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Authors: Paul M. Levitt

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BOOK: Denouncer
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“Surely,” she said, “you are not a Brahmin?”

“Beethoven is the greater composer.”

She inhaled contentedly and eyed Sasha with just the slightest contempt. Her look unsettled him. Although she didn’t question his appointment to a position for which he had never apprenticed, he tried to justify it. “With all the poorly educated people being promoted to administrative positions, I think the OGPU felt that I, as a college graduate, would make a promising director, maybe even better than most.” The instant he said “college graduate,” the words sounded immature and immodest. “What I mean is,” he awkwardly corrected himself, “the police wanted someone who would not, in the company of educated people like you, sound . . .” He paused.

“Gauche,” she added.

“Yes.”

As they sipped their tea, she continued to study him carefully. He was younger than she, though not by much. His education was apparent, as was hers. Could he, she wondered, be trusted? It was the eternal question that every Soviet citizen pondered in the presence of a stranger.

“You knew my husband?”

“Caravan tea,” he said, hoping to sidestep her question. “You know why they call it that? The Chinese brought it by caravan, and their campfires infused it with a smoky flavor.”

She smelled the tea and looked over the head of her guest to some indefinite point.

“In the seventeenth century,” Sasha said, “a Mongolian ruler brought tea to Tsar Michael I, but he scoffed at what he called ‘dead leaves.’”

Galina’s eyes listlessly migrated to his face. Sasha, having come to the end of his digression about tea, weakly smiled hoping that Galina would resume the conversation, but take it in another direction.

“My husband’s belongings were never recovered, including a diary I gave him.” Clearly, she would not be deterred. “Perhaps the killer or killers thought that these possessions had no value and disposed of them. Have you any knowledge of their whereabouts?” Before Sasha could reply, she waved her hand dismissively and added, “But why should you know about such things, a mere emissary of the police.”

Although her statement seemed to suggest that her questions had come to an end, her fixed stare, which held his face like a skewed butterfly, said otherwise. Sasha turned to the child at play in the corner. Perhaps Alya could provide a chance for Sasha to elude any further mention of Petr Selivanov. He called to Alya and asked her which person in Pushkin’s story she liked best.

“The headless man who talks. I like him the best, the very best.”

“He doesn’t scare you?”

“No, I feel sorry for him. He knows the truth but can’t say it.”

“My favorite is the evil sorcerer Chernomor.”

“I hate him. He makes good people bad.”

With Galina’s eyes riveted on him, Sasha turned from the child to his teacup and chuckled. “Dead leaves, indeed. That’s a Tsar for you.” Wordlessly, she rose and went to her larder. Most people who shared flats also shared kitchens. Galina, having one of her own, was fortunate. She returned to the table with a loaf of black rye bread, a knife, a spoon, and a pot of honey. She put the items on the table, sat, and folded her hands. He worried that any further attempts to turn the discussion away from Petr Selivanov would only heighten her suspicions. So he tried to gain her confidence with sentimentality.

“You did receive his remains?”

She walked to a bookcase and from the top shelf removed a white ceramic urn. “This is what they sent me . . . his ashes.”

Sensible that the police, given Petr’s decapitation, had little choice but cremation. Sasha considered, for the first time, the possibility that Galina had never been told about the condition of the body. Did he dare tell her? No.

“I think it’s standard practice,” said Sasha, having no idea what rules governed the transport of the dead.

She glanced at her daughter and whispered, “Had he been put in a coffin, I could have at least raised the lid for a last look.”

Sasha began to perspire. Noticing his discomfort, Galina added, “When the ashes arrived, I felt the same way, in a sweat.”

Her comment intimated that she had no suspicions about him. His unease was being interpreted as sympathy. “If you wish to find a proper resting place for the ashes,” he said, “I’ll be glad to help in any way that I can.”

She reached across the table and touched his hand. “Just your coming here has helped.”

Studying him she saw an intelligent, reasonable man, not a Bolshevik bully. Not a militant, opinionated, self-satisfied ideologue. He gave no indication of wanting to control people and tell them how to live. Unlike her friend Viktor, he didn’t state a position and belligerently dare you to oppose it. She supposed he could be testy, like anyone else, but not to the degree of ridiculing another or raising an eyebrow or tapping a finger that said, in effect, you are an imbecile. She had grown up with strong men. Her father was one. Any time he thought her lacking in judgment or behavior, he made clear her error. Unlike her mother, who allowed for frailty, her father believed that any concession made to her own ideas was weakness and would lead to further, and worse, transgressions. In her view, men like her father had become the Soviet government, which forbade dissenting views. Her husband, Petr, was the polar opposite of her father and the oppressive government. Although physically strong, he leaked moral cowardice and confusion. His willingness to turn a blind eye to the injustice around him and to equivocate about his work made her want to scream, “What kind of man are you?”

She recognized, of course, the possibility that she was endowing Sasha with the qualities she wanted him to exhibit. Unfamiliar men didn’t normally turn up in her life, not at work and not at home; in fact, this was the first time, and he was educated. The cretins she worked with and who ran the local Soviet could barely write their names. If this was rule by the proletariat, she would gladly settle for Plato’s philosopher king. Sasha might not be a philosopher or a king, but he had the manners of a gentleman and the speech of a person who valued language, without superciliousness and pedanticism. She was no romantic, but she did wish for a man equal to her hopes.

The longer Sasha sat in Galina’s presence the greater was his insight into Petr’s diary and initial attraction to this Cossack woman: the feral spirit that infused the room with energy, the stubborn independence that radiated from her posture, the handsome countenance, the kind of strength that enabled the Bolsheviks to achieve victory in the revolution and civil war. Sasha had known a few such women in college. They were a breed apart. You felt drawn not only to their maternal, protective bosom, but also to the attar of their sensuality. Petr must have felt like Raffaello, the Renaissance painter, who was so taken with his model that his hands shook, preventing him from completing her painting until she slept with him.

Galina’s face, not round or square-jawed like most Cossack women but perfectly proportioned, her eyes, not limpid blue but dark, her cheekbones, subtle not sharp, her yellow curly hair, almost white, and her perfect body, which she moved balletically without appearing seductive, entranced Sasha. Then, too, there were her coruscating insights. Astonished by his feelings, Sasha attributed them wrongly to Galina’s witchery rather than to his loneliness.

Untiring Soviet careerist women of fierce passions, quick intelligence, and stout heart had usually graduated from Komosol into university and then into government, with the knowledge of how to maintain the necessary distance between themselves and the men who desired them, and of how to inflame desires and increase their own value. They played with the smitten, like a torero with a bull, and quickly learned that most men were immature sentimentalists. With superiors, they gave up their bodies but not their spirits. With equals or those below them, they tamed every fury and blunted every demand with their great cunning and ruthless daring, and by the inexplicable play of their bodies.

Sasha had known such a woman, Tatiana Sokolsky, who promised much and gave little, or rather nothing at all. For she knew that Sasha’s desires were, of their very nature, impossible to satisfy, and in the end he had to content himself with crumbs. Was Galina another Tatiana? Petr’s diary seemed to suggest so. Well, he had learned from the chilled love of Tatiana not to wear his heart on his sleeve. Like all good Soviet citizens, he had been schooled in the art of
vranyo
, pretense, and knew to say that Russia was the golden future and America the corrupt past, and that citizens of the Soviet Union, having grown up in paradise, were imbued with honesty and candor. But with Tatiana he had let down his guard. He would not allow the same to happen with Galina.

The ruminations of both Sasha and Galina were interrupted by Alya, who asked if they could feed the ducks on the lake. “We could call Uncle Viktor; maybe he would like to go with us. The sun is shining.”

“I’m sure he’s occupied,” said Galina, but Alya persisted.

Was this Viktor the same Viktor Harkov that Sasha had been directed to visit? He was at a loss whether to ask. Not having told Galina at the outset that he was on a mission of condolence to her
and
Viktor Harkov, he worried about being tied to both murders. His initial reticence was a product of Soviet life. Never volunteer information. But although silence never betrays, it sometimes confirms the suspicions of others. Sasha decided to bide his time.

After repeated requests from Alya, Galina went to the hall telephone to call Viktor. In her absence, Sasha questioned the child.

“Who is Viktor?”

“A friend of Mamma’s.”

The child was walking on her toes in anticipation of good news.

“He must live in the neighborhood.”

“A few blocks from here. If you want, we can take the tram.”

Sasha’s questions at best were producing only superficialities. He wanted to probe deeper without alarming the child. All Soviet children knew to beware of strangers and never disclose personal knowledge. He therefore tried a different tack, a riskier one, but with greater rewards. “I believe your father and Viktor Harkov were friends,” he said, showing some of his cards, though not all.

“You mean Papa and Uncle Alexander.”

“Of course. How silly of me to have mixed up their names.”

He had just learned that this Viktor Harkov was the very man he was to visit. Sasha offered to show her a trick and told her to stand with her back to him. He lifted and seated her on his arms. Then he reached under her, took her hands, and flipped her. Alya squealed with joy and asked him to do it again, offering the unsolicited comment that Sasha ought to teach Uncle Viktor that trick.

“Does he visit often?”

“Mamochka mostly goes there, and I eat with the Baturins.”

The death of both Petr and Alexander had understandably strengthened the ties between the survivors, who had known each other before the killings. Presumably, Viktor’s reputation for iconoclasm and reclusiveness had kept him and Galina from becoming more than close friends, if that. Friends feel bound by sedulous fidelities; emotional anarchists do not. And yet . . .

“Did you know that I’m eight?” said Alya, as she held up five fingers on one hand and three on the other.

“Why, you’re old enough to be married.”

“I am not!” she insisted. “I don’t even know how to cook.”

From a distance, Sasha could hear a door open and close. A moment later, Galina appeared. She smiled at Alya, who cried:

“Sasha taught me a trick!”

“You can show me at the river. Viktor will meet us there.”

The child clapped her hands and ran off, returning with a fishing pole in hand. “Do you know anything about fishing and digging for worms?” she asked Sasha.

“Actually, a great deal.”

With this admission, Sasha flexed Alya’s pole, observing that she could use a new reel and line, both of which he volunteered to buy, if such items could be found in Ryazan.

“Not in the stores,” said Galina, “but Viktor knows a man who makes his own, and you can buy equipment from him.”

Viktor seemed to hover over the family. Was he a lover, a friend, a secret agent, a freeloader: What? In the short time that Sasha had been in the flat, he had decided that Alya was the straightest path to Galina—and her friendship with Viktor. He would therefore have to think of some way to gain the child’s confidence. But first he would have to take Viktor aside to express his condolences. A river outing lacked the formality the occasion demanded.

“Viktor already knows you’re coming with us. I told him.”


With their knapsacks holding fishing gear, bait, bathing suits, towels, and a change of clothes, they carried wicker baskets to the tram stop. A trolley trailing sparks took them to within walking distance of the Ryazan Fortress, its fading onion domes and crumbling walls exuding neglect. The cloudless sky promised good swimming, if not fishing. A path led from the hill to the river. They could see Viktor, a tall man, readying a boat to row to one of the small river islands, where they would picnic. As the party approached across the rocky shore, Viktor looked up and made a loud alveolar clicking noise by way of a greeting. From twenty feet away, Sasha could see his drooping mustache and careless barbering, his sharp slanting Kalmyk eyes, and glasses hanging from a string around his neck. His repeated movements exuded nervous energy: checking the oarlocks, adjusting the tiller, baling, positioning the cushions, and twitching his bushy eyebrows that spread like dark wings across his forehead.

After Galina introduced the two men, she and Viktor formally touched cheeks. Sasha expressed his condolences and impetuously hugged Viktor as an expression of comradeship. In the boat, he sat facing Viktor, who surveyed him with beady eyes.

“Do you have any further details about my brother?”

The water gently licked the side of the boat, which stood fixed to the shoreline. Viktor sat stooped, his foraging face appearing wolflike.

“I never met him . . .”

Viktor interrupted. “Then who sent you?”

“Didn’t my letter of introduction explain that my position as director of a school came under the authority of the police, and it was they who asked me to see you?”

BOOK: Denouncer
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