Tatiana and Alexander by Paullina Simons


Morozovo, 1943

THEY CAME FOR HIM a few hours into the night. Alexander, sleeping in the chair, was roughly shaken awake by four men in suits, motioning him to stand.

Slowly he stood.

“You’re going to Volkhov to get promoted. Hurry. There is no time to waste. We’ve got to get across the lake before it gets light. The Germans bomb Ladoga constantly.” The sallow man who was speaking in hushed tones was obviously in charge. The other three never opened their mouths.

Alexander picked up his rucksack.

“Leave that here,” said the man.

“Well, I’m a soldier. I always take my ruck with me if it’s all the same to you.”

“Have you got your sidearm?”

“Of course.”

“Let’s have that.”

Alexander took a step toward them. He was a head taller than the tallest. They looked like thugs in their drab gray winter coats. On top of the coats they had small blue stripes, the symbol of the NKVD—the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs—the way the Red Cross was a symbol of international empathy. “Let me understand what you’re asking me,” he said quietly but not that quietly.

“So it’s easier for you,” the first man stammered. “You’re wounded, no? It must be hard for you to carry all your gear—”

“This isn’t all my gear. These are just my few personal things. Let’s go,” Alexander said loudly, moving out from the side of the bed, pushing them out of his way. “Now, comrades. We’re wasting time.” It was not an even fight. He was an officer, a major. He couldn’t see their rank in their shoulder bars or demeanor. They had no authority until they were out of the building and took his away from him. This police liked to do its work in private, in the dark. They did not like to be overheard by barely sleeping nurses, by barely sleeping soldiers. This police liked it to seem as if everything was just as it should be. A wounded man was being taken in the middle of the night across the lake to get a promotion. What was so out of the ordinary about that? But they had to leave his gun with him to continue with the pretense. As if they could have taken it away.

As they were walking out, Alexander noticed that the two beds next to him were empty. The soldier with the breathing difficulties and another had gone. He shook his head. “Are they going to get promoted, too?” he asked dryly.

“No questions, just go,” said one of the men. “Quickly.”

Alexander had slight trouble walking quickly.

As he made his way through the corridor, he wondered where Tatiana was sleeping. Was it behind one of those doors? Was she there now, somewhere? Still so close. He took a deep breath, almost as if he were smelling for her.

The armored truck was waiting outside behind the building. It was parked next to Dr. Sayers’s Red Cross jeep. Alexander recognized the white and red emblem in the dark. As they got closer to their truck, a silhouette hobbled out from the shadows. It was Dimitri. He was hunched over his casted arm, and his face was a black pulp with a swollen protuberance instead of a nose—earlier courtesy of Alexander.

He stood for a moment and said nothing. Then, “Going somewhere, Major Belov?” His hissing voice placed special emphasis on Belov. It sounded like Beloffffff.

“Don’t come close to me, Dimitri,” Alexander said.

Dimitri, as if heeding the advice, took a step back, then opened his mouth and laughed silently. “You can’t hurt me anymore, Alexander.”

“Nor you me.”

“Oh, believe me,” said Dimitri in a smooth sweet-sour voice, “I can still hurt you.” And right before Alexander was pushed into the NKVD truck by the militia men, Dimitri threw his head back as if in studied delirium and wagged a shaking finger at Alexander, baring the yellow teeth under his bloodied nose and narrowing his slit eyes.

Alexander turned his head, squared his shoulders, and without even looking in Dimitri’s direction as he jumped into the truck, said very loudly and clearly and with as much satisfaction as he could get his voice to muster, “Oh, fuck you.”

“Get in the truck and shut up,” barked one of the NKVD men to Alexander, and to Dimitri: “Go back to your ward, it’s past curfew. What are you doing skulking around here?”

In the back of the truck, Alexander saw his two shivering ward mates. He hadn’t expected two other people, two Red Army soldiers, to be in the truck with him. He had thought it would be just him and the NKVD men. No one to risk or sacrifice except them and himself. Now what?

One of the NKVD men grabbed his ruck. Alexander yanked it away. The man did not let go. “It looks as if it’s hard for you to carry it,” he said, struggling. “I’ll take it and give it back to you on the other side.”

Shaking his head, Alexander said, “No, I’ll keep it.” He wrenched it from the man.


“Sergeant!” said Alexander loudly. “You’re talking to an officer. Major Belov to you. Leave my belongings alone. Now, let’s start driving. We’ve got a long way ahead of us.” Smiling to himself, he turned away, dismissing the man. His back didn’t hurt as badly as he had imagined: he was able to walk, jump up, talk, bend, sit down on the floor of the truck. But his weakness upset him.

The truck’s idling motor revved up and they began driving away—from the hospital, from Morozovo, from Tatiana. Alexander took a deep breath and turned to the two men sitting in front of him.

“Who the fuck are you?” he said. The words were gruff but the tone was resigned. He looked them over briefly. It was dark, he could barely make out their features. They were huddled against the wall of the truck, the smaller one wore glasses, the larger one sat, body wrapped in his coat, head wrapped in a bandage, and only his eyes, nose, and mouth showed. His eyes were bright and alert, discernible even in the dark, even at night. Bright perhaps wasn’t quite the right word. Mischievous. You couldn’t say the same about the smaller man’s eyes. They were lackluster.

“Who are you?” Alexander repeated.

“Lieutenant Nikolai Ouspensky. This is Corporal Boris Maikov. We were wounded in Operation Spark, on January fifteenth, over on the Volkhov side—we were housed in a field tent until we—”

“Stop,” Alexander said, putting his hand out. Before he continued with them he wanted to shake their hands. He wanted to feel what they were made of. Ouspensky was all right—his handshake was steady and friendly and unafraid. His hand was strong. Not frail Maikov’s.

Alexander sat back against the truck and felt for the grenade in his boots. Damn it. He could hear Ouspensky’s rattling breathing. Ouspensky was the one Tania had moved next to Alexander and put a tent around, the one with only one lung, the one who could not hear or speak. Yet here he was sitting, breathing on his own, hearing, speaking.

“Listen, both of you,” said Alexander. “Summon your strength. You’re going to need it.”

“For getting a medal?” Maikov said suspiciously.

“You’re going to be getting a posthumous medal if you don’t get hold of yourself and stop shaking,” said Alexander.

“How do you know I’m shaking?”

“I can hear your boots knocking together,” Alexander replied. “Quiet, soldier.”

Maikov turned to Ouspensky. “I told you, Lieutenant, this didn’t seem right, to be woken in the middle of the night—”

“And I told you to shut up,” said Alexander.

There was a bit of dull blue light coming in from the narrow window in the front of the truck.

“Lieutenant,” Alexander said to Ouspensky, “can you stand up? I need you to stand up and block the view from the window.”

“Last time I heard that, my quartermate was getting some blow,” said Ouspensky with a smile.

“Well, rest assured, no one is getting blow here,” Alexander said. “Stand up.”

Ouspensky obeyed. “Tell us the truth. Are we getting promoted?”

“How should I know?” Once Nikolai blocked the small window, Alexander took off his boot and pulled out one of the grenades. It was dark enough that neither Maikov nor Ouspensky saw what he was doing.

He crawled to the back of the truck and sat with his back against the doors. There were only two NKVD men in the front cabin. They were young, they had no experience, and no one wanted to cross the lake: the danger of German fire was ever-present and unwelcome. The driver’s lack of experience broadcast itself in his inability to drive the truck faster than twenty kilometers an hour. Alexander knew that if the Germans were monitoring Soviet army activity from their positions in Sinyavino, the truck’s leisurely speed would not escape their reconnaissance agents. He could walk across the ice faster.

“Major, are you getting promoted?” asked Ouspensky.

“That’s what they told me, and they let me keep my gun. Until I hear otherwise, I’m optimistic.”

“They didn’t let you keep your gun. I saw. I heard. They just didn’t have the strength to take it from you.”

“I’m a critically injured man,” Alexander said, taking out a cigarette. “They could have taken it from me if they wanted to.” He lit up.

“Have you got another one?” said Ouspensky. “I haven’t smoked in three months.” He looked Alexander over. “Nor seen anyone but my nurses.” He paused. “I’ve heard your voice, though.”

“You don’t want to smoke,” Alexander said. “From what I understand, you have no lungs.”

“I have one lung, and my nurse has been keeping me artificially sick so I don’t get sent back to the front. That’s what she did for me.”

“Did she?” asked Alexander, trying not to close his eyes at the image of Nikolai’s nurse—the small, clear-eyed bright sunny morning of a girl, the crisp Lazarevo morning of a sweet blonde girl.

“She brought in ice and made me breathe the cold fumes to get my lungs rattling and working. I wish she would have done a little more for me.”

Alexander handed him a cigarette. He wanted Nikolai to stop talking. He did not think Ouspensky would be particularly pleased to discover that Tatiana had saved him only long enough to be now sent into Mekhlis’s clutches.

Taking out his Tokarev pistol, Alexander got up, pointed at the back door and fired, blowing out the padlock. Maikov squealed. The truck slowed down. There was obviously some confusion in the driver’s cabin as to the source of the noise. Now down on the floor, Ouspensky was no longer blocking the window. Alexander had seconds before the truck stopped. Flinging the doors open, he pulled the pin out of the grenade, pulled himself above the roof of the creeping vehicle and threw the grenade forward. It landed a few meters in front of the truck’s path; seconds later there was a shattering explosion. He had just enough time to hear Maikov bleat, “What is that—” when he was thrown from the truck onto the ice. The pain he felt in the unhealed wound in his back was so jolting he thought his scars were tearing apart a millimeter at a time.

The truck jerked and began to rumble to a sliding stop. It skidded, teetered and fell sideways onto the ice, crunching to a halt at the ice hole made by Alexander’s grenade. The hole was smaller than the truck, but the truck was heavier than the broken ice. The ice cracked and the hole became wider.

Alexander got up and ran limping to the back doors, motioning for the two men to crawl to him. “What was that?” Maikov cried. He had bumped his head and his nose was bleeding.

“Jump out of the truck!” Alexander yelled.

Ouspensky and Maikov did as he commanded—just in time, as the front end of the truck slowly sank beneath the surface of the Ladoga. The drivers must have been knocked unconscious by the impact against the glass and ice. They were making no attempts to get out.

“Major, what the hell—”

“Shut up. The Germans will begin shooting at the truck in three or four minutes.” Alexander had no intention of actually dying on the ice. Before he saw Ouspensky and Maikov, he had had a small hope he might be alone, and would, after blowing up the truck with the NKVD men in it, make his way back to the Morozovo shores and into the woods. All of his hopes seemed to have this one common denominator nowadays: short-fucking-lived.

“You want to stay here and observe the efficient German army in action, or you want to come with me?”

“What about the drivers?” asked Ouspensky.

“What about them? They are NKVD men. Where do you think those drivers were taking you at dawn?”

Maikov tried to stand up. Before he could say another word, Alexander pulled him down onto the ice.

They weren’t far from the shore, maybe two kilometers. It was pre-dawn. The cabin of the truck was submerged and cracking a larger hole in the ice, large enough soon for the whole truck to fit through.

“Pardon me, Major,” Ouspensky said, “but you’re talking out of your ass. I’ve never done anything wrong in my entire military career. They haven’t come for me.”

“No,” Alexander said. “They’ve come for me.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

The truck was disappearing into the water.

Ouspensky stared at the ice, at the shivering, dumbfounded and bleeding Maikov, at Alexander, and laughed. “Major, perhaps you could tell us your plans for what the three of us are going to do alone on the open ice once the truck sinks?”

“Don’t worry,” said Alexander with a heavy sigh. “I guarantee you, we won’t be alone for long.” He nodded in the direction of the distant Morozovo shore and took out his two pistols. The headlights of a light army vehicle were getting closer. The jeep stopped fifty meters from them, and out of it jumped five men with five machine guns all pointing at Alexander. “Stand up! Stand up on the ice!”

Ouspensky and Maikov stood instantly, hands in the air, but Alexander didn’t like to take orders from inferior officers. He would not stand up and with good reason. He heard the whistling sound of a shell and put his hands over his head.

When he looked, two of the NKVD men were lying face down, while the other three were crawling to Alexander, rifles aimed at him, hissing, stay down, stay down. Maybe the Germans will kill them before I have a chance to, Alexander thought. He tried to make out the shore. Where was Sayers? The NKVD jeep was stationary, providing a convenient practice target for the Germans. When the NKVD men got very close, Alexander suggested to them that maybe they should get back inside their vehicle and return to Morozovo with all deliberate speed.

“No!” one of them yelled. “We have to get you across to Volkhov!”

Another shell whistled by, this one falling twenty meters from the jeep—the only transport they had to get either to Volkhov or back to Morozovo. Once the Germans hit their jeep, the cluster of men would last several unprotected seconds on the open lake against German artillery.

On his stomach, Alexander stared at the NKVD men on their stomachs. “You want to drive to Volkhov under German fire? Let’s go.”

The men looked at the armored truck that had carried Alexander. It had nearly gone below the surface of the water. Alexander watched with amusement as self-preservation battled it out with orders.

“Let’s go back,” said one of the NKVD. “We will return to Morozovo and await further instructions. We can always get him to Volkhov tomorrow.”

“I think that’s wise,” said Alexander.

Ouspensky was watching Alexander with amazement. Alexander ignored him. “Come on, all of you. On three. Run to your jeep before it’s blown up.” Aside from wanting to keep alive, Alexander wanted to remain dry. His life wasn’t worth much to him wet. He knew that whether he was in Volkhov or Morozovo he would get dry clothes when donkeys flew. The wet clothes would remain on his body until after they’d given him pneumonia and killed him, and still they’d be wet on his corpse in the March damp.

All six men crawled to the jeep. The three NKVD troops ordered the men to get into the back. Both Ouspensky and Maikov glanced at Alexander with considerable anxiety.

“Just get in.”

Two of the NKVD men got into the back with them. Ouspensky and Maikov breathed out in relief.

Alexander took out a cigarette and passed one to Nikolai and to white-faced Maikov who refused.

“Why did you do that?” whispered Ouspensky to Alexander.

“I’ll tell you,” said Alexander. “I did it because I just didn’t feel like getting promoted.”

Back on shore, the jeep proceeded to headquarters, passing a medical truck heading for the river. Alexander spotted Dr. Sayers in the passenger seat. Alexander managed a smile as he smoked, though he noticed the tips of his fingers trembling. It was going as well as could be expected. The scene on the lake genuinely looked like the aftermath of a German onslaught. Dead men on the ice, one truck down. Sayers would write out the death certificate, sign it, and it would be as if Alexander had never existed. The NKVD would be grateful—they preferred making their arrested parties invisible anyway—and by the time Stepanov learned of what had really happened, and that Alexander was still alive, Tatiana and Sayers would be long gone. Stepanov would not have to lie to Tatiana. Lacking any actual information, he himself would believe that Alexander, with Ouspensky and Maikov, had perished on the lake.

He ran a hand over his capless head and closed his eyes, quickly opening them again. The bleak Russian landscape was better than what was behind his closed lids.

Everybody won. The NKVD would not have to answer questions from the International Red Cross, the Red Army would pretend to mourn a number of downed and drowned men, while Mekhlis still had his paws on Alexander. Had they wanted to kill him, they would have killed him instantly. Those were not their orders. He knew why. The cat wanted to play with the mouse before he ripped the mouse to pieces.

It was eight in the morning by the time they got back to Morozovo, and since the base was coming to life and since they had to be hidden until they could be safely transported to unsafety, Alexander, Ouspensky and Maikov were thrown into the stockade in the basement of the old school. The stockade was a concrete cell just over a meter wide and less than two meters long. The militia ordered the three soldiers to lie flat on the floor and not move.

The cell was too short for Alexander; there was not enough room to lie down on the floor. As soon as the guards left, the three men crouched on the ground, drawing their knees up to their chests. Alexander’s wound was throbbing. Sitting on the cold cement wasn’t helping.

Ouspensky kept on at him. Alexander said, “What do you want? Stop asking. This way when you’re questioned you won’t have to lie.”

“Why would we be questioned?”

“You’ve been arrested. Isn’t that clear?”

Maikov was looking into his hands. “Oh, no,” he said. “I’ve got a wife, a mother, two small children. What’s going to happen?”

“You?” said Nikolai. “Who are you? I’ve got a wife and two sons. Two small sons. I think my mother is still alive, too.”

Maikov didn’t reply, but both he and Ouspensky turned to stare at Alexander. Maikov lowered his gaze. Ouspensky didn’t.

“All right,” said Ouspensky. “What did you do?”

“Lieutenant!” Alexander pulled rank whenever and wherever necessary. “I’ve heard enough from you.”

Ouspensky remained undaunted. “You don’t look like a religious zealot.”

Alexander was silent.

“Or a Jew. Or a skank.” Ouspensky looked him over. “Are you a kulak? A member of the Political Red Cross? A closet philosopher? A socialist? A historian? Are you an agricultural spoiler? An industrial wrecker? An anti-Soviet agitator?”

“I’m a Tatar drayman,” said Alexander.

“You will get ten years for that. Where is your dray? My wife would find it very useful for hauling onions from nearby fields. Are you telling me we were arrested because we had the fucking bad luck to be bedded next to you?”

Maikov emitted a whimper that bordered on a wail. “But we know nothing! We did nothing!”

“Oh?” said Alexander. “Tell that to the group of musicians and a small audience that used to gather in the early thirties for an evening of piano without clearing it first with the housing council. To help defray the costs of the wine, they would collect a few kopecks from each person. When they were all arrested for anti-Soviet agitation, the money they had collected was deemed to have gone to prop up the nearly extinct bourgeoisie. The musicians and the audience all got from three to ten years.” Alexander paused. “Well, not all. Only those who confessed to their crimes. Those who refused to confess were shot.”

Ouspensky and Maikov stared at him. “And you know this how?”

Alexander shrugged. “Because I, being fourteen, escaped through the window before they had a chance to catch me.”

They heard someone coming and fell quiet. Alexander stood up, and as the door was opened, Alexander said to Maikov, “Corporal, imagine your old life is gone. Imagine they’ve taken from you all they can and there is nothing left—”

“Come, Belov, let’s go!” shouted a stout man with a single-shot Nagant rifle.

“It’s the only way you will make it,” Alexander said, stepping out of the cell and hearing the door slam closed behind him.

He sat in a small room in the abandoned school, in a school chair, in front of a table that was in front of a blackboard. He thought at any minute the schoolmaster was going to come in with a textbook and proceed with the lesson on the evils of imperialism.

Instead two men came in. There were now four people in the room, Alexander in the chair, a guard at the back of the class and two men behind the teacher’s table. One man was bald and very thin with a long, thoughtful nose. He introduced himself kindly as Riduard Morozov. “Not the Morozov of this town?” asked Alexander.

Morozov smiled thinly. “No.”

The other man was extremely heavy, extremely bald and had a round bulbous nose with broken capillaries. He looked like a heavy drinker. He introduced himself—somewhat less kindly—as Mitterand, which Alexander found almost humorous since Mitterand was the leader of the tiny French “Resistance movement in Nazi-occupied France.

Morozov began. “Do you know why you’re here, Major Belov?” he asked, smiling warmly, speaking in polite, friendly tones. They were having a conversation. In a moment Mitterand was going to offer Alexander some tea, maybe a shot of vodka to calm him. Alexander thought of it as a joke, but oddly, the bottle of vodka actually did materialize from behind a desk, along with three shot glasses. Morozov poured.

“Yes,” Alexander said brightly. “I was told yesterday I’m getting promoted. I’m going to be lieutenant colonel. And no, thank you,” he said to the drink being offered to him.

“Are you refusing our hospitality, Comrade Belov?”

“I am Major Belov,” Alexander said, standing up and raising his voice to the man in front of him. “Do you have a rank?” He waited. The man said nothing. “I didn’t think so. You’re not wearing a uniform. If you had a uniform to wear, you would be wearing it. Now, I will not have your drink. I will not sit down until you tell me what you want with me. I will be glad to cooperate in whatever way I can, comrades,” he added, “but don’t sit there and insult me by pretending we’re the best of friends. What’s going on?”

“You’re under arrest.”

“Ah. So no promotion then? It only took you since four this morning. Ten hours. You have not told me what you want with me. I don’t know if you know yourselves. Why don’t you go and find someone who can actually tell me? In the meantime, take me back to my cell and stop wasting my time.”

“Major!” That was Morozov. The voice was less kind. The vodka, however, had been drunk by both men. Alexander smiled. If he kept them in the classroom drinking, they’d be leading him to the Soviet-Finnish border themselves, talking to him in soft English. They called him major. Alexander understood the psychology of rank extremely well. In the army there was only one rule—you never spoke rudely to your superiors. The pecking order was precisely established. “Major,” Morozov repeated. “Stay right here.”

Alexander returned to his chair.

Mitterand spoke to the young guard by the door; Alexander didn’t hear the individual words. He understood the essence. This was not only out of Morozov’s hands, this was out of his league. A bigger fish was needed to deal with Alexander. And soon the fish would be coming. But first they were going to try to break him.

“Put your hands behind your back, Major,” said Morozov.

Alexander threw his cigarette on the floor, twisted his foot over it, and stood up.

They relieved him of his sidearm and his knife and pillaged through his rucksack. Having found bandages and pens and her white dress—nothing worth removing—they decided to take Alexander’s medals off his chest, and they also tipped his shoulder bars and they told him he was not a major anymore and had no right to his title. They still hadn’t told him the charges against him, nor had they asked him any questions.

He asked for his ruck. They laughed. Almost helplessly, he glanced at it once, in their hands, knowing Tatiana’s dress was there. Just one more thing to be trampled on, to be left behind.

Alexander was taken to a solitary concrete cell with no window, no Ouspensky, no Maikov. He had no bench, he had no bed, and he had no blanket. He was alone, and his only sources of oxygen came from the guards opening the door, or from opening the sliding steel reinforced window on the door, or from the peephole they peered at him through, or from the small hole in the ceiling that was probably used for poison gas.

They left him his watch, and because they didn’t search his person they did not find the drugs in his boots. He had a feeling the drugs were not safe. But where to put them? Slipping off the boots, he took the syringe, the morphine vial and the small sulfa pills and stuffed them in the pocket of his BVDs. They would have to search more thoroughly than they usually did to find them there.

Bending reminded him of his sharply throbbing back, which, as the day wore on, felt as if it were swelling and expanding. He debated giving himself a morphine shot, then decided against it. He didn’t want to numb himself to what was about to come. He did chew one of the sulfa tablets, bitter and acidic, without crushing it, without asking for water. He just put it into his mouth and chewed it, shuddering with the swallow. Alexander sat quietly on the floor, realizing they couldn’t see him because it was so dark in the cell, and closed his eyes. Or maybe they had remained open; it was hard to tell. It didn’t matter in the end. He sat and waited. Had the day gone? Had it been one day? He wanted a smoke. He remained motionless. Had Sayers and Tatiana left? Had Tania allowed herself to be convinced, to be goaded, to be comforted? Had she taken her things and got into Sayers’s truck? Had they fled Morozovo? What Alexander wouldn’t give for a word. He was very afraid that Dr. Sayers would break down, not convince her, and she would still be here. He tried to feel for her up close, sensing nothing but the cold. If she were still in Morozovo, he knew that once they started interrogating him for real and once they knew of her, he would be finished. He couldn’t breathe thinking of her still so close. He needed to stall the NKVD for a little while longer until he knew for sure she was out. The sooner she left, the sooner he could give himself over to the state.

She seemed very close. He could almost reach for his ruck and feel for her dress, and see her, white dress with red roses, hair long and flowing, teeth gleaming. She was very close. He didn’t have to touch the dress. He didn’t need comfort. She needed comfort. She needed him so much, how was she going to get through this without him?

How was she going to get through losing him without him?

Alexander needed to think about something else.

Soon he didn’t have to.

“Idiot!” he heard from the outside. “How do you plan to observe the prisoner if he has no light? He could have killed himself in there for all you know. Stupid moron!”

The door opened and a man walked in with a kerosene lamp. “You need to be illuminated at all times,” said the man. It was Mitterand.

“When is someone going to tell me what’s going on around here?” said Alexander.

“You are not to question us!” Mitterand shouted. “You are not a major anymore. You are nothing. You will sit and wait until we are ready for you.”

That seemed to be the sole purpose of Mitterand’s visit—to yell at Alexander. After Mitterand left, the guard brought Alexander some water and three-quarters of a kilo of bread. Alexander ate the bread, drank the water, and then felt around the floor for a drain hole. He did not want to be illuminated. He also did not want to compete for oxygen with a kerosene lamp. Opening the bottom of the lamp, he poured the kerosene down the drain, leaving just a little left at the bottom that burned out in ten minutes. The guard opened the door and shouted, “Why is the lamp out?”

“Ran out of kerosene,” Alexander said pleasantly. “Have you got more?”

The guard did not have more.

“That’s too bad,” Alexander said.

He slept in the darkness, in a sitting position, in the corner, with his head leaning against the wall. When he woke up it was still pitch black. He didn’t know for sure he had woken up. He dreamed he had opened his eyes, and it was black. He dreamed of Tatiana, and when he woke up, he thought of Tatiana. Dreams and reality were mingled. Alexander didn’t know where the nightmare ended and real life began. He dreamed he closed his eyes and slept.

He felt disconnected from himself, from Morozovo—from the hospital, from his life—and he felt strangely comforted in his detachment. He was cold. That attached him back to his cramped and uncomfortable body. He preferred it the other way. The wound in his back was merciless. He grit his teeth and blinked away the darkness.

Harold and Jane Barrington, 1933

Hitler had become the Chancellor of Germany. President Von Hindenburg had “stepped down.” Alexander felt an inexplicable stirring in the air of something ominous he could not quite put his finger on. He had long stopped hoping for more food, for new shoes, for a warmer winter coat. But in the summer he didn’t need a coat. The Barringtons were spending July at their dacha in Krasnaya Polyana and that was good. They rented two rooms from a Lithuanian widow and her drunken son.

One afternoon, after a picnic of hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes and a little bologna, and vodka for his mother (“Mom, since when do you drink vodka?”), Alexander was lying in the hammock reading when he heard someone behind him in the woods. When he languidly turned his head, he saw his mother and father. They were near the clearing by the lake, throwing pebbles into the water, chatting softly. Alexander was not used to his parents talking quietly, so strident had their relationship become with their conflicting needs and anxieties. Normally he would have looked back into his book. But this quiet chatter, this convivial closeness—he didn’t know what to make of it. Harold took the pebbles out of Jane’s hands and brought her to stand close to him. One of his hands was around her waist. He was holding her other hand. And then he kissed her and they began to dance. They waltzed slowly in the clearing, and Alexander heard his father singing—singing!

As they continued to waltz, their bodies spinning in a conjugal embrace, and as Alexander watched his mother and father in a moment they had never had before in front of him and would never have again, he was filled with a happiness and longing he could neither define nor express.

They drew away from one another, looked at him, and smiled.

Uncertainly he smiled back, embarrassed but unable to look away.

They came over to his hammock. His father’s arm was still around his mother.

“It’s our anniversary today, Alexander.”

“Your father is singing the anniversary song to me,” said Jane. “We danced to that song the day we were wed thirty-one years ago. I was nineteen.” She smiled at Harold.

“Are you going to stay in the hammock, son? Read for a while?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Good,” said Harold, taking Jane by the hand and heading with her toward the house.

Alexander looked into his book, but after an hour of turning the pages, he could not see or remember a single word of what he had just read.

Winter came too soon. And during the winter on Thursday evenings after dinner Harold would take Alexander by the hand and walk with him in the cold to Arbat—the Moscow street vendors’ mall of musicians and writers and poets and troubadours and old ladies selling chachkas from the days of the Tsar. Near Arbat, in a small, smoke-filled two-room apartment, a group of foreigners and Soviet men, all devout communists, would meet for two hours from eight to ten to drink, smoke and discuss how to make communism work better in the Soviet Union, how to make the classless society arrive faster at their doorstep, a society in which there was no need for the state, for police, for an army because all grounds for conflict had been removed.

“Marx said the only conflict is economic conflict between classes. Once it’s gone, the need for police would be gone. Citizens, what are we waiting for? Is it taking longer than we anticipated?” That was Harold.

Even Alexander chipped in, remembering something he had read: “‘While the state exists, there can be no freedom. When there will be freedom, there will be no state.’” Harold smiled approvingly at his son quoting Lenin.

At the meetings Alexander made friends with sixty-seven-year-old Slavan, a withered, gray man who seemed to have wrinkles even on his scalp, but his eyes were small blue alert stars, and his mouth was always fixed in a sardonic smile. He said little, but Alexander liked the look of his ironic expression and the bit of warmth that came from him whenever he looked Alexander’s way.

After two years of meetings, Harold and fifteen others were called into the Party regional headquarters or Obkom—Oblastnyi Kommitet—and asked if the focus of their future meetings could perhaps be something other than how to make communism work better in Russia since that implied it wasn’t working quite so well. After hearing about it from his father, Alexander asked how the Party knew what a group of fifteen drunk men talked about once a week on Thursdays in a city of five million people. Harold said, himself quoting Lenin, “‘It is true that liberty is precious. So precious that it must be rationed.’ They obviously have ways of finding out what we talk about. Perhaps it’s that Slavan. I’d stop talking to him if I were you.”

“It’s not him, Dad.”

After that the group still met on Thursdays, but now they read aloud from Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? or from Rosa Luxembourg’s pamphlets, or from Marx’s Communist Manifesto.

Harold often brought up the approval of American communist supporters to show that Soviet communism was slowly being embraced internationally and that it was all just a matter of time. “Look what Isadora Duncan said about Lenin before she died,” Harold would say and quote: “‘Others loved themselves, money, theories, power. Lenin loved his fellow men…Lenin was God, as Christ was God, because God is love, and Christ and Lenin were all love.’”

Alexander smiled approvingly at his father.

During one full night, many hours of it, fifteen men, except for a silent and smiling Slavan, tried to explain to a fourteen-year-old Alexander the meaning of “value subtraction.” How an item—say shoes—could cost less after it was made than the sum total value of its labor and material parts. “What don’t you understand?” yelled a frustrated communist who was an engineer by day.

“The part of how you make money selling shoes.”

“Who said anything about making money? Haven’t you read the Communist Manifesto?”


“Don’t you remember what Marx said? The difference between what the factory pays the worker to make the shoes and what the shoes actually cost is capitalist theft and exploitation of the proletariat. That’s what communism is trying to eradicate. Have you not been paying attention?”

“I have, but value subtraction is not just eliminating profit,” Alexander said. “Value subtraction means it’s actually costing more to make the shoes than the shoes can be sold for. Who is going to pay the difference?”

“The state.”

“Where is the state going to find the money?”

“The state will temporarily pay the workers less to make the shoes.”

Alexander was quiet. “So in a period of flagrant worldwide inflation, the Soviet Union is going to pay the workers less? How much less?”

“Less, that’s all.”

“And how are we going to buy the shoes?”

“Temporarily we’re not. We’ll have to wear last year’s shoes. Until the state gets on its feet.” The engineer smiled.

“Good one,” Alexander said calmly. “The state got on its feet enough to cover the cost of Lenin’s Rolls Royce, didn’t it?”

“What does Lenin’s Rolls Royce have to do with what we’re talking about?” screamed the engineer. Slavan laughed. “The Soviet Union will be fine,” the engineer continued. “It is in its infancy stages. It will borrow money from abroad if it has to.”

“With all due respect, citizen, no country in the world will lend money to the Soviet Union again,” said Alexander. “It repudiated all of its foreign debt in 1917 after the Bolshevik Revolution. They will not see any foreign money for a long time to come. The world banks are closed to the Soviet Union.”

“We have to be patient. Changes will not happen overnight. And you need to have a more positive attitude. Harold, what have you been teaching your son?”

Harold didn’t reply, but on the way home he said, “What’s gotten into you, Alexander?”

“Nothing.” Alexander wanted to take his father’s hand, like always, but suddenly thought he was too old. He walked alongside him, and then took it anyway. “For some reason, the economics are not working. This revolutionary state is built foremost on economics, and the state has figured out everything except how to pay the labor force. The workers feel less and less like proletariat than like the state-owned factories and machines. We’ve been here over three years. We just finished the first of the Five-Year Plans. And we have so little food, and nothing in the stores, and—” He wanted to say, and people keep disappearing, but he kept his mouth shut.

“Well, what do you think is going on in America?” Harold asked. “Thirty per cent unemployment, Alexander. You think it’s better there? The whole world is suffering. Look at Germany: such extraordinary inflation. Now this man Adolf Hitler is promising the Germans the end of all their troubles. Maybe he will succeed. The Germans certainly hope so. Well, Comrades Lenin and Stalin promised the same thing to the Soviet Union. What did Stalin call Russia? The second America, right? We have to believe, and we have to follow, and soon it will be better. You’ll see.”

“I know, Dad. You may be right. Still, I know that the state has to pay its people somehow. How much less can they pay you? We already can’t afford meat and milk, not that there is any, even if we could. And will they pay you less until—what? They’ll realize they need more money, not less, to run the government, and your labor is their largest variable cost. What are they going to do? Reduce your salary every year until—until what?”

“What are you afraid of?” Harold said, squeezing Alexander’s reluctant hand. “When you get big, you will have meaningful work. You still want to be an architect? You will. You will have a career.”

“I’m afraid,” said Alexander, extricating himself from his father, “that it’s just a matter of time before I am, before we all become nothing more than fixed capital.”

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