Authors: Paul M. Levitt
A few days later, on a chill autumn afternoon, with the daylight threatening to prematurely quit the sky, Goran drove up on a motorcycle with a sidecar holding a handsome box camera and tripod. He formally introduced himself to Galina and Alya, and immediately set up his camera on the grass, snapping a number of pictures of the farmhouse and barn, some just of the structures and some with Sasha and the mother and daughter. Inside the house, he arranged lamps and lights to allow him to photograph various rooms, again with and without the principals.
When Sasha asked wasn’t the film prohibitively expensive, Goran conspiratorially replied, “We have a friend, don’t we?”
“In a celluloid factory?” Sasha joked.
Moving into the barn for more shots, Goran observed that it wouldn’t take a great deal of carpentry to turn one of the stables into a photo-processing lab. If Sasha agreed, and if money could be found for the remodeling, Goran volunteered to assume responsibility for maintaining the chemicals and equipment. He would even be glad to show Sasha and the Selivanovs how to develop film.
“I’ll make inquiries,” said Sasha, not at all happy at the prospect of being watched.
They were standing in the barn and Alya, as usual, was in the hayloft swinging on a rope that Sasha had doubled and fashioned into a swing. To exit the barn quickly, Alya frequently uncoiled the rope and dropped it from the hayloft door and repelled to the ground. Goran focused his camera on Alya swinging, but Sasha knew the light was insufficient for a good picture and the camera not good enough to capture an object in motion. Goran snapped it anyway, and then began to fold up his camera and tripod.
“The money?” asked Sasha.
“It will take a large sum.”
With a dismissive wave of the hand, he replied, “Our mutual friend will help.”
Galina had silently watched the scene develop and asked enigmatically, “Tell me, Goran, will the pictures tell a story, one hidden in the film?”
Her question, which sounded innocent enough, discomfited Goran. He stuttered, fumbled with the camera, and tripped over the tripod, as he edged to his motorcycle and sidecar. Sasha stood amazed, but Galina, her arms folded across her chest, impassively watched the young man depart.
“A picture,” she said, “is like a book. It lends itself to many interpretations. Now we’ll just have to wait.”
“For what?” asked a confused Sasha.
“The official reading.”
ot surprisingly, money and a ukase materialized to build a photo-processing lab in the barn. Carpenters, electricians, and plumbers came and went silently. They arrived not from Balyk but from afar. Sasha knew a Muscovite just from his walk. Who had sent them and who was bearing the cost remained a mystery until Go
ran volunteered that his uncle was close to the Politburo and to Boris Filatov.
When Sasha related to Brodsky what he called “the Goran story,” Brodsky said, “He’ll denounce you.” Then he lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.
“On the basis of what?” asked Sasha, sipping his tea.
“You really are credulous,” replied Brodsky. “Lemon?”
“No, thank you.”
“They’re perfectly harmless.”
“To what end?”
“To incriminate you.”
“I fail to see the purpose?”
“A purpose can always be found. Isn’t that what the Soviets say, ‘Everyone is guilty of some crime’?”
“I can’t imagine . . .”
“Sasha, for all your education, you’re still a country boy. Just look at the magazines and newspapers and periodicals. The photography is always being altered.”
He then went on to explain the vast educational and ideological potential of photography. Daily and weekly publications issued idealized scenes of daily life in the Bolshevik paradise. They interpreted Soviet culture and shaped Soviet mass consciousness. Given the huge number of people in the country who couldn’t read and write, the government was forced to rely heavily on pictures and photography. Although magazine design used different kinds of illustrations, photography was especially valued for its low cost and ease of reproduction.
“And one cannot overestimate the importance of the artist-retoucher,” Avram added. “Given the poor quality of our photographic materials and the technical limitations of our developing processes, we need people to touch up the pictures. Our art schools turn out hundreds of these ‘restorers.’ They are expert at photomontage . . . and a major force in promoting Socialist Realism.”
“I may be a country boy, but I know the difference between the real and the imagined. May I never see another article and picture about Russian motherhood, industrialization, state festivals, our beloved leaders, and the heroics of Stakhanovites. You’d think that Russia never accomplished anything before the revolution.”
“This Goran fellow you mention,” probed Avram, like a good scholar, “when you look at his photographs, check to see if he’s combined parts from separate images and glued them together. Often you can see the joining lines. Also, see if the pictures were photographed under different lighting conditions. If they were, they’ll look artificial.”
His face etched in concern, Sasha nodded. He would ask Goran to show him the photographs, which he would study closely with Galina. Finding Goran would involve no more than stepping next door. Once the photo lab had been built, Goran spent most of his time developing film and mixing the chemicals and tinctures of his trade.
“Of course,” said Goran, when Sasha requested to see the pictures, which he willingly passed on. Galina wondered why Goran hadn’t volunteered to show them his work before now, and she crossly wondered why Sasha had waited until Brodsky had sounded a warning.
Sitting on either side of a floor lamp, Sasha and Galina pored over the pictures. Her literary training gave her an advantage in explication. He tended to ignore the details in favor of the broad sweep of the landscape. At first glance, none of the pictures looked incriminating, except perhaps one, in which Sasha’s hand, unseen behind Galina’s back, could be construed to mean that he was patting her derriere. But so what? Perhaps they had become lovers. Sasha’s contract didn’t forbid intimacy or, for that matter, marriage. In fact, he wished for the first and often thought of the second.
“Have you heard about all those photographs,” asked Galina, “in which Trotsky has been expunged?” She placed a hand over an image. “Supposing I disappear from this picture and Brodsky replaces me?”
“He’s never come to the farmhouse.”
“Yes, I know. You can’t prove a negative.”
“And speaking of negatives, I suggest that one of these evenings we peek in the lab to study them for changes, if they’re even there.”
The lab had been constructed professionally, and the equipment, top of the line. At the time of its installation, Sasha had watched with envy, wishing that the school’s chemistry and physics labs were this modern. Nothing like knowing the right people.
Ironically, the wall that now divided the farmhouse had brought Sasha and Galina closer. With their newfound privacy, they lived more communally than separately, glad that when the occasion warranted they could retreat to their own quarters. The dividing line between the two flats was, of course, no line at all to Alya. She treated them both equally. In a number of ways, Sasha was a better parent to Alya than was Galina, who mistakenly believed that good behavior rested on an adherence to rules. But Sasha knew, as did Alya, that some rules are simply fatuous, and therefore Sasha, to Alya’s delight and Galina’s initial annoyance, ignored them. But slowly the mother came to see that as the child’s imagination bloomed, her manners improved. Appreciative of the liberties that Sasha extended to her, Alya rarely if ever abused them. Galina, noting the joy of her daughter in the presence of Sasha, observed:
“I think she prefers you to me.”
“What she prefers,” replied Sasha, “is what we all appreciate: freedom. She is a rare child because at her age she already knows the difference between freedom and license. And so should you.”
“Just because you have the power to discipline her doesn’t mean you should always exercise it. Independence is the flower of freedom and ought to be nurtured.”
At the time, Galina’s annoyance was palpable, as she asked herself, how dare this “stranger” tell her how to raise her daughter? But after some reflection, she realized that the word “parent” is merely a synonym for “authority,” not “affection.” Moreover, hadn’t Sasha built Alya a swing in the barn, taught her to ride a bicycle, took her on nature hikes, and left licorice on the doorstep for her well-being? (He denied this last act of kindness, perhaps because Galina opposed herbal medicines.) In addition, he had made it possible for Galina to have a good academic position and comfortable living quarters. If nothing else, she enjoyed the intellectual energy that Sasha exuded. To be around him was to visit foreign places through the life of the mind. Even Alya experienced the thrill of living in ideas and other climes, especially when Sasha read her stories from Greek mythology.
The evening they entered the photo lab, Galina found herself clinging to Sasha’s arm, for safety or affection. She herself didn’t know which, but she liked having him next to her. A number of photographs stood in drying racks and some hung from clips attached to a wire. To one side rested a printer with two cables plugged into a socket. The workbench held chemicals and developing fluids of various kinds. Anyone could see from the bottles and equipment and bench that Goran was fastidious about his labors. In a four-drawer wooden filing cabinet, he had organized his prints according to people and places, and had distinguished between single and group photographs. Sasha mentally estimated the immense cost of the laboratory equipment and the film.
As well as school scenes, Goran had taken pictures of the village and woods, of the farmers and their animals. Here was a picture of a wooden plough, and here a woman giving suck to an infant. Sasha saw portraits of young and old, of drunks and dolts, of preening couples and pretty housewives, of vixens and veterans, of Galina and him, of Alya, and several, for whatever reason, of Devora Berberova. Goran had captured local scenes: the cemetery, tombstones, a cenotaph, the inn, a field of rapeseed, a haystack, a rutted road, a stately oak, a pond, a stream, a lake, a sunset and a sunrise, a gathering storm, a rain-spattered window. The number and types of photographs constituted an epic catalogue.
A folder titled “Metamorphosis” held altered photographs. People from different centuries were juxtaposed. Filatov, for example, was standing next to the late Tsar, and Pushkin, his visage taken from a painting, was peering around a curtain at a reclining naked woman, one of Rubens’ nudes. Stalin was seated at a dinner table with a napkin tucked under his chin, a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, and on the plate in front of him rested the head of Leon Trotsky. A number of the original Bolsheviks who had played prominent roles during the revolution or in Lenin’s government, for instance, Bukharin and Kamenev and Zinoviev, were posed in a chorus line, wearing tutus and kicking up their legs. The Lubyanka Prison had been redesigned to look like a fashionable apartment house.
Several full-body portraits of Trotsky and the recently disgraced head of the secret police, Genrikh Yagoda, had been cropped, perhaps waiting for some future juxtaposition. In one of the folders, Galina found a snapshot of several men at the Balyk pond. She put it on the zinc counter and reached for a magnifying glass, which she slowly moved until resting on a fixed point.
“What do you see?” asked Sasha, but she didn’t respond.
He looked over her shoulder. From the position of the glass, she seemed to be scrutinizing some man standing alone and in profile. Nothing unusual about the man attracted his eye. She adjusted the overhead laboratory lamp so that its narrow beam of light captured the subject. When she finally looked up, she stared past Sasha into the darkness, as if trying to locate a spectral being.
After a silence that felt like a thousand years, she said simply, “He’s not dead.”
“You must be mistaken!” he said with more alarm than he intended.
Sasha took the magnifying glass and, as Galina pointed, pored over the photograph. It was not the man he had slain and whose head he had severed. Having stared into its lifeless eyes, he could never forget the face. But he had no means of objecting without revealing his guilt. All he could do was ask if Galina was sure.
“Notice the licorice root he’s sucking on. He was always touting its medicinal value. It’s the same as the licorice roots I’ve found on the front steps of the farmhouse that I thought you had left. At the time, I found the coincidence eerie.” She paused. “I suppose it’s his way of saying he’s back . . . he’s returned.”
Without weighing his words, Sasha blurted, “But if he’s here, who was the person in the slicker?”
Galina moved the overhead light so that it shone on Sasha’s face, temporarily blinding him. “What are you talking about?” she interrogated. “Which slicker?”
“The police said that Petr was wearing a rain slicker and Alexander was not.”
Blinded by the light, he felt that she was eyeing him warily. It was vitally important, then, for him to tread carefully and not reveal information that only the murderer could know.
“What else did the police tell you?”
“Will you please put that light out! We can talk in the farmhouse or outside, if you prefer.”
“Outside. I don’t want Alya to hear.”
Sasha returned all the folders to the cabinet and made sure that the premises showed no signs of their having been present. He then followed Galina into the cold moonlight. They were both shivering. This discussion would have to be brief.
“You never shared with me what the police told you about the murders. When I asked how Petr and Alexander were killed, I was told they were shot, and the killers got away. Is that true?”
“As far as I know.” He tried to put an arm around her shoulders to keep her warm, but she shrugged him off.
Her next comment found him unready. “The secret police don’t award plum positions unless they get something in return, or unless they are repaying some favor. Does one of those explanations fit you, and if so, which?”
It took him a moment to clear his head. In the moonlight, Galina’s eyes reflected a crepuscular coldness. He suddenly felt pierced by silver shafts. “Neither,” he replied.
Holding him in her gaze for a disquieting few seconds, she at last turned away and returned to the house. He gathered that her frigid behavior had something to do with Petr’s return, which was clearly unwelcome. But had he actually appeared, or was she mistaking him for someone else? In the house, he cautiously asked if she had a photograph of her husband. Having seen the profile of the man in Goran’s photograph, he would draw his own conclusion about their similarities. Galina went to her valise and removed a box that she used as a safe to store pictures and papers and the few valuable pieces of jewelry she owned. Extricating a small picture in a cheap wooden frame, she wordlessly handed it to Sasha. He studied it, nodded in agreement, returned the picture, and exited to his side of the farmhouse, where he opened a bottle of vodka, which he rarely drank. He sat at the kitchen table with a shot glass and, with shaking hands, threw back three glassfuls before he began to calm down. He could hear from the other side of the wall Galina crying. Tears filled his own eyes. He had killed a man whose life he was blind to. After two more drinks, he tried to analyze the dangerous situation in which he now found himself, but his mind was hazy from drink. So he slipped into his winter jacket and left the house for a walk in the bracing cold, now flecked with snow.
He stopped under an oak that still had its leaves, albeit wrinkled and brown. As the wet snow fell and quickly dissolved, he likened the flakes to a life span. From the moment of birth we are, with varying degrees of strength, falling, descending, heading in one direction. We escape dissolution, we escape, we escape, until . . .
Was the man Sasha murdered Petr’s friend Martyn Lipnoski? Even Filatov thought the dead man was Petr Selivanov; or did he? And how had Selivanov escaped, leaving behind his diary? Sasha told himself to start with the facts. Although facts lend themselves to different interpretations, one must always begin with the known. The meanings or nuances will come later. Fact: Sasha had killed and buried two men, one with a wallet on his person and the other not. The man with a wallet had an identification card bearing the name Alexander S. Harkov. Everyone seemed to agree he was dead. His colleague and co-policeman, Petr Selivanov, owned a diary that said he’d given a slicker to a fellow policeman, Martyn Lipnoski, who had grabbed a ride with Alexander and Petr, after spending the night with a whore in an inn, where he had lost his wallet and papers or been robbed. At the time that Alexander and Petr gave him a ride, Martyn owned only his clothes, which were in a disheveled state. The three men remained together until the truck reached a rise above the Parsky house. Alexander and Martyn drank. Here the facts ended, and the suppositions began. If, for some reason, Martyn and Petr had changed places in the truck, and if Petr had set out for home on foot, neglecting to take his diary, how far had Petr proceeded before looking back? If he had not looked back, the next question was moot; if he had, how much had he seen?