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Authors: Paul M. Levitt

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BOOK: Denouncer
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30 July

Galina’s training as a nurse has landed her a job at the local hospital, which has child minding. No more working at home as an editor and translator. I wonder whether the new job will affect her elegant writing style and mastery of French. Although I liked political history and writing analytical papers, if I had my university education to do over again, I think I would study archeology. Perhaps that’s why I like police work. It enables me to uncover the past and re-create a crime from the evidence, little as it may be.

11 August

Today was Galina’s birthday, and although we are still spatting, we had friends over to share several bottles of vodka and cake. Galina drew up the guest list: the Harkov brothers, her parents, the Tchaikovskys, and the Antipovas. We sang songs, toasted Galina, and read some Pushkin poems. Alya had happily painted a picture for her mother, but by the end of the evening, when Viktor Harkov and Galina were dancing cheek to cheek, Alya grew sullen. We all teased her, and took her aside to explain that Viktor was nothing more than a friend.

22 August

Alexander asked how Galina and I were faring. In the past, he only listened when I complained but never questioned me or commented. I told him that the marriage was failing, and that I could see an end in sight. Of late, she has selfishly started spending money on fashionable clothing, money we don’t have. Alya, she dresses in hand-me-downs. He murmured that Galina was a fine woman. Is he thinking of her for romantic reasons? But recently he’s been seeing a widow with two children.

31 August

I can smell fall in the air and see it in the lilac darkness. The dust motes have virtually disappeared from the sunlight, and the trees are already turning. My almanac says that it will be a cold winter and an early one. Today, for the first time in my police service I had to draw my pistol. A farmer refused to leave his farm. He and his family boarded themselves inside the house. I shot my pistol in the air. Alexander taunted me. He shot his pistol into the house. The family immediately abandoned the premises and boarded the truck.

10 September

The Harkov brothers came to us for dinner. It was Galina’s idea. They brought pastries, and we supplied the chicken and lentil soup. Galina asked Viktor to read some poems from Lermontov, but he said he was in no mood. Everyone could see that he was out of sorts. He complained angrily about the Soviet commissar for our region. He swore that the man was a tyrant and that someday he would kill him. I tried to settle Viktor down, but he was outraged because Lukashenko insisted that our district would have to undergo a
chistka
to determine who was faithful to the state and who was not. It’s criminal, Viktor swore, that we should have to live through a purge. This is 1935!

15 September

Another day, another action against kulaks. I am beginning to wonder about the wisdom of these arrests. This time we encountered a scene we had only heard about from other reports but had never witnessed for ourselves. The owner of the farm, rather than allow us to confiscate his animals, hid his three cows in the woods, where we found them under a thatched roof supported by four poles. Lying in a ditch near the house was a roan horse, shot through the head. One of its hind legs was sticking up in the air and the shoe was glittering in the sunlight. In the distance was a whitewashed church. The leg of the horse, bent at the knee, made me think of a broken cross. A small cloud momentarily blocked the sun. A minute later, the sunlight illuminated the smooth reddish fur of the horse’s leg, which blossomed like some magical leafless branch into orange splendor.

24 September

I ran into Viktor as I walked toward the river to fish. He refused my offer to join me and said that he had a pamphlet to print. His polemics have reached the ears of the city officials, as well as Galina, who strongly defends him against any criticism. Alexander can’t be sure, but he thinks that his brother has acquired a pistol. He found a manual and several bullets for a TT 30.

28 September

Galina was in a good mood this evening. She prepared a fat salmon for dinner that Viktor brought to the flat this afternoon in appreciation for her support of his views. I played the gramophone—Beethoven—and then suggested that Galina and I let love enfold us. But to my annoyance, no, fury, she said she was bleeding. I knew damn well she was lying. She had said the same thing two weeks ago. Either she was deceiving me then or she is now. I am sick of her excuses. I stormed out of the house and walked the streets for hours. When I returned I knew she was feigning sleep, so I audibly grumbled that love is a flower that wilts after marriage.

3 October

After days of silence, Galina and I finally spoke. She apologized for her behavior and said it was because Alya had been throwing tantrums after I left for work. The child seems troubled. She probably remembers her parents and the other orphaned children, all of whom prayed to be adopted by some kind family. We had both agreed at the time of our marriage that we would wait to have a child until we could afford one. But Mrs. Platonov’s pleas changed everything. After Alya went to sleep, we reminisced about the incident
. Later we made love, but without the feeling of former days. As we lay in bed, she asked about the people, the kulaks we arrest, and how they react. I gave her a few examples. She turned her head away from me and said: Why do you still work for them?

10 October

The weather has turned unseasonably cold. Alexander and I have been ordered to travel a hundred versts to confiscate a farm. I usually make it a point never to remember the names of the families, but in this case the family name, Parsky, gave me pause. Dimitri Pavlovich Parsky was the first Tsarist general with battle experience to offer his services to the Red Army. No Bolshevik, he fought, he said, to save Russia from German slavery.

18 October

Alexander wanted to nap, so I agreed to drive. The roads were abominably muddy and slow. We stopped at a state-run roadside inn. I ordered tea, Alexander, vodka. Across the room we saw an old comrade, Martyn Lipnoski. He said that during a night of reveling, some whore had lifted his wallet, which held his papers and identity card. He looked as if he’d slept in his uniform. At least she hadn’t stolen his sidearm. Outside, it was pissing rain. Alexander offered him a lift, and I gave Martyn the extra slicker we kept under the seat, all the time wishing we could trade places, he in the truck and me in the tavern. When we reached a rise in the road above the Parsky house, Alexander stopped long enough for him and Martyn to take a quick swig from Martyn’s flask and for me to jot down a few notes. Sitting here listening to them guffawing uproariously at my scribbling, as they call it, I can’t help but think that perhaps Galina is right.

3

T
he cramped university exam room, normally a smoking lounge for faculty, exuded the stale smell of nicotine. From the two couches and dusty drapes, in particular, came a foul odor. To achieve a bonhomous effect, the chairs formed a semicircle facing the one for the candidate. A coffee table, in the middle, held several ashtrays, a water pitcher, and five glasses. The examiners, less inclined to talk about the forthcoming examination than the price of onions, insouciantly flip
ped through their red folders. While Sasha paced in the hall, so too did Igor Likhachov, a security officer nicknamed Chick-Chick, who nodded at Sasha, and for no apparent reason put his briefcase under his arm and started to remove pieces of flaking plaster from the faded green walls. When a secretary opened the door and said that the committee was ready, Sasha had an urge to retreat to the men’s lavatory, but suppressed his need. Likhachov followed Sasha into the room and sat apart from the group, in a corner, next to a rubbish bin, slowly peeling a hard-boiled egg.

Sasha stood at attention and waited for his adviser to start the proceedings. The examiners, all men dressed in drab black suits, sat passively, giving no indication of their disposition toward Sasha’s work. Each red folder included Sasha’s thesis and academic record. His dissertation director, Feodor Simyonski, a rotund fellow with droopy eyelids and pince-nez attached to his vest by a black ribbon, pointed to the empty chair and told him to sit. Sasha pondered whether to extend his hand in greeting to the examiners now or after the oral. He chose to wait. But he did greet each man by his formal title. Once Sasha was seated, Simyonski cleared his throat and began. “Sasha Parsky, candidate for history honors, thesis ‘A Marxist Interpretation of the Russian Civil War.’ You have all read the paper, and I am sure that my colleagues here have questions that they would like to ask Citizen Parsky.”

A clean-shaven, balding expert on military history, Simyonski nervously fingered his glasses, which he frequently removed and polished with a dirty handkerchief. Unlike the other men, he had a certificate from a military academy and treated university degrees with suspicion. Strategy forged under fire, he felt, eclipsed classroom theory. To ground the discussion in geography, he had mounted on a stand behind him a large map of Eastern and Central Europe, including the Baltics and Scandinavia, with black arrows pointing to the major fronts of the Russian Civil War. To Simyonski’s way of thinking the Upper and Lower Don had been the key to Bolshevik success. If the Cossacks had been allowed to distance themselves from both the Reds and the Whites to form their own nation, what was to prevent Ukraine and the Caucasus and Georgia and Latvia from following suit? Although he had not himself fought in the war, he had shared the nationalists’ fears of fragmentation.

Artur Krasnov chain-smoked. A tall, elderly man, poorly barbered, with thin lips, furtive eyes, a beaked nose, long curved fingernails, and a sickly yellow complexion, he coughed so often that his chest rattled like loose change. A former Tsarist officer who had initially fought with the Whites, he had early in the war changed sides, and therefore regarded himself as an expert on matters touching upon the Bolshevik military, the Volunteer Army, and the Cossack rebellion. Pointing to the Don River and the steppe lands marked on the map, he asked:

“How great a role in the war do you think pillaging played, especially in Ukraine and the Don?”

Sasha pondered the question, which was a minefield. All sides had engaged in unlawful acts against citizens, though the Bolsheviks were inclined to minimize their rapaciousness and emphasize that of the Cossacks and Whites.

“It would be hard to measure, but we do know that such behavior was counterproductive, because the local populations would readily change sides when mistreated. How else can we explain the desire on the part of the Cossacks to have their own nation?”

Lighting a fresh cigarette from the former, Krasnov greedily devoured the smoke and exhaled a stream through his nose. Extending the pack of cigarettes toward Sasha, he paused, tapped a fingernail on his folder, and remarked, “I’d forgotten. You don’t enjoy the habit.”

Sasha forced a smile and acknowledged his abstemiousness.

“On the basis of social class,” asked Krasnov, “do you think the Bolshevik officers or the White officers were more inclined to steal?”

Again, the question was fraught with danger. The Bolsheviks had argued that they represented the exploited classes, while the Whites had contended that their officers came from the upper classes and would never stoop to plundering. Of course, both sides had forcibly recruited in their service misfits and miscreants and could not account for their behavior.

Knowing that Krasnov took pride in his having once served in the Tsar’s officer corps, which he regarded as the height of military service, Sasha replied, “The qualities of fairness and mercy can be found in any class. Where people evinced such qualities, brigandage was not a problem.”

“Are you saying, then,” Krasnov probed, toying with his cigarette, “that royalty is an innate quality and not bestowed by education or rank?”

Again trying to walk a fine line, Sasha replied, “The privileges of money often lead to education and good manners, but not necessarily to a good heart. The poor may be deficient in education but rich in feeling for their fellow man.”

When his coughing subsided, Krasnov snorted and nodded to Simyonski to call on someone else. The chairman, seeing that Pavel Polyakov was keen to speak, called on him.

“Do you think, Sasha Parsky, that if Petrograd had fallen to the Whites, we’d still be living under a Tsar; or do you think a revolution was inevitable and the monarchy, in any case, doomed?”

Simyonski grimaced and poured himself a glass of water. The question was precisely the kind he despised, academic and theoretical. And whatever answer Sasha gave, what would it matter? Theory, he mused, was all gray, and the golden tree of life green.

Outside the one window, which looked into a courtyard, the sky remained bright, even though the afternoon was eroding. The glorious hours of honeyed Russian sunshine were all too ephemeral, and the dreary cold all too lasting. At that moment, Sasha wished to be running through the fields behind his parents’ house and flushing quail from the wheat fields. He could picture the bustards and crows overhead, and he could see the wide stream in which he and his father fished. In May, the sound of the melting ice resembled the report of a gun, as the melting floes hiccupped and heaved. His mind wandered to Tolstoy and Sholokhov. Who could describe better than they the Russian countryside, the fields and the rivers?

“It’s always easier to fight in the countryside than in the city. Had the Whites actually entered Petrograd, the guerilla street fighting might have kept the city safely in Bolshevik hands.”

Polyakov sucked on the shiny hairs under his lower lip, a clump that resembled the ones on the backs of his small brown hands. Leaning forward, he peered out of his sunken eyes, made all the deeper by his high cheekbones, and objected.

“That’s not what I asked. My question concerned historical inevitability. As a good Marxist, you should understand the meaning of Marx’s statement that men make history ‘under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.’” He studied Sasha’s face for a sign of weakness, but seeing none, lipped his clump of hair and pondered his next step. Famous for intimidating students with his black stares and cheerless demeanor, he barked, “Inevitable or not? One word!”

“Inevitable.”

“Quite so.”

Polyakov leaned back in his chair satisfied that he had just taught this honors student a lesson in Marxist theory.

Dimitri Nikiforov, a lady’s man, though his drab clothing would have argued otherwise, spoke with a nasal voice. He whined, “Although you say in your thesis that the intervention of Britain, France, the United States, and the eleven other foreign countries was in great part to stop the spread of Bolshevism to the Baltics and Finland and other countries, you seem to neglect the nefarious role played by Germany. Is this omission not a serious oversight?” But before Sasha could reply, Nikiforov said, “I would remind you that many Russians thought—erroneously—that since Germany’s own socialist revolution had failed, then Russia, a far less industrialized country, had no chance of succeeding.”

As Sasha considered his reply, Dimitri took a comb to his fine hair and pointed beard. His long, elegant fingers, with which he stroked the air, tended to divert one’s attention from his slightly drooping eyes and captiousness. Placing his fingers in a prayerful attitude, he pressed his mouth against them and murmured:

“Well?” But Nikiforov had no intention of listening to the explanation of a student. He wanted to confer on Sasha his expertise. “Trotsky and the Left Opposition were wrong. Stalin was right. You can have revolution in a single country. Isn’t that so?” Sasha, who had barely uttered a sentence, was again interrupted. “Admittedly, for a socialist country to be surrounded by capitalist ones is a problem, but hostile borders do not mean ipso facto that socialism cannot succeed in a nation like ours. Right?” Realizing that he would have little chance to respond, Sasha simply nodded. Professor Nikiforov continued. “Moreover, surrounded as we currently are by enemies of socialism unites the country. Correct?” Sasha nodded. “For example, an invasion of our motherland would bring out the best in people. Don’t you agree?”

Quickly Sasha interjected, “Yes.”

Nikiforov sighed audibly. “The naiveté that some people display about politics is simply incredible.” He inspected his well-groomed nails and then removed from his vest an unsmoked briar pipe that he used, like his fingers, to poke the vacant air when punctuating a point. Unwilling to be gainsaid in any argument, and especially not by students, he protected himself by refusing to let anyone else utter a word. Had Sasha tried to speak over Nikiforov, the professor would have told him that one had to earn the right to hold forth on such matters, and that Sasha’s modest learning did not qualify him.

At this juncture, with Nikiforov waving his pipe and others taking issue with Dimitri on fine points, the committee members began to debate among themselves, an ideal situation for a candidate sitting exams, because attention is diverted from the student to the examiners. Irrespective of the speaker or his position, Sasha shook his head in agreement, hoping to encourage his professors to continue their parsing of sentences and squaring of circles: Who did and did not engage in reprisals and theft? Who provoked whom? Who was more to blame: kulaks, Cossacks, or commissars?

Eventually, Ivan Vyazemskiy, a stolid, chunky man with a pencil mustache and a mole on his right eyelid, exclaimed, as he lit a cigarette and delicately blew the smoke in the air, that he had not yet examined the honors candidate. Displaying a full set of white teeth except for one gold incisor, he revealed just the slightest aroma of spirits.

Running one finger over his mustache, he pursed his lips and began. “The intervention of the fourteen other nations unnecessarily prolonged the conflict. Their expeditionary landings in Archangel and Murmansk and Vladivostok, to say nothing of incursions from Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, and Ukraine, brought with them the necessaries of war: troops, money, and supplies. I would go so far as to argue that without foreign intervention, the Whites would have been crushed by early 1918. Instead, the terrible conflict dragged into 1923. Just consider the results: millions dead through fighting, disease, and starvation; social revolutions in other countries thwarted . . . Finland, Hungary, and the Baltic states; devastating pogroms; the near loss of Siberia to Japan. I could go on but will rest my case there. Anyone who thinks that the so-called Allied Intervention did not change the course of history and stifle democratic movements in Eastern and Central Europe is unfamiliar with the historical sources. Yes, Germany was a major player, but not as major as some think.” He inhaled, forced a smile, and, through the smoke flowing from his mouth, said, “But then I am speaking for you, Sasha Mikhailovich Parsky. What do you think?” A persuasive speaker, though not an eloquent one, Ivan Vyazemskiy had silenced the other examiners, except for Feodor Simyonski.

“I would direct my colleagues’ attention,” Feodor said, “to the fact that Sasha Parsky’s thesis neither trumpets nor slights the German role in the civil war. Rather he argues that for far too long the role of the Central Powers and their allies has been misread, and that the intervention exacerbated the carnage and accelerated the financial bankruptcy of Russia.” Feodor shook his head. “And to what end? Principally to keep the revolution from spreading, as Professor Vyazemskiy said.”

Ivan smiled contentedly.

Simyonski concluded, “I would add, though Mr. Parsky does not, that we are suffering the repercussions of the civil war to this day.”

A somber quiet pervaded the room. Feodor looked around the table and, not seeing in his colleagues any wish to continue the discussion, was prepared to ask Sasha to wait in the hall while the committee deliberated. But at that moment, the security officer, Igor Likhachov, pulled his chair up to the circle.

“Professor Simyonski, in my capacity as chief of security for the college, permit me to question the candidate.”

Everyone present knew Chick-Chick, one moment jolly, the next lugubrious. A veteran of the civil war, he had returned from the Upper Don with a lame arm and a gimpy leg. A short man and a strong one, he could, even with his disabilities, have wrestled larger men to the ground. His dark skin suggested Kalmyk blood, as did his wide, black eyebrows that ran straight across the bridge of his nose. He opened his large mouth and from its recesses came the words that Sasha feared most: kulaks, parents, arrests, murder, police, alibi, and accusations.

With all the examiners silently tensed, Chick-Chick paused, reveling in the effect of his pronouncements, and then, to everyone’s amusement, hatched from a pocket another hard-boiled egg, which he shelled, arranging the detritus on the table in a letter S. Reaching into a second pocket, he drew out a schoolboy’s penknife, a bent nail, a ceramic water faucet handle, a key chain, a comb with greasy hairs, a pencil stub, and an old-fashioned inlaid pinch box that, in place of tobacco, held salt, which he liberally sprinkled on his egg. After putting away all his belongings, he bit into the egg, reducing it by half. Still no one spoke, bewitched by the scene. When he had finished, he pointed to the shells, said, “Sorry for the mess,” swept them into his briefcase, wiped his hands on his pants, reached into his vest, and produced a small pad. Gently flipping back the cover, he fumbled a pair of glasses onto his face and opined:

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