art by Cheryl L Owen-Wilson
One Imperial Ruble
by mark budman
April 23, 1879. I just turned nine. That evening, I sat on a wooden zavalinka outside my house. Mosquitoes bit me all over, even through my pants and thick shirt. They could be vicious in East Russia, but I was too busy to pay attention.
A light touch on my shoulder made me jump and turn around. I'm faster than a rattlesnake. I know all about them. They are no mosquitoes. They don't bite unless provoked.
"What are you doing, Vladimir Ulyanov?"
It was my eldest brother, Alexander, or simply Sasha, my idol, resplendent in his high school uniform with its spit-shined brass buttons, each with the Imperial double-headed eagle. He never called me by my nickname, Volodya. Only by my full name. Even adding our family name sometimes.
"I'm playing a game. You wouldn't like it. It's boring for big boys."
I had played this game since I turned six or seven. It required nothing more than sheets of paper, pencil, and eraser. I didn't even need a partner. I drew maps and populated them with warring countries. Not the real, modern countries like the Austro-Hungarian or the German empires, but countries from the past: Assyria, Babylonia, Israel, Macedonia, Burgundia, and so on. Then the countries battled each other. They formed alliances. Huge armies--cavalry, riflemen, canons, baggage trains, field hospitals--crossed the borders. I didn't throw dice or anything like that. I didn't leave anything to chance. I was the absolute, unquestionable ruler. No, not a ruler. Ruler was like a tsar. I was the leader. The alliance I favored at the moment would always win. The maps were re-drawn. The alliances shifted. I would favor another alliance next time. I was the generous and just leader.
Only when I was absolutely stuck and unable to make a decision, I would toss the silver Imperial ruble with the face of our Tsar Alexander II, the ruble that Sasha gave me for good luck.
"May I join?" my brother asked.
I scratched my chin so Sasha couldn't see how hard I had swallowed.
What else could I say?
That game was a disaster. Sasha wanted his alliance to win. I argued. I thought I was quite convincing, eloquent even, but Sasha insisted on winning. That was a revolt. Anarchy. Then Sasha left, I quickly re-drew the maps, letting my own alliance win.
A few months later, I invited my younger sister Olga to play. It was a harsh January day in Simbirsk. The flames danced in the fireplace like drunken peasants.
This game went much better. She wanted to win, too. I could easily gain the upper hand because I controlled the maps, but that would be too easy.
"My country is the country of workers and peasants. Yours is the country of the bourgeoisie. Whom do you want to win, Olga? The exploited or exploiters? The oppressed or the oppressors? The rich or the poor?"
"The poor," she whispered.
When she left, crying, I took out a new piece of paper. I was running out of names for my countries. I had to invent some. I liked America, but the United States had been already taken. I wanted to come up with a name that had the word "union" in it. A soviet--a council--was a nice word, too, but nothing interesting that had both words came to mind.