A Gathering of Black Swans (1897–1917):
Lera Akimova, an incoming third-year student at St. Petersburg’s Bestuzhevskiye Courses for women, is on her way home to Rostov-na-Donu for her younger sister Anya’s gymnasium graduation. With their parents’ blessing, they’re going on a summer holiday to the Crimea. While there, Lera plans to convince Anya to follow her back to St. Petersburg for a higher education, but both sisters instead fall in love with Igor and Ivan Konev, Muscovite brothers also on summer holiday.
After a whirlwind summer romance, the Akimova sisters and Konev brothers are married. Lera is committed to finishing her higher education before becoming a mother, a goal which Igor fully supports. Anya, on the other hand, not only has no desire to pursue higher education of any sort, but becomes pregnant almost immediately.
Far from the upper-middle-class world of the Konevs are sisters Katya and Rita Gammerova, on scholarship to a progressive girls’ gymnasium and working part-time at an upscale clothing store in luxurious department store The Passage. Rita, a brilliant student, is still dreaming of going abroad to a women’s university, but Katya feels it their duty to get out of poverty by marrying up.
All that changes when Katya meets Andrey Fyodorov, a young man in her gymnasium’s male equivalent. The two begin a secret romance, as Andrey promises a rosy future in America. But when Mrs. Gammerova discovers their romance, she convinces Katya to end things and instead marry Leontiy Zhukov. Leontiy is upper-middle-class, and only three years older instead of at least twenty like Katya had feared, but he’s a drunk with terrible manners and morals. Katya also has to prematurely end her gymnasium studies to marry him.
Rita has happier luck, with her academic record and art portfolio earning her a scholarship to a women’s art college in Prussia. Upon her graduation, she pursues missionary work in East Prussia and meets Mikhail Kharzin, another young Russian missionary. Rita is very impressed at how much travelling Mikhail has done, and how he went to boarding school in the wilds of Saskatchewan, Canada. The two are soon married.
In Pskov lives another young couple, Ilya Lebedev and Zhenya Lebedeva, with two young daughters, Galya and Motya. Because of the five-year gap between Motya and the third baby on the way, many of the neighbors have begun regarding them in a lower light. Ilya and Zhenya are afraid to add to the negative gossip by explaining they weren’t using contraception, but just weren’t able to have another child for a long time.
They’re soon making up for lost time, as they’ve had seven daughters by the dawn of the new century, one after the other. Now the neighbors are speaking negatively about their lack of a son, but that doesn’t matter to Ilya and Zhenya. They’re happily raising their all-sister brood in a progressive home where literature, science, philosophy, and politics are discussed every night at the dinner table.
Back in St. Petersburg, Katya has discovered a terrible secret about Leontiy, involving their young daughter Lyuba. Katya is sick to her stomach, but knows she can’t divorce him or go to the authorities. If she becomes a divorcée, she’ll lose both her child and her reputation, and go right back to being poor. Running away with Lyuba to a remote village in Siberia is also out of the question. She has no choice but to learn to turn a blind eye and hope to marry Lyuba off to another man with money as soon as she’s of age.
No longer in St. Petersburg are the Konevs. After Lera finished the Bestuzhevskiye Courses, she and Igor moved back to her native city of Rostov-na-Donu, while Anya and Ivan are in Ivan’s native city of Moskva. Lera and Igor now have a daughter, Liza, and Anya and Ivan have a son named after his father, nicknamed Ivanok.
Anya’s failure to become pregnant again drives Ivan into despair manifested by heavy drinking. He’s also disgusted his only child is left-handed like Igor, a sensitive dreamer who prefers his mother, and not very interested in traditional masculine pursuits. In 1903, shortly after Ivanok’s fifth birthday, Ivan begins physically abusing his son in worse and worse ways. When Anya discovers this, she and Ivan begin having very acrimonious arguments.
After the failed 1905 revolution, Mr. Lebedev is offered a better job in Moskva. Along with his wife and now eight daughters, his brother’s family also relocate. Mr. Lebedev, a great lover of history and literature, is delighted to live a stone’s throw from Novodevichye Monastery and the adjoining new cemetery. He’s able to visit Chekhov’s grave every single day, and the graves of many other important people.
In a nearby corner of the Russian Empire, the failed revolution has proven an important catalyst in the life of young Katrin Nikonova. Her country, Estonia, has long been under various foreign occupations, and her parents are not only content to matter-of-factly accept it, but heartily support it. In spite of her young age, Katrin feels a great longing for her homeland to be free, and for many other unfair laws and customs to be changed.
In early 1908, Anya invites Lera’s family to live with hers, but doesn’t explain the true reason. Lera and Igor are horrified to discover what an abusive monster Ivan has become, but as badly as they want to leave with Liza, they’re too terrified of what might happen to Ivanok and Anya if left alone with this newly-manifested brute. Ivan might begin physically abusing Anya too, not just verbally abusing her.
In St. Petersburg, word has begun getting around about Leontiy’s own drinking, along with rumors about his degenerate depravity towards Lyuba. A decree sentencing him to Siberian banishment is only averted when Ivan, an old acquaintance, pulls some powerful strings behind the scenes and gives Leontiy a position at his liquor store. The Zhukovs move next door to the Konevs.
Young Ivan is immediately head over heels in love with Lyuba, who’s just shy of a year and a half his junior. Lyuba, however, is socially withdrawn and antagonistic towards Ivan. She resists making friends with anyone at her new school, and particularly chafes at having to share a desk with Ivan, who comes right next to her in alphabetical order. Lyuba only warms up to Ivan and regrets her initial behavior when she realizes he’s another wounded soul putting on a façade to the world to hide his pain.
Lyuba and Ivan soon discover one another’s secrets, but know they can’t do anything to protect the other. The most Lyuba can do is help to get Mr. Konev put in prison for public drunkenness. After his brief stay in prison, he’s somewhat scared straight, but continues verbally abusing his wife and son.
Ivan has even less recourse to protecting Lyuba from her abusive father, and helplessly watches the girl he loves being so grotesquely abused by a disgrace to humanity. The only thing he can do is climb into her window every night to comfort her after it’s over. Lyuba, a proud tomboy, surrounds herself by male friends as a protective shield against her father, and brings Ivan and his best friend, Boris Malenkov, home after school every day as a further buffer. It’s a very dark blessing in disguise when she falls ill with diphtheria and Mr. Zhukov goes to the countryside to avoid quarantine.
Ivan is the only boy Lyuba fully trusts, in spite of how many male friends she has, but she pretends she prefers their other best friend Boris. From an early age, Mrs. Zhukova has impressed upon her the great importance of marrying for money and social status. Boris might be chubby, less than handsome, uncouth, and impulsive, but he has practical ambitions. Ivan, meanwhile, is a romantic, sensitive dreamer who longs to become a farmer in America.
In Tartu, Katrin’s social and political awakening have developed right alongside her young womanhood. While her best friend Anastasiya Voroshilova dreams of becoming a famous fashion designer and spends much of her free time drawing in her large sketchbooks, Katrin has been reading advanced books, following the news religiously, learning many languages, and sneaking into adult meetings. Her other best friend, Eliisabet Kutuzova, shares some of her ideas, but it’s Katrin’s little sister Viktoriya who’s most closely cut from the same cloth.
Dark clouds are visited upon the Konev house in 1913 when Liza dies of measles encephalitis. An even more horrific tragedy occurs the next year, when Mr. Konev murders his own brother Igor in a fit of drunken rage. Valeriya can bear no more of living under this grotesque man’s roof, and moves home to Rostov-na-Donu.
With the outbreak of war in 1914, Rita (now Mrs. Kharzina) and her seven-year-old son Mikhail Grigoriy, nicknamed Ginny, flee the hostile East Prussia for the relative safety of home. Though Mrs. Kharzina wants to be near her sister, she refuses to live under the same roof as Mr. Zhukov, let alone with her child. She enrolls Ginny in the primary school attached to Lyuba’s gymnasium, but finds an apartment in another part of town. To support herself while her husband is away at war, she joins her sister at the cloth factory.
The outbreak of war has also brought with it prohibition, forcing Mr. Konev to give up his successful liquor store and go into the black market as a bootlegger. But next to everything else happening, prohibition is a minor bump in the road. Lyuba, Ivan, and most of their friends find themselves increasingly at odds with the winds of discontent against the Tsar, both at their very left-wing gymnasium and in Moskva at large.
The political situation hasn’t been good to the pro-monarchist Lebedevs either. All the adults, and the oldest of now ten daughters, have aroused many negative feelings by publicly voicing their unweilding support of the Tsar. However, that pales next to the devastating loss of Mr. Lebedev’s nephew and younger niece, and the unwanted paper marriage seventh-born daughter Alla has been forced into.
Shortly after the February Revolution of 1917, Ivan gets the courage to take matters into his own hands and get Lyuba away from her abusive father. Their freedom is short-lived, but the night they escape, Lyuba finally admits she loves Ivan, and they begin a clandestine romance. Even better, Mr. Zhukov soon leaves for the front.
In Tartu, Katrin, Anastasiya, and Eliisabet’s fathers are all offered jobs in Moskva. While Katrin is sad to leave her belovèd Estonia, she’s thrilled to be heading to the center of the brewing storm. Now she’ll finally have a front-row seat as she helps to turn the world upside-down.
Ivan too sees the storm clouds on the horizon, but he wants to get as far away from them as possible. Confident Lyuba will say yes, he asks her to marry him and run away to America. Little does he realize the new parade of horrors about to unfold for both of them.