Summary: A brave freedom fighter against the Russian Tsar meets a legendary witch. She promises him that the revolution will be successful, and he will become the greatest leader who ever lived. It’s too good an offer for him to turn down, but he might regret it later. Also, see the book recommendations at the end of the post.
The Soviet Union’s Man of Steel, a man without a heart.
The Man of Steel – Part 1
Governate of Georgia in The Russian Empire, July 1906.
Soso dives deeper into the woods, the shouts of men and thunder of horses close behind him. Alone and armed only with a pistol, Soso is in no position to fight the imperial soldiers in hot pursuit.
He’s a wiry young man of 26 with lush black hair and rugged features, earning him the admiration of the opposite sex since he was a boy. As a Bolshevik and close accomplice of Lenin, he’s also a skilled fighter and revolutionary. But none of that will help him now. Soso leaps ankle-deep into a stream, hoping to escape into the thick canopy of trees on the other side. About halfway across, the revolver slips from his waistband and drops into the water with a splash. Soso curses and fumbles after it, but there’s no time to stop and search for the gun. He has to keep moving.
Soso races out of the stream and into the trees. He can already hear the horses splashing across the creek. Despite his best efforts, he can’t outrun them. So he does the next best thing. Soso hides in a shallow depression concealed by tall grass. Cavalry tear past him, unaware he’s stopped. One of the soldiers pauses just a few steps away. Soso freezes, not daring to move a muscle. He doesn’t even breathe. To his relief, the soldier continues after his peers.
Safe for the moment, Soso relaxes. He would like to double back the way he came before his enemies notice they passed him. Or at least his mind would like to. His body isn’t cooperating. Soso is hungry, thirsty and exhausted. He slips into a deep sleep.
Soso awakens and bolts upright. Hours have passed and the sun is setting. There’s no sign of the soldiers. Not wanting to be trapped in the wilderness at night, Soso staggers to his feet. In the chase he lost his bearings. If he can find the stream, he’ll be able to retrace his steps back to the road. He spends 20 minutes searching, but to no avail. Soso realizes he went the wrong way, wandering even deeper into the forest.
He looks up at the sun disappearing in the treetops. One of the black silhouettes doesn’t look right. It’s not a tree at all. It’s a house, a very tall one. He can see the thatch roof and a crooked chimney coughing little poofs of smoke into the darkening sky. The chance of making it home becoming less likely with each passing minute, Soso considers stopping here tonight. There’s still no sign of the soldiers, they must have given up and returned to the city. Asking for shelter for the night seems like the best option.
As he nears the house, he realizes it’s not tall, or at least not in the way he thought. It’s a simple one-room cabin. But the house is standing on two giant chicken legs.
He should reconsider the wisdom of approaching it, but the chicken-legged house feels strangely inviting. As if in confirmation of this, the front door swings open and a rickety staircase rolls out like a tongue. Soso uneasily closes the distance, stopping at the foot of the stairs. He looks over at the legs. They’re real and alive. The trunks of talons, scales, and feathers sway gently, like a living animal.
Soso ascends the stairs and steps into the house. The door slams behind him. He looks around. There’s a bed, a table and chairs, and a traditional tile stove on the far side of the room.
A woman dressed in rags is hunched in front of the stove. She turns around, and Soso finds himself face-to-face with the most hideous old hag he’s ever laid eyes on. Her skin is leathery and covered in warts. Her hair is white and straggly with a face misshapen. Her breasts are sagging almost down to her navel. All her openings smell foul, assaulting Soso’s nostrils from across the room.
She licks her lips and grins hungrily, showing a mouth full of iron teeth. Soso recognizes her.
It’s the Baba Yaga.
He can’t believe his eyes, this is impossible. The Baba Yaga is a fairy tale for children. She doesn’t exist. Yet here she is standing before him.
The Baba Yaga is an ancient figure with origins no one can quite pinpoint and also full of contradictions. She rides a giant, magical cooking mortar through the forest, pestle in one hand, broom in the other, to catch unwary travelers and eat them. The Baba Yaga is cruel and treacherous yet can be strangely helpful when she. At one moment she might try to shove a virtuous Russian girl into the stove, then the very next moment offer her a gift that saves her life.
“You’re staring like you’ve seen a ghost.” The Baba Yaga cackles. “Do frail old women frighten you?”
“I’m sorry to intrude uninvited,” Soso says carefully.
“Who said you were uninvited?” She opens her stove, revealing the scorching fire inside. “Even in the summer it gets cold at night. Would you like to warm yourself?”
“I’m fine over here.”
“Then at least eat something. You must be starved.” The Baba Yaga scoops steaming broth into a wooden bowl and sets it on the table. It’s probably unwise to be rude in these circumstances, and he is starving. He goes to a chair and reluctantly sits down. Soso jumps in fright as the chair wriggles under the table by itself. “Relax and fill your stomach!” she insists.
He looks down at the bowl. It’s meat mixed with vegetables. Soso tries her soup and is surprised by how good it is. The meat is tender and well-seasoned, he wastes no time gobbling it down. The Baba Yaga brings her ladle and gives him another portion. Soso is halfway through that one as well in under a minute. She sits down across the table from him.
“I appreciate your hospitality.” He says between bites. “But there might be danger. I’m on the run from armed men. They could follow me here.”
“Those soldiers won’t be bothering you anymore.” The Baba Yaga assures him.
“They went back home?”
“No. I killed them all and turned them into soup!”
Soso stops chewing. He feels the bits of meat between his teeth. Men. He’s eating men! His stomach lurches and he spews broth across the table. The Baba Yaga doubles over and laughs at her prank.
“What do you want from me?” He demands.
“Clearly not meat.” She smirks. “I have enough of that already. I want to help you.”
“How? Are you going to eat the entire Imperial Army?”
“That would be ridiculous, even for me.”
“Your little revolution,” she says. “Tell me about it.”
“We’re stirring up the proletariat against feudalism, just like Marx explained in Capital,” Soso explains. “Once we’ve awakened the class consciousness, we’ll overthrow the Tsar and establish an egalitarian, stateless society. All men and women will be equal. No more aristocrats, capitalists or landowners. Just workers standing together. Once everyone sees that our revolution will spread across the world.”
“Sounds like a fairy tale,” the Baba Yaga cackles.
“You brought me here just to insult me?”
“Not at all. Your plan just isn’t going to work. Marxism requires a fundamental change in the rules. You’re asking men to go against the instincts they’ve had since they were trading furs for sheep’s wool.”
“Then what about last year?” Soso frowns indignantly.
“Oh, yes. St. Petersburg. Odessa. Battleship Potemkin. How did that work out?”
“We failed but proved how weak the tyrants are. We’ll win next time.”
“You probably will,” she agrees. “But not for the reasons you think. The people are on your side now because they hate the Tsar, not because they love Marx. Once the Tsar is gone, what then?”
“Lenin is a great leader. He’ll figure things out.”
“And yet I brought you here, and not him.”
“Why?” Soso asks. “What’s so special about me?”
“You have something I want. And I have something I can give you in return.”
“What, more man soup?”
“No.” She laughs. “A revolution that’s more successful than you could have imagined. This revolution will give birth to the mightiest nation that ever existed.”
“We’re not trying to build a nation,” Soso objects. “This is a class struggle.”
“This is something much better than a mere class struggle. This will be a nation that transcends nations. It won’t even be a nation at all. It’ll be a union. The Christian God feared mankind, so he confused men’s languages and scattered them. Your revolution will bring men back together again under one red flag.”
“And that’s exactly what I want.”
“Is it, though? I think you want more than that. And I can give it to you.”
“What?” he asks.
“The revolution isn’t enough. You never were a bystander, were you, Soso? You want to be in control.”
“This is the most important moment of your life, dear,” the Baba Yaga cackles. “It’s time to be honest. Do you want power or not?”
“I thought as much. You remember from seminary school, before you were expelled that is, what Christ said about the faith of a mustard seed?”
“A man with the faith of a mustard seed can move mountains,” Soso says. “But Christianity is a bunch of nonsense. I realized that when I read Marx.”
“Christianity may or may not be true, but that part is. You are that man. You’ll be able to move mountains. You’ll be the greatest leader who ever lived. There won’t be anything you cannot do. There will be no enemy you can’t defeat, no army that you can’t crush. You’ll be invincible. You’ll be a man of steel.”
“All that sounds very appealing. But what do you want in return?”
“I want your heart. Give me your heart, and everything you’ve ever dreamed of, everything you’ve ever wanted, and so much more will come true.”
“But how am I supposed to be a leader if I’m dead? I can’t live without my heart. I would just fall over.”
“So I’ll just be walking around without a heart? That’s silly.”
“Silly or not, that’s the pact I’m offering you. Take it or leave it.”
“What are you going to do with my heart?” Soso scoffs. “Eat it?”
“There’ll be a day when you understand.”
“This is all very difficult to believe.” He’s skeptical.
“So is a house on chicken legs. Do you agree or not?”
As absurd as all this is, it’s too tempting for Soso to turn down. “Fine. You can have my heart.”
“It’s done then!” The Baba Yaga claps her gnarly hands.
“So how am I going to become this man of steel?” Soso asks. “Are you going to give me a talking doll or a glowing skull?”
“You atheists claim to be men of science but are so dismissive of the supernatural even when it’s right in front of your nose. No, there won’t be any dolls or skulls. Just some advice.”
“Look to the past. The stories people of our country told over the fire for millennia, even before the missionaries arrived. The ancient folklore that I’m a part of, but people stopped believing in. Bring back those stories. Give people legends. Give people heroes. If you can do that, there’ll be nothing they can’t do. They’ll be just as invincible as you.”
“That’s all there is to it?”
“So little faith! I’ve made you invincible. Go forward without fear. You’ll never fail again. Any plan, any battle, no matter how unlikely or hopeless it seems, just do it. Move mountains. You’re not drawing that power from God. You are a God. The man of steel!”
The whole house jumps up. Its chicken legs are moving. Soso’s bowl slides off the table and clatters to the floor.
“That doesn’t make any sense.” He braces himself to avoid toppling over.
“It will eventually.” The Baba Yaga snaps her fingers.
◇ ◇ ◇ ◇ ◇ ◇ ◇ ◇
Soso wakes up. He’s back in the ditch. It’s morning and the birds are singing. His neck aches from sleeping in an odd position on the hard ground. But at least he’s not tired anymore. Or hungry. That’s odd, but he’s not going to think about that one too hard. What a strange dream! It was so vivid. Almost like it was real.
He hears the stream up ahead. But there’s something odd. Soso finds a path of broken shrubs and upturned earth, like a large object was dragged through it. His brain conjures up a fantastical image.
A mass of screaming men and horses fleeing in terror. The Baba Yaga rides toward them in her mortar, dragging a broom behind it. The soldiers’ weapons are useless and the witch is too fast. She howls in delight as she tears them all apart.
But it’s too ridiculous and Soso banishes the silly thought from his head. By the time he leaves the forest, his strange dream has already faded away, as all dreams do.
Tiflis is Georgia’s largest city, home to the local governate and the Bolshevik rebels opposing them. But there’s something here just as important to Soso as the revolution.
Though it’s still early, the streets are filling with people. Soso can walk in the open without fear. He’s a criminal, but not one famous enough to be recognized on sight. As far as any policeman would know, Soso is just another ordinary citizen.
He arrives home. Soso lives with Alexander, a companion from seminary school and fellow Bolshevik. Alexander resides directly beside the military district. His three older sisters work as seamstresses for the wives of the wealthiest noblemen of the city. That’s what makes his house perfect as a headquarters for the Bolsheviks. No one would even think of searching that place for enemies. No one would imagine the police chief’s wife having her dress measured one room, while a gang of rebels conspires in the room down the hall.
Soso enters and climbs the stairs. It’s still early and he doesn’t expect anyone to be up yet. Maria, one of Alexander’s sisters, is awake and greets him from the balcony. “You’re back.” She crosses her arms. “After being gone all night. Were you out robbing people again?”
“It’s not robbery,” he explains. “We’re expropriating capital from the bourgeoisie to fund the rise of the proletariat.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Sorry to have worried you. It must be a relief to see me back safe.”
“If something had befallen you that would have been a tragedy to be sure.”
“You would miss me.” He passes Maria and heads to one of the bedroom doors.
“Like a toothache.”
He cracks open the door and slips inside. The sound makes Kato stir in her bed. Trying not to wake her, Soso takes off his shoes and jacket by the writing desk.
At 21, Kato is the youngest girl of the family and the most delightful. Despite Soso’s efforts at stealth, her oval face pokes up from under the sheets. “Why were you gone for so long?” she asks groggily. “I could hardly sleep.”
“I ran into some trouble.”
“Any exciting adventures?”
“Nothing romantic like that.” He finds the passport in his jacket. “Me and the outfit tried to hold up a fat rich couple on the highway, but things went wrong and we had to run away.”
“How about another poem?”
“It’s hard to think up sonnets when you’re hiding in a ditch trying not to be shot.” Soso lights the passport on fire and drops it into an ashtray.
“You’re changing your name again?”
“I’m overdue for a name change.” He rifles through a pile of passports in the desk and settles on one. Koba, that’s as good a last name as any.
“Come to bed,” Kato groans. “I’ve been lonely.”
He joins her under the covers and she snuggles into his arms. Kato is as warm and soft as always.
“I have something exciting to share with you,” she announces.
“Yes!” Kato nods excitedly but hesitates to elaborate further.
“Eh? What is it then?”
“You’re going to be a father.” She waits for a reaction.
“We’re going to have to get married then.” Soso shrugs.
“Not just for appearance’s sake, I hope?”
“How could I not want to marry you?”
“We have to do it in a church,” Kato says. “That won’t bother you, will it? Even if you don’t believe in all that?”
“If that makes you happy, then of course it doesn’t bother me.”
“How will we find a priest?”
“I’m sure your brother and I can track someone down from school who can do the honors without drawing attention. But you can’t change your passport.”
“Passports aren’t what make a marriage real. After you’ve won, we won’t have to hide anymore.”
Soto doesn’t respond. He’s deep in thought.
“Is something on your mind?” Kato asks.
“Maybe. You liked all the stories I told you right from the beginning. I confess I might have been trying to impress you.”
“I never would have imagined! You don’t have to try. You’re the most wonderful man in existence to me.”
“But what if I wasn’t so exciting?” Soso asks. “What if I wasn’t a heroic revolutionary? What if I was a shoemaker?”
“Like your father? But I thought you hated him.”
“I do. He was drunk and a wife-beater. Nothing wrong with the trade, though. You wouldn’t bore of me?”
“Oh, Soso, I would stay with you no matter what you did. But what got you thinking about that?”
“The people’s revolution is so important to you!” she insists. “Don’t lose interest in it on my account.”
“I wouldn’t. It was just a silly thought.”
Less than a week later, Kato gets her wish. Soso marries her in the presence of a handful of friends. It’s too dangerous to conduct the wedding with anything less than absolute secrecy. Soso can’t even invite his own mother. The little gathering in the dead of night pleases Kato the same as a grand ceremony would.
As the lovers affirm their wedding vows before the priest, Kato looks the happiest she’s ever been in her life. Soso stoops down and gives his new wife a kiss, making her shiver with excitement. She’s dreamed of this moment for so long, but never had the nerve to suggest the idea too forcefully. Now it’s happening!
“This is the happiest day of my life!” Kato coos in his ear. “And it’s only going to get better!”
Soso glances at the tiny audience. He sees the Baba Yaga sitting in the back pew. She grins at him and her iron teeth shimmer in the flickering candlelight.
Return next Sunday for part two.
Critiques welcomed, but will be moderated.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are either works of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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About the author
- Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps.
- Pain and misery build discipline! Or so we’re told.
- The Atheist Conservative shows why secular conservatism continues to be an irrelevant and impotent force in American politics.
- Alita, the Battle Angel, fights her feminist critics.
- Plato and Diogenes warn us about hubris – Here is a fun short story, historical fiction about one of the clashes between two of the larger-than-life people of the ancient world.
- A fun tour of Harley Quinn’s Gotham.
- Joker & Harley, a partnership made in hell.
- Ultra Violence: Tales from Venus, a story about our future.
- Ballad of the Unknown Pilot.
For More Information
Ideas! For some holiday shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
Books about a giant of the 20th century
These are just a few of the many biographies of Stalin. Since his personal records disappeared and the most interested archives are held by the KGB (no public access), we will know the full story of Stalin sometime between the distant future and never.
One of the best biographies of this man is Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy by Dmitri Volkogonov (General of the Soviet Army, head of the Institute of Military History ), edited and translated by Harold Shukman (1991). Written from the perspective of a Soviet insider, essential to understand Stalin. It breaks with the steriotypes, presenting Stalin as “both a real person, capable of emotional reactions and contradictions, and, more surprisingly, a real intellectual who remained a serious, wide-ranging reader all his life.” See the review in the London Review of Books.
Stalin: Breaker of Nations by Robert Conquest (1991). One of the major western historians of the early Soviet Union, Conquest was widely condemned by western historians. Walter Laqueur’s review in the London Review of Books describes what came next.
“Then glasnost came, Conquest’s writings were published in the Soviet Union; alone perhaps among Western writers, he became a cultural hero both to the Russian liberals and to the conservatives, to both Russian and Ukrainian nationalists. It now appears that his estimate of the victims of the purges were moderate by comparison with those of Soviet writers. Furthermore, the totalitarian model dismissed by Western revisionists as hopelessly flawed, the product of anti-Soviet hysteria, has been avidly embraced by Russian writers and became the prevailing mode of thought in the Soviet Union. All this was more than a little embarrassing, and criticism of Conquest among the Western fraternity of Sovietologists has lately been muted.”
“Montefiore’s new book on the young Stalin seems to want us to think in terms of a whole new level of charm and charisma, the charm ‘feline’ and occasionally ‘leonine’, powerfully felt by men and women, the yellow/honey-brown eyes often described as ‘burning’. This new Stalin has physical grace (despite the limp and the webbed feet) and a ‘detached magnetism’. He is a Caucasian, exotic and mysterious, as a man of secrets should be; a romantic poet of some achievement; a natural actor, who could win anybody over when he was in the mood.
“A man of affairs in all senses (women throng the pages of Young Stalin), this Stalin is a dangerous man with connections to the criminal world that added to his glamour in the eyes of well-born revolutionary intellectuals like Lenin and Krasin. ‘The underground was his natural habitat, through which he moved with elusively feline grace – and menace.’”