Authors: Paul M. Levitt
Mikhail reminded the assembly that Soviet education had always proceeded on the principle of rote learning. “In fact, I can repeat
word for word because of the training I had. Memory is more important than . . .”
Before he could finish, Sasha interrupted him. “No one is disparaging memory. I am merely adding another level: analysis. Surely, you don’t object to that?”
But the teachers knew that once the camel gets his nose in the tent, the body will soon follow. Give an inch, and then it’s a mile. Students trained in critical thinking would soon be asking questions that could endanger everyone. Instead of the usual Soviet catechism, students would ask why this form of government and not another; why this leader and not someone else; why this approach to learning and not the old way or the Talmudic way or the Socratic way? As John Donne had said, “A new philosophy calls all in doubt.”
Sasha encouraged his colleagues to talk openly about the history of the school and the staff. He wished to avoid the pitfalls of the past, and feared falling into a trap similar to the one that had ensnared Avram Brodsky. But his colleagues spoke only grudgingly. The best he could elicit from them was the observation that he should let common sense be his guide. But common sense without historical memory is virtually useless. From whence comes the sense? If it’s common, then it must have a track record. What Sasha wanted to know did not issue from common wisdom. For example: Why had some teachers and students failed in the past while others succeeded? Could one discern trends or patterns?
Reminded that the school office had several filing cabinets of old records, Sasha replied that he had diligently read them and not a one bore on the history of the school, staff, and students. They had been purged. By whom? His colleagues merely shrugged, although Elena had a vague memory of two men using a dolly to wheel boxed files out of the office. Their destination? She had no idea. Looking around for help, Elena met only cold stares.
“If not for my counseling duties,” she said, delicately stroking the air, “I would never have seen the files being removed.”
To reinvent the wheel simply wasted everyone’s time, Sasha observed. All of the current staff had served under Avram Brodsky. Surely, they could tell the new director “something” about the former one. “He lives within walking distance of the school,” said Sasha. “It’s not as if he disappeared.”
“Oh,” remarked Benedik Kotko, “he disappeared all right. For over a year. And no one in this room wants to touch the subject. It’s poison.”
Sasha let the subject drop.
When the staff left the meeting, they were not inflamed with the spirit of discovery but rather with the desirability of denunciation. This new director was challenging old truths and settled habits. To no one’s surprise, Comrade Boris Filatov soon arrived. Wearing a neatly pressed military tunic, he wanted to discuss the direction of instruction at the school. But first he would meet with the staff, including Galina, and then Sasha. If forewarned is forearmed, Galina would tell Sasha about the encounter with Filatov, who would undoubtedly employ his usual candid style.
“Citizen Parsky!” said Filatov, spreading a newspaper before he sat on the stained and ragged couch in Sasha’s office. “I received your report about meeting with Galina Selivanova and Viktor Harkov. In light of your initial reticence to visit these people, or should I say reluctance, I would never have guessed that you would offer Galina Selivanova a position. Viktor Harkov, too?”
“No, Comrade Filatov, just Galina.”
“So, you’re already on a first-name basis, but why wouldn’t you be, since she is living with you.” Pause. “Pretty woman.”
“Looks can be deceiving.”
“Are you punning? Do you mean the living arrangements or the woman’s appearance?” Filatov removed his silver cigarette case, and then remembered that Sasha abstained from nicotine. He decided as a courtesy to deny himself the pleasure.
Sasha smiled in appreciation. “You raise several issues, Comrade Filatov: Galina’s hiring, our living arrangements, and her attractiveness. As a matter of fact, the three are related. When I met the mother and daughter, I was much taken with the little girl and depressed by their living conditions. I knew that if I offered Galina Selivanova a job at the school, she could improve her standard of living—and the child’s. Her good looks are an added bonus. By the way, did you know that she has a superb singing voice? She has started a choir. The students adore her.” Sasha, who had been sitting behind his modest desk, with three wall portraits looking down on him—Marx, Lenin, and Stalin—went to his bookcase and removed a volume. He rustled through several pages and then quoted:
“‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.’ Do you know the author of those words, Comrade Filatov?”
Although a cultured man, Filatov was not often asked questions of this kind. “Shakespeare.”
“William Congreve, Act 1, Scene 1, from
The Mourning Bride
A bit annoyed, Filatov asked, “And the point of this exercise?”
“I knew you’d say Shakespeare. Everyone does. But it only goes to prove that majority thinking is not always right.”
Filatov removed a cigarette and lit up. Would he now excoriate Sasha for his forwardness? Through a mouthful of smoke, he said, “Point well taken.” Yet again Filatov had proved he was a different kind of OGPU officer, a more sophisticated and cunning one.
“With the deplorable state of housing in Balyk, I decided that since the farmhouse needed renovation and was large enough for two families, I would move in mother and child. Our living arrangement is perfectly innocent, irrespective of the whispers you hear.”
Filatov looked around for a place to tip his ashes and decided on the palm of his hand. “I have heard nothing.”
“That’s good, if true.”
that I’ve heard nothing or
that I’ve heard nothing?”
“I hope both.”
Filatov appropriated the metal trash bin next to Sasha’s desk, tipped in the ashes, and snuffed out his cigarette, leaving behind the stub, which now exuded a foul smell. “You are a clever lad, Citizen Parsky, perhaps too clever for your own good. I think we need to talk about education, Soviet education, and how you are expected to disseminate Party truths.”
What followed was a stock speech that Filatov had given to a hundred schoolmasters in his lifetime. He, in fact, liked this part of his police work, “instructing instructors about proper Party instruction,” as he liked to phrase it, convinced that the repetitions were not only witty but also pedagogically useful. He droned on about why the world functions as it does, and how it ought to function. He explained how ideologies became dominant and grew into systems based on religious, legal, and political beliefs.
“But where does the class struggle and the working man fit in? They don’t, because the needs of the laborer are always ignored. Soviet education has to fill that omission in every discipline, from economics to literature to science. Social class is the crucible in which all else is forged. Since every class has its values, we should not be surprised to find that self-interest and selfishness are paramount. Take the example of commodities. The ruling classes have convinced us that
inheres in the product itself, when actually the value is external, added to it through labor. But does the worker receive his fair share of the profits? No. The ruling classes argue that if not for their investments, the product would never have come to market. So money trumps labor. This truism can be found in every aspect of society, and every student must be taught to see it.”
In response to Sasha’s question, Filatov said that Avram Brodsky had been allowed to return to Balyk after his year in Kolyma but could not leave the area. “Internal exile,” said Filatov. “You would be doing us all a great favor if you could draw the man out. I fear he may still be secretly active in the Left Opposition. Learn what you can. The three R’s: What is he reading, ruminating about, and ’riting?”
Sasha explained that he had no taste for politics, and that he and Brodsky talked mostly about literature. If he now introduced politics, surely Brodsky would be suspicious.
“Work into it slowly. You can use literature. Ask about a Marxist approach to your friend Congreve, for example. See where the discussion leads, and report back to me. In fact, I intend to call on him myself. Perhaps I can induce him to tell me about the people and ideas he admires. Some friends! They cost him his directorship.”
All of Balyk had an opinion about Filatov frequently passing through Brodsky’s gate and entering his cottage. Some hazarded that Filatov’s visits were a warning to Brodsky to stay clear of trouble; others said he came to elicit information, which, if not forthcoming, could cost Avram his life. The teachers at the Michael School were particularly energetic in their suppositions and fantasies, each one advancing a different theory about the former director: that Brodsky worked for the secret police because his elderly parents had been threatened with exile; that he was secretly married to a Soviet agent or to a Trotskyist to whom he reported; that he and Sasha had made common cause to spy on the faculty; that he was an anarchist; that he was a Zionist urging Jews to leave the country for Palestine; that he had a shortwave radio that he used to stay in communication with the émigré communities in Paris and Berlin; that he could conjure spirits that conveyed his message to the netherworld; that he poisoned farmers’ cattle and wells; that he preferred men to women; that he was a distant relative of Filatov; that he had escaped a longer prison term in Kolyma because the authorities regarded him as privy to traitorous plots, all of which he shared with the secret police. And so on. The one thing about which everyone could agree was the man was an enigma. Even though the teachers at the Michael School had served under him for many years, those same people now claimed that Brodsky had been a demon with supernatural powers, leading them to behave in ways they would normally have avoided. In a word, like all Jews, he communed with the devil. Had it not been for his occult powers and his chthonic connections, they would have denounced him when he was first appointed to direct the school.
“A word, Comrade Director.” Sasha invited Vera Chernikova into his office. She sat across from him, with her skirt just above the knee, exhibiting handsome legs. Her perfume rose like incense, hovering in the room and clinging to his clothes. The scent followed her like a contrail. “I am not alone in my concerns.” But before Sasha could ask their source, she continued. “Others, like Olga Oborskaia, share them. Nepotism has become a problem in our schools. This new woman, Galina . . . are you grooming her to succeed you? She will undoubtedly feel entitled if you make her your second in command.”
“She is more an aide-de-camp than a school official or officer.”
“When Director Brodsky left, we were led to believe that his successor would come from the ranks, a teacher who worked
more than required, a sort of Stakhanovite teacher. But that never happened. Major Filatov felt new blood was needed, an attitude that I quite understand. But a new person has no knowledge of the school’s history and traditions, as you are undoubtedly discovering. I would hope that one of your first official acts will be to designate the next in line.”
“Have you any suggestions?”
“It would be forward of me to advance my own name. I leave that to others. But I would mention Olga Oborskaia and Semen Sestrov.”
Sasha asked ironically, “Are directors so short-lived that before they even settle in, the staff prepare for their departure?”
“We in the Soviet Union are changing the world every day. One must be prepared for the coming Utopia. I am merely acting in the spirit of revolution and change. I’m sure you understand.”
“Absolutely, and I thank you for your concern.”
He saw her to the door and gave her a firm handshake.
Given Sasha’s own specialty in Soviet history, he told Semen Sestrov, who taught a course in the Russian Civil War, he would like to observe his class. Semen was flattered to be the first teacher Sasha visited. The ten o’clock class had a full enrollment, and the students were exceptionally earnest and well behaved. One brave student asked about the role of various leaders in the conflict. When Stalin’s name surfaced, as Sasha had hoped, he waited to hear Semen explain Koba’s minimal contributions to the Russian Revolution.
“The Vozhd,” said Sestrov, “was raising money from the Baku oil barons, and was fomenting rebellion in Georgia through his underground activities.”
“Why,” asked the same student, “does the traitor Trotsky and his ilk say that the Vozhd played no role, and that he may, at one time, have been in the employ of the Cheka?”
“As a double agent,” replied Sestrov, skillfully evading the fact that Stalin played little or no role in the civil war.
Education was always a dicey affair. The Tsarist rulers, in need of bureaucrats to staff the many government agencies, had found it necessary to expose their servitors to modern Western ideas, and therein was the problem. A few of them, influenced by nonauthoritarian ideas, grew into disaffected radicals who challenged Tsarist rule. Sasha wondered how many among the current students at his school would become free thinkers, and what kind of changes would they clamor for? Despite his bitter disapproval, Sasha knew the Soviet reasoning for the vast surveillance system found in every school and university. In the Michael School, which classrooms were or were not bugged provided a wealth of humor, though it was no joke that some of the teachers were probably on the Cheka payroll.
One morning Sasha arrived in his office to find Goran Youzhny, his staged cell mate. He handed Sasha a letter with orders from Filatov to find lodging and a lab for “Comrade Youzhny, a friend of the OGPU,” who was now honing his skills as a police photographer. The storyteller Bella Zeffina’s house would fit the bill, but Sasha explained that the school had no room for a lab. Goran thanked him and replied that all he needed was a small space. And in the near future, would Sasha mind if he came to the farmhouse with his camera for a story he’d like to write about the school and the new director? Sasha agreed, and Goran left. But the idea of a falsely confessed killer, an OGPU friend, showing up with a letter from Filatov and the need for a lab troubled Sasha.