Russka is the story of four families who are divided by ethnicity but united in shaping the destiny of Russia. From a single riverside village situated at one of the country’s geographic crossroads, Russia’s Slav peasant origins are influenced by the Greco-Iranian, Khazar, Jewish, and Mongol invasions. Unified by this one place, the many cultures blend to form a rich and varied tapestry.
Rutherfurd’s grand saga is as multifaceted as Russia itself: harsh yet exotic, proud yet fearful of enemies, steeped in ancient superstitions but always seeking to shape the emerging world. Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, and Lenin all play their roles in creating and destroying the land and its people.
In Russka, Edward Rutherfurd has transformed the epic history of a great civilization into a human story of flesh and blood.
Release date: August 24, 2011
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Print pages: 960
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Forest and Steppe
The steppe was quiet that night. So was the forest.
Softly the wind moved over the land.
In the hut—one of six that nestled together in the little hamlet by the river—the sleeping mother lay with her child.
She had no sense of danger.
High in the starlit summer sky, pale clouds passed from time to time, drifting in a leisurely procession, glowing softly in the reflection of a crescent moon that rode to the south.
Like horsemen they came from the east with their billowing white canopies, from who knew what endless steppes—sweeping majestically over the little collection of huts by the river’s edge and continuing their journey behind the hamlet over the dark forest that very likely was also without end.
The hamlet lay on the southeastern bank of the stream. There, the woods of oak and lime, pine and birch grew thinner, gradually giving way to glades and the broad stretches of open grassland that were the outermost edges of the mighty steppe. Across the small river, on the northwest bank, the forest was thick, dark, and unbroken.
The three families who inhabited the place had arrived five summers before and, finding there an ancient, deserted earthwork enclosure overgrown with scrub, had cleared it, put up a wooden palisade on the low earth wall, and built half a dozen huts inside. Nearby, two large fields cut untidy swaths into the trees. Farther into the woods, a messy patchwork of smaller clearings appeared.
A few hundred yards downstream, the land on both sides became marshy and remained so for a couple of miles.
Softly the wind moved over the land. It caressed the tops of the trees, so that the light undersides of the leaves shimmered pale in the starlight. The waters of the winding river and the marsh glimmered in the woods.
There were few sounds except for the gentle stirring of the leaves. Here and there might be heard the sounds of small animals, or of the deer quietly walking. At a certain point near the marsh, against the monotonous background of the frogs’ croaking, an attentive ear might have picked up the crackle of a bear making its way along the wood’s edge. But by the hamlet the only sound was that of the leaves, and the intermittent rustle as the breeze stroked the long field of barley, sending a ripple like a momentary shiver down its length.
The wind moved, yet did not move. For sometimes the field stood still, or swayed in another direction, as though the wind from the east had paused, lazily, before brushing the ripened barley once again.
It was the year A.D. 180—and yet it was not. That is to say, although future times would give to this year such a number, as yet the Christian calendar was not in use. Far south, in the Roman province of Judea where Jesus of Nazareth had lived, learned Jewish rabbis had calculated that it was the year A.M. 3940. It was also the one hundred tenth year since the destruction of Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the mighty Roman Empire, it was the twentieth and last year of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, also the first year of the single rule of Commodus. In Persia it was the year 491 of the Seleucid era.
What year was it here then, in the tiny hamlet at the forest’s edge? So far as history is aware, it was not any year. It was five years since the last village elder died. The huge systems of numbering familiar to the civilized world, and kept in written texts, were unknown here.
For this was the land that would one day be known as Russia.
Softly the wind moved over the land.
She lay with her little boy. The worrying thoughts of the day before had passed from her mind in sleep like the pale clouds receding over the forest behind the river. She slept at peace.
There were twelve people sleeping in the hut. Five of them, including Lebed and her child, lay on the broad shelf that ran across the room over the big stove. On this warm summer night the stove was unlit. The air was thick with the sweet, earthy smell—not unpleasant—of folk who have worked all day in the field harvesting. To this was added the fresh scent of grasses carried in by the breeze through the square, open frame of the window.
She lay at one end of the wooden shelf—a lowly position—because she was the most junior of her husband’s wives. She was twenty-seven, no longer young. Her face was broad and her body had already developed a stocky roundness at the hips. Her thick fair hair had slid over the edge of the shelf.
Beside her, in the curve of her plump arm, lay a little boy of five. She had had other children before him, but they had died, and so he was all she possessed.
She had been fifteen when she married and she had always known that her husband had only taken her because she was strong: she was there to work. But she had few complaints. He was not unkind. Still a tall, good-looking man at forty, his weather-beaten face had something soft, even wistful about it, and usually when he saw her his light blue eyes would gleam with a gentle, mocking amusement as he called, “Here comes my Mordvinian.”
With him, it was a term of affection. With the others, however, it was not.
For Lebed was not a full member of the tribe. To her husband’s clan she was a half-breed: after all, what was her mother—one of the forest folk? A Mordvinian?
Since time began, the forests and marshes that stretched northward for hundreds of miles had contained the scattered tribes of Finno-Ugrian peoples to which her mother’s tribe belonged. Broad-faced Mongoloid folk with yellowish skins, they hunted and fished in those huge, deserted regions, living a primitive existence in their little huts and pit dwellings. At the solstice they would stand in a circle and sing, in a high, harsh, nasal chant, to the pale sun who, as one traveled farther north, would scarcely show his face in winter and in summer would deny the earth her nightly rest as he bathed the land in a long, white twilight and made the horizon tremble with pale flashes.
In recent times her husband’s people—fair-skinned folk speaking a Slavic tongue—had been sending out little colonies east and north into this forest. Some of these, like her husband’s clan, cultivated fields and kept cattle. When these Slavs and the primitive Finns encountered each other in those vast regions, there was seldom any conflict. There was land and hunting enough for ten thousand times their numbers. Marriages like her mother’s took place. But the settlers of the hamlet looked down upon the forest folk all the same.
It was her husband’s joke to call her by the name not of her mother’s little tribe, but of the great tribe of Mordvinians that lay far to the north. It made her sound more foreign, even though she was half pure Slav. And, she reflected sadly, it reminded the rest of the clan to look down on her.
Especially her mother-in-law. For nearly thirteen years her large, powerful figure had loomed over Lebed’s life like a threatening cloudbank in the sky. Sometimes, for days at a time, the other woman’s leonine face with its big, heavy cheeks would seem to be serene, even friendly. But then some small mistake on her part—a spindle dropped, sour cream spilled—would call forth a thundering rage. The other women of the house would be silent, either looking down at the floor or watching her furtively. And she knew that they were glad—both that they had escaped and that the anger was falling on her, the outsider. After the burst of rage, her mother-in-law would abruptly tell her to get back to work and then turn to the rest of them with a shrug.
“What can you expect from a poor Mordvinian?”
It was easy to bear. But her own family made it harder. Both her parents had died the previous year, leaving only her and a younger brother. And it was he who had made her weep the day before.
He meant no harm. But he was always in trouble with the village elder. His broad, slightly foolish face was always smiling, even when he was drunk: and he seemed to have only two desires in life—to hunt and to please his little nephew.
“Kiy doesn’t need you,” she would tell him, “and nor do I if you won’t obey the elder.” But it was useless. He hated the work in the fields, would disappear for days into the forest without permission—while the villagers muttered about him angrily—and then she would suddenly see his strong, square form come striding back, with a dozen pelts hanging from his belt and his habitual, foolish smile on his face. The elder would curse him and her mother-in-law would look at her with renewed disgust, as if it were her fault.
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