Posted in 1920s, Historical fiction, Karla, Katya Chernomyrdina, Naina, Russian novel sequel, Secondary characters, Writing

Good News at Mrs. Brezhneva’s Orphanage

This is the second of 20 posts which were originally put together and put into the drafts folder on 24 June 2012, for future installments of the now-long-discontinued Sweet Saturday Samples bloghop. The published version is slightly different, most notably in being stripped of the pedantic accent marks.

Chapter 15 of The Twelfth Time, “Tales Out of Kiyev,” is one of several chapters focused around some of the letters exchanged between Vera and Natalya Lebedeva in New York, their old friend Inessa Zyuganova, who now lives in Minsk with her uncle Dima and several other girls he adopted, and their friend Inna Zhirinovskaya, who’s remained in Kiyev even after reaching age 18, to be an orphanage helper and to study at St. Vladimir University (now Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv).

During the course of the chapter, the sequel’s storyline involving Naina Yezhova, Katya Chernomyrdina, and Karla Gorbachëva starts unfolding. The girls have gotten permission to leave the orphanage in early January 1926, but it’s going to be awhile before they can go to North America, and there’s going to be quite a bump in the road along the way.


Mrs. Brézhneva surveys her dining hall in disgust. Some of the Jewish and Christian girls are praying over their food, the religious Jewish girls are complaining the food isn’t kosher, the Muslim girls are protesting they can’t eat pork either, several girls are claiming vegetarianism, and Alína is leading the Georgian girls in clamoring for Georgian food instead of only Russian and Ukrainian fare. Hoping to put their minds on something more productive, she raps on the table. After twenty raps, she finally gains everyone’s attention.

“We have a going-away party to prepare for. Three of our seasoned residents, Kátya Chernomyrdina, Naína Yezhova, and Kárla Gorbachëva, have received permission from both me and the appropriate authorities to leave our wondrous orphanage. They’re going to stay here in the Ukraine until they receive permission to immigrate to America. The going-away party is going to be tomorrow, so you’d all better start making them farewell cards, presents, and meals as soon as you’ve cleared the table.”

“How’d you manage to get the old ape’s permission to leave underage?” Alína asks, smirking triumphantly at Mrs. Brézhneva’s angered facial expression. “Maybe this opens up the door for me to go home to Georgia.”

“I’m eighteen now,” Kátya says. “No one has any legal right to hold me here any longer, and damned if I’m leaving without Naína and Kárla.”

“I guess we have no choice but to immigrate the legal way,” fourteen-year-old Naína says, sighing and rolling her eyes in a very exaggerated fashion. “We’ve always been masters of escape and guile, but we don’t want to start out such an important part of our lives on a lie or crime. If they catch us stowing away on a boat or train, there will be consequences. Even if it means waiting awhile, it’s better than remaining hostages here.”

“How does it feel to hear your inmates describing themselves as hostages, you old gorilla?” Ohanna sneers. “Wondrous orphanage’ my eye.”

“You’re describing me as the gorilla and ape?” Mrs. Brézhneva asks. “Maybe I’m not fit to sit at the Queen of England’s table, but at least I come from a civilized, modern culture, and my alphabet isn’t nightmare-inducing.”

“I believe both Alína and I were referring to your physical appearance and your terrible short haircut, which has always looked like an ape cut it. But since you brought up this subject, the Georgian and Armenian alphabets are beautiful works of art. Your alphabet is pretty damn boring, even if it’s not as bland as the Roman alphabet I’ve seen. And our respective cultures were here and thriving when Russia was still some backwoods trash heap. My people were the first to adopt Christianity, though perhaps in your mind it’s an honor to be part of the first people to abandon all religion.”

“I hope we find my mama in America,” Kárla says. “We don’t think any of our fathers or uncles are still around, but maybe my mother is still here. I don’t know what happened to Naína or Kátya’s mothers, but Naína thinks my mama has the best chance to still be alive and have escaped.”

“Just think, we’ll be going to a real school in America or Canada,” Naína says. “Don’t give me that look, Mrs. Brézhneva. You know full well the excuse of an education we’re getting here doesn’t even compare to an actual school, with trained teachers and real textbooks and homework.”

“I’m glad to wash my hands of you trouble-makers, but don’t fool yourselves into thinking you’ll pick up exactly where you left off before the state stepped in to feed, clothe, house, and educate you.  You only know Russian and Ukrainian. It takes years to get fluent enough in a much different language to keep up with instruction in that language. Although I suppose at least English isn’t as far from Russian as Chinese or Finnish.”

“We’re young. We’ll manage. And Kárla’s only eight. Before long we’ll be masters. But we’re not banking on getting the hell out of this blasted empire as fast as we got permission to beat it out of this hellhole. It takes awhile to get cleared to immigrate, particularly now.”

“I’m hoping they take pity on our sob story,” Kátya says. “And we’re young. Even if America has racist immigration quotas and the Soviet Union isn’t handing out escape passes like candy, I’m sure they’ll let us move up in the line faster because we’re all alone in this world and were raised in orphanages.”

Posted in 1930s, Couples, Historical fiction, Religion, Third Russian novel, Writing

Sweet Saturday Samples—Persian Wedding

In loving memory of my paternal grandpap, who passed from this life eight years ago today.

Welcome back to Sweet Saturday Samples! This week’s excerpt is from my current WIP, Journey Through a Dark Forest, Chapter 42, “Spring Renewal.” This particular section of the chapter is set in June 1938, as 31-year-old Inna Zhirinovskaya finally ends her spinsterhood by marrying smitten former prince Arkadiy (Arkasha) Orlov. Arkasha has been in Persia since 1918, when he was 13 years old, but Inna only arrived in June 1937, when she, her old orphanage mother, and some of the orphanage children and workers defected from the USSR by stealth.

The Persian chapters and sections in this book are among my favorite to write, partly because of my own connection to an Iranian family, many years ago, and partly because it’s an entirely new area for my writing to be set. The Soviet characters who’ve escaped to Persia have settled in Isfahan, a beautiful, historic city that was the capital for many years. I felt putting them in Tehran would be too expected and boring.


Though Ínna and Arkásha don’t have a drop of Persian blood in them, they’ve decided to inject a Persian flavor into their wedding.  On the first weekend in June, Ínna sets out from the orphanage in a horse-drawn cart, heading for Arkásha’s courtyard.  Arkásha commissioned a seamstress to design a bright red gown with blue and white flowers, topped off by a delicate red and turquoise veil and a matching necklace and earrings, plus the necklace from Aden.  This is by far the fanciest thing Ínna has ever draped herself in, even fancier than the gown she bought for her birthday.

“Are you sure you couldn’t have worn white?” Ohanna teases. “I thought Russian brides preferred that color nowadays.”

“When would I have ever had the opportunity to sleep with a man?  Besides, I like the bright colors non-Western brides wear.  I’d never want to publicly let everyone know about my chastity anyway.”

“You’re going to love being able to do more than just kiss,” Alína says. “But don’t feel you have to do everything tonight.  Amiran didn’t want to scare or overwhelm me with too much at once.  He wanted to make sure I was used to everything.  If Arkásha tries to make you do anything you don’t want, a well-placed knee will get him to back off instantly.”

Ínna giggles. “Somehow I can picture you doing just that.”

“Will Arkásha mind you’re not wearing your eyeglasses?” Izabella asks. “He seems to like you more when you wear them.”

“I wear them enough.  No bride wants to wear glasses on her own wedding day.  It looks less attractive in pictures and doesn’t match with a wedding gown.”

When they reach the courtyard, Vítya steps forward to help her down, then helps down Mrs. Brézhneva, Velira, and the others.  She’s proud to see her brother in formal clothes for the first time in his life.  Even when he married Mánya, he only wore a starched blue shirt and pressed black pants with leather shoes.  She can only assume Arkásha has also paid for the tailor to make Vítya’s first and only suit.

Two large, overstuffed purple velvet cushions are set before a long blue satin cloth embroidered with gold and set with a mirror flanked by candelabras; a silver tray piled high with seven brightly-colored spices; baskets of pomegranates, walnuts, hazelnuts, Jordan almonds, decorated eggs, and apples; a large nan-e sangak inscribed with the traditional wedding blessing, “Mobarak Baad,” in cinnamon; a bowl made from crystallized sugar; silver bowls of rosewater and golden coins; a brazier of burning coals sprinkled with wild rue incense; a golden cup of honey; two sugar cones; numerous platters of pastries and sweets; and Arkásha’s old family Bible on an orange and green prayer rug.  All around the courtyard and the sofreh aghed, urns of vibrant flowers have been placed.

Ínna has a seat to Arkásha’s right, smiling nervously at her intended, as a blue and lavender silk cloth is held over their heads by Firuza, Mrs. Brézhneva, Maral, Alína, Ohanna, and Izabella.  Zavik stands behind them, grinding together the sugar cones over the cloth to symbolize sweetness pouring down on their heads.  To satisfy the demands of the anti-religious shah, a notary public will perform the legal part of the ceremony, while one of the rare few Russian Orthodox priests in Persia will see to the religious side of things.  Ínna hasn’t seen a priest in a good twenty years and doesn’t feel any affinity towards any sort of religion anymore, but thinks it’s a nice symbolic gesture to honor her roots.

Posted in 1930s, Historical fiction, Third Russian novel, Writing

Sweet Saturday Samples—Armenian Wedding

Welcome back to Sweet Saturday Samples! This week’s excerpt is from my current WIP, Journey Through a Dark Forest, Chapter 42, “Spring Renewal.” It’s May 1938, and former orphanage girl Izabella Nahigian is preparing to finally marry at the then-high age of 27. She, her young single mother Maral (a former cook at her childhood orphanage), and some friends defected to Persia from the Soviet Union last year by going over the Alborz Mountains. They’ve settled in Fereydan in Isfahan Province, a town with a large Armenian and Georgian population.

It’s a traditional Armenian pre-wedding custom for single ladies to sign the bottom of the bride’s shoes. As each one eventually marries, the bride crosses the names off. Mrs. Brezhneva is their old orphanage mother, one of my favorite secondary characters since I created her in late ’96.


After all the single women and young girls have signed the shoes, Izabella takes her red veil from its box and swings it over their heads for good luck.  Following this, Firuza steps forward to veil her.  Izabella doesn’t care she’s not Armenian or even Christian.  All that’s important is that she’s been married for many years and has been very welcoming to them.  In a way, she feels closer to Firuza because of her shared Russian connection, something she doesn’t have with most of the Armenian women of Fereydan.

Ohanna opens a drawer and pulls out a necklace with a blue glass eye pendant, meant to ward off the evil eye.  She fastens it around Izabella’s neck and tucks the charm inside the bright red dress.

“I suppose your proper Soviet upbringing didn’t really take,” Mrs. Brézhneva says. “Superstition has no place in the modern world.”

“This is a one-time thing for a wedding, not an everyday occurrence,” Ohanna retorts. “You’ll never catch us doing superstitious things at any other time.”

Izabella picks up a wooden box and carries it around, letting everyone look inside at the wedding crowns.  Mrs. Brézhneva looks wistful for a moment, then reverts to her usual world-weary expression.

“We know how old you are,” Ínna says softly. “No one would be surprised to be told you had an Orthodox wedding and used to attend church.”

“My husband didn’t have much money, and my family certainly didn’t earn much either.  We had to rent our crowns from the church.  Whoever heard of a peasant buying and displaying the wedding crowns?  That’s something for rich folks.  Please don’t tell me you’re reverting back to religion too and are having a religious ceremony when it’s your turn soon.”

“Arkásha wants it to have a more Persian than Christian flavor.  Why should we be married by some scarce priest when we’re not even religious?”

“Oh, your young man used to be a prince.  I’m sure he’ll want to show off his money and prestige by throwing an extravagant wedding.  People can be strange like that.  They insist their roots don’t matter, and then they have a funny sentimental longing for something at important moments.  It’s as irrational as when Alína called me to her birth.”

“Oh, that meant a lot to her.  Perhaps Tamar will eventually call you Bebia.  Wouldn’t you like to be acknowledged as someone’s grandmother, even if it’s only in a surrogate role?”

“I’m no one’s grandmother.”

Velira tugs at a crown. “Can I wear it?”

Izabella sets the box down and gently puts the crown on Velira’s head. “Maybe someday you’ll be married in a religious wedding, and you’ll get to have a crown on your head too.”

Tyotya Ínnushka is going to be a real princess when she gets married.  She needs to wear a real crown too.”

“We’ll see what happens then.  In the meantime, we have to go to the church for my own wedding, or Zavik might think I jilted him.”

Firuza lowers the veil over Izabella’s face, and then the party proceeds to the church.  Maral takes Izabella’s arm and walks her to the vestibule, where Zavik is already waiting with his groomsmen.

“Remember this is my only child,” Maral reminds him. “We survived the Turks together.  You’re going to treat her better than anyone, and never forget what a precious trust I’m giving to you.”

“I’ll do my best, Tikin Nahigian.  I don’t have any immediate family except a few distant relatives.  We’re going to make the best new family we can.”

As Ínna stands with Ohanna and Alína during the ceremony, she can’t help but picture Izabella as she was when she first came to the orphanage with her mother not quite eighteen years ago.  Not only did she seem more like a little girl instead of a peer, but she was so matter-of-fact about having survived the Turkish massacres, being the child of a rapist, and having whiplash scars on her back.  That was what she knew as normal at that young age, since she’d never really known much that was normal.  Now, hopefully, she can start to create a somewhat normal life for herself in a peaceful country and surrounded by love and support.

Posted in 1930s, Birthdays, Contests, Historical fiction, Secondary characters, Third Russian novel, Writing

World Building Excerpt

World Building

Today, the final day of the World Building Blogfest, participants are posting excerpts of a thousand words or under, demonstrating worldbuilding. This is May 1937 in Yerevan. Alina has taken 5-year-old Siranoush on a walk around the neighborhood and to the fairly new Yerevan Botanical Garden, each teaching the other words in their respective native languages, while Ohanna is preparing the Armenian version of a modest birthday celebration for Alina.

Before she left Georgia, Alina found a birthday present her husband Amiran got for her before his arrest, but hasn’t had the heart to open it.


Siranoush makes a beeline for the water closet the moment they get back to the apartment while Alína has a seat on the davenport and looks through the Russian-language newspaper.  Ohanna has an atlas open on the coffeetable, displaying the pages with Persia and Transcaucasia.

“I can’t decide which route is safest for us,” Ohanna says. “I’d prefer to go through the mountains instead of along a water route like the Araks River.  I just think it’s a little safer and more reliable to go through land.  At least we’ll be better-hidden on the mountains, if we know which route to go through.  For a river or the sea, we’d have to find a trustworthy sailor or a ship to smuggle aboard, and then find a way to get off the ship in Persia, if we’re not supposed to be on the ship.  And I’m not such a strong swimmer to make a river crossing alone.”

“What if we planned to take a ship during a storm?  The authorities might believe we got lost or died at sea.”

“That’s too risky.  I hope we don’t have to go through another republic to get to the best mountains, though if we wait a little longer, till June, people might be more inclined to believe we’re going on some long summer holiday with so many suitcases.”

Siranoush scampers back into the living room and has a seat next to Alína. She points to Alína’s abdomen and then points towards Ohanna.

“What word does she want?  I don’t even look pregnant at this point, though I don’t mind if you told her I’m expecting a baby.”

Ohanna speaks with Siranoush and smiles. “She wants to know what your baby’s name will be.”

“Oh, I have no idea.  It seems kind of superstitious to announce a name so far ahead of time, though I do have some names I’d really like to use.  Amiran and I always wanted to named our children after heroes of Georgian history, like Queen Tamar and King Davit the Builder.  I couldn’t give my baby a Russian name, even if my own name was borrowed from Russian.  Only native Georgian names, so long as they’re not too obscure.”

“Tamar and Davit are nice names.  It helps that they’re also Biblical.  It gives them a more universal feel.  I don’t think my name has an equivalent in any other languages.”

Alína puts down the paper and looks through the Russian-language atlas. “I’m not familiar with Armenian geography, but I know some of these names sound more Russian than Armenian.  I know Leninakan definitely isn’t a traditional Armenian city name.”

“A lot of the streets have Russian names too, as you probably noticed.  They’re forcing themselves on us after our brief glorious moment of independence.  This was supposed to be a homecoming, not a short-lived time of happiness and freedom.”

Alína tries to enjoy the lunch Ohanna prepares for her, though she still feels a bit guilty for eating well when Amiran is forced to eat prison food.  The food from the bazaar can only last so long, and he can’t eat like a king even with the most succulent fruits, freshest bread and cheese, and crunchiest nuts.  That’s not a filling, full-course supra.

When Izabella and Maral come home in the late afternoon, Alína is taking a bath, at Ohanna’s insistence, while smells of the birthday dinner waft through the apartment.  By the time she dries herself and emerges in fresh clothes, several parcels, including Amiran’s, are sitting on the table, and the modest table is groaning under the weight of the lavish birthday supper Ohanna has prepared.  Chechil, topig, lebaneh, mint tea, paklava, fruit salad made of pomegranates, figs, dates, persimmons, and plums, chicken in walnut sauce, stuffed mushrooms, pistachios, bozbash, matnakash, pilaf, fried cabbage, and a cake made with pomegranate molasses, currants, cranberries, dates, apricots, and figs.

“I hope you like it, even if it’s not the type of banquet fit for a sultan’s table,” Ohanna says. “At any rate, it sure beats those awful rations Mrs. Brézhneva used to swear were gourmet cooking.”

“It’s very nice,” Alína says. “Thank you so much for thinking about me.”

“Next year on your birthday, we’ll be celebrating in freedom and safety.  And there will be two new people at the table by next May, which will be even more special to celebrate.”

Alína reaches for the parcel with Izabella’s name on it, which she recognizes from when Ohanna taught her how to read Armenian back at the orphanage.  She unwraps a lace headscarf along with a little birthday note.  From Ohanna and Siranoush she unwraps a red cloth with am embroidered geometric motif, and from Maral she unwraps a wall tapestry embroidered with flowers and tiny animals.  She decides to leave Amiran’s parcel alone until after she’s finished eating.

After the dinner, Alína timidly picks up Amiran’s parcel and slowly pulls off the thick paper wrapping.  Inside the box, she finds a green, purple, and yellow felt bag, a large jewelry box depicting several scenes in miniature from the Vani Gospels, with lines calligraphed in the old Nuskhuri alphabet used in that beautiful old illuminated manuscript, and a golden necklace with a teardrop-shaped emerald pendant ringed by tiny onyxes.  At the bottom of the box is a handwritten note in the more familiar, modern Mkhedruli script.