Authors: Paul M. Levitt
“Yes, but I still thought it odd that a complete stranger was being sent as an emissary of the government, a teacher and not a police officer . . . hmm, strange.”
Wordlessly, Viktor pushed off and pulled on the oars. Although painfully thin, he had sinewy arms and legs that moved the boat quickly. Alya chatted to herself and dipped her fingers in the water. Sasha studied Viktor’s face, and Galina his. On reaching the island, they beached the boat and carried the food baskets through tall reeds to a grassy clearing with a fire pit. The spot provided a dramatic view of the river. Sasha gathered that this was not the first time Viktor had rowed his friends here. As Galina spread a blanket, Viktor opened a can of worms and skewered one on Alya’s fishing hook. She immediately darted for the water to cast her line. Viktor took a swig of vodka, and put away the bottle. Galina looked dismayed. Sasha pondered the cause of her annoyance. Was it because he did not offer any to them or because he began the picnic with vodka? Or was she troubled about something else? He felt as if Viktor and Galina were speaking in code.
Viktor kicked the ground. “Dead leaves. We’ll need a basketful later to start a fire. I forgot the kindling.”
As Galina explained that young people came to this island for parties and cookouts, Viktor lay in the grass, leaned on an elbow, and with unruffled confidence, eyed the newcomer. He had the manner of a man in whom years of defying authority and escaping punishment had led to a haughty bearing, a way of tilting his head, a special walk. Viktor’s lips moved but said nothing audible. Sasha stood, intending to start for the water. Suddenly, at his back, Viktor shouted:
“I’ll kill the bastard!”
Terrified, Sasha turned. Galina took his arm and said, “Pay no attention. It’s not you, it’s the
who runs the oblast. Viktor hates him. They’ve had numerous run-ins. His name is Vladimir Lukashenko. He treats the area like his personal estate. He never pays for anything: restaurants, clothes, shoes, furniture, flowers, holidays. Numerous times Viktor has written to Moscow to complain, but the authorities do nothing. Their attitude is that as long as Ryazan is quiet, except of course for Viktor, Lukashenko can do what he wants. Until now Lukashenko has ignored Viktor, because Viktor’s brother, Alexander, was OGPU. Then came the murder. But I kept telling Viktor as soon as the period of mourning ends, watch out! Lukashenko’s police and bodyguards have begun to harass him.”
Alya shouted from the edge of the island that she had caught a fish, and ran up to the party with a small trout hanging from her hook. Galina disengaged it and, to the child’s dismay, told her to throw it back in the water. Viktor sardonically commented:
“Everyone wants the big fish, not the small fry. But when all the big ones are caught, then the small fish become fair game.”
They ate a lunch of boiled eggs, herring, brown bread, hummus, and black tea, which Galina served from a thermos. Later, Sasha washed the dishes and silverware in the river, and Viktor snorted:
Galina ignored Viktor’s questionable manners, but Sasha was annoyed and asked, “And what do you consider man’s work?”
Viktor sat upright in the grass. “Resisting the tyranny of the state. And if that sounds too grand, then let me say simply: questioning the judgment of the Party.”
Feeling as if Viktor’s indictment was directed at him, Sasha defensively remarked, “The school that I have been assigned will run on democratic principles and teach the truth, not propaganda.”
“Oh, my god,” cried Viktor, putting his hands on his head in a gesture of incredulity, “listen to that rot! I can smell the awful odor of idealism hanging in the air. Spare me, please! You will do what the state commands—or else. Stronger men than you have initially resisted, and subsequently confessed to crimes against the people— crimes they never committed. And you want to know why? To further the work of the Party, and to preserve their faith in the Soviet Union. They had sacrificed too much not to believe. It was beyond their powers. To relinquish hope in Stalin was to admit that all their sacrifices had been for nothing.”
For a few freighted seconds no one spoke.
Viktor then launched into a diatribe against compliant Soviet citizens, contending that most of his countrymen believed in Party truth, not truth based on evidence and experience. “Millions of fools every day are heard to say that the government wouldn’t dare to execute men and women without conclusive proof that the condemned were enemies of the people. Even Stalin’s enemies believe that wreckers have overrun the country. Wreckers?” He laughed captiously. “I’ll tell you the vermin who have swamped the country: denouncers! Not a minute passes when people aren’t denouncing their bosses and neighbors simply to get ahead or to settle scores. The result? A great many innocent people are being jailed, deported, and killed. When the accused say there’s been a mistake, the imbeciles among us say only wrongdoers are jailed; therefore, the arrested must have committed some crime. At this very moment hundreds of thousands of guiltless people are languishing in jails and camps. But does anyone speak out? No. They are either blind to the truth or afraid of endangering themselves. And when some of the arrested do confess, you hear people smugly say, ‘See, I told you. Their arrest was necessary.’ Take that mendacious maggot Lukashenko. He lives in a spacious flat; in fact he occupies the top floor of the building. Now how did that happen? Simple. He arranged through his toadies for the former tenants—a teacher, an engineer, and a theater director—to be denounced and removed. Good people have to suffer so that our commissar can live in splendor. For the likes of Lukashenko we made a revolution and endured a civil war?
“Denunciation is ripping this country apart. In those families visited by the conspiracy virus, children come to hate their parents for bringing misfortune on them—and for making them orphans. This is socialism? This is paradise? No, Sasha Parsky, this is madness. Before the firing squad, some even cry, ‘Long live the Party, Long live Stalin.’ In this country we have laws, but no legality.”
Sasha, speechless, could only ponder the terrible truth that he lived in a country where people justified torture and murder with the glib and dismissive comment “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The problem was that both the breakers and the eggs were his fellow human beings. His Jewish neighbor, Mr. Zaslavsky, used to say, “Who can protest and does not is an accomplice.” Was Sasha an accomplice? Viktor seemed to be implying as much. But Sasha also knew himself to be a murderer.
Had Viktor not reached for the vodka bottle, allowing Sasha to escape, the sulfuric lecture might have continued. Making his way to the river, Sasha stood watching Alya troll for a big fish.
“They’re probably playing chess,” she said.
“Who?” Sasha asked.
“Mamma and Viktor. She often goes to his house to play.”
“Do you tag along?”
“No, I don’t know how to play.” She paused and looked around. “I like it here on the island. No one can see us. It’s quiet, isn’t it? Just the sound of the wind and the water.”
An island, Sasha thought, is what the Soviets tried to create, an island paradise in the midst of a capitalist sea, a profit-free country surrounded by rapacious money-grubbers. Trotsky had said it couldn’t be done. The socialists needed the economic know-how of the West. But would the propinquity of capitalism corrupt socialism? After all, differences invite comparison. The Western countries were wealthy, Russia poor. But Alya had certainly touched upon a personal truth. To exist in the Soviet Union you had to live internally, inside your own head, exiled from the madness around you.
Chirping sounds drifted to the river, the voices of Galina and Viktor. As Alya said, they were playing chess. When Sasha caught sight of them lying in the grass, he saw Viktor take Galina’s hand to keep her from making a bad move, but he seemed to hold it for an unduly long time. Or was that simply Viktor’s way of keeping her from further mistakes? On seeing Sasha, he released her hand and asked whether Sasha might like to play. Fancying himself a rather good tactician, Sasha agreed. Galina immediately relinquished the board, with the too coy observation, “Not for the first time he had me pinned down.”
Although about evenly matched, Viktor attacked ruthlessly; Sasha played defensively. Meanwhile, Galina glided among the island’s tall grass and flora, collecting armfuls. When she returned, she sat between the two men weaving a garland of reeds and long grass, a Clotho, Sasha thought, spinning the thread of human life. Would she also be able to indicate the darkness and obscurity of human destiny? Kneeling behind Viktor, she briefly rested a hand on his shoulder; then she sat beside Sasha, their bodies occasionally touching. Was she playing the fair damsel, displaying her charms for both sides to see, and would she then reward the winner of the chess match with her silk scarf or with some other guerdon? Sasha’s wandering mind caused him to misplay his bishop to earn a pawn, leaving an opening for Viktor to take his queen and the game. Galina crowned Viktor with her garland of grass.
he Complete Secondary School that Sasha directed, called the “Michael School” after the poet Mikhail Lermontov, formally welcomed Sasha in August 1936. Located in Tula oblast in the village of Balyk, once home to a family of famous salmon fishermen, it enrolled about ninety promising students between the ages of fifteen and seventeen, for a two-year program. Although Sasha would have to contend with the unruly hormones and genes of teenagers, he had escaped the most difficult group of all, thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, just coming into heat. On the far side of the village, a “literacy school” bore the brunt of a thousand years of provincial ignorance. And still further along, perhaps ten minutes distance by motorcar, stood Leo Tolstoy’s estate, with its birch-lined approach.
Sasha’s position as director of the Michael School entitled him to live on the grounds, in the state-owned farmhouse, which abutted an empty barn with stables that once held fine Caucasian horses. The shingled, whitewashed farmhouse had housed an animal tender and his family when the school, in the days of the Tsar, was dedicated to equine care and breeding. A ramshackle place, the house had numerous rooms, none of them large or handsome. After the school’s conversion from animal husbandry to academic work, the farmhouse had functioned as a dormitory for indigent students. Their graffiti, since painted over, could still be seen in outline on the walls. For several years the structure stood empty because the authorities intended to raze it and plant a garden for the use of the school. But when some official objected to the destruction of a “perfectly good” building, it was left standing, abandoned, to become home to mice, birds, bugs, stray dogs, and the occasional lovers who nocturnally nested there.
Sasha promised himself and others that the first chance he had, he would marshal the students to restore the farmhouse to its original state. Many of his students came from families in which they had been taught carpentry and roofing and flooring and plastering. He would make use of those skills to improve the property. In return, he would see to it that the students received free tutoring and an extra day off for holidays, to say nothing of an occasional dinner with the director on an outside porch that provided incomparable views of grasslands and woods.
Tula oblast, in the western part of the country, was a nature lover’s delight. Through his office window, Sasha could see rolling hills of cedar, birch, and pine. Glaciers and rivers had sculpted the landscape into valleys and lakes; and buried in the mixed forest-steppe lands were wooded paths. A few farms drew Sasha to them when he yearned for a fresh tomato or cucumber or onion. In many ways Balyk and the surrounding countryside reminded him of John Constable’s paintings. The farms were not as prosperous as the ones that the English painter had depicted in England, but a haystack in one country looked the same as in another, as did a field of rapeseed or a wooden bridge spanning a creek. Willows shaded the water, and the brickwork in the milldams and the green riverbanks and the mossy posts all exuded a nineteenth-century charm. The millponds, home to ducks and surrounded by gooseberry bushes, brought to mind Chekhov’s wonderful story of that name. Cornfields ran as far as the eye could see, and cattle lowed in the meadows. Rough wooden railings fenced the fields that the government seemed to have forgotten or overlooked in this small valley.
Sasha quickly discovered the marshes, where he could hide himself in the bushes and watch the waterfowl and their young, carried along on the water, suddenly dive to capture a fish. Kissing gates could be found in a few fields, though most of the farmers had little time for romance, which seemed to take place in the village square where young people danced to accordions and old people sat sipping tea. Although the church on the square had been closed years before, some couples still found their way to the altar to have Father Zossima marry them, though if asked, not a villager would confess to such a ceremony having taken place, and certainly not in Balyk.
Two ramshackle trucks, owned by a veteran of the civil war, constituted the town’s transportation, except for one at the Michael School. When a farmer needed to transport his food or silage, the veteran, for a nominal fee, carried the produce. Most people either walked or rode bicycles, and the same man who owned and maintained the old Fords kept the bicycles in working condition.
After a week, the locals knew Sasha Parsky and treated the new director of the school with reverence. In former times, only priests would have commanded the respect shown to Sasha, but of course priests were now pariahs. Father Zossima, in fact, lived a short distance from the school, and, but for his former status, Sasha would have employed the shy and amiable man to teach Latin and Greek. After the school year had started, to assist the poor fellow, who resembled a pole streaming rags, Sasha surreptitiously paid him for tutoring students struggling with declensions and other academic demons.
The former director of the school also lived in Balyk, which was barely a village, much less a town. His name was Avram Brodsky. He had been denounced by one of his students for speaking favorably about the Left Opposition, a group formed in 1923 by Leon Trotsky in response to the rising tide of Stalinism. After the death of Vladimir Lenin, various men had vied for power, each of whom represented a trend in the Communist Party: right, left, and center. The Right (Nikolai Bukharin) argued for private ownership and capitalist policies in agriculture, retail trade, and light industry, with the state controlling heavy industry. The collectivization of farms, the Right contended, would be especially injurious to the peasants. The Center (Stalin) put their faith in the state and Party bureaucracy to forge a new country and economics. The Left (Trotsky) contended that Communism could succeed only if the Russian working class made common cause with workers and economists from across Europe. This group felt that revolution in one country was destined to fail, and thus promoted the internationalist traditions of all working classes.
Even with Stalin’s iron grip on power, the Left and Right Opposition, though often at odds, worked for his downfall. At the mere mention of Stalin’s long-standing nemesis, Trotsky, the Vozhd would froth at the mouth. When Trotsky fled the country, Stalin swore to hunt him down. Nikolai Bukharin, like Trotsky, a Jew, earned the Boss’s contempt for his softness. Stalin was convinced that both splinter groups had to be cut down and, like chaff, thrown to the winds. But first, Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s principal competition in the Politburo, would have to be killed. On December 1, 1934, an assassin shot Kirov outside his office. The murder became the justification for subsequent purges and show trials. Stalin led the nation to believe that a conspiracy was behind Kirov’s death; but the arrests were actually designed to destroy all opposition to Stalin. Dissenters on both the left and the right were jailed in Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka Prison, tortured, and made to confess, though some refused. Trials ensued and shortly thereafter executions or exile.
Brodsky, exiled for a year to a Kolyma work camp, returned with stories of the beastly conditions. He could be found in fair weather sitting in the small square of Balyk, next to the pond, with its low circling wall. The village elders plied him with cigarettes in return for his Kolyma tales. No one doubted his stories about the skeletal prisoners wrapped in rags from head to foot, nor his recounting of the hungry driven to eat tree roots and bark, but some of his descriptions seemed too horrific to believe: the women raped in the forest, the forced abortions, the lack of food, medicine, and blankets, the plank-board beds, the daily roll calls in which unruly prisoners were made to stand naked and barefoot in the below-zero weather, the daily prostitution of men and women, the hatred of the criminal prisoners for the political ones, the suicides, the rampant tuberculosis, and in general the treachery, as well as the goodness, of prisoners.
Bogdan Dolin, a Balyk kulak, so-called because he had at one time employed laborers on his land and lent money at interest, had actually served time in Kolyma for counterfeiting rubles and forging documents that ostensibly came from the Supreme Soviet exempting his farm from appropriation. He never failed to glare when Brodsky would sit on the low wall of the pond, recounting his experiences to men and boys sitting cross-legged in the dirt. A squat, sinewy man, Dolin had a halo of wild white hair, which the locals referred to as his death cap, because it resembled the top of a poisonous mushroom. His steely torso—he had worked field and forge both—made him a formidable foe. Unlike most bronzed farmers, Dolin had an ashen face. His detractors attributed his coloring to his icy behavior, particularly toward Brodsky, whom he clearly and mysteriously disliked.
For his part, Brodsky lived alone in a small state-owned cottage, with numerous books and a lovely garden of lilacs and lindens. Boris Filatov had advised Sasha to call on the erstwhile director to learn about the area, the school, the students, and the government’s academic expectations.
Before the start of school, Sasha invited Avram to join him for a day of fishing. But Avram replied that “a proper chat required a proper setting.” Sasha had thought a lakeside would do, but found himself one afternoon in Avram’s sitting room having tea.
The man resembled a Dostoyevskian intellectual. He had a narrow face with sunken cheeks that exaggerated his orbital bones and gave his pale-blue eyes a melancholy sadness. His thick, gray hair fell across a broad forehead, deeply lined from years of squinting and skepticism. His nose, scarred from a childhood fall that resulted in a nail piercing his septum, resembled a dried fig. His thin lips, light-blue eyes, tulip-stemmed, rooster-thin neck, and peculiarly lined hands suggested he had Scandinavian roots. But his large ears, spotty beard, and wispy chin hairs argued for a mix of Nordic and Asiatic genes. He smoked constantly, and his long fingers bore the telltale nicotine stains. His painfully thin, gangly body seemed to be trying to keep a step ahead of malnutrition, which gave his skin a parchment-like quality. To assuage the discomfort of cracked lips and knuckles, he frequently applied a petroleum jelly pomade. Like many serious readers, he had pince-nez hanging from a chain around his neck. In his case, the thick lenses indicated poor eyesight. He was wearing, as he did on most days, wrinkled brown corduroy pants and a black turtle-neck shirt that exhibited a few food stains.
His sitting room, encountered immediately when one entered the front door of the cottage (there was no back door), had a low ceiling, papered to keep the cracked plaster from falling. The wallpaper, a gloomy brown-on-brown lined design, was the type sold in state stores and seen in a million flats. Avram’s heavy walnut furniture, upholstered in a dark red, rough Mohair, looked as if several generations had used it. The cottage also included three other rooms: the bathroom, with its zinc tub and taps in the shape of antlers; a kitchen, with a small coal stove, a table and four chairs, and a badly pitted soapstone sink; and a bedroom, with a single cot, an armoire, and a rickety cane chair.
Avram understandably loved the sitting room, with its small fireplace and lined bookcases that held finely tooled leather volumes in several languages. Sasha noted works by Victor Hugo, Alphonse Lamartine, Louis Musset, Alfred Vigny, and Voltaire. Brodsky also had a good collection of German writers: Engels, Fichte, Hegel, Heine, Marx. And of course there were the great Russian writers: Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov, as well as the modernists, Akhmatova, Blok, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva, and dozens of others, all or most on the forbidden list. Filatov had said that Brodsky was a gifted linguist who could read all the foreign languages of his collected books.
“I like a strong, smoky tea,” said Brodsky, “the kind that comes from Malaysia. Did you know that Kenya has good teas? Would you like some milk in yours?”
“Please.” After Avram fetched his ewer of fresh milk, Sasha told him about the Tsar who scoffed at the very idea of tea.
“Dead leaves!” exclaimed Brodsky, lighting a cigarette. “In this country we have thousands of them, perhaps millions, and they are not tea. They are apparatchiks and
, bootlickers trained to parrot the current Soviet line, with all its jargon and ideological phrases that reduce the functionaries to unfeeling automatons.”
Sasha, aware that Filatov had wanted him to befriend Avram to gain information useful for the police, could have easily encouraged the former schoolmaster to continue, but he rather liked the man and knew that eschewing political conversations was in Avram’s best interests. So Sasha steered their talk to the school.
Brodsky told him that none of the ten teachers could be trusted, and that he needed a good administrator who would report faithfully to him. “They all wished to succeed me as director. When you received your appointment, I knew they’d be unhappy. And as we both know, an unhappy Soviet citizen is an ideal informer. So watch your step.” He had consumed the first cigarette and was now devouring another.
What was there to watch, thought Sasha? Learning was factually based. The school, Sasha explained, would not be teaching philosophy or ethics; he had already told his staff that he wanted a rigorous curriculum based on science, history, language, and literature.
Nearly choking on his tea, Brodsky sputtered, “Whose science, Mendel’s or Lysenko’s? History, from whose standpoint, the West or Stalin’s? Which literature, that of the masters or of the favored authors who kowtow to the Vozhd? One wrong step and you’ll be reported.”
At that moment Sasha decided that Galina Selivanova could not only teach Russian grammar and French literature but also serve as his chief assistant. As for her promised position as a nurse, to hell with it. An extra pair of eyes was more important.
“In your history classes,” asked Avram, “do you intend to cover the civil war and Trotsky’s prominent role in it? As you know, Stalin was absent from the fighting.”
Yes, the civil war would be a minefield, but so, too, would be the revolution. Any events contemporaneous with Stalin would have to feature him and, whether true or not, extol his heroic presence and glorious effect on socialism.