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Authors: Paul M. Levitt

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BOOK: Denouncer
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“You are finishing your degree,” said Filatov, shuffling some papers. “In this area of the country, we have need of secondary-school directors.” He paused, admired his fingernails, which glinted in the light, and glanced at Sasha’s hands, which Filatov rightly marked as those of a scholar. “I trust that you would like such an assignment, which is not possible without someone like myself signing off on your loyalty.” He opened a silver case, removed a cigarette, lit it, and offered Sasha one.

“I don’t smoke.”

After a few puffs, Filatov quit and exclaimed that tobacco was a filthy habit. Sasha guessed that Filatov cared more about his stained fingers than whether smoking was de rigueur. After all, Stalin smoked, and it was whispered that his fingers and teeth were yellow.

“A secondary school would suit me perfectly,” replied Sasha, and instinctively turned toward the window to gain a better view of the autumn leaves and the whispers of ground fog. Like so many Russians, he found comfort in the landscape.

Filatov, ever observant, commented, “At this time of year, so often the sun resembles a dying patient. It grows increasingly pallid, and of course eventually dies, as do our citizens who drink profusely to escape the dreary darkness.”

Sasha found the medical analogy unsuited to the scene—unless Filatov was trying to link Sasha’s ashen face to sickness and guilt.

“Having grown up in the country,” Sasha remarked, “I have experienced the pain of loneliness and the absence of culture.”

“In Moscow, they die in doorways, drunken and diseased.” Before Sasha could reply, Filatov rose and pulled down another map. This one detailed the topography of Tula Province. He pointed to a spot on the outskirts of Tula, not far from Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Poliana.

“The neighboring villages once enjoyed the patronage of the great writer himself. Will this area suit you? It’s a choice location and only 120 miles from Moscow.”

Sasha excitedly asked, “You can arrange it?”

Without moving his facial muscles, Filatov sighed wearily, as if Sasha’s question was hardly worth the answering. Sasha feared that Filatov found him taxing. “The secret police can arrange whatever is in the best interests of the country.” For the first and only time, the stenographer smiled. “You graduate in a few months. I’ll see to it that you receive a position as director of a secondary school. I have in mind a particularly good one in need of reform. Repetition is good for some things but cannot eclipse reasoning. Russians love learning. The written word is sacred. A book makes you a pilgrim at the gates of a new city.”

Sasha, who had expected the knout, not a niche in the world of education, felt his face redden. Was it from appreciation or fear of a trap? He put a hand to his forehead and stuttered his thanks.

“The murdered policemen had families, one, a wife and child, the other, a brother who writes political polemics. Visit them! Here are their files. I regret we have no photographs.”

A bewildered Sasha fingered them awkwardly. Should he open them at once or later? He waited for a signal from Filatov, but the major was now staring silently out the window. Sasha knew that of all the forms of human communication, silence speaks loudest. He thought of his parents’ neighbor Mr. Zaslavsky, who would move his queen but not release his hand to indicate that the move was complete. All the while, he would study Sasha’s face to see his response. Sometimes he returned the queen to its original position, sometimes not. Filatov at last spoke but without turning round. His words were strangely strangled. He seemed to be choking on grief. Perhaps Filatov had met the dead men, knew their families, maybe even worked with them, or shared a cigarette.

“You are no doubt asking yourself why you, a stranger, should be making condolence calls? On what pretense?”

“It did occur to me.”

“When the time comes I will give you a letter of introduction explaining that you work for the police, and that you are calling on behalf of the government. We have already awarded the survivors a financial settlement. You are simply following up.”

Sasha had by now regained his composure. This Filatov was a sly one. The chief obviously felt that Sasha was implicated in the murders and wanted to render him vulnerable with the offer of a plum position and the request that he visit the families. Well, if Filatov thought that Sasha would drop his guard and succumb to sentiment, thus putting his head in a noose, he was underestimating Sasha’s resolve and determination to survive.

But when Filatov finally turned to face Sasha, his moist eyes had an immediate effect on young Parsky, who could feel his own throat tighten and his breath shorten. “Their names are Galina Selivanova and Viktor Harkov. The child’s name is Alya. She’s adopted. Both families live in Ryazan. I would suggest that you write them first and give them ample notice of your visit. At the moment they are in mourning, so I would wait, perhaps until summer, when the weather will favor you.”

Fighting against his own humane impulses, Sasha wondered whether Filatov’s tears were real or confected. A second later he upbraided himself for his cynicism. His next thought was how does a slayer condole with his victims’ families? He felt strangely as if he were observing the murders both as an outsider and as the perpetrator. Until a minute ago, the dead policemen meant nothing to him; and then he saw Filatov’s sorrowful eyes. Perhaps, on further reflection, Sasha was closer to these men than he imagined. If creation and destruction are two poles of the same arc, then he had merely completed a nexus that others had started. He would assuage his guilt through kindness and care. He would take the woman and child on a boat ride or a picnic or maybe a trip to the fair, with a ride on the carousel. But first he would bring the mother a box of candy, and the child a nested doll. And the brother? A fine fountain pen might please him. He was, after all, a writer. In the meantime, he had only a few days to prepare to defend his honors thesis before a group of fractious university examiners.

2

S
asha rented a small room within walking distance to the university. As he strolled to class, he used the time to review his lessons. Autumn had arrived early this year and with it ruminations about life. The trees, shedding their foliage, fractured the sparse sunlight into geometric shadows on the roads. What did the figures portend: his fate, his fortune? Some of his schoolmates delayed their exams; some failed; some passed; some simply disappeared, usually the outspoken ones or those who had something to hide.

Under a floorboard of his room lay the papers—unread—that he had found on the policemen and in the truck. Although he had initially saved them out of a morbid curiosity to know somethin
g about whom he had killed, he found it too painful to disturb the dead. After leaving his family, he had boarded a train and sat staring out the window. A railroad vendor had asked if he wanted tea, but even though the samovar whistled and he felt an insatiable thirst, he lacked the energy to reply. An old woman sitting across from him asked if he felt unwell. Her words came to him as if through water. On having heard the one soldier scream back through history, he had defensively rearranged his mind to muffle all sound.

He now stared at the ominous plank board covering the papers. In his dreams he could hear the board squeak, as if someone was suspiciously examining it. Other times he tried to dispel the phantasm of dream to interpret the Morse code that the board seemed to be sending, a farrago of dots and dashes. The longer he had left the papers untouched, the harder he’d found it to read them. But the night before, he had dreamed that his university examiners knew the contents and asked him why he hadn’t studied or burned them. His indecision, they said, called into question his readiness for his honors exam, an exhausting exercise to be held the next day.

Once awake, he scolded himself for his timidity. Perhaps the papers contained information about his parents having been “unmasked” as kulaks and the name of the denouncer. But that discovery was what he feared most: learning the name of the person who had betrayed them. The villagers were like family. They took meals together and, side by side, walked to church. In times of sickness and want, they aided each other. What if he learned, for example, that the Judas was the Chumachenkos, who shared a thresher and a plow horse with his family, and whose son, Sergei, pitched horseshoes with him; or the Sharatovs, who had helped build the Parsky barn; or the Bulgakovs, who famously invited the neighbors’ children to sit around a fire on a summer night and listen to fairy tales and ghost stories; or the one-legged Gregori, who showed the children his souvenirs from the Great War and regaled them with his exploits on the German front; or the Krichefskis, who raised chickens and, until their younger son died of polio, never failed to give the poor a stewing hen; or the Ezhovs? Having played with the Ezhov children, three boys and two girls, he regarded them as his own brothers and sisters. One August day, he had even kissed Natasha Ezhova on the cheek, in the apple orchard. At the time, she had said that Sasha was now promised to her and made him kiss the crucifix that she removed from around her neck.

Down the road lived the Nazarovs. On warm August nights, the two families would take their meals in the Parsky garden, at a long table covered with a white linen tablecloth. Although the dishes were cracked and the silverware common, the food would have suited a boyar: pheasant and partridge, carp and herring, mushroom soup, hot bread fresh from the oven, boiling water for
chai
thanks to the samovar that the Nazarov family carted by horse to the Parsky house. Pavel Nazarov had generously offered his samovar when Mr. Parsky complained that his was too small for ten people and needed repair. In the long summer light, the children would play tag and catch fireflies and read poetry while the parents sipped a cordial and reminisced about traveling operas and ballets that used to come to the theaters of the great estates and perform for the locals. Sasha wondered whether his parents actually saw such performances or lived them vicariously through the memories of their parents.

The Zaslavsky family, Ida and Naum, lived to the south of the Parsky farm. They had no children. After years of medical advice, Ida was told she was barren. A Jewish family—the only one for miles around—they kept to themselves. If they observed any religious practices, it was in the quiet and security of their own dwelling. Sasha would often visit them on his way home from school. The road passed their farm. They treated him as a surrogate son and called him their little David. During Passover, Sasha liked seeing their candle holders glowing with tapers and never ceased to stare at the mezuzahs on the outside doorposts, but best of all was the ivory chess set on which Naum taught Sasha to play. He would occasionally let the lad win, but they both knew that he could have swept Sasha any time that he wished.

Infrequently, Sasha would stay for a meal, and then return home to tell his mother that Ida Zaslavsky made strange foods with odd names, like gefilte fish and knishes and kugel and cholent and babka and charoset and hamantaschen. Mrs. Parsky worried that Sasha was being poisoned. But he assured her that the Zaslavskys ate the same food. The Parskys never invited the “Yids” to dinner, and the latter never invited Sasha’s parents. Such was life in their village.

If Naum had denounced Mr. Parsky . . . no, that was impossible. Yes, the two families had once quarreled over property lines, but any man who talked about the Talmud with Naum’s reverence could never betray his neighbor. Although the other farmers were rabidly anti-Semitic, Sasha’s parents, other than sometimes using the word “Yid” and repeating some jokes about Jewish economy, never repeated phrases like “the Christ killers.” To learn that Naum had been the denouncer would have elevated all the local prejudices to the status of truth. And since he couldn’t think poorly of the Zaslavskys, he adopted Winnie Verloc’s view in
The Secret Agent
that “life doesn’t stand much looking into.”

When he thought of the papers under the plank board, what tormented him most was the fear that his examiners might ask him about the murders. Personal digressions were common during honors thesis exams. His mouth suddenly tasted of bile, and his forehead oozed sweat. He breathed deeply. His body seemed to be acting independently of his mind, signaling him, telling him to read the hidden papers and dispel all his fears. He went to the door and fastened the bolt; then he slowly dressed in preparation for the examination—and the unveiling. He removed from the small mahogany armoire a black suit, his only one. From a bottom drawer, he took a white shirt, a blue tie, and his lone pair of dress shoes, which a former tenant of the house had left behind and which fit him. Now suitably attired in a funereal manner, he used the same knife as before to raise the plank board, extricating a wallet, a brown morocco notebook, and some incidental papers. Spreading them on his bed, he pulled up a chair and studied the contents. The first man he had killed, the one with the wallet, was Alexander Harkov, almost thirty-three years old. His birthday would have taken place in two weeks. A lock of hair in his wallet must have come from some former or current girlfriend. It exhibited a ringlet. Sasha ignored the few rubles. The notebook, actually a diary, belonged to the other man, Petr Selivanov, twenty-nine. Although he had found it in the glove compartment of the truck, Sasha concluded that the frayed and broken corners resulted from its having been carried in the owner’s pants and not in his jacket or shirt pocket. With shaking hands, Sasha ventured into Petr Selivanov’s private life.

Inside the front cover were birth dates. A photograph of his wife and daughter showed a pretty woman whose dark, Jezebel eyes exuded excitement, and a child with a bright face and pigtails. The pages were covered with rather elaborate sloping handwriting. Although short, the notebook was telling. One could see in an instant that the author had received a good education. On the wave of words, Sasha read:

12 May

Galina has given me this small brown morocco notebook. We have recently been arguing, usually over our differing views of life. I bought her a jar of caviar, and now she has given me this cahier. Two years ago, when we first met, I thought her the most beautiful woman in all Russia. She is passionate and sentimental and has wild Cossack blood. Her family comes from the region of the Don. Our first disagreement occurred over my joining the secret police. In the quiet of our bedroom, she called Stalin a limping leech. I told her the walls have ears and to watch what she says. (I shouldn’t even be writing this down.) She accused me of joining the wrong side, the Bolsheviks, instead of the Left Opposition. We both come from political families that fought in the civil war, hers on the side of the Whites and mine on the Reds. And yet she has taken a middle ground: that of the Social Democrats. I fear trouble will ensue.

20 May

We continue to disagree but now our differences have affected the bed. She tells me I am unworthy of her love. We met outside of Ryazan in August 1934, a stifling day. The sunbaked roads were hard as oak. A runaway horse, copiously dripping foam from its silken lips, came thundering down the lane. She grabbed the pommel, and swung into the saddle as effortlessly as if she were mounting a horse at rest. A rotund fellow with a sweaty red face, puffing from the exertion of chasing his mare, took the reins from her and opened his purse. She refused the reward. So taken was I by her courage and courtesy—yes, her handsome face also—I crossed the lane and boldly spoke to her. Although it is not my custom to speak to strangers, especially women, I could feel her magnetism from across the road. In these Soviet times, women have become fiercer than men. Give them boots, a uniform, a shoulder strap, and they behave like the Praetorian Guard. She smiled and we entered a shop for a cup of chai. I asked if I could see her again, and she said not likely. Only grudgingly did she tell me her name, Galina, and that she lived twelve versts from town on her parents’ farm. I told her mine were Kalmyk sheepherders. I had the impression that she disdained Mongols, but my family’s blood is so mixed with European that I could pass one way or the other. She repeatedly rebuffed my advances. But a chance meeting between her and my mother took place in a shop. Only then did she begin to treat my overtures seriously, I think because of my mother’s remarkable beauty.

27 May

They say a long courting period is best. We saw each other wherever we could, and whenever we made love she was always sensuous and tender. Finally in March, she agreed to live with me, and last June we married. Unlike some women, she never becomes hysterical over love. She is physically robust and shares in the pleasures of sex. But I am not without worry. She likes men and especially well-educated ones who excite her with ideas and shower her with praise. I suspect I have failed her in this regard. My own college education was rather conventional, though from time to time she does compliment my courage and compassion. She seems to be saying, “For now you will do.”

20 June

Less than a month ago, Galina was all loving and sweetness. I know she is moody, but of late also overtly flirtatious. How can this clever young woman, blessed with a college degree and wise to the guiles of young men, so naively accept their flattery? Does she sincerely believe it when they say that not beauty but wit makes her shine in their eyes? Does she pretend not to see their oily designs just to incite my jealousy? When it comes to love, her powers of self-delusion border on the irrational. I swear she suffers from “uterine frenzies,” which she always manages to dress up in some romantic locution, the better to abandon herself. She needs to have at her side a young man who is constantly singing her praises. And that man never changes. He is always morose, daring, and willing to ignore her outbursts of temper. She claims that these men are only friends and charming conversationalists. But more often than not, they are childlike, so she can soothe and console them.

1 July

From the OGPU training I am receiving, I have developed a nose for wrongdoing. Whenever I return from a field trip, the flat smells different and the furniture looks as if it has been moved, not much, but slightly. Of late, Galina has been colder than ever.

8 July

I arrived home early from headquarters and found Galina making the bed. She usually has it in order by the time I leave in the morning. I asked her why she was just now straightening up, and she said that she had been out. When I asked where, she flew into a fury and said that she would not stand to be questioned as if she were some criminal interrogated by the police. You have changed, she cried. You have become the enemy. Alya was standing at the door, watching.

19 July

My neighbor Alexander Harkov was recently assigned to the same police group as me. He left school at an early age to work in a metal shop. He may be rough around the edges, but he’s a good sort. Alexander and I often talk. He showed me a family picture. His sister, now dead, was quite beautiful. I was once friendly with his brother, Viktor, but he prefers his own company—and his political pamphlets. He’s obsessed with how dictatorially our Soviet commissar, Vladimir Lukashenko, runs the oblast. The two brothers are unmarried, but, as Alexander says, he’s not opposed though Viktor is. We ride in the same truck. He drives and I roll his cigarettes for him. Our current assignments have been to apprehend kulaks and confiscate their properties. I am more affected than him by the tears and the pleas of the women and children, but I take courage from following his example. Recently, a Jewish family threw themselves at our feet and begged to keep their small plot of land. Alexander called them Christ killers and roughly shoved them into the back of the truck. I tiptoed lightly through the house and saw religious objects of silver and gold, all of which I took for the state, including an antique menorah.

BOOK: Denouncer
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