Authors: Paul M. Levitt
At least Sasha now knew what Petr looked like, but did Petr know what Sasha looked like? The best course, if at all possible, was for Sasha to avoid meeting Petr. In pulp novels, witnesses to a murder are in danger of being “eliminated,” but under no circumstances would Sasha entertain harming Petr. If Petr came forth and identified Sasha as the killer, Sasha would defend himself with the not-unreasonable argument that from such a distance as the rise in the road—a distance of at least fifty meters, in a heavy rain with a truck partially blocking the view—it would have been virtually impossible to identify the slayer. He would point out that from the rise, all that one could have seen was someone digging in the field and burying two large objects. At this moment, Sasha wished he had buried them in the barn, under the feed bin.
Strangely, Petr’s return caused Sasha no jealousy regarding Galina; rather he felt that his closeness with Alya might be compromised. Licorice, indeed! Now he knew the source—and worried that Petr might not only alienate Alya’s affections, but also incriminate him. Perhaps Petr could be bought off? But bribery, even when it worked, as it had so successfully for hundreds of years, required money or goods or land, and Sasha had none of these riches. Perhaps if Galina no longer wished to continue her marriage, she’d divorce him and send him on his way; but still there was Alya. Would Petr go gently into the night without the child? Not likely. Nor would Sasha, in his place. Some other means had to be found. He would speak to Brodsky. After all, hadn’t the former director warned him about Goran and doctored photographs and photomontage, and hadn’t that warning led to the discovery that Petr Selivanov still lived? Without telling Brodsky the whole story, merely that a wayward husband who had once deserted his wife had returned, he hoped to find a solution to the Petr problem.
“Denounce the bastard before he denounces you!” bellowed Brodksy, leaning forward in his favorite armchair and warming his hands at the fireplace. A cigarette burned in an ashtray at his elbow, and a cloud of smoke hung overhead. Sasha coughed, not at Brodsky’s idea, but from the suffocating miasma. Brodsky, however, misunderstood. “So you don’t like my idea. What’s your objection?”
Without clarifying the confusion, Sasha merely said, “I’ve told you before. I abhor denouncers. The country is overrun with them.”
Leaning back, Brodsky assumed an avuncular manner as he explained that most denouncers were self-serving morons who wanted their neighbor’s apartment or their manager’s job. “But think of the other side of it,” he coaxingly said, “the transparent side. For a country to proceed without corruption and nepotism and sabotage, that is, for a country to protect itself against its enemies and defend its revolution, it must depend on loyal citizens to denounce the disloyal. Denunciation has an ethical aspect. Would you not warn your students if you found that a terrorist had planted a ticking bomb in the school? I trust that if you knew someone was intending to harm me, you would have the decency to tell me—and to identify the swine. It’s that kind of denunciation I condone and call transparency.”
Try as he might, Sasha could not think of some criminal behavior of Petr Selivanov that would justify denunciation, and he told Avram so. But Brodsky simply lit another cigarette and continued.
“Either you have misrepresented the situation or you are justifying it. Didn’t you tell me that the man ran away from his wife and left a child behind? If that’s not a crime, what is?”
Sasha bit his lip and said, “Perhaps I overstated the case. He actually loves his daughter. He even leaves licorice for her care.”
“Aha!” said Brodsky, pouncing on that disclosure. “He sounds like a quack. As you know, licorice comes from a powerful root and has medicinal powers. People with heart problems and high blood pressure, for example, are told to avoid it. And here we have a father feeding a dangerous root, or what could be dangerous, to his daughter. It’s malpractice of a sort, and the man isn’t even a doctor. There are your grounds for denunciation! Trust me.”
“Then why have you come to ask my advice? Either you want the man gone, permanently gone, or you don’t.”
Sasha shook his head and laughed dryly. “At this moment, I’m not sure. Let me think it over and come back.”
Pulling on his cigarette and slowly expelling the smoke through both his nose and mouth, like a veritable dragon, Avram said softly, “As you like. I’m always here for you.” Sasha was hardly out the door when Brodsky asked him to remain for just a second, went to a bookcase, and removed a thin book of collected essays. “Read this and tell me what you think. I value your opinion.”
With the book in hand, Sasha left. It wasn’t until he reached home that he looked at the title and author:
The Left Opposition
, by Karl Radek. He knew enough about Radek to hide the book in a stewing pot on the top shelf of his kitchen cabinet.
Late that evening, with the Victrola playing Beethoven, Sasha leaned back in his rocking chair and reviewed what he knew about Radek, a figure whom he had discussed in his history dissertation. Karl Bernhardovic Sobelsohn, born in Lemberg, Austria-Hungary (Galicia). Parents: Jewish. Pseudonym: Radek. Current age about fifty. Fluent in three languages: German, Polish, and Russian (perhaps even Yiddish). Profession: journalist. Agitated for Polish independence. Lived in Germany. Fled to Switzerland during the Great War and worked with Lenin as a liaison with the Bremen Left. One of the passengers on the “sealed train” carrying Lenin and other Bolsheviks through Germany to Russia. Exited the train in Sweden and worked as a journalist. Returned to Russia. Became a secretary of the Comintern (1920). Took part in the failed Communist revolution in Germany (1923). Expelled from the Party (1927) for siding with Trotsky; readmitted in 1930 after admitting his political errors. Currently at work, with other Bolsheviks, writing the Soviet Constitution. Appearance: short, nervous, wiry, pop-eyed, myopic (uses thick tortoise-shell spectacles), clean shaven except for a scraggly fringe beard, prominent lips, jerky body movements, and awkward walk. Personal qualities: devoted Communist, elegant writer, inveterate pipe smoker, genius at synthesis, sarcastic, viciously humorous, and never at a loss for an anecdote, often at the expense of Stalin.
Radek’s book, which Sasha waited a few days to read, argued for worldwide revolution, and not socialism in one country, a major point of contention between Trotsky and Stalin. A social democrat in principle, if not name, he promoted the idea of local governance (Soviets) and rule by the workers. He admitted that the masses were uneducated, but placed his faith in the goodness of the people once they were imbued with a modicum of learning. In one essay, he stoutly defended the first head of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinski, drawing on personal friendship to defend the man as kind, modest, peace loving, and fearless. Hadn’t Dzerzhinski told his comrades, when they were all surrounded by the Polish police, to give him their compromising documents, so that he would receive the blame and the prison term?
For the safety of the revolution, which Dzerzhinski regarded as the Supreme Law, anything was permissible. Sasha wondered if this absolutism explained why innocent people confessed to crimes they never committed. Was it for the good of the country and the revolution? It certainly wasn’t for the survival of Stalin. To safeguard what people regard as the greater good, they are willing to confess to grievous misdeeds, of which they are innocent, and passionately swear to conform. Would the new Soviet Constitution protect free speech and the innocent? When Karl Radek found himself in trouble for his previous support of Trotsky, he recanted. How many recantations are enough; or is the “recanter” forever treated with suspicion?
No, Sasha decided, denunciation is behavior most foul, perhaps on a par with murder.
The death of Martyn Lipnoski haunted Sasha. Although the man had participated in the expulsion of his parents, he was an accidental traveler, an incidental surrogate. Did he, like his two companions, have a family? Despite his curiosity, Sasha knew that seeking answers might expose him. He would have forgotten the matter had he not found himself in Father Zossima’s quarters. The boys at the Michael School were required to work in the community. Goran Youzhny had inexplicably volunteered. He and another lad were given the task of laying a wood floor for the ex-priest, who lived with a dirt one. Normally, only those in good standing with the local Soviet received favors from the Michael School, but Sasha had arranged for Father Zossima’s name to make the list.
Although baptized as a Greek Catholic, Sasha knew little about the church and less about its clergy. Shortly after his birth, the Bolsheviks came to power and closed most places of worship. The priests were driven to find other work. His parents occasionally read the Bible to him, but as a child he preferred Russian fairy tales to those about desert marauders. Nevertheless, he did find himself wondering about existential questions during the college semester he studied “Philosophy of History,” owing to his eccentric professor who enjoyed asking about free will, determinism, choice, freedom, guilt, and the origins of life. Many of these questions came to mind after the murders. Was his killing hand merely the instrument of a supernal avenger? How could he have acted against his own nature? Did he offer Galina a position to assuage his guilt or to live in the presence of a beautiful, talented woman?
When he arrived to examine the new floor that had been laid, he found himself alone with Father Zossima talking generally about matters of life and death. The priest lived behind a stable in a small room made possible through the goodness of the farm’s owner, who had renovated a former storage area for tackle and tethers. A cross, the only religious symbol in the room, hung above the entrance. On either side of the door were hooks for overcoats and hats and scarves and other clothing. A Persian rug of handsome design and color covered one wall. The bookcases on another wall were the priest’s handiwork. A third wall held framed photographs of his family: a deceased wife and two married daughters, each with a son. A cot, a small desk, two chairs, and an old steamer trunk composed his furniture. A sink with cold water and a Primus stove substituted for a kitchen and washbasin; his bathroom was an outhouse.
Sasha had once visited a monastery and seen inside a monk’s cell, a scene that, except for the wooden floor, he was now reliving. Father Zossima knew better than to dress in clerical robes, given the antipathy of the government to religion, so he made it a point to wear a peasant
, a long, coarse linen shirt that reached to his knees and cinched at the waist with a narrow belt. The shirt lacked a collar, but was high enough to reach his chin. Unlike most men, who dyed the linen, he wore his white and untrimmed at the cuffs. His gray trousers, made of thin wool, were tucked into felt boots. Never having seen the priest in any other garb, Sasha concluded that he owned only the clothes on his back. He therefore made a mental note to collect some used garments left behind by former students, and pass them along to the priest.
Heavily bearded, Father Zossima looked like a bear peering out of a thicket. At this moment, Sasha could reconstruct the priest’s lunch. Bread crumbs and beet remnants clung to his beard. For all his austerity, Father Zossima indulged in one unseemly habit. He smoked, rolling coarse tobacco in any available paper, usually newspapers. Aware of Sasha’s dislike of tobacco, the father refrained from lighting up, though Sasha could smell the nicotine on his fingers and clothes.
“Do you ever,” asked Sasha, “question God’s judgment?”
“For what reason?”
“To explain the ills of this world. Take yourself, for example. What have you ever done to deserve the treatment you’ve suffered?”
“God’s ways are inscrutable. I would be guilty of unconscionable arrogance to question His will and works.”
In light of his own crimes and their having gone undetected, Sasha had reason to believe that if God existed, He paid little or no attention to the affairs of men. So whether one believed or not hardly mattered. God seemed indifferent. But Sasha found it difficult to reconcile a Godless world with the untold sacrifices people had endured to worship Him and to study the Bible. Could God be so deaf to those who constantly beseeched Him? The promise of heavenly rewards counted for nothing with Sasha. People needed bread and butter and benignity now, not in a future paradise as a reward for good behavior. He finally summoned the courage to ask the one question he knew could cost him Father Zossima’s trust.
“How can you really believe, given the world’s evils and ills, that God exists?”
The priest exhaled in punctuated breaths, as if punched in the stomach. “That’s the
. Can one ever disavow what he has spent the better part of his life believing? When one faithfully serves a higher cause, he has a stake in it. To disown it would be like disowning one’s self. Even if God does not exist, we must continue to believe that He does, for the sake of moral courage and pity and civilized behavior. Given the frailty of man in the face of nature and the marauding and merciless conduct of others, we need to believe in something higher than us, some power capable of redressing the innumerable wrongs we suffer daily.”
“But that’s my point exactly, Father. Why isn’t God slaying the wrongdoers and protecting the weak?”
“Then you don’t believe He exists?”
Like Father Zossima, he was sitting hunched over with his arms crossed in his lap. “No,” Sasha murmured.
“My response, I’m sure, will surprise you. I say He had better exist, because He has a great deal of explaining to do, and only He has the answers.”
Rain sounded on the roof, and thunder moaned in the distance. The sky darkened and drained the light from the day. A serious storm threatened.
Shortly after this visit, Sasha received a terse note from Boris Filatov that read like a ukase.
The pioneering spirit of our students should be directed at those who wish to build a paradise on earth, not in heaven. Let Father Zossima call on God to build him a floor, not the Michael School. See that the priest receives no further favors.