he'd carefully collected copies of letters and diary entries and telegrams from that time. And he would not only read from these, but leave the complete dossier for her to peruse, even scrutinize.
Wasting no time, he sat down, opened the top desk drawer, and withdrew a sheet of letterhead. He then took a gold ink pen, and wrote:
August 27, 1998
My Dearest Katya,
This tape and these documents are for you. Perhaps together they will help you understand the complete picture. Please forgive me. Yours forever with love and devotion,
Satisfied, he laid aside the pen and paper. And now he had no choice but to continue, to press on to the end. He reached for the small tape recorder, held the microphone to his dry lips, turned the machine back on, and slid into the past.
"Yes, so as I was saying, my sweet one, I know what happened that horrible night the Romanovs were murdered. But the truth of the matter is that the beginning of the end of my Nikolai and Aleksandra commenced a few weeks earlier, which is to say I'll never forget the twentieth of June, 1918, the day we received the first of the secret notes."Ingenious... Keeps readers guessing through the final pages. (USA Today)
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