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The Tyranny Trilogy
The Black Maria
My Brother the Enemy
By Rupert Colley
The Black Maria
My Brother the Enemy
About the Author
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Copyright © 2013 Rupert Colley
Prologue: Moscow, 28 February 1992
Stepping out of the taxi into the weak February sun, I felt as though I’d been smacked in the face by the intensity of the cold.
‘So, this is where she lives,’ I said, as the battered Trabant sped away through the snow.
Caroline, wrapped in fake fur, pulled her hat down over her ears. She turned and smiled at me. ‘Poor Richard, your nose is red,’ she said, laughing. Around us, the snow fell, its flakes caught by the sun, glittering like gold dust.
It took some fifteen minutes before we were able to find the right entrance to the apartment block, by which time, my feet were becoming uncomfortably cold. Relieved to enter the warmth of the large lobby, we approached the concierge; a squared-jawed man sitting behind a desk, reading a newspaper, a damp cigarette clamped on his bottom lip. Caroline showed him the piece of paper that had the address written on it, and spoke to him in what sounded, to my ignorant ears, like fluent Russian. The man eyed us suspiciously and responded in a dulled tone, the cigarette moving where the lips did not.
‘Fourth floor,’ said Caroline.
‘Spaseeba,’ I said enthusiastically, feeling slightly foolish by his lack of response.
In the lift, Caroline uncoiled her scarf. ‘Are you ready for this?’ she asked, as she removed her hat and shook her mane of bleached hair.
‘No, it’s going to be grim.’
‘Oh come on, Richard, don’t start that again. We’re here now and there’s nothing to worry about.’
‘But what happens if I find out something I don’t want to know?’
She sighed; we’d had this conversation before. ‘Like what exactly?’
‘I don’t know – something about my father.’
‘What, like he was a KGB agent? Look, all we’re going to find is some old lady wanting to reminisce about her life and put in place the missing pieces of her jigsaw. It’ll be fine.’
‘Thanks for coming, Caroline.’
‘Don’t be silly, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’ She leant forward and planted a kiss on my lips leaving behind the lingering taste of her lipstick. The lift doors opened and moments later, we were outside the apartment door. ‘Go on then, knock,’ whispered Caroline.
I held my breath – I was about to meet my only living relative and it was too late to turn around. My Russian ancestry was not something to which I’d ever given any thought. I’d been born thirty years ago in Russia but I was English, brought up in London and, as far as I was concerned, that was that. But now, I was about to come face to face with the Russian grandmother I had never known. Would she see her son in me? Would I see myself in her? Would she approve of me? Did it matter? No, not on the face of it – she hadn’t been part of my life. But having no parents now, I felt as if approval was the one thing I craved in my life.
The apartment door opened and there, in front of us, was a plump middle-aged woman with butcher-like arms. Caroline opened her mouth to speak but the woman, clearly expecting us, beckoned us in. She pointed to a coat-rack and, three short steps later, we found ourselves in the living room. Sitting in a red leather armchair, flanked by a large yucca plant, was my grandmother.
‘Come in, come in,’ she said in a heavy Russian accent, holding out her hand.
‘Hello...’ I hesitated, not sure how to address her. Her first name, I knew, was Maria, but that seemed too familiar and grandmother didn’t seem right somehow.
‘Maria, call me Maria. Please, sit down, sit down.’ I liked the way she’d sensed my dilemma and felt slightly more at ease. She was small and frail, as one might expect an 87-year-old woman to be, but her eyes were bright, her smile broad and her skin surprisingly smooth. The room, stiflingly hot and claustrophobic, smelt of cleaning polish. A large number of paintings adorned the walls, shelves stacked with paperbacks. Caroline and I sat down together on the settee and smiled inanely, wondering what to say.
Maria had a brief conversation with the woman who showed us in, who then vanished into another room. ‘My housekeeper Irina,’ said Maria by way of explanation. ‘She is half my age but oh, how she complains. Like an old hag. Not like me! But she will make us tea.’
Caroline and I laughed, and I felt an immediate warmth for this spirited old woman.
‘So, you found me all right, yes?’
She asked after our hotel, our flight, how we liked Moscow and how we were coping with the cold. She spoke quickly, finishing her sentences with a slight chortle. She seemed nervous, but then, so was I. She was dressed differently from what I’d seen of other old Russian women, wearing elegant clothes of vigorous colours and sporting a kingfisher brooch. She’d applied a hint of make-up and one could see the beauty of the woman beneath the years. I wondered how much the make-up and the elegant clothes were for our benefit.
After a while, she stopped talking, perhaps conscious of how much small talk she’d made in so little time. She stared at me with a slight inquisitiveness, taking in the image of her grandson, the lost piece of her jigsaw. I tried to hold her gaze, tried to smile, and found myself feeling awkward under her scrutiny and increasingly aware of how hot it was in her apartment.
‘We’ve brought you some souvenirs from England,’ I said, fishing round in my satchel. I passed her a heavy plastic bag full of things I’d bought in the supermarket – English tea, English mustard, golden syrup, chutney, marmalade, and other delicacies of the English palate. She looked at each one in turn, trying to read the labels and making appropriate noises of approval. Placing all the tins, jars and packets on the occasional table in front of her, she smiled, and tilting her head to one side, thanked Caroline and me for our generosity. That, I concluded with quiet satisfaction, was money well spent.
‘Richard, I must tell you now, your father – he die last year.’
‘Oh.’ I thought of my stepfather, dead at fifty, but of course, she meant the Russian father I never knew.
‘Yes, last year. A cancer. He was not old.’
‘Oh. I see.’ I felt my cheeks redden as I desperately searched for something appropriate to say. Who, I wondered, was meant to be consoling whom? Should I appear upset? I never knew the man, and news of his death registered nothing but an awkward awareness that perhaps I should be consoling my own grandmother on the death of her son. I glanced up at Caroline, hoping for a lifeline, some form of intervention.
‘He was not a good man.’
Maria’s stark verdict was the lifeline I was looking for and I smiled in relief. But then, realising that my grinning face was perhaps not the most fitting response, I tried to look grave and concerned. But my efforts were obvious and Caroline giggled.
‘I – I’m sorry,’ she blurted.
Maria snorted. ‘Poor boy, he doesn’t know how to think. But I can tell you, because I can see you are not like your father.’ Well, that was something, I thought. ‘You have a kind face, a kind heart. This I know. Your father, he was not kind. He could not travel across the city to come see me, but you – you come from England, and with all these lovely things to eat.’
‘I wanted to... to....’ What had I wanted, what had made me come, almost on a whim? Was it to find a direction in my life? God, I needed one. I was thirty and still had no grounding. I’d spent years floating from place to place, from one job to another, and all my relationships seemed to have lasted less time than the lifecycle of a dragonfly. Caroline, I hoped, was different. I wanted stability; I needed a foundation. Is this why I’d come to Russia with Caroline, to find something that was missing from my life? Part of it, I think, was to find my father. Well, that was one avenue closed already but it hardly seemed to matter. What would I have said to him, what was I hoping to find? Somehow, with this old lady, it was different; here was a buffer zone, an extra generation between us.
‘Your father, he thinks he is Casanova, he thinks he can make things into gold,’ said Maria, slipping into the present tense. ‘Always looking ahead, never looking back. Some people might say that is a good thing, but each time he forgets his mistakes. He tries too hard, always too hard.’ I found her words strangely familiar, perhaps that was my problem – never assessing, never learning, always too eager to jump in feet first. There was a silence and I followed Maria’s gaze to a photograph on the sideboard. It was a coloured portrait of my father, wearing collar and tie in an official head-and-shoulders shot, with his long thin nose, his dark wavy hair carefully brushed and a slightly self-conscious smile. He was my father, all right – a neater version of myself.
Bursting in with a tray of tea and biscuits, Irina broke the uneasy silence. ‘Here we are,’ declared Maria. ‘Put it on the table here,’ she instructed Irina in English, gently pushing my gifts to one side of the table. Irina glared at her and said something in Russian, which, by its tone, sounded like, Where else would you have me put it?, before disappearing again.
‘Karen, you pour,’ said Maria.
Caroline looked awkward but obliged.
‘Richard, please, take a look at my photographs and the pictures.’ I smiled and rose, self-consciously, to my feet. ‘Don’t be shy,’ she said with a hint of a laugh.
On the sideboard, next to the portrait of my father, was a photograph of a soldier, tall with jet black hair, his arms folded, grinning at the camera. Framed pictures of Maria caught her at various stages of her life; her eyes always sparkling, her pose natural. Sometimes, by herself, sometimes with children and family. Sitting among the photos was a small golden bust of Lenin, with that permanent scowl etched on his face, and a curious little wooden bear, its paws clawing the air; quite fierce looking. The paintings on the walls were also framed – mostly small landscapes and churches. At the far end of the room, opposite the window, was a large painting, a proper work of art and, to my untrained eye, an original. It was a country scene, a small gathering of peasants crowding round a wooden table. The men all looked strong, their sleeves rolled up, the sweat glistening on their collective brow. The women poured and handed round pitchers of drink, their faces smiling, their cheeks full of country air. It was an impressive piece of work but let down by its ham-fisted propagandist message, its overt triumphalism. I was about to turn away when my attention was caught by the woman dominating the far right of the painting; holding a jug, wearing blue overalls, her hair tied back – I recognised the sparkling eyes.
Caroline handed Maria her cup of tea. ‘Thank you, Karen; you make a good Russian wife. So, Richard, you like the big painting?’
‘Yes,’ I said, noticing the flush in Caroline’s cheeks. ‘I was just admiring it. It’s good, very good.’
Her face froze for a few seconds and I feared I’d said the wrong thing. ‘Yes,’ she said slowly, ‘those were the very words my Petrov used.’
‘Sit down, Richard, sit down.’ I liked the way she pronounced Richard, each syllable stretched so that it sounded like Reech-hard with a double ‘h’ in the middle. ‘Tell me now, you are an English boy, yes?’
‘Well, technically, I am partly Russian,’ I ventured nervously.
‘And what do you know of your Russian history?’
‘I... er, well, not that much really.’
‘I want to tell you a story, my story, and then you will know your Russian history.’ She paused and watched for my expression. Perhaps, I looked doubtful, for she seemed intent on justifying her claim, ‘Yes, you will know the history of Soviet Russia, for I have lived it. I was born before the Revolution and now it has gone – but I, I am still here. I think maybe I am the last. Not many can survive my life and live to my age. My story will tell you all you need to know about the Soviet Union. And then, you will know more about yourself. You understand?’
‘Yes, I think I do.’
Irina re-appeared with her coat on. The two women exchanged a few harsh-sounding words and then, without acknowledging us, Irina picked up a set of keys from the sideboard and left abruptly, slamming the front door behind her.
‘What age are you, Richard?’
She sipped her tea. ‘Thirty, hmm. I was here in Moscow when I was your age in nineteen thirty-five. I was married, for my second time. I am suppose to envy your age, to be so young, to have one’s life before one. But I do not. My heart beats with fear when I think of myself as a young woman in those days. It was the year I fell in love. That should make me happy, no? But love in those days brought danger. Do you want me to tell you?’
Caroline and I exchanged glances. We knew we were in for a long haul but, at that moment, despite the overbearing warmth of the room, I knew there was nowhere else I could be. This was a story that preceded my own existence, a tale that might show the twists and turns that would, ultimately, lead to my own beginning. How could I not listen, how could I not know?
‘You must understand,’ said Maria, ‘never before have I told my story. You are my grandson but you know nothing of me or my country. It is not your fault, of course. But for you, Richard, and Karen, I will tell this story, and then you will know.’
‘OK, that sounds...’
‘Many times, I have remembered this story. Some facts, I do not know. But I imagine them so well, and so many times, they are as good as true to me. My story begins with a secret. But this is too terrible to tell. I know I will be damned when soon my time comes. This is the part I have not rehearsed – you must understand, it is too difficult for me. Perhaps, I tell you – another day, I do not know. I came to Moscow, with this secret inside of me. If anyone knows, I will be arrested and sent away to the prison camps, I cannot say a word. No one knows. In nineteen-thirty, I come to Moscow and meet a man, Petrov. We marry but I was not in love. No, that came later when I met Dmitry – such a handsome man. I was friends with his sister, Anna. I remember so well, I was with Anna in my apartment and she was telling me about her brother. She makes me a cup of tea, like this, and I remember her words exactly. She says to me – “I suppose he is quite good looking. But as his sister, it is not something I think about”...’
Chapter 1: The Invitation
‘I suppose he is quite good looking. But as his sister, it’s not something I think about.’ I was polishing a small golden bust of Tchaikovsky while Anna was trying to describe her brother Dmitry. ‘I’ve always found it rather strange he’s never married. Too busy painting, I expect.’
‘Good looking, you say?’ I asked pointedly.
Anna’s nose wrinkled as she grinned at me. ‘You’re a married woman, Maria Radekovna.’
Anna was the only person I could consider a friend. A good ten years older than me, she looked younger by wearing her hair in a bob. She glanced over at my brother. Viktor sat in an armchair in the corner of the room. The chair, now mottled and pink, had once been red and the odd spot of its former colourful glory still showed. A pile of books substituted a missing leg. Viktor’s sunken eyes were closed; his head slouched against the stained blanket on his chest. I went to him and placed the Tchaikovsky bust between his hands, and pulled the blanket up beneath his chin and around his shoulders. His breathing seemed so loud in the smallness of the room.
‘He likes his Tchaikovsky; it reminds him of better times.’ I smiled at him as a mother would to her child. ‘He has his good days,’ I said almost apologetically. ‘Days when he can wander round the apartment and talk a little. He’d be dead by now if they hadn’t let him out. At least, here, he can have the dignity of dying at home.’
I knew Anna felt sorry for me – where once I’d tried to maintain a clean home, everything had gone to seed since Viktor’s return. The whole place smelt of boiled cabbage, and the feel and smell of damp hung in the air. Piles of clothes and old crumpled newspapers littered the linoleum floor. Kitchen utensils were heaped in a dish for fear of them being stolen by my neighbours in the shared kitchen. A Primus stove stood in the corner, towels drying over the clothes horse, and the only window was covered by a torn curtain that hung precariously on a sagging wire. To anyone who didn’t know it was as if I didn’t care any more.
Petrov had not always approved of my friendship with Anna. He felt she wasn’t quite the right type to be associated with, lacking the true credentials of a proletariat. But Anna and I continued to meet once or twice a month while Petrov was out at work and gradually he became more tolerant of my older friend.
‘So, tell me, does your Dmitry live comfortably?’
‘Of course, he’s an artist; he lives like a king. They gave him a furnished apartment and his own telephone. They even gave him a dacha. He gets what they call an artists’ ration as one of the “creative intelligentsia”. So, he has access, you know, to the special stores and he helps me out. I could never invite you to dinner to my apartment.’
Viktor coughed – a tortuous, rasping cough that woke him up and made Anna jump. He glanced around the room and his eyes settled on her for a few seconds but he made no attempt to acknowledge her or show any sign of surprise that she should be there. After a few moments, his eyes closed again and his head lolled back down against his chest.
‘He’ll be OK for one evening,’ I said. She was offering to cook for Petrov and me at her brother’s apartment; a rare night out for us.
‘Rosa’s welcome to come to dinner as well, if she wishes.’
‘Anna, it’s very kind of you, but she always has her own plans. You know what eighteen-year-olds are like. But thank you, I’m looking forward to it.’
‘Is eight o’clock OK? You’ve got the details?’
I fumbled in my pocket for the piece of paper on which she’d written Dmitry’s address and read it out aloud.
‘That’s the one,’ she said.
I stared at the scrap of paper and re-read it to myself a couple of times. It would soon become an address that would be forever etched on my memory.
Why had I known that that evening would change my life? What inner voice had forewarned me? Perhaps because I was willing it to happen, for something to happen, because I knew that my future lay not with Petrov. I owed Petrov my survival, my existence, but where once he was my protector, he had become my warder. Where once he had given me the chance to breathe, he was now suffocating me. I was only thirty and still had hope for something better. But there was one thing I knew I couldn’t escape from – and that was my past. It lay within me, an unspoken tale that would haunt me forever more. It was inescapable. Sometimes I longed to tell someone, to allow the unspeakable to be spoken. But what choice did I have? My own existence was at stake.
Everyday in Moscow one sees beggars; it’s a common sight. These are the disenfranchised, the “former people” whom the State has thrown aside as outcasts. One ignores them; for to sympathise, to make any form of social contact, is to tar oneself with the same brush. But I feel for them because for our first few months in Moscow, Viktor and I counted among their number. Eventually, I found work as a maid for an accountant and lived in a crowded corridor outside his door, working long hours merely for the privilege of food. It was through the accountant that I met Petrov. Within three months, we were married. The ceremony was quick and without fuss, taking place in a small office on the fourth floor of a district police station. We waited in line behind a queue of others – people registering marriages, births, divorces and deaths. But whatever their reason for being there, everyone wore the same expression, one could not differentiate between the joyful or sorrowful. Having waited our turn, we leant against the high counter, signed various forms, paid our three roubles to the sullen, chain-smoking clerk, and left. The ‘ceremony’ took all of six minutes.
I now wore the mask of a respectable wife to a middling Party activist, but beneath the camouflage the conscience remained indelibly plagued. I took his family name and Petrov obtained my papers and an internal passport – my new persona was complete. I invented for myself a new history – the daughter of a Leningrad watchmaker, I’d come to Moscow to further my education and to work closer to the heart of communism. Viktor too was able to obtain a new identity and before long his wife and daughter joined him in the city. We’d perfected our history and, it has to be said, it was all down to Petrov. But even Petrov only knows what I’ve told him and although he knows nothing of our real story, he knows enough to have us stripped of our internal passports and arrested. Without the passport, one is finished – you lose your right to work, your ration card, you are barred from State benefits and the whole Soviet system is closed to you – you wear the stigma like a badge, you are one of the disenfranchised, a former person. As the Party becomes more and more paranoid of alien elements infiltrating its ranks, people are more liable to arrest and deportation than ever before. Petrov knows this but never mentions it. It is enough that I know.
Petrov, I know, is also disillusioned. He’s always wanted children, lots of them, and now feels betrayed because I haven’t been able to satisfy him. I know his desire stems more from his sense of civic responsibility than any paternal longing; for the State makes it clear that it is our patriotic and social duty to bear future Soviets. Indeed, it pays families with seven children or more about 2,000 roubles a year in child support. Petrov, always fervently keen to fulfil his social obligations, sees it as a failing in both of us. My infertility has become the subject of silent reproach, a ritual of humiliation.
I also want a child; I simply don’t want Petrov as its father. Perhaps God is aware of this, for after all this time I am still without child, despite Petrov’s best efforts to the contrary. I’d hoped he would divorce me and find himself another, more productive wife. Divorce is so easy in the Soviet Union – you don’t need the consent of the other and can be done in a matter of minutes. But despite his revolutionary leanings, Petrov is, in many ways, old-fashioned and won’t contemplate divorce. Especially, as he thinks he loves me. Of course, he doesn’t – he’s never experienced real love to know the difference between love and habit. Sometimes, I visualise myself walking into a registration bureau and signing the declaration of divorce, freeing both me and Petrov from our mutual encumbrance. If only he knew it, he’d thank me. But I know that far from giving me a future, such an action would bring the past back to the present and my mask would slip and fall.
And so, for these last five years, I have lived as Maria, with my invented history and my assumed name as Petrov’s attentive wife.
It was time to break free. It was time to live again.
Chapter 2: The Dinner Party
The following evening, a cold blustery night, Petrov and I arrived at the appointed hour of eight o’clock. The building, according to Anna, had until recently been a run-of-the-mill tenement block before being spruced up and renovated into an artist’s co-operative consisting of over a hundred luxury-sized apartments. Petrov and I gave our name to the portly concierge who pointed us towards the lift.
As we walked down the echoing corridor, we exchanged glances, his eyes furtive behind his rimless glasses. It was almost as if we felt guilty to be in such surroundings. This corridor did not stink of cabbage, nor was it populated by ragged occupants, nor piled high with rubbish and decaying food. I think Petrov realised how far down he came in the Party’s pecking order. We knocked and, as we waited, I quickly straightened Petrov’s sombre blue tie. Petrov was nearer to Anna’s age but, in appearance, seemed older. He was wearing his customary dark suit and polished black shoes, and, for the occasion, had specially trimmed his moustache and goatee. The door opened with a flourish and we were greeted by Anna.
‘Welcome, comrades,’ she said rather formally, ‘come in.’
‘Hello, Anna,’ I said, planting a delicate kiss on each cheek. She took us through to the main room that was bathed in a warm welcoming light. The table was already laid for dinner. A large, patterned rug covered the expanse of floor; the walls of the room were painted a dark yellow and everything seemed so spacious compared to what we were used to. There hung, as usual, portraits of Stalin and Lenin, and another of Molotov. Among the photographs were a number of small landscape paintings. I wondered whether these were the work of our host. Standing in the corner, wearing a checked shirt and a brown corduroy jacket, opening a bottle of red wine was, I presumed, Anna’s brother. He smiled at us as Anna showed us in, placed the bottle on the table and stepped towards us, hand outstretched.
‘Hello, welcome. I’m the brother, Dmitry, how nice to meet you.’ His voice was deep, each word carefully articulated. I felt myself blush as he shook my hand. His eyes were dark and had a slightly mischievous look about them, etched with prominent laughter lines; his hair, black but slightly greying, was longer than was customary and swept to one side. And, I couldn’t help but notice, he smelt of aftershave, such a rarity in Moscow. He was tall – at over six feet, he towered above Petrov but his posture was slightly stooped. He looked strong; this, I thought, was not a man routinely bothered by food shortages.
‘I hope you’re both feeling hungry,’ he said.
‘If you’ll excuse me,’ said Anna, ‘I need to check in the kitchen.’
‘Do you need any help?’ I asked, thinking how nice it must be to have a whole kitchen to herself. What a difference between this domestic splendour and my own sordid accommodation with its communal kitchen and shared utensils.
‘No, no, it’s all done, just the finishing touches, you know.’
Dmitry smiled and I couldn’t help but feel a tingle of pleasure at the way he looked at me. ‘Please, let me take your coats.’
We chatted about the weather and our journey there. Anna reappeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. ‘Dinner won’t be long,’ she said.
As Dmitry lit the candles, Petrov wandered around the room, picking up ornaments and books as if inspecting them for auction or perhaps for authors who had earned the Party’s displeasure. In the corner of the room, on a small wooden table, sat a gramophone player and, next to it, a case full of records. I saw Petrov grimace; he evidently disapproved of such extravagance, forgetting how only a few days before, he had talked of buying one himself.
‘Looking for evidence of counter-revolutionary objects?’ asked Dmitry pointedly.
Petrov laughed with embarrassment. ‘No, of course not,’ he said. But I feared that Dmitry had already got the measure of my husband.
Half an hour later, we were coming to the end of the first course – mushroom and paprika salad. I couldn’t remember the last time I had had mushrooms. ‘This is truly delicious, Anna. I didn’t realise you were such a good cook.’
‘It’s not so much the cooking; it’s having the right ingredients in the first place. I could never have done this without Dmitry’s culinary contacts.’
Dmitry laughed. ‘It’s all a matter of where to go.’
I glanced at Petrov. I could tell he felt uneasy; he liked his food simple and this dinner was bound to give him indigestion. ‘So then,’ he said helping himself to a second glass of wine, ‘I never knew the Party looked upon the artist with such high esteem. I always thought of art as a bourgeois pastime but you seem to be doing well for yourself, if I may say so, Dmitry.’ I knew that this was a political rebuke framed as a rhetorical question. Fortunately, Dmitry rose above the implied criticism.
‘Well, it’s like Stalin says, the artist is the engineer of the soul –’
‘A toast to Comrade Stalin,’ said Petrov gushingly.
‘Comrade Stalin,’ we all said in hearty unison.
‘Dmitry’s been nominated for an Order of Lenin, haven’t you Dmitry?’ said Anna. ‘For his “contribution to socialist art”.’
‘If he’s awarded it, he’ll receive it on Labour Day at the Gorky Park celebrations.’
‘Congratulations,’ I said.
‘Thank you, but I haven’t won it yet. Although it’s what I do that’s important, you know. Art has a vital role in society. I have a job to do and fortunately for me, the State considers my job as pivotal in expressing socialist realism as it is, or at least as it should be.’
‘As it should be?’ Petrov was still trying to score political points off his host and we were entering delicate ground. One dared not criticise the State, however obliquely, unless one was totally sure of one’s company. But Dmitry was not likely to have his comments misconstrued by a rank-and-file Party activist like my husband.
‘Yes, as it should be and as it will be when we achieve true socialism. The road is a long, arduous one, my friend, and it may take generations to fulfil Lenin’s vision. And anyway, everything you see around you – it’s not mine, not in the true sense of possession, all this belongs to the State, I’m just looking after it on a sort of permanent loan, if you like.’
Petrov was getting agitated. He was a man of contradiction. He either fell prey to envy and quickly criticised those who were better off than him, believing them to be contrary to the spirit of true socialism; or he looked disdainfully down on those who struggled, believing that they hadn’t done enough for the Revolution to reap its awards. He was often quoting Marx’s edict: He who does not work, does not eat. But what really got his goat was when others used Lenin’s name as a means of justification. ‘But have you no pity for our fellow countrymen out there who go short, who queue for hours –’
‘Do you? I don’t suppose for a moment, comrade, you have to queue...’
Petrov took a quick slurp of wine to cover his embarrassment. ‘No but –’
‘But perhaps you’re right, sometimes I do feel oppressed by a sense of guilt. But look at it this way: what I have here is evidence that scarcity is waning. For every citizen who is privileged, there’s one less in the bread queue. Soon privilege will be so widespread it won’t be considered a privilege any more. That’s when we’ll know we’ve got there.’
‘It’s bourgeois decadence, if you ask me,’ said Petrov quietly.
‘No. No, it’s not. It’s cultural betterment.’
‘“Life has become better, comrades”,’ said Anna quoting Stalin’s edict from a few months previously.
‘Yes and “life has become more cheerful”,’ said Dmitry, finishing the quote.
Anna laughed and Dmitry pulled a face. I glanced again at Petrov. He was watching them and something in his eye made me most uneasy. He was trying to work out whether they were sincerely quoting Stalin or, as I feared, mocking him. If they were, they were being unbelievably careless. To deride Stalin or the Party in company, however gently, could mean denunciation and arrest. Anna knew she could trust me but equally she knew that even I wouldn’t trust Petrov. He had never, as far as I knew, denounced anyone socially, but at his work, many had suffered at his hands for their careless banter. Petrov was a staunch supporter of the Party that had promoted him well beyond his ability. His success had depended on their favour and the downfall of his more able predecessors, but with promotion came responsibility and with responsibility came risk. The further you went up, the more likely and the more devastating the fall. He paid the Party his dues with an intense devotion to the cause by uprooting wreckers and exposing enemies of the people wherever he thought he saw them.
Generally, people were more careful now. If you knew what was good for you, you simply avoided conversation of any substance and stuck to the banalities of everyday life. Even a whispered criticism ten years ago could land you in trouble. And I knew of parents who kept their guard in front of their children – especially their children – for it only took an innocent repetition of what Mama or Papa had said to see Mama or Papa whisked off by the secret police, the NKVD.
Needing to divert the conversation, I asked Petrov to regale us with the story he told me about bumping into an old Party friend who had “disappeared” for making a joke about the first Five-Year-Plan. Petrov gulped his wine and told his tale adding unnecessary embellishments and digressions. I pretended to listen and made appropriate clucking noises to show my approval while subtly looking at Dmitry. It was rare to meet someone so full of confidence, so relaxed, so sure of his place in the world. I’d known Anna for about five years and she’d occasionally mention her brother with almost reverent respect. I had built up a picture in my mind of a handsome, self-assured man, but usually when one has an image of someone, the reality differs vastly from one’s preconceptions. In this case, the mental image was unerringly correct – he was indeed self-assured, and he was most certainly handsome.
The main course was something to behold – roasted duck cooked in a black cherry sauce with rice; I hadn’t eaten such delicious food for a long time. Even Petrov began to relax, dominating the conversation as he tackled his third and then fourth glass of wine. Dmitry and Anna smiled politely as he talked about his work and shared his fictitious reminisces of his revolutionary childhood on the streets of Moscow. I hated it whenever conversation turned to one’s social origins; it was the subject where I felt most vulnerable. I’d become adept over the years at immediately steering the topic to less controversial territory. Accordingly, I asked Dmitry about his painting.
‘I have a patron,’ he said. ‘He finds me work, gets me commissions, that sort of thing. He’s the sub-regional chairman of our local division of RAPA.’
‘Russian Association of Proletariat Artists, of which I’m a member. Moscow East division. In fact, right now, I’m working on a commission – a piece for the director of a locomotive factory.’
‘How interesting, what sort of painting is it?’
‘Usual thing, a healthy slab of social realism, the nobility of the peasant, that sort of thing. I’ve almost finished. Maybe if Anna doesn’t mind, I’ll show you it before our dessert.’
Anna waved her hand. ‘No, no, you go ahead, I’ll clear up the dishes.’
Dmitry took us to another room and turned on a light, which seemed unnecessarily bright for such a small space. Inside, was a large table pushed to one side, covered with tubes of paint, and palettes, sheets of paper, brushes and various other tools of the trade. The smell of paint and turpentine hung in the air. In the middle of the room was a large canvas perched on an easel. ‘It’s far from finished yet,’ said Dmitry by way of explanation.
‘It’s good, very good,’ said Petrov. I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow; it was so unusual for Petrov to voice a spontaneous opinion, let alone a complimentary one. But he was right; it was good, more than good. It was a bright, autumnal countryside scene, although in an overly-idealized style. Of course, in Dmitry’s position, he could hardly depict anything different. A table dominated the viewer’s eye, and gathered around it were a number of healthy-looking peasants sharing what looked like a well-earned drink. Some of the figures were already well-defined with careful and realistic attention to their weather-beaten but content features. Others were sketchy in their execution, awaiting their characteristics, their proper place in the painting. The men wore overalls, mainly dark blue, some still clutching their pitchforks or hoes. Fussing around them, pouring drinks, were a couple of plump older women with black dresses and practical shawls around their hefty shoulders. Running round beneath the table, a couple of dogs and, playing in the dirt to the left, a small group of children. In the background, a field in the process of harvesting, the straw bathed in golden sunshine, and further beyond, a cluster of trees. Every detail was precisely rendered, every nuance of expression carefully represented. This was what collectivisation was meant to look like, the idealised peasantry, the countryside at its harmonious best.
For a moment, I remembered with a shiver my own experiences of collectivisation, but then the warmth of the painting quickly eclipsed my reservations. This was the work of one man’s imagination, the toil of a creative force. I felt privileged to be standing next to its creator, an artist capable of giving life to an abstract, glorified vision in his head.
‘Yes, very good,’ repeated Petrov.
‘Art has to appeal,’ said Dmitry, ‘and its appeal has to be immediate.’
‘It’s magnificent,’ I purred.
He smiled at me with almost childlike gratitude for my genuine enthusiasm. We looked at each other, longer than was strictly necessary, each trying to read the other’s thoughts. It was, I think, the moment I fell in love with him.
We were eating Anna’s meringue pie and Petrov once again held forth, singing the praises of the Party, proposing frequent toasts to various Politburo dignitaries and, as was often the case, exaggerating his role at work and his responsibility as an unofficial and unpaid informer for the secret police. The slightest digression at his work or the hint of a wrongly placed word, and the NKVD came to hear about it. It was something Petrov was proud of but rarely talked about unless stripped of his modesty by the influence of alcohol. I smiled weakly; Dmitry and Anna seemed on edge.
Interrupting Petrov’s flow, Dmitry turned to me and said, ‘So, are the two of you planning on children?’ Petrov’s eyes flared up and I fumbled with my napkin. Dmitry realised his mistake. ‘I – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry,’ he said awkwardly, exchanging a brief glance with his sister.
I looked into my glass and swilled its contents. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said quietly.
‘Doesn’t matter?’ growled Petrov. ‘Of course it bloody matters. Five years, that’s how long we’ve been married, five years. You’d think in that time, we’d have half a dozen babies, but oh no, not one, not a bloody thing.’
Anna coughed delicately and Dmitry played with the stem of his wine glass, neither of them able to look us in the eye. Petrov, oblivious to the tension he’d caused, finished his glass of wine. Reaching for the empty bottle, he held it up and peered into it inquisitively. Fortunately, Dmitry didn’t take the unsubtle hint.
Petrov belched. ‘It’s all I’ve ever asked of you,’ he mumbled into his glass. ‘All I’ve ever asked and you can’t even do that, can you?’ I tried to ignore him. ‘Five years,’ he said, raising his voice. ‘I wouldn’t even mind that much if it was a girl, I just want a child. But no, my wife here, she can’t or won’t do it. God, it’s not as if you have anything else in your boring life, I mean –’
‘Stop it, Petrov,’ I said trying to contain the irritation in my voice.
Dmitry and Anna looked shocked by Petrov’s outburst. Somehow, I’d been expecting it, but not at this point, not in front of company. Petrov was usually most careful about these things, never one to wash his dirty linen in public. Dmitry twiddled with his dessert spoon. ‘Comrade,’ he said, ‘I know you’re upset but I think perhaps we’ve heard enough.’
‘Enough? You haven’t heard the half of it.’
I swallowed; desperately trying to check the tears I could feel building up inside me.
Dmitry tried again, ‘Yes but perhaps –’
‘It’s unnatural, that’s what it is, and unpatriotic. Every night she uses every excuse under the sun. Christ’s sake, she only has to lie there –’
‘Enough!’ shouted Dmitry, slamming his spoon on the table. Petrov glared at him incredulously, his mouth gaping open. ‘Have you no manners, man? How dare you talk of your wife like this in front of others.’
I held my head in my hands, ‘It’s OK, Dmitry, really –’
‘No, it’s not OK, he talks only of himself as if you don’t exist; and treats you like a second-class citizen...’
Petrov continued staring at his host. ‘How dare you speak to me like that –’
‘Consider your own behaviour before you pass judgement. You come in here, get drunk and then proceed to abuse your wife.’
‘She’s my wife.’
‘And what sort of man do you think that makes you?’
‘Not the sort of man so far removed from reality, he lives like a bourgeois nobleman.’
I saw Dmitry take a deep breath as if consciously deciding to resist Petrov’s taunt. He turned to face him again. ‘I think you should leave now.’
An hour later, I was in bed, Petrov next to me, dead to the world, impervious to the discomfort of the mattress, impervious, as usual, to my distress. I stared into the darkness, the tears rolling down my cheeks, and contemplated the gulf that divided Petrov and me, the gulf of empty space between us. It’d been an awful evening for him, an ordeal. He felt intimidated by men of standing, overwhelmed by intelligence, painfully conscious of his own shortcomings. And I can’t say I blamed him, for few men could match the charm and splendour of a man like Dmitry. Poor Petrov, always eager to do the correct thing, to think the right thoughts. Deep down he was a good man; but I was having to dig deeper and deeper to find the good within the increasingly boorish exterior. And for that, I was frightened.
Chapter 3: The Appointment
At this time of night, the streetcar was almost empty. I sat down near the back and stared idly out of the smudged window. How ugly most of Moscow was – a continual construction site with buildings torn down here and replaced there; old and new side by side, the new Soviet skyscrapers and the old buildings of Imperialist Moscow; the quaint and the ugly juxtaposed in a seemingly haphazard fashion but all uniformly grey and in a constant state of change. But everything looks ugly when one’s nervous; when one’s stomach is constantly churning over. However many times I made this fortnightly trip, familiarity never took away the dread. Every other Tuesday at ten at night, I crossed half of Moscow to keep my appointment. To keep my side of the bargain, I surmounted whatever obstacles were placed in my way – illness, the weather, transport difficulties – none of it could excuse me from my twice-monthly humiliation. I’d happy forgo the small amount of income this unpleasant duty affords me not to have to continue my sordid work. The headlamps of passing cars illuminated the steady drizzle. The streetcar trailed through the long, straight streets, passing the old squat houses, the uniform apartment blocks, the featureless offices, the occasional church. The time of night and the drizzle had emptied the streets save for the groups of beggars or “former people” heaped in doorways waiting to be evicted and moved on.
I opened my copy of Pravda. My eye was caught by an article about the arrest of an internationally-renowned chess player for anti-Soviet agitation who, only the month before, had been glorified for his triumphs against foreign opposition. Otherwise, the news consisted of the usual exalted statistics of fantastic production rates, of quotas exceeded, of technological advances – a new hydroelectric power station, the “biggest in the world!” Hail the Soviet experiment and let us compare and contrast with the evil capitalist empires and the plight of the working masses under the yoke of scheming exploiters. Here and there, mention was made of Comrade So-and-So arrested for bourgeois sympathy or for lacking vigilance against the enemies of the state. Another article glorified the extension of collectivisation – so many hundred kulaks exposed for lording it over the peasants and transported to some godforsaken place in the dustbin of Russia. It was all familiar fare but I tried to concentrate. Digesting Pravda on a regular basis was an important part of one’s routine, for one didn’t dare express an opinion until one knew where the newspaper stood on it. Whether it concerned foreign affairs, economic policy, or a review of the latest film, play or exhibition, it was essential to echo the newspaper’s sentiments. If Pravda criticised, you criticised; and if Pravda approved, you followed suit. And if Pravda hadn’t yet voiced an opinion, you kept quiet. People were too frightened to offer their own point of view for fear it didn’t correspond with the official line.
I alighted near Gorky Park, from where I walked the rest of the way. Wrapping a scarf over my head, I crossed the road and made my way down a darkened narrow side street, turning left and right into various other alleys, a maze of twisting streets hidden within the main boulevards, punctuated by the occasional square, many decorated with a fountain. The dimmed lights from the small windows provided the only source of light, the sporadic barking of a dog the only sound in an otherwise silent city. I looked at my watch – it was almost ten; my heart fluttered. As I strode on, my shoes echoing on the wet cobbled stones, I tried to rehearse my words, the text of my weekly report. I turned into a short alleyway and slowed down as I approached the house. From the outside, it seemed like any other private dwelling, four storeys high with numerous windows, mostly dark. I approached the front door and pressed twice on one of the many bells. The door swung open almost immediately. A tall, uniformed young man with shrewd, unblinking eyes glared at me for a second before stepping silently to one side to allow me in. The man then leant outside and peered up and down the street. Satisfied that I hadn’t been followed, he closed the door.
‘Go up, Comrade Rykov’s waiting for you,’ he said mechanically.
Without acknowledging him, I made my way up the stairs to the top floor and crossed the hallway, where I paused outside a door to catch my breath. I knocked and, upon hearing the tediously familiar voice from within, entered. The room, which I was so accustomed to, had obviously been a bedroom once, but had since been transformed into an office. A lamp shone brightly on the imposing mahogany desk, a desk incongruously large for such a limited space. Seated behind it was a clean-shaven, neat man in his late forties, his fair hair thinning almost out of existence exposing a heavily-lined forehead. A small pair of glasses magnified his eyes, giving them an owl-like appearance.
‘Maria Radekovna, how pleasant,’ he said, as if my appearance had been unexpected. He waved his hand by way of offering a seat. I sat down in the hard chair in front of his desk and glanced up at the framed portrait of Stalin on the sidewall. ‘How quickly two weeks comes around. Drink?’ I shook my head. ‘Be spring before we know it.’ He poured himself a vodka, his teeth bared under his curling smile. Despite his apparent neatness, his fingernails, I noticed, were dirty. His cordial greeting, the offer of a drink and a passing comment on the weather was all part of the routine. I waited for him to ask after Viktor. He took a swig of his drink and, leaning forward, looked at me earnestly. ‘So, how’s your brother?’
I thought of Viktor sitting limply all day in the armchair in the corner of their apartment, his eyes only occasionally registering my presence, uttering the sporadic half-sentence.
‘No better,’ I replied tonelessly.
‘Oh now, that is a shame.’
My answer and his response were always the same. It was as if the two of us were actors who met once a fortnight to perform lines in our very own play, a play without an audience and without an end.
Rosa had come to terms with her father’s dilapidated appearance but in a way I found rather callous. Rosa’s acceptance was borne out of avoidance. Instead, she busied herself with her studies and her new boyfriend, Vladimir. Within the walls of this very office, I had met Vladimir on numerous occasions but Rosa had no idea of my acquaintance with him. And for the sake of Rosa’s security, it had to remain a secret.
Rykov picked up a piece of paper. ‘Well I must say, Maria Radekovna, your report on the misgivings of the chap from the Technological Institute bore some fruit...’
I felt the tension in my head. I knew this meant that, on my say-so, some poor unsuspecting person had fallen victim to Rykov and his henchmen and had probably suffered dire consequences for uttering an unguarded word to me. Rykov continued, ‘Turned out to be a right deviationist. Of course he denied it, but eventually he came round.’ He stopped and smiled. ‘They all do in the end,’ he added. ‘So good work, thanks to you we’ve all been spared another bastard of the counter-revolution.’ I rubbed my eyes. Rykov smiled again. ‘Come, come, don’t look so perturbed, there’s no point getting all sentimental about it. It’s unpleasant work for a woman like you; I appreciate that, but think of what you’re doing. We are fighting a war, and our enemy is an internal one, one that doesn’t wear a uniform. We must always be vigilant; we can’t afford to spare the rod, not until our work is done.’
The words were depressingly familiar, more lines acted out in our personal piece of theatre. I couldn’t bear to look him in the eye and instead stared nonchalantly at the small bust of Lenin on his desk, which he used as a paperweight.
‘So then,’ said Rykov, ‘how are things, what sort of fortnight have you had?’
‘Anything new to report?’
It was the question I dreaded, especially when I felt that I did have something to report. Normally, I picked my victim carefully – someone I’d just met, people I didn’t really know. What I didn’t know about the person, I made up. At least that way, I was spared the crushing knowledge of the repercussions. The more distant the victim, the less the effect on my conscience – that was the theory. However, it rarely seemed to work. For if I didn’t know them, I knew someone who did. And then, sooner or later, I’d find out. I imagined the poor sap being woken up in the middle of the night by the dreaded knock on the door and hauled away in a Black Maria. I imagined the hysterical wife or the panicked husband, the bewildered children, the shattering of a family, of a life. But this week I had no casual acquaintance on whom I could report, no life to ruin.
‘I’m sorry, Comrade Rykov, this week I have nothing to report.’
Rykov eyes narrowed. An eyebrow rose. He spoke quietly, menacingly. ‘I think perhaps, Comrade Radekovna, you should try to rack your brain – surely there must be something.’
In the six months we’d been acting out this ritual, I had never dared come empty-handed. But surely, I thought, after over a dozen reports, twelve or more lives destroyed, he’d allow me the odd blank. I shook my head.
‘Did you not talk to anyone?’ Rykov was speaking quickly. ‘Did you not go out? Were you living a life of a hermit?’ He rose from his chair and came to stand next to me, hovering menacingly. ‘Yours is not a passive role, comrade,’ he said, now speaking slowly, quietly. ‘I don’t expect you to lie back and wait for things to happen.’ He ran his finger down the side of my face. The cold sensation of his touch caused me to shiver. ‘I need you to be active, Maria; to mingle, make new friends, find out where their loyalties lie. I thought you understood that?’
‘Oh but I do, Comrade Rykov, it’s just that – ’
‘So where’s your fucking report?’ he screamed, his fingers gripping tightly my cheeks, forcing my mouth open.
‘Please...’ I managed to say, panting from the shock as his fingers tightened.
‘What?’ His fingers fell away.
‘Please. I – I’m sorry, Comrade Rykov, I did s-speak to people but... but no one said anything incriminating. P-people are more enthusiastic these days, they have nothing bad to say.’
‘Don’t give me that bullshit,’ he shouted, spinning away from me. Pacing across his room, he continued. ‘More guarded perhaps, but nothing more than that. It’s not good enough, do you hear?’
‘Yes, yes, Comrade Rykov. I’m sorry, it won’t happen again.’
‘You assume I’m giving you a second chance?’ he shouted.
Of course I’d assumed. ‘Well, I...’ I didn’t know what to say, conscious only of the tightening knot in my stomach as he stood next to his desk, glaring down at me.
He sat back down with the expression of an exasperated parent. ‘You have failed me, Maria Radekovna. So what’s to stop me from sending your brother back? Hmm? Answer me that.’
‘But please, comrade,’ I said, catching my breath. ‘You know what state he’s in. He’d die if he merely stepped outside; he’s still suffering awfully. Please, I beg you... have a heart.’
‘Heart? Ha, bourgeois sentimentality. I have no heart when it comes to the enemy. Your brother was a wrecker.’ He slapped his hand against the desk. ‘A saboteur of the Five-Year-Plan. If it wasn’t for me, he’d still be languishing in Hell.’
I shook my head; I’d had this conversation too many times before. ‘He was innocent,’ I dared to mutter.
‘Innocent? That’s neither here nor there. Now, unless you want poor Viktor sent back, I’d suggest– ’
A knock on the door interrupted Rykov’s flow and a tall uniformed youth clutching a file stepped in, his height accentuated by the length of his leather coat. Barely a man but his blond hair was already receding, exposing large ears and a shiny expanse of forehead – a younger version of his boss, another Rykov in the making. On seeing me, he hesitated and then stopped. ‘Maria Radekovna,’ he said politely.
‘Vladimir,’ I said, trying to force a smile but pleased to see him.
His eyes, though bright blue, had already lost the radiance of youth, tinged as they were with a streak of ruthlessness that came with his job. He placed the file on Rykov’s desk. ‘The Technology Institute report you asked for, comrade sir.’
Rykov nodded without looking at his young assistant. He took the file, opened it, and scanned his eyes down the top page.
Vladimir shuffled from one foot to another, waiting for an instruction. He caught my eye and smiled weakly. I couldn’t reconcile the two faces of Rosa’s boyfriend. On the rare occasions we met, he behaved like any boy in front of his girlfriend’s aunt – courteous, shy and slightly awkward. But, according to Rykov, Vladimir was set for a meteoric rise through the ranks of the Secret Police – and surely, that could only mean one thing.
Rykov closed the file and placed it to one side. ‘Tell me, Vladimir Petrovich, are you still seeing something of the lovely Rosa?’
Vladimir blushed, his ears turning red. ‘Yes, comrade sir.’
‘And, Maria, surely, as a good aunt, it must bother you that your niece is seeing an employee of the NKVD. How much simpler it would be for you if your niece’s boyfriend was the librarian he tells her he is.’ He laughed. ‘A librarian! I take my hat off to you, Comrade Vladimir.’
Of course it bothered me; I hated it. And no matter how much Vladimir spoilt Rosa with trips to the theatre, the ballet or restaurants, I couldn’t disguise my distaste for my niece’s choice of boyfriend. I couldn’t even find solace in the thought that he was safe from arrest. Employees of the NKVD were as liable to be arrested as any other citizen.
Rykov continued. ‘You should see him at work. Unmerciful he is. Look at him, the long streak of piss – you wouldn’t credit it, would you?’ He looked up at the awkward youngster and winked at him. ‘So tell us then, have you fucked her yet?’
I gasped for breath, my fingers gripping my thighs. Vladimir shot me a mortified look. ‘This is my niece you’re talking about,’ I said.
Rykov’s mocking expression turned instantly grave, his nostrils twitching like a bull’s. Immediately I regretted my outburst. ‘And it’s your brother whose liberty is at stake here.’ He kept his glare fixed on me while addressing his assistant, ‘OK, Vladimir Petrovich, leave us now.’
‘Sir.’ Vladimir raised his eyebrows at me by means of apology and hurriedly left, closing the door gently behind him.
I trembled. ‘I’m sorry, Comrade Rykov. Please, I beg of you, don’t send Viktor back. Give me another chance.’ I’d have gladly fallen at his feet, licked his shoes, lifted my skirt, anything. Anything. And it wasn’t my sense of dignity that held me back – I’d lost that long ago – but the knowledge that Rykov must have seen it a hundred times before.