Authors: Paul M. Levitt
“Women, they read poetry, not men.”
Dark clouds massed overhead, and a few snowflakes began to fall. Soon the poplars and beeches would be leafless, and bleak winter would blanket the land.
“They read everything more than men. Writers depend on them. If women didn’t buy literary subscriptions and journals, no bookseller could survive.” The policeman seemed unready to give up the argument. “I don’t like make-believe, women do.”
“And yet you’re a Bolshevik.”
Zoditch eyed him suspiciously. “You are suggesting what?”
“Self-improvement, the new man, the paradise to come . . . are these not all fictions? And yet you embrace them.”
The policeman, feeling that his imperfect command of language put him at a disadvantage, decided not to detain Sasha in the police station but rather to take him for further questioning to the chief of the bureau, Major Boris Filatov, who was a certified engineer with his own office and a college degree.
“Into the car! I’ll get the key.”
Major Filatov, head of the Tula oblast OGPU, fervently believed that the future would be socialist and just. He had invested too much of his life in the Party to believe otherwise. All the denunciations and sacrifices that had earned him his current position . . . had they not been in the service of the common good? Why else would he have lent himself to prisons and torture and shooting squads? To maintain his sanity, he had to accept that the investment in blood was worth the price, and that the ends justified the means. The logic was inescapable. If the ends didn’t justify the means, what did? To make an omelet, the Soviets loved to repeat, you have to break eggs. A future paradise requires effort. The soil must be tilled, weeds and tares removed. If bloodshed provides the fertilizer for Eden, then let it leave no place untouched.
At the unmarked building that housed Filatov’s office, a guard met Zoditch and took Sasha to a cold basement cell, where he waited several hours, reading and rereading the poignant graffiti declaring the innocence of the occupant. Sasha surmised that his treatment was all part of the “method” used to gain a confession—or make a convert. Before long, the guard brought a young man to the cell, a suspected murderer. He was about twenty, well-dressed, with handsome features and straight teeth. His dark hair, parted down the middle, had been recently cut, and his pink face newly shaved. The fellow even had about him a slight whiff of cologne. Introducing himself as Goran Youzhny, he garrulously asked Sasha his name. But when Sasha failed to respond, the man, in well-spoken phrases, said:
“You’re probably wondering why I am here. But I could ask you the same.” Sasha refrained from replying, and Goran continued. “I killed two policemen, decapitated them and then trod through the sticky blood to bury them.”
In the half-dark light, Sasha groped for one of the boards and sat. He tried to sort out his riotous thoughts. Was this man an OGPU “plant”; was he, like so many others, a religious fanatic who took upon himself the sins of the world; or was he a coincidental murderer? Lest he appear skeptical, Sasha took the young man at his word.
“Why did you kill the policemen?”
Goran sat down next to him and answered softly, “They had come to expel my parents from their farm. Kulaks, that was the charge.”
Don’t lower your guard, Sasha told himself. Be wary. Feign horror and disgust at the young man’s story. “What a detestable crime!” said Sasha. “I am accused, falsely I might add, of a similar one. Now I see why they put you in a cell with me.”
Goran then recounted the location of the farm and the name of the family, Parsky. Sasha could only conclude that Goran Youzhny was either a spy or a member of a forest community of religious zealots who feel that they are born with primordial guilt and must assume responsibility for the world’s sins, even if such behavior includes confessing to crimes they didn’t commit. But the forest priests dressed in disheveled robes, never shaved, and wore their hair long. Perhaps they had spawned a new breed of zealots. In any case, surely Filatov could see that this man was not a double murderer; but then, based on appearances, the same could be said about Sasha.
“Why did you kill them?” Sasha asked impassively.
“Given the absence of justice and fairness, I acted to right a wrong. The laws we live under, as you know, have nothing to do with justice and fairness, so I acted according to my own moral law.”
“Even at the expense of your life?”
“Human history is littered with the bodies of the just.”
“Perhaps an appeal to the local Soviet might have helped. Murder is an admission of failure, moral and legal.”
“The local Soviets are elected; they are not moral arbiters.”
“Tell me, Citizen Youzhny, in your opinion, which comes first, guilt or the crime? I mean, do we feel guilty for plotting a crime or for committing it or both?”
“If you believe in original sin, the answer is both. But whether or not one believes in original sin, one may feel equally guilty.”
Sasha warmed to the subject. Here was a chance to mentally exercise. Even if Goran was a plant and the cell bugged, he had said nothing amiss. This discussion would ready him for Major Filatov. If the police chief wanted to argue about the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin, he would be ready.
“And if one feels no guilt at all, what then?”
Goran sucked air through his clenched teeth and issued a low whistle. “Such a person would be devoid of conscience and merely a creature of instinct. Sin is punished, one way or another.”
“A minute ago, you decried the law. So I assume you believe that transgressing the law is justifiable. Would refusing to denounce a friend qualify?”
Goran’s silence betokened his moral quandary.
Sasha goaded him. “Isn’t it a fact that some sinners escape judgment?”
“Perhaps here, but not in the afterlife. And don’t underestimate conscience. Thank God, I am not one of those who make up all manner of excuses to explain their felonies. I do not blame my own on Soviet arrogance or the confiscation of private property.”
Sasha smiled, knowing full well that Goran was preparing to recite a litany of Soviet sins—in order to draw him out.
“They promised religious freedom and then closed the churches. They promised the different nationalities the right to continue their cultures and then suppressed them. They gagged the writers and promulgated their own form of art. They restricted the right to travel. They promoted hacks and exiled genius. They introduced the cult of personality—Stalin’s—and imprisoned the Vozhd’s former comrades. It’s intolerable. Don’t you agree?”
Sasha knew not to agree with criticisms of the government. Once you agreed, the trap sprung shut. Goran was undoubtedly an OGPU stooge told what to say. And even if Sasha couldn’t prove that Goran’s list of Soviet sins was rehearsed, why take the chance of assenting? The rule was “Never agree or disagree, even with a friend. The walls have ears.”
“How did you kill the policemen?” Sasha asked.
“With a sickle. I cut off their heads cleanly. Swipe. Swipe.”
At that moment, Sasha knew that his cell mate was a plant. One of the heads had failed to come free. Goran’s factual error was small, but just large enough to brand him a liar. You can never be too careful.
When the guard finally led Sasha upstairs, he entered a carpeted room with a desk and sofa and three chairs. On the wall behind the desk hung a large portrait of Stalin. Affixed to another wall was a colored map of the Soviet Union, covered with red and yellow pins, indicating the major war zones during the Great War and the civil war. Two windows looked out on a wooded area. Behind the desk, Boris Filatov, ramrod straight, wore not a uniform or a tunic but a beige suit. In front of the desk, a woman sat with legs planted firmly on the floor, a pad in her lap, and a mechanical pencil at the ready, waiting in a totally impersonal manner to record the proceedings.
“Please make yourself comfortable on the couch,” said Filatov. “Comrade Olga is our secret service stenographer.”
Sasha leaned back on the couch and stretched his legs, now cold and cramped. He noted that while Filatov was a handsome man who exuded energy and strength, the woman was pale and dispirited. Her flaxen hair, pulled back carelessly, revealed a lifeless face with black holes for eyes. She nervously tapped one foot on the floor and then rubbed a thigh, revealing more leg than one would have expected from a lady commissar. Her drab officer’s dress accentuated her flat chest. Sasha looked at her hands but saw no rings. Was she married? Did she always look so absent? Perhaps she had liver trouble and smoked too much.
“How are your parents?” asked Filatov, breaking the spell of Sasha’s thoughts.
“My parents?” Sasha repeated. The question had taken him by surprise. “I thought you knew.”
“Knew what?” asked Filatov, stroking his ample well-barbered mustache that bore a striking resemblance to Stalin’s.
“They left for Sochi and haven’t yet sent me their address.”
Filatov shook his head sympathetically. “No news. It’s a shame how badly our postal service works. Or perhaps I should say doesn’t work. Our people ought to investigate.”
“I’m rather surprised myself,” said Sasha, rubbing his hands to dispel the lingering cold.
Filatov came from behind his desk and extended a hand to Sasha. “Such poor manners on my part. I am Boris Filatov, and you are Citizen Sasha Parsky.” They shook hands. “I hope you are well.”
“Just chilled from your basement apartment.”
“I like irony, Citizen Parsky. It shows wit. I will have to tell my people to install central heating downstairs.” Filatov returned to his desk. Zoditch knocked, entered, handed him a note, and left. “My apologies as well,” added Filatov, “for the clumsy attempt of one of our agents to induce you to talk about a crime you didn’t commit.” He left his desk and repaired to the couch with a folder in hand.
Sasha remembered what his professors had told him, albeit in whispers, as well as the many students interrogated by the secret police. Avoid garrulousness. Exercise caution. Reject friendship. Folders like Filatov’s were often stage props. The contents? Perhaps damning, perhaps nothing. To escape OGPU traps, be doubly deceptive.
“Comrade Parsky,” Filatov said, eliciting a smile from Sasha, who noticed the shift in diction from “Citizen” to “Comrade.” “According to our files . . .” He rustled some papers.
For the first time, Sasha noticed Filatov’s hands. The nails were polished, the mark of a dandy. “Comrade Parsky,” Filatov repeated and pointed at the map. “The red pins signify the important Russian fronts during the Great War.” He paused. “Are you any relation to General Parsky?” Sasha shook his head no. Filatov then rattled off a number of facts about Sasha’s personal life. “While you were waiting,” said Filatov, “Comrade Zoditch dictated to our typist. It says here that you are a cooperative witness and that you are willing to see your parents denounced.” He paused. “Not so much as a demurral? Most children take convincing. But you are ready and willing, as the saying is. Are you familiar with their crime? Were you told?”
“Two policemen . . . we recovered the remains . . . and the murder weapon, a sickle. They were buried in a shallow grave, freshly dug.”
“Sounds awful,” said Sasha, wiping his perspiring forehead with his sleeve.
“Inconceivable is what I would call it: two elderly people with the strength to overcome two policemen and behead them, or almost.” He paused. “Do you suppose a third party could have been present?”
“We have no paid workers except at harvest time.”
“I was thinking of you.”
Sasha decided to play Filatov’s game and come to the same conclusion, thus weakening Boris’s argument. Protestations of innocence were to be expected, not agreement. “If I were you, I would think the same thing. But I was not present. Perhaps a bandit or runaway
was in the area. Have you checked?”
Filatov nodded sagely, as if he had expected this line of reasoning, and answered, “As a matter of fact, we have.”
“A sickle, you say? A great many itinerant farmworkers come through our area carrying sickles. Scythes, too. Or perhaps it was someone who ran away from a collective farm.”
Studying his hands, Filatov said without looking up, “I return to the point that two elderly people were unlikely to have the physical strength to decapitate two men. Do you agree?”
“Good. Then what are we to conclude?”
“They are innocent and someone else is guilty.”
“And yet you are willing to denounce them.”
It took very little for Sasha to realize that in Filatov he was facing a different kind of policeman. To make light of his acquiescence and elicit a smile, Sasha rejoined, “If you’d like me to resist, I can say no and protest loudly.”
Filatov’s gentle face turned hard. “Don’t jest about betrayals. To denounce a parent is a life-altering decision. No one should ever be put in that position.”
Sasha saw that he was not wrong about this inquisitor. He had been selected for his cunning. Filatov had the brains to side with his adversary, and the personality to insinuate himself into the prisoner’s trust. His comments had the effect of causing Sasha to remember a spring day in school, with the fragrance of lilacs drifting through the open windows. All the children were asked to stand as the teacher related the story of a wife who denounced her husband for making comments critical of Lenin. A gentle sort, the teacher, who had grown up in an educated family, impressed upon the children the importance of motives. The husband, related the teacher, was removed by the Cheka and, in front of the villagers, made to kneel and ask for forgiveness. Hoping to save his life, the poor man confessed to the crime of undermining morale. But a soldier stepped forward and shot the man in the back of the head.
Alas, events are not always as they seem. The villagers subsequently learned that the man’s wife had been conducting an affair with a young fellow from another village and wanted her husband out of the way. When her motives were reported to the police, they shrugged and did nothing. So the villagers took matters into their own hands and drowned the woman in a nearby river. The teacher’s conclusion was not that one should remain silent in the presence of a crime, though he was quick to point out that the disparagement of Lenin was allowed by the guarantees of free speech in the Soviet Constitution, but that before rushing to judgment, one should have all the facts or as many as possible, given the self-interest of people who supply “truth” in excess of demand. The teacher’s lesson might have been forgotten in the farrago of childhood experiences had not a boy in his class denounced the poor man for saying that it was acceptable to criticize Lenin, with the result that the teacher was removed from the school and never seen again.