Of Saints and Servants

MOSCOW: In July 1918, the last Tsar, Nikolai II, his family, three servants and a doctor were executed by a Cheka firing squad in a cellar in the Urals city of Ekaterinburg. Their bodies were then chopped up, covered in quicklime, burnt, buried, dug up, and buried again in an unmarked pit. In the summer of 1998 they were re-buried with honour in Saint Petersburg.

This summer, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized our last Royal family as martyrs. The four servants who died with the Tsar’s family, however, were not canonized. Those four could leave; they could have chosen to go but didn’t. They never asked whether their fate was their Master’s fault. They never expected benefits or rewards. They were faithful until the end and were killed for it.

Our family, all through the Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev years, also had servants. There were many of them and they carried out different tasks. We never called them servants, however; it was not a polite word. When reading tales as a girl about kings and grandees surrounded by servants, my child’s heart wept at those crimes against equality and justice. No, the people who lived with us, who cooked for us, who walked the baby carriages, washed windows and cleaned fur-coats in summer time were never called “servants.” They had names and would never be asked to carry out dreadful or dangerous tasks.

The most ancient in our family was Nanny Grusha. She was small and light, with white fluffy hair. Once, awakened by a nightmare, I shouted for her in panic. She sighed, muttered, and noiselessly took her seat nearby my bed. Her cheeks gurgled: “psh-sh-sh.” Nanny Grusha smelt of lamp oil, soap flakes, and chimney smoke. I held her by her dress; it was a dark-brown dress with small white spots. For me, that shade of brown remains the colour of safety. The monsters who lived under my bed couldn't kidnap me so long as Nanny was near.

In daytime I cried in Nanny's skirt; if I was hungry I ran to Nanny. Nanny never said: “Eat what is on your plate.” She never said: “You must share with others,” or “don't be greedy.” It was my parents who taught me to consider others. Nanny never taught. Right and wrong were not her tasks.

She never took anything away from me; never held somebody up as an example; never put me to shame. If I beat my sister or spat, pulled her hair or took away her toys, Nanny would wait for my storm to blow itself out, then take me to a distant room and feed me sweets and pies, taken from an old pillowcase. Nanny had no idea about limits and fairness. Hers was not kindness but the pure, strong poison of love.

SPRING SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

SPRING SALE: Save 40% on all new Digital or Digital Plus subscriptions

Subscribe now to gain greater access to Project Syndicate – including every commentary and our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – starting at just $49.99.

Subscribe Now

For a long time I was sure that “nanny” was a kind of blood relationship. You can be “a granny” smelling of perfume and wearing a pearl necklace, but you can also be “a nanny” smelling of smoke and oil and with a cross on a string under your brown dress. I once asked Nanny: “Do you believe in God? Stop it now! There is no God! The Cosmonauts haven't seen anybody up there.” But Nanny only muttered: “He would never come into sight.”

Nanny never married; never had children of her own. She raised other’s babies. She loved them blindly, greedily, saving them from wind, hunger, monsters, parents and, most of all, other people. I noted the chill between my father and Nanny; they didn’t even say “hello” to each other. Nanny loved my mother because my mother was once her baby. Sometimes it seemed to me that she would kill anyone who would dare to hurt us. Only years after her death did I learn of the crime she committed for us.

In the days of the Nazi blockade of Leningrad, Nanny took out of the city a sack of flour. She did it when Leningrad was dying of hunger, when dead bodies lay everywhere and people ate people. She removed a sack of flour from a city where people were killing each other for a crust of bread. She went onto the icy Neva river during a bombardment, together with a baby committed to her care – my mother’s 30 year-old brother. He was a grown man to everyone but Nanny, always remaining for her a small, pink, frightened, tear-stained child.

Nanny’s small nephews died from hunger in Leningrad during the siege. “How could you do it?” – my Grandmother asked. “I rescued Sergei” – Nanny answered. “You abandoned your relatives?” my Grandmother replied. “But I rescued Sergei.” Nanny stayed in our family forever. She raised my mother’s seven children and five grandchildren and reached a great age without asking anything for herself.

I have never loved anyone in the world as strongly as I loved Nanny. No one has loved me as strongly as she. I did nothing to deserve her love. More: if it were not for her, I would never have known that love is bottomless. White hair, brown dress, a crucifix on a string – she was my small guardian angel, given to me for nothing.

So Russia’s Church blessed the last Tsar but forgot his servants. But we should remember who, it is said, will pass through the eye of a needle to find salvation. The Moscow Patriarch would likely become stuck in that needle’s eye because of his pearl-encrusted chasubles, his gold and his Mercedes. In this hideous century of ours, only beggars and faithful people pass through in the end. My sinful and simple Nanny got through, but probably not before stopping for a moment to look back and check one last time at how her children were doing.