Authors: Paul M. Levitt
“You know, people are a lot like eggs, white on the outside, yellow on the inside.” He smiled at Sasha and said simply, “Your family was denounced . . . as kulaks.”
“I never have understood that term,” Sasha replied courageously, prompting Simyonski to shake his head in agreement.
“A rich farmer,” said Chick-Chick.
“Comfortable maybe, but my parents were never rich.”
“Cows, horses, goats, sheep, chickens, land, a house. What do you call these?”
“Possessions gained through several generations of Parsky family toil.”
“Your parents hired laborers.”
“For carpentry and during the harvest, but they never exploited them.”
“So you say. Others say differently.”
“Facts should weigh more than gossip.”
Likhachov flicked over a page with his thumb. “Where is your family samovar?”
An incredulous Sasha, temporarily taken aback, answered, “My parents must have taken it with them when they left for Sochi. Why?”
Ignoring the question, Likhachov asked, “How often was it used?”
“Daily. I fail to understand . . .” Sasha looked round the group hoping to find support, but except for the lingering smile on his director’s face, he met cold stares.
“It was smaller than the usual type.”
“And could not service a large number of people.”
“I guess so.”
Bolshevik interrogators had mastered the technique of eroding the victim’s confidence and sanity with small pricks. Taking the initiative, Sasha said, “Chick-Chick, if you are trying to worm information out of me, you needn’t waste everyone’s time. Just ask me directly. I will be perfectly truthful.”
Looking at his notebook, Igor tapped the page. “Someone has accused your family of hiding jewels and rubles in the samovar.” He stared coldly at Sasha. “Isn’t that why your family never used it?”
“We used it at home, for the three of us, all the time.”
“Tell that to your neighbors.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about.”
“Your family never entertained neighbors around the samovar. Apparently it had another purpose.”
An angry Sasha ground his teeth and began to shake.
“I see that you do understand,” said Likhachov.
“But . . .”
“No buts. You wanted facts. The facts are that one of your neighbors has done the country a patriotic service.”
Having recovered from his initial shock, Sasha replied, “And in return, I am sure the country will reward the family with all or part of my parents’ holdings.”
“Part,” Likhachov said. “The rest will be divided equally among the land poor.”
With a stroke of daring, Sasha pounded the coffee table and said, “And that’s just as it should be in a democratic socialist country!”
Simyonski clapped, leading the other examiners to applaud.
The radically changed atmosphere led Chick-Chick to see that nothing more could be gained from the investigation, so he stood and thanked the examiners for permitting him to speak. He then removed a Lenin-like cap from his briefcase, donned it, and made for the door, pausing just long enough to say, “Comrade Parsky, I wish you well. No hard feelings. I was only doing my job. But remember that the Soviet state is always vigilant, and so should you be.”
Likhachov’s cross-examination had earned Sasha, now waiting in the hall, the sympathy of the examiners, who took only ten minutes to come to a decision. When he returned to the room, Sasha was told that his thesis had passed, though certain errors of fact and style would have to be remedied, and that he would be graduating with honors in history.
“Sadly,” added Simyonski, “your parents will not be on hand to see the ceremony.”
Sasha stared at the floor, thanked the examiners for all their help and their illuminating comments during the thesis defense, shook their hands, and followed Feodor out the door. But before joining him in his office for a drink of schnapps, Sasha stopped at the men’s lavatory.
yazan, a city divided by the Oka River and situated on the border of forests and steppelands, looked as if it had yet to recover from the devastation of 1237 when the Mongol hordes of Batu Khan sacked it. The Communists had boarded the churches and monasteries, though they had left intact the colorful, albeit fading, onion domes. Configured as a triangle, the town was originally surrounded by bow-shaped ramparts that conformed to the landscape, undulating and blending with the rise and fall of the land. Invaders could approach from three directions: through the yellow clay fields and by
river, either the Oka or Serebryanka. When Sasha arrived at the Ryazan Station, he exited the train carrying a small valise and followed the nearly abandoned passenger platform to a faded yellow building with a red metal roof. Inside, after an official checked his papers, he passed into a small square, where two ancient Fiat taxis waited for fares. Flagging one, he could hardly fail to notice the plume of exhaust that the old car expelled.
Boris Filatov had told Sasha to write ahead to Galina Selivanova and Viktor Harkov. They had both answered. Galina lived near a park, on Ulitsa Pushkina, and Viktor, a short distance away, on Ulitsa Tatarskaya. In each case, they shared a flat with another family, but owing to the fact that their deceased kin had worked for the government, they had been awarded two rooms, with a lavatory and bath down the hall. Sasha, on the advice of the taxi driver, rented a bed in a sports hostel, with all its attendant body and cooking odors, noise, and lumpy mattresses, and a nine p.m. curfew, at which time the attendant turned off the electricity. As Sasha closed his eyes, he saw the family farm, with its pond and ducks and wooded borderland, and smelled the leather tack and harnesses of the work animals. He wondered why anyone would choose to live in a city when village life, for all its hardships and crudeness, offered rolling meadows, grasslands, yellow camomile, red lotus flowers, mushrooms, and fir and cedar and larch trees. At five a.m., one of the athletic coaches blew a whistle and summoned his charges to the field for soccer practice. Sasha buried his head in the skimpy pillow and slept for another hour.
He dreamed a fairy tale in which the princess Anilaga, while riding through the countryside in a gilded coach, saw a handsome young lad working in the fields. She ordered her driver to stop, summoned the boy to her side, and asked him his name. “Ahsas,” he said. “It’s Hungarian.” Even with his face dripping sweat, she could not help but admire his handsome features. She invited him to join her for tea in her father’s castle, the home of King Vokrah, and gave him a ring from her finger for purposes of identification. On arriving at the castle gate, he was stopped. Although dressed in his finest clothes, the guard regarded him as a beggar. When he held up the ring, the man fell to his knees, sought his pardon, and ushered him into the castle, where another servant, in livery, led him through acres of halls and rooms to the princess’s quarters. She was sitting on silken pillows and petting a white furry lapdog. With a snap of her fingers, a woman servant appeared and was directed to bring the princess and her guest tea and biscuits.
“Now you must tell me about yourself. So handsome a lad as you must have lovers by the dozens.” He explained that because he was a poor peasant, hardly a single young woman stopped to talk to him. And the ones in the field had been burned by the sun, and had gnarled and wrinkled limbs. “Then you have never lain with a lady?” she asked. He lowered his eyes and admitted to having paid a tart, on several occasions, for that pleasure. “Do you love her?” she asked. He replied, “I have slept with a woman, but I have never loved one.”
The princess Anilaga invited him to stay with her in the castle. “I will feed and clothe you and then bed you.” Ahsas asked, “And in return, what must I do?” She answered, “You are a man and, like all mortals, you will die, only sooner. But think of what you receive in return.”
Later that morning, he found his way to Galina Selivanova’s flat, which was just one of hundreds in a complex of poorly constructed cement blocks. The elevator displayed a sign, “Out of Order,” and the staircase was strewn with litter. Cooking smells assailed Sasha’s nose as he climbed the four flights of stairs to number 411, Galina’s flat, which she shared with a Kalmyk family, the Baturins: mother, father, and two children. A note on the broken bell directed callers to knock. Rapping on the door, Sasha waited and surveyed his clothes. His pants, which had shrunk, ended at the top of his socks, and his jacket sleeves barely reached his wrist. Not yet in a position to afford tailored clothing, he was reduced to buying used wares on the black market. His shoes, though worn, had been purchased in better days and could still hold a shine. He had showered in cold water at the sports hostel—the hot water boiler, he was told, had failed a month before—and had shaved in a ceramic basin clogged with hair. His own trimmed locks, blond and parted down the middle, resembled a commissar’s: shiny, stiff, and Stalinist. Tall and thin, with high cheekbones, he brought to mind those Ukrainians descended from Scandinavia. A former girlfriend had told him that his narrow lips, nose, and chin made him look like a scarecrow. Fortunately, Filatov had ignored his appearance, and had decided that his advanced college degree could benefit the Soviet state. But he knew not to gloat about his mental accomplishments. Too many made you an enemy of the people; too few made you fodder for a factory. As a result, Sasha always measured his speech carefully, using among workers a common diction and among the well-educated a learned one. He wondered about Galina’s status and expectations. It would take only a few sentences to know.
A short, dark man answered the door, undoubtedly Mr. Baturin. His flared nose, oblique eyes, and dark hair demarked his Mongolian blood; and his accented Russian reinforced the impression of a nomad who had left the steppes for the city. He politely greeted Sasha, led him through the flat to the back, where a curtain separated the Baturin living area from Galina’s, and called to her, announcing her visitor. A dulcet voice told him to enter. At a table sat the handsome woman of the photograph and the shining child. The mother was teaching her daughter how to calculate with an abacus. Mr. Baturin excused himself.
Rising from her chair and sweeping back her yellow hair, Galina Selivanova confidently walked to Sasha and extended her hand, smiling at him as he took it. “Citizen Parsky, I presume.”
He presented her with a box of candy, and the child with a
doll, elegantly hand painted. Alya took the gift and repeatedly thanked the stranger.
“Tea?” asked Galina.
“I’d be delighted,” Sasha replied, noting that the pretty face in the photograph had failed to capture Galina’s electric energy. Having read Petr’s diary, with its unsettling information, he had gained an advantage, but he had to tread carefully lest he reveal what he knew. Whatever she said, Sasha weighed in light of the diary. He suddenly wished that he were meeting this woman for the first time, without any prior knowledge. Ignorance, in this case, would have been a defense against bias. Unwittingly, Petr Selivanov, whose photograph was nowhere to be seen in the flat, had made Sasha an ally in his struggle with the selfish, undoubtedly wise, Galina. From her first words, he recognized her analytical intelligence, which she skillfully used to effect her own purposes.
“The government settlement I expected,” she said, “but the belated condolence call suggests there is more here than meets the eye. Whom do you represent? Your letter says the OGPU. Are you a policeman? If so, I must confess: I never heard Petr mention your name.”
Sasha could feign a friendship that never existed between him and Petr, but the pretense would leave him open to questions about Petr that he couldn’t answer, even though he had studied Petr’s files and diary. Better, he decided, to represent himself on grounds he could actually defend.
“I have been appointed the director of a secondary school,” he said honestly, “and we will . . .” Suddenly unbidden words tumbled out of his mouth, “. . . need a nurse, as well as someone who can teach Russian grammar and French literature—for the spring term.”
Although he had made her an offer of employment that he’d never intended, he felt perfectly satisfied, and he knew that his posture expressed the same ease. He then told her about the school, which he had recently visited for a fortnight, meeting the teachers, hearing their concerns, discussing the curriculum, outlining his plans to focus on science and letters and to improve academic standards. In preparation for the visit, he had read about the history of the school and knew the records of all the teachers on staff. It had once been devoted to agriculture, hence the farmhouse and stables nearby. But after farms were collectivized, the school slowly evolved from its original mission toward becoming an institution dedicated to educating future managers, engineers, and, yes, Soviet commissars. In short, the students were to be trained as leaders.
But in the neighboring villages, where superstition and religion still governed family life, learning was treated suspiciously. By inducing some of the local children to enroll, he hoped to persuade the locals to value schooling.
“But what will happen,” Galina asked, “when science and religion clash, and when children learn to read? Won’t the illiterate parents complain?”
He admitted that the question of whom to admit and whom to exclude would be a problem. But Galina anticipated another.
“What if a great many villagers feel their children should be enrolled, what then? After all, they’ll say, Ivan down the road was accepted, and he is no smarter or not much smarter than my own Ivan.” Sasha had to agree—no fool, she—but he remained optimistic that he could raise the school’s academic standards. In fact, even before meeting with his teaching staff, he had decided against “leveling,” the Soviet means of treating all children equally.
Galina studied him for a moment and came to the conclusion that the OGPU, no doubt for perfidious purposes, had decided to use its gravitational pull to bring her into their orbit. It therefore made perfect sense that Sasha, a newly appointed school director, would be the bearer of the good news. As much as she liked working in a hospital, she found little occasion to exercise her critical mind. The doctors gave the orders, and the nurses carried them out. She took the box of candy, expressed her appreciation, and offered him and Alya a chocolate-covered cherry.
Sasha waited until they had all savored the sweets before he approached Alya, who had begun to disengage the doll’s different levels. To enable him to look into the child’s eyes on an equal plain, he knelt and asked:
“Are you well behaved?”
“Oh yes,” she replied, her black, braided ponytail swinging back and forth in response to her shaking head.
“Is it any fun?” Sasha asked.
The child lowered her eyes, stole a glance at her mother, and said, “Sometimes, but not always.”
“I think misbehaving is the most fun,” said Sasha.
She held up the handsome matryoshka doll representing the different characters in Pushkin’s
Ruslan and Liudmila
. “I know them all,” she said proudly. “Mamma has read the book to me many times.” And she threw her arms around the neck of the kneeling Sasha thanking him yet again for his gift.
Galina watched, initially with a wary eye, and then with a sympathetic one. This fellow had a way with children, and such people, she felt, were endowed with a natural playfulness. She again thanked him for his generosity and asked teasingly:
“And what form does your misbehavior take?”
Sasha chose to treat her question seriously. “I hate rules.”
“Hmm. And why is that?”
He stood. “They are the last refuge of the unimaginative.”
Galina reflected for a moment. “Then you approve of Rasputin’s behavior?”
With her mother preoccupied, Alya took another chocolate, a breach of etiquette that brought a smile to Sasha’s face. “No, but I can understand it.”
“And yet you are a policeman.”
He shook his head no and looked around the modestly furnished flat. Whatever financial settlement the government had made with her, it could not have been generous, judging from her worn parlor chair and old Primus stove. “In return for the position at the school, I agreed, among other things, to call on you.”
“Am I to assume, then, that the decision to hire me was yours, and not the government’s? But until you arrived a minute ago, you had no idea whether I’d be suitable for the position. In fact, you still don’t know.”
Caught off guard, Sasha mumbled that he had read the file and found her well qualified.
“Without an interview? You don’t even know the extent of my French.”
Here was his chance to respond substantively. “I read some of your translations.”
Galina asked him to sit. “Would you like your tea with sugar?” He nodded yes. “Which of my books did you read?”
He remembered one author from the file. “Romain Rolland.” He paused hoping that Galina would take Rolland as her cue to fill the void. Luckily, she did, remarking:
Annette and Sylvie
was the last one I translated . . . in fact, I think, rather well. You do know it?”
Alya had retreated to a corner of the room to play with her new doll. Galina poured two cups of tea and opened the cupboard, removing a sugar bowl. Looking over her shoulder, she said:
“I had hoped to translate all seven volumes but only had time for the first.”
She brought the tea to the table, sat across from Sasha, and lit a cigarette, which she inhaled sensuously.
“Working for me you’ll have time to translate the other volumes.”
Thinking he had escaped the trap of book titles, he feigned reflection, which crumbled when she asked:
“Do you think
The Enchanted Soul
is equal to
? You do realize that he conceived the later works as companion pieces to the former?”
Fortunately, he had read
and immediately began to review the argument in the novel about Brahms and Beethoven.