Lana Kortchik grew up in two opposite corners of
the Soviet Union - a snow-white Siberian town and the golden-domed Ukrainian
capital. At the age of sixteen, she moved to Australia with her mother. Lana
and her husband live in Sydney, where it never snows and is always summer-warm,
even in winter. She loves books, martial arts, the ocean and Napoleonic
history. Her short stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies. She
was the winner of Historical Novel Society Autumn 2012 Short Fiction competition
and the runner-up of 2013 Defenestrationism Short Story Contest. Lana's first
novel, Savaged Lands, was published by Endeavour Press in January 2016.
Chapter one from Savaged Land.
Copyright is held by the author. Used by permission.
It was a balmy September afternoon and the
streets of Kiev were crowded. Just like always, cars screeched past the famous Besarabsky Market. And just like always, a stream of
pedestrians engulfed the cobbled Kreshchatyk.
Yet something was different. No one smiled, no one called out greetings or
paused for a leisurely conversation in the shade of the many chestnut trees
that lined the renowned street. On every grim face, in every mute mouth, in the
way they moved – a touch faster than usual – there was anxiety, fear and
And only three teenagers seemed oblivious
to the oddly hushed bustle around them.
Natasha Smirnova, a tall, dark-haired waif of a girl,
slowed down to a complete stop and turned around. Hands on hips, she glared at
the other two. ‘Hurry!’ she cried. ‘We’re in so much trouble.’
‘Lighten up,’ said Natasha’s sister Lisa,
eyes sparkling. ‘Papa won’t even notice we’re gone.’
Grabbing Lisa by the arm, Natasha replied,
‘He will if you don’t get a move on.’ At nineteen, she was only a year older
than her sister but she was always the serious one, the more responsible one.
There were times when she admired Lisa’s impulsive character. Today was not one
‘Get off!’ exclaimed Lisa, turning her
back on her sister, her long red hair swinging out to whip Natasha across the
face. ‘Alexei, are you coming?’ Her voice was too loud for the muted street and
several passers-by glared in her direction.
Alexei Antonov, a blond, broad-shouldered boy, had
stopped at what seemed like the only market stall in Kiev that wasn’t padlocked
shut and abandoned. The stall boasted a great selection of combat knives and
Alexei was in deep conversation with the owner.
‘Alexei!’ Lisa called again. Her voice
Alexei handed the stall owner some money and
pocketed the knife. ‘Wait up!’ he cried, breaking into a run.
‘Dillydallying as always,’ said Lisa, her
plump lips pursed together in a pout. ‘Keep this up and we’ll leave you here.’
‘Nagging already? And we’re not even
married yet.’ Pecking Lisa on the cheek, Alexei adjusted his glasses, his face
a picture of mock suffering and distress.
‘Get used to it,’ said Lisa, pinching the
soft skin above his elbow. He attempted a frown but failed, smiling into Lisa’s
They paused in the middle of the road and
kissed deeply. A van swerved around them, a stream of obscenities emanating
from its open windows. The two lovers didn’t move. They barely looked up.
‘And this is why I walk five metres away
from you. It’s too embarrassing.’ Natasha stared at the ground, her face
flaming. Wishing she could run home but not wanting to abandon Lisa and Alexei
in the middle of the street, she was practically jogging on the spot. ‘You
heard Papa this morning. Under no circumstances were we to leave the house.’
‘We had to leave the house,’ said Lisa.
‘You know we did. It was a question of life and death.’
Natasha raised her eyebrows. ‘A wedding
dress fitting is a question of life and death?’
Lisa nodded. ‘Not just any fitting. The
‘The final fitting,’ mimicked Alexei,
rolling his eyes. ‘I had to wait for you for an hour! An hour in the dark
Lisa pulled away from him. ‘You know you
can’t see me in my wedding dress. It’s bad luck.’ She whispered the last two
words as if the mere mention of bad luck was enough somehow to summon it.
‘It’s bad luck to be outside at a time
like this,’ murmured Natasha.
Lisa said, ‘Don’t worry. The streets are
perfectly safe. And Papa will understand.’
‘I doubt it. Just yesterday he said you
were too young to marry.’
Lisa laughed as if it was the most
preposterous thing she had ever heard. ‘And I reminded him that Mama was
younger than me when they got married. And Grandma was only sixteen when she
married Grandpa. When Mama had Stanislav, she was the same age as you.’
Exasperated, Natasha shook her head.
Lisa continued, ‘Did you hear the
dressmaker? Apparently I have the perfect figure. Mind you, I still have time
to lose a few pounds before the big day.’
Alexei ran his hands over her tiny frame.
‘Don’t lose a few pounds, Lisa. There won’t be any of you left to marry.’
His words were interrupted by a distant
rumble. Half a city away, the horizon flickered with shades of yellow and red.
For a few breathtaking seconds, the ground
vibrated. Somewhere in the distance, machine guns barked and people shouted.
And then, as if nothing had happened, all was still again. At the outskirts of
the town, fires smouldered and smoke rose in gloomy, putrid mist.
‘Don’t be scared,’ said Alexei, pulling
Lisa tightly to his side. ‘There won’t be much bombing today.’
‘How do you know?’ demanded Natasha.
‘Just something I heard. The Nazis don’t
want to destroy our city. They’re saving it.’
‘Saving it for what?’ Lisa asked.
‘For themselves, silly,’ said Natasha.
Lisa scowled. ‘And that’s supposed to make
me feel better?’
Natasha could tell her sister was scared because Lisa no
longer dawdled. Quite the opposite, she was walking so fast that Natasha had to
make an effort to keep up. Racing one another, the three of them turned onto Taras Shevchenko Boulevard and dashed through
the park adjoining the university. The ground was littered with shells that had
once carried death but now lay peacefully at their feet. Natasha could feel
their sharp edges through the soles of her boots. One of her favourite places
in Kiev, the park was unrecognisable. Anywhere not covered by pavement was
excavated. In the last three months, it had transformed into what seemed like
the habitat of a giant mole, full of holes and burrows. All the trenches that
the Kievans were digging, all the barricades they
were building, enthusiastically at the end of June, habitually in July and
sporadically in August, now stood empty and abandoned. How meaningless it all
seemed now, how futile.
It was inexplicably, almost nonsensically warm. The
splendour of Ukrainian autumn, its sheer joy, its unrestrained abundance seemed
out of place in the face of German invasion. The sun, the blue skies, the whites
and reds of the flowers contrasted sharply with fires and damaged buildings.
What was happening to their city now, what had happened three months ago when
Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, none of it made sense to Natasha. She felt as
if at any moment she would wake up only to find the streets of Kiev peaceful
Since the day her city was first bombed in June, Natasha
had waited impatiently to wake up.
But the nightmare had continued. All
through the end of August and the beginning of September, she watched as
platoon after platoon of Red Army soldiers retreated, away from Kiev, away from
Natasha and her family. Soon the authorities followed the army. Now, in late
September, the city held its breath in fearful anticipation. There was nothing
but melancholy faces, nothing but grim skies.
Uncertainly Lisa muttered, ‘The Germans
aren’t coming here. Haven’t you heard the radio?’ Like clockwork every few
hours, the radio and the loudspeakers outside screeched that: ‘Kiev was, is and
will be Soviet.’
How ironic, thought Natasha. As if
anyone believed it now.
‘The Red Army will soon push Hitler back,’
‘What Red Army?’ muttered Natasha.
Lisa squared her shoulders but didn’t
reply. Suddenly, on the corner of Lva Tolstogo and Vladimirovskaya, she came to an abrupt halt. Natasha, who
was only a couple of steps behind, bumped straight into her sister. ‘What …’
she started saying and stopped. Her mouth assumed a shape of an astonished ‘Oh’
but no sound escaped. All she could do was stare. From the direction of the
river hundreds of soldiers in grey were marching towards them.
Wide-eyed, the sisters and Alexei backed
into the park and hid behind its tall fence, watching in fear.
The wait was finally over. The enemy was
no longer at the gates. Surrounded by crowds of confused men, women and
children and accompanied by barking dogs, the enemy were right there, inside
their city, their grey uniforms a perfect fit, their green helmets sparkling,
their motorbikes roaring, their footsteps echoing in the tranquil autumn
It was Friday, the nineteenth of
Thank you Lana for sharing this captivating chapter. I look forward to reading more.
You can find out more about Lana at the following links.
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A great post, Allan. Lana Kortchik's opening chapter draws you right into a time and place in history that we know little about. I'm aware of how the Russians held back the Germans at St. Petersburg, but I know little about their maneuvers in Ukraine. This land is part of my ethnic history, as both my parents came from there to Canada, but well before WWII came to their doors. I look forward to reading more of Lana's novel.ReplyDelete
Thank you for your comment Diana. I think this is going to be a great read also.ReplyDelete
Good to read some of Lana's work. Read the story a few years ago, but will likely read it again.ReplyDelete
She's a fine storyteller. Thanks for visiting and your comment.Delete