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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: March 2012

Part Two



It's a Sunday evening. There's uproar and laughter around a small pristine cottage next to the Derbinsk almshouse. Carousels are crushing fallen firtwigs, an orchestra of three violins and a make-shift clarinet squawks away, and exile-settlers are dancing the trepak. On a small stage a wizard and magician, “origins forgotten,” is chewing hot oakum and pulling a multicolored ribbon out of his nose. Corks are popping from bottles of kvas. Drunken voices resound from the kvas shop. From its windows you hear: “Bardadym. Dead, a ruble maza. Sheperka, a pip per bundle. Again. Again-again. A lady. Two on the side.”

The owner of this Sakhalin kvas shop, as well as the gambling den, carousels, dance school, inn and café chantant is the “peasant-formerly-exiled” Sofia Bloeffstein. She was famous throughout Russia and most of Europe as “Golden Hand.” At her trial, the table for material evidence glittered with necklaces, bracelets and rings—the evidence of her booty. “Madame witness,” a court official turned to one of the plaintiffs, “do you see any of your jewelry here?” With altered countenance a lady approached this “Golkonda.” Her eyes burned and hands shook as she touched and handled each piece. Then, “from on high” in the dock, a voice mocked, “Madam, don't worry. No need to be so gentle: the jewelry's phony.”

I remembered this event when, at six o'clock in the morning, I left to visit Golden Hand for the first time.