1637 The Volga Rules – Snippet 19
Chapter 6: The Nobel Conundrum
Lothlorien Farbenwerk, Grantville
“I was sorry to hear about the troubles in your country,” Ron Stone said, coming around his desk to shake Vladimir’s hand.
“Thank you, Herr Stone.” Vladimir said. “Unfortunately, it means that it is unlikely I will be able to provide the products that we both hoped would become available again.”
“Never mind that. What about your sister?”
“She’s in Ufa with Czar Mikhail, Bernie Zeppi, and a court in exile. They have a dirigible, but it has very limited cargo capacity. And while they have a few of the experts from the Dacha, almost the entire industrial base that has been developing in Russia since the Ring of Fire fell into Director-General Sheremetev’s hands. As well as most of the population. Not that I believe that many of the serfs want to be there.”
“Any of them, surely?”
Vladimir shook his head. He didn’t want to disagree with this man to whom he owed so much. But Ron had never dealt with a society that truly had slavery, or even serfdom as it was practiced in Russia or Poland. “There is a term Brandy’s mother told me about people who have been incarcerated for long periods of time. ‘Institutionalized.’ Russian serfs have, for the most part, been serfs their whole lives, and their parents were serfs before them. They know no other life and the notion of freedom, of having to decide for themselves, is terrifying to them. That is not always the case, and is probably less common than I would have imagined before the Ring of Fire. But don’t fool yourself. It is much more common than most of you up-timers believe.”
Ron nodded, but the nod seemed to be dragged out of him. “Yes, you’re probably right. But you do realize that makes the whole institution of serfdom even worse, don’t you? If it’s evil to put chains on someone’s body, how much worse to put chains on their minds?”
“I don’t disagree, Ron,” Vladimir said, thinking not after years in Grantville. At the same time, he understood much better than Ron Stone ever would how good people raised to believe it could see serfdom as the natural order of the world. “And neither, it seems, does Czar Mikhail.” Vladimir pulled out a sheet of paper. “This is a proclamation by Czar Mikhail. It’s in Russian but it amounts to Russia’s emancipation proclamation.”
Ron looked at it for just a second and Vladimir passed over another sheet with the proclamation translated into Amideutsch. He didn’t have a version in up-timer English. “I’ve already given copies of the Russian and Amideutsch to the Daily News and the Grantville Times. It will be all over Germany by tomorrow, and all over Europe in a week.”
Ron had been reading the Amideutsch version while Vladimir was talking. “Isn’t this a bit self-serving? They have to run away east to get their freedom?”
“Yes, it is,” Vladimir acknowledged. “But it’s no more self-serving than the up-time Lincoln’s ‘Emancipation Proclamation.’ Probably less. And what about my sister? At least I am no longer faced with Jefferson’s quandary, abhorring slavery and serfdom, but still having my own serfs. I no longer have any serfs.”
Ron looked at him. “How do you feel about that, Vladimir? Honestly.”
Vladimir found himself smiling. “Poorer. But pleased, actually. Our lives, our fortunes, our sacred honor. Natasha’s life is certainly in danger, and the better part of our fortune is gone. Almost all of it in Russia, if the truth be told. But our sacred honor? That’s doing just fine.”
“Yes, Prince Vladimir Petrovich Gorchakov, your honor is intact. So let’s see about keeping your sister alive . . . and perhaps even keeping you from ending up begging on the street.”
“I don’t see how. The Swedes control the Baltic ports, true enough. But Sheremetev controls the surrounding territory and he controls Archangelsk.”
“Well, what doesn’t he control?”
“You mean ports? I honestly don’t know. . . . Wait. There is one. Or at least, there was one. Mangazeya. On the northern sea route, it was called. A trading city. It got very rich and trade through there was forbidden in 1619, if I remember properly.”
“Any reason why the people of Mangazeya are going to have warm fuzzy feelings for Czar Mikhail?”
“Everyone knows that Mikhail had very little power back then. His mother’s relatives, the Saltykov family, had power until Mikhail’s father got back from prison in Poland. Then it was Filaret who had the power. Mikhail is actually fairly popular. Probably everyone in Russia has heard that he cried when told he would be czar. I don’t know the details. My father had some dealings with the merchants of Mangazeya, but he also had dealings with the people that wanted them shut down. Mostly because Mangazeya wasn’t paying taxes, but also they were cutting into the trade of . . .”
“So you’re saying that there is a route from some place that Czar Mikhail can control to Hamburg by sea?”
“I’m saying there might be. But if there is, it’s only going to be good for a couple of months out of the year. And we won’t be able to use it this year.”
“Do you think your sister and the czar will be able to hold out for a year?”
Vladimir lost the last of his smile. “I want to think so, but I doubt it.”
“Let me think about it. Meanwhile, see what you can come up with that we might be able to buy from your people.” Ron Stone pointed at the sheet of paper that held the Emancipation Proclamation of Czar Mikhail. “I want to help. I really do. But there needs to be something profitable in it.”
The steamboat Danilov was tied up at the dock and its paperwork said it was owned by a merchant from Samara. Which everyone in Nizhny Novgorod knew was nonsense. But it was nonsense that gave them cover, as the men on the boat sold furs and bought grain, cabbage, and beets.
A few hundred feet away, in a bar just off the docks, Petr Viktorovich sat with the first mate of the steamboat and bargained for a copy of the latest dispatches from the radio-telegraph network. Each radio station was equipped with a typewriter, and Petr was using his as a profitable sideline. Petr set down his wooden mug and tapped the leather bag on the table. “That’s right. It’s transcripts of everything that’s gone through the station in the last week. Even the coded commercial stuff. Not that I have the keys for any of that.”
“That’s fine,” said the first mate. “What do you want in exchange?” Then he took a drink of the potato beer.
The beer spewed across the table and everyone in the bar looked around. Wiping his mouth on an already dirty sleeve, the first mate glared at the radio man. Who had the grace to look at least a little embarrassed. Twenty rubles was enough to buy out a serf’s debt.
“Don’t get excited. Make a counteroffer?”
So it went. The first mate ended up paying three rubles, and the sniveling little thief of a radioman insisted on real silver. No one was taking paper rubles since the czar ran to Ufa and the printing presses were left in Moscow. No one trusted paper money. That in itself was important news. Loaded with news and food, both of which they had paid too much for, the Danilov headed back to Ufa.
On the Volga River, between Bor and Cheboksary
“Look over there,” said the first mate.
“Well, if it isn’t General Tim and his army,” said the captain.
“Should we stop and say hello?”
“Frankly, I’d just as soon wave as we go by,” the captain said. He was a forty-year-old who had been on the river since he was twelve, and didn’t have much use for a teenaged general. But he was loyal to Czar Mikhail and to Princess Natasha so, somewhat disgustedly, he pulled over to the shallows close to the riverbank and used the engine to keep station on the small mob while the baker’s boy, Ivan Maslov, rode out on a pretty fair horse.
“Is there any place nearby where you can dock, Captain?” asked the redheaded youth.
“We have some injured.”
“We don’t have room.”
“Captain, I can see that you’re loaded, but surely you can find a place to put four people so that they can get to Ufa and decent medical care.”
The horse was walking along in the river, keeping pace with the slow-moving riverboat.
There was a cough from behind him and the captain looked around at his chief engineer, another of the youngsters who seemed to be taking over the world. But it was a reminder that even if he didn’t say anything, Princess Natasha would hear about it. “Oh, very well. Up about half a mile, we can anchor in close and you can bring out your injured.”
While they were stopped, Ivan got a chance to read most of the unencoded messages that the captain had bought. The army also managed to get a couple of wagon loads of beets.
After the riverboat was gone, Tim looked over at Ivan and said, “I think Czar Mikhail made a mistake. Four men injured in falls, no supplies worth mentioning, more camp followers than . . .”
“No, he didn’t,” Ivan said. “Look, General . . .”
“Call me Tim, for God’s sake,” General Boris Timofeyevich Lebedev said.
“No, General, I don’t think I will,” Ivan said. “I grant that you never learned to be a lieutenant all that well, and you’ve never been a captain or a colonel. But you were in the Kremlin studying to be a general for over two years, then you were a general’s adjutant. It’s true that for the last few months before this you were your cousin’s keeper in Murom, but even there, with your cousin drunk most of the time, you basically ran the city guard.”
Tim started to interrupt, but Ivan pushed on over him. “You don’t know as much as Shein, but that’s not all bad. A lot of what the old generals know is wrong, or at least outdated by the new weapons. Besides, you have me to advise you and I’m much smarter than you are.”
That at least brought a smile to Tim’s face.
“All right, Ivan. Let’s see about getting this –” Tim looked around “I have no words.”
“Cluster fuck!” Ivan offered. “That’s what Bernie Zeppi would call it.”
“Fine. Let’s get this cluster fuck moving.”