From Each According to his Labor
Andrei Milovsky came from the plow. From his earliest moments he had known mud, cold, aching fingers, and hunger that gnawed at his stomach as relentlessly as a feral dog gnawed at a bone. His family (father, mother, three elder brothers, two elder sisters, and he) lived in a small village on the banks of a river that flowed twenty miles until it reached the grand city of St. Petersburg.
Andrei loved the river. It was the only thing about the village that he loved, for it was always moving, constantly flowing, as if its waters knew what awaited it at the end of its travels. Once, when he was eight, he had started to walk along its banks, a vague idea in his head of making it to the city and back before anyone knew he was gone. His oldest brother found him, two miles away from the village, sleeping on a sun-warmed rock, his hands clutching his jacket around him as his little body shuddered in the cold spring evening.
His mother wept and caressed him on his return, but when he got a bad head cold from his excursion, scolded him mercilessly while making tea and soup to soothe his throat. His father laughed, his big, outdoor laugh and patted him firmly on the head. St. Petersburg, he declared, was not for the likes of them, but God! What a grand place it was!
In the summer of his nineteenth year, his best friend was sent as an apprentice to the city. Three days before he was to leave the village for good, the two of them walked the length of the river until they were able to distinguish the low, dark cluster of buildings, mansions and towers that comprised the city.
When they came back, Andrei's parents told him that he was to be married.
He found Lydia Vladmirova throwing stones into the river upstream, where there was a cluster of trees shadowing a noisy cataract. When she saw him coming, she straightened where she stood on a high boulder, and watched him walk, his tall, straight figure as strong as the trees he walked between.
He saw her standing there, her legs silhouetted by the fabric of her skirt whipping round them, and saw that her feet were bare and her hair hung loose and long, dancing on the breeze. She was seventeen.
When he stopped before her, she jumped nimbly to the ground and approached him. She looked full into his face, with none of the shyness or coquettishness of the other girls of their village, and said, "I believe I could love you."
And for that, he began to love her.
Two years later, he went to visit his friend in St. Petersburg, where he worked in a steel refinery. The factory impressed him, the heat and power tamed by human hands, especially when he thought of his own work, fighting against the senseless soil, praying for warmth, fair weather and rain, and was able to agree with his father; it was a grand city.
But the heights of the grandeur were something he had never imagined, even on those long summer days when the sweat ran into his eyes and he stood, stretching his aching back and flexing his fingers against the friction of the hoe, and dreamed of what life could be such a short distance away.
He and his friend walked the entire city, crossing grand squares and staring at statues, hanging on the gates of the palaces and lingering in the corners of dark cafes. All around was a current of energy, of movement, that was not dependent on the circle of the seasons (endlessly returning one after the other) but the straight line toward the horizon of the future.
When his friend was working, Andrei walked alone, treading the measured, graceful streets and soaking in the sensations; the conversation of intellectuals in shadowed, smoky taverns, the shouts of architects and laborers as they constructed yet another building, the thundering rumble of carriage wheels as horses hauled their precious, beautiful human cargo to their revels.
After a day or so, Andrei found that he liked to sit outside near a café and merely watch these carriages driving by. He saw the women, straight, beautiful and haughty, their dresses shimmering waterfalls of color and jewels he could not name trembling from their ears, glistening on their necks, flashing from their fingers, and nestled like brilliant river stones amongst the dark waves of their hair.
It was the jewels he loved most, the flowers and leaves and sunbursts frozen forever in their fragile casings of twisted gold and silver. He imagined Lydia Vladmirova dressed as one of them, her sapling frame hugged by silk and in her lovely hair, a tiara with diamonds as brilliant as her laughing eyes…
The jewels never faded. Never dimmed. Never wilted with the change of temperature or died from lack of rain or change in season, but bloomed forever, adorning graceful bodies in grand ballrooms lit by chandeliers of crystal.
When he returned home, Lydia Vladmirova knew that there was a great change in him. That night, he held her hand in his feverish fingers and divulged his hope, his great dream. And Lydia, who loved him dearly, looked at him and nodded her approval.
Together they moved into a dark basement room that was home only to spiders and rats. Their landlady gave Lydia an address where she could work as a washerwoman, and Andrei went to his friend's factory to work as a cinder-sweeper. Every day, when their work was done, Lydia would return to their apartment to sweep and clean, waging her war against the vermin, while Andrei went to each jeweler in the city and offer himself as an apprentice. In the evenings, they would meet at Andrei's café and watch the carriages roll by, sharing coffee and pastries, Lydia turning to softly kiss Andrei's cheek.
For a month they lived thus, until nearly every jeweler that Andrei could find had refused him a job. There came a day when he knocked on the last door, and was shown in to see the last manager. But when Andrei looked at the man's coarse face and dour expression, he felt no fear. He said what he had always said,
"Sir, I would like to work for you. I am an uneducated peasant, but I brought myself and my wife here, leaving my farm, to work for you. I will learn everything you teach me, and I will learn it quickly and well. To tell you why I want it will confuse you, but I tell you I want it so badly that I will work without pay, so long as you allow me the chance to learn."
The manager leaned back in his chair, studied Andrei's sharp features, and said,
"Tell me why."
Andrei worked as an apprentice without pay for six months, walking to the jeweler's shop from the steel factory after he finished his work. When he was done at the jeweler's shop, he would go home to fall into bed next to Lydia (who was always awake and ready to hear his bursts of enthusiasm when he arrived home) and wake the next day to work again.
After six months, the manager told him to quit his job at the factory. Andrei then worked full time at the jeweler's until he rose from journeyman, to supervisor, to head craftsman, until he was taking sketches out of his employer's hand and producing the finished product himself. Their shop was only a small affair, but with Andrei's help, it expanded, little by little. Andrei not only supervised the expansion, he also hired new, trustworthy workers to meet the growing demand for their wares.
When the jeweler died, he left his shop, money, and stock to Andrei.
Andrei closed the old location and reopened in a larger store, spending all the money he had inherited as well as his and Lydia's meager savings to buy the proper tools, materials, and gems to produce for nobility.
The new store, with plate glass windows and a gilded sign that announced "Andrei Milovsky, Jeweler", was more Andrei's home than the tiny basement room which held his clothes. He began to sleep in the small room behind the store, lying on boxes that held unrefined precious stones, metal waiting to be worked, and the tools with which to realize what he burned to create.
Lydia Vladmirova took to bringing him bread and tea in his workroom to make sure that he did not faint with hunger. Then she would sit and admire his long, fine-boned hands chipping away at rock, delicately hammering thin sheets of gold foil, or bringing all the materials together into a glittering necklace, delicate earring, or regal diadem.
The plate glass windows of his shop were the lure that attracted many customers to him. Women, driving by in their open curricles, would see the sparkle of a diamond and order their drivers to stop, looking back over their shoulders to inspect what caught their eye. Couples, walking arm in arm on warm summer evenings would draw near, the man asking if his love would like a necklace like that to wear at the next ball, and the woman would nod, looking up at his face with a sweet smile.
Lydia moved out of the basement room and into a finer apartment, looking out over the Neva, and Andrei drove to and from work in a carriage drawn by two horses. One evening, he brought Lydia a coronet of diamonds, accented with sapphires, and watched as the sapphires glowed like liquid drops of the sea in her dark hair. That night they went out to a dinner, where Andrei presented their hostess with an emerald necklace commissioned by her husband.
His favorite memory was when he gave the Tsarina, a sweet little thing with luminous dark eyes, a tiara that shimmered like a spray of seawater frozen motionless in the rays of the sun. She laughed and clapped her hands, but seemed almost fearful to take it lest she spoil the illusion and reveal it to be only water and light after all.
So many years and Andrei had seen the work of his hands adorn the bodies of the great and powerful. Turning from the windows of his shop, to face the line of skilled men who worked passionately for him, he faced his wife, a venerable woman of sixty-one whose eyes still laughed like the eyes of the girl on the banks of the river. Now, her clothes were threadbare and instead of a coronet she wore a cotton kerchief.
"Leave everything of value. If they discover it in your houses later it will only be the worse for you."
His foreman stood forward. "And you, sir? What will you do?"
Andrei took a breath. "I still have work to do. Tonight my wife and I will begin our journey to Berlin, in order to do it."
One of his refiners shook his head, "Won't they catch you? All the borders are being closed, and leaving the country will be punishable by death. They've already taken the factory, but if they take your life…" he stopped before he could complete the idea by saying "all will be over."
"And sir, it's winter! You'll freeze if you walk over the border…even if you could."
He held up his hands. "The threat of death is nothing to me. The idea of living in the hell this city will soon become is the only intolerable thought. We will make it well enough. See that you consider doing the same."
He reached for Lydia Vladmirova, and the two of them watched as their employees filed slowly out the door.
"From each according to his ability…" he murmured, glancing around his shop.
"I suppose you should be flattered." Lydia said, her eyes catching him up into her eternal smile. "Don't let it go to your head…we have a long way to go, yet."