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Authors: Paul M. Levitt

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BOOK: Denouncer
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“I don’t suppose, Comrade Harkov, that you know the whereabouts of Petr Selivanov, whom you have roundly denounced as a traitor? It would be interesting to compare his views with yours. But on one point we’re agreed: No traitor should go unpunished.”

Galina’s expression was one of confusion. It seemed to say: Could I have possibly heard the major correctly? Did Viktor really denounce Petr; did he actually label him a traitor? Surely there’s been a mistake. At that moment, she would have protested had not Larissa and a pallid Sasha, full of apologies, returned. For a moment, no one spoke. Rain pelted the windows, a sound that Bogdan mentally likened to the flogging of convicts. Then Polkovnikov stood and asked Viktor to join him in bidding the guests adieu. As he went out the door, Viktor threw Galina a kiss and made a loud clicking noise, his familiar sound. A suspicious Sasha, absent during Filatov’s revelation of Viktor’s treachery, took Viktor’s gestures to mean, “I’ll see you later.”

Filatov told his two aides to arrest Natalia Korsakova and Bogdan Dolin, and to hold Goran Youzhny and Brodsky for further questioning.

That night, with Alya and Benjie planning to sleep at the home of Ekaterina Rzhevska, where Benjie would sing his May Day song for family and friends, Galina undressed alone, put on her flannel nightgown, and climbed into bed. The storm had shorted the electricity. She lay awake in the dark thinking about the evening’s events, tortured by questions. Would Brodsky let the mother of his son be exiled without trying to free her? Would he join her in exile if he could not obtain her release? Would Bogdan Dolin be transferred (most likely in chains) to Magadan, the major transit center for prisoners sent to labor camps, like Kolyma? Would Goran be exiled to a work camp now that his uncle had fallen from favor? Would Filatov or Polkovnikov be promoted for their work? Would Vera Chernikova continue teaching at the Michael School, as if nothing had happened? Would Devora Berberova resume her position in the front office now that everyone knew she reported to the secret police? Would the other teachers wish to remain at the Michael School once they learned about the evening’s proceedings? Would Petr escape arrest or would the police track him down in Ukraine? Would anything ever be the same? Would she ever be the same? She feared not. Like most purges, this one did not clean or cleanse. If you add too much bleach to the water, the colors fade. Balyk and the school would be colorless after this chistka. The Soviets, of course, would repeat, as they did ad infinitum, that you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. But measuring progress by the number of people purged accomplished little and damaged the country. Was there not a shortage of engineers, teachers, scientists, doctors, and poets? Where were they? Purged and locked up!

Filatov’s aides, Larissa and Basil, had already left with their suspects tucked away in the back of a Black Maria, which they had brought to Balyk in anticipation of the purge. The major had decided against spending the night on the school cot in the nurse’s room. The rain was increasing, and with the school generator down and all the outlying buildings lacking electricity, he would sleep at the Balyk Inn. The next morning he and Sasha could decide on the school’s future. He would return to Tula on the afternoon train. Sasha had remained behind to oversee the students who were tidying up after supper.

As Galina lay in bed, alone and unseen under a moonless sky, she wondered whether Viktor and Polkovnikov had already left in the latter’s car, a black Zim, and if they had, where were they headed? Ryazan? Probably. All was still, except for the clock on the windowsill. Then she heard the back door open and close. But she couldn’t hear footsteps. Instinctively, she knew that the person had removed his shoes. Only a thief would do such a thing. She reached for Petr’s service revolver, the faithful Nagant M1895 that she kept in her nightstand, at the back of the drawer, wrapped in burlap. Petr had taught her how to use his revolver, and as a young girl, she had accompanied her father on pistol shoots, though never on hunting trips. Straw targets were one thing, animals another. The revolver was loaded, just the way Petr had left it. He had told her that should she ever need to ward off thieves or drunkards, always afoot in the countryside, the pistol was ready. She had warned Alya never, never to touch the gun. Not even Sasha went near it. The intruder slowly opened her bedroom door, but waited to enter, as if listening to determine whether she was asleep or awake. Although unable to see in the dark, she trained the revolver on the door and waited. When the dim outline of a person appeared, accompanied by an alveolar click, she fired one shot. The body hit the floor without so much as a groan. She waited to see if he moved. Perhaps he was only pretending. Slipping out of bed, she kneeled next to the body and ran her hand over the face. It was beardless, not the face of Viktor Harkov. She couldn’t believe the features she felt; they were those of Sasha Parsky.

How could such a mistake have occurred? When Sasha left the school building, he’d caught sight of Viktor and Polkovnikov standing next to the policeman’s car. Why hadn’t they left yet? Consulting his fears instead of his reason, he concluded that Galina was in the house waiting for Viktor’s final embrace—and perhaps more. Gripped by an instinctive jealousy and primal possessiveness, he decided to do the unimaginable. He would test her. If his and Galina’s recent lovemaking truly mattered, she could easily prove it. He entered the farmhouse through the pantry, removed his shoes, and tiptoed to Galina’s door. In the few seconds before he eased it open, a thousand fears raced through his mind. Everything would depend on her first reaction to his address. His was a life in the balance. He opened the door and heard Galina’s soft breathing, but was unable to see her. Given his hours of practice, he sounded a good imitation of Viktor’s alveolar click. He knew that if Galina greeted him warmly and invited him into her bed that all their recent affection was a sham and that she could never again be trusted. A pistol sounded and he sank to his knees, unable to speak. He rolled to the floor. A moment later, he felt her hand on his face. With his dying breath, he whispered the fond and fugitive words that made everything clear.


efore sunrise, Galina packed a few belongings, collected Alya at Benjie’s house, and caught the morning train for Ryazan. She left Alya with the Baturins, who were delighted to reunite with their former charge. Knowing Viktor’s haunts and habits, Galina had no trouble finding him. She ascended the steps of a bleak building to the top floor. The nameplate was devoid of a card. She listened for a moment. On hearing movement inside the apartment, she knocked. At first, Viktor opened the door only a crack, but on seeing Galina, threw the door open and spread his arms wide. Several minutes later, he was found on the floor in this cruciform posture, with a bullet hole in his forehead. Galina had made no attempt to escape. The neighbors on hearing the report of the gun had called the constabulary. She was casually reading a magazine when the police arrived.

Alya remained with the Baturins during her mother’s trial, at which Galina was found guilty of having been driven to murder because of jealousy—her lawyer argued that Viktor, her former lover, had abandoned her—and sentenced to ten years in a work camp. With the outbreak in 1939 of the Russian-Finnish war, she volunteered for nursing duty at the front. In February 1940, after a massive Russian push breached the Mannerheim Line (the Finns’ southern defensive barrier stretching across the Karelian isthmus), the Red Amy moved north to the Finnish city of Viipuri (Vyborg), where Galina died of typhus.

Petr Selivanov, although a deserter, and denounced as an enemy of the people, made his way undetected from Kiev to Ryazan, where he rejoined his daughter and took her back to Bogdanovka, in Ukraine, where he was living with his second wife, Tatiana, and his young son, Benedikt. In October 1941, Bogdanovka became the site of an extermination camp, run by Rumanian occupation authorities. At one point, fifty-four thousand Jews were held there. Petr and his wife hid a local Jewish couple and their two daughters. When discovered in the attic of the Selivanov’s house, the Jews, as well as Petr’s family, were marched to a nearby forest, ordered to remove their clothes, and kneel. They were shot in the back of their necks. A plaque, honoring all the murdered, now marks the spot of the extermination camp.

Bogdan Dolin was sentenced to ten years in Kolyma. At the end of his sentence, he chose to live in Magadan, working for a printer.

Goran Youzhny escaped punishment but was forbidden to work as a photographer. He apprenticed to a tinsmith, eventually gravitating to a metal shop in Leningrad. The shop, however, published its own newspaper, and Goran quietly oversaw the photography department.

Vera Chernikova was appointed temporary and then permanent director of the Michael School and immediately invalidated all of Sasha Parsky’s reforms, returning the school to its former curriculum and pedagogy.

Major Boris Filatov had hoped to find a new director for the school, but before he could do so, he was transferred from Tula to Moscow, to work in the disinformation section of the NKVD.

Avram Brodsky escaped imprisonment, but was placed under house arrest, forbidden visitors, and subject to the whims of a police “minder,” a state of affairs that he regarded as tantamount to capital punishment. During Stalin’s purge of “cosmopolitans” (read: Jews), the government rescinded his food-ration card. Rather than depend on the handouts of neighbors, he slowly starved himself to death, perhaps in part because of what had happened to Benjie’s mother.

Natalia Korsakova was transported to the Vorkuta Gulag, located in the Pechora River Basin, twelve hundred miles from Moscow and one hundred miles above the Arctic Circle. She died of starvation in the service of the state, digging coal.

Devora Berberova continued as the head secretary of the Michael School and quickly became a favorite of the interim director, who now knew that Devora reported directly to the NKVD.

Father Zossima, because of Comrade Berberova’s benign reports of him, was left to his hovel and humble life, dispensing aid when he could.

Ekaterina Rzhevska, Alya’s tutor, adopted Benjie, following the Soviet custom of adopting waifs and the orphaned children of exiles.

Larissa, Basil, and Polkovnikov remained with the NKVD. They felt that they had played an important role in unmasking the Three Musketeers and exposing the “wreckers,” and that the medals they received, like the many they’d earned in the past, were not sufficient recompense for their unstinting work. But they said nothing and merely increased their vigilance for the good of the country.

And the innumerable denouncers, what of them? Did they too have medals pinned on their chest? As far as anyone knows, they received the government promise that they would live in a prosperous and glorious land, a paradise, in the life to come. Sadly, the government neglected to say, “only not yours.”



literally: apparatus. The Bolsheviks began as an underground movement. To survive, the Party machine demanded solidarity and discipline. Members were known as apparatchiki, that is, men of the apparat. The term eventually came to mean the Soviet bureaucratic system and had a distinctly negative connotation.

a member of a Communist apparat; a blindly devoted Bolshevik official, follower, or member

the secret police under the Tsar. After the Russian Revolution, although the Bolsheviks formed their own secret police with its own acronym, people still used the old name.

literally: cleaning or cleansing; a political purge

from the Greek: a roll or loaf of bread. It is a sweet yeast-risen bread with raisins, almonds, and candied orange peel. The recipe for kulich is similar to that of Italian panettone.

Nagant M1895:
a seven-shot, gas-seal revolver designed and produced by Belgian industrialist Léon Nagant for the Russian Empire. The gas-seal system allows the cylinder to move forward when the gun is cocked, to close the gap between the cylinder and the barrel. This feature provides a boost to the muzzle velocity of the fired projectile and suppresses the sound of the weapon when fired, an unusual ability for a revolver.

businessmen and women in the early years of the Soviet Union who took advantage of the opportunities for private trade and small-scale manufacturing created by the New Economic Policy (NEP), which was instituted by Lenin as a response to revolts against meager rations in the USSR during the early 1920s under Lenin’s policy of War Communism. NEP encouraged private buying and selling even to, as one official put it, “get rich.”


OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate or All-Union State Political Board):
the formal name of the secret police, it operated from 1923 until 1934, when it was replaced by the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs

originally: a member of an organization established by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to govern the division of Russia known as the Oprichnina (1565–1572); modern usage: a functionary, a toady, a flatterer, a sycophant

a rich Russian dessert made of cottage cheese, cream, almonds, and currants, set in a special wooden mold and traditionally eaten at Easter

from the Latin: a citizen of the lowest class. In its long or short form, the term is used to identify a lower social class, usually the working class.

an important form of dissident activity across the Soviet bloc in which individuals reproduced censored publications by hand and passed the documents from reader to reader. This underground practice to evade officially imposed censorship was fraught with danger as harsh punishments were meted out to people caught possessing or copying censored materials.

a worker in the Soviet Union who regularly surpassed production quotas and was specially honored and rewarded

comrade (especially in Russian Communism); American equivalents: associate, companion, comrade, fellow, yokefellow

TT 30:
a semiautomatic pistol, developed in the early 1930s by Fedor Tokarev as a service pistol for the Soviet military to replace the Nagant M1895 revolver

a proclamation by a Russian emperor or government having the force of law; an edict, an official order

ushanka (hat):
literally: “ear hat”; also known as a trooper, it is a Russian fur cap with ear flaps that can be tied up to the crown of the cap, or tied at the chin to protect the ears, jaw, and lower chin from the cold. The hat provides some protection to the head should one fall on the ice.

an inmate; a Russian slang term for a prison or forced labor camp inmate

BOOK: Denouncer
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