Authors: D. R. Bell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Financial, #Spies & Politics, #Conspiracies, #Political, #Historical Fiction, #Russian, #Thrillers
Father has been moody for the past couple of months. I can sense that mother is being careful around him, see her using his diminutive name, cook his favorite dishes. She says, “Volodya, you did what you had to do. It was the best for Pavel. You can’t help…” Her voice trails off.
My father replies quietly, measuredly: “No, Nastya, I can’t. But it still hurts. And now the bastards are invading again.”
“Who is invading?” I ask. “The French?” I had just read about the War of 1812; we are sitting in front of the Kutuzov’s statue, and I am anxious to demonstrate my knowledge.
“Nobody is invading, Pavel.” Mother hugs me. “Your father misspoke. Volodya, tell him you misspoke.”
My father is silent, his face severe. Years later, I figured he must have been referring to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia: half a million soldiers from the Soviet Union and its allies occupied the country to stop the “Prague Spring” reforms. The rest of the conversation is still unclear to me.
I cross Green Bridge over Moika River and admire colorful boats full of tourists. When I lived here, the official name was People Bridge, but no self-respecting inhabitant of the city would call it that. I stop to admire the Stroganov Palace: the facade has been transformed from a neglected, dilapidated dark green shadow to a light pink Baroque beauty, probably as Bartolomeo Rastrelli originally intended back in the 18th century. The Stroganovs were the Russian counterparts of the Dutch and English merchant adventurers and empire builders. Since the reign of
Ivan the Terrible
, they were the richest businessmen in Russia. It was the Stroganovs that crossed the Ural Mountains and started the Russian
conquest of Siberia
Peter the Great
elevated them into the Russian nobility. Funny how things turn out, now they are primarily remembered for Beef Stroganoff.
The Nevskiy ends, and I continue down the Palace Square Road. On my right, the expansive Palace Square. In the history books of my youth, it was primarily mentioned when describing how the heroic revolutionary masses in 1917 crossed the square to storm the palace. In truth, there was no great masses or battles, it was a simple
where the Bolsheviks occupied government buildings without much struggle. The Winter Palace was defended by cadets and an all-female battalion who offered no resistance. The Red Guards broke into the palace, looted parts of it, and arrested the provisional government. Obviously, this was not glorious enough so a politically correct version of “storming the palace” has been created in films and books. As Orwell put it, “He who controls the present controls the past.” The coup may have been bloodless, but what followed was certainly not. Grabbing power can be easy, governing is the hard part.
The red granite Alexander Column rises in the middle, with the Winter Palace behind it. The Admiralty’s golden spire is soaring to my left, fronted by the Alexander Garden.
I walk to my former school, hiding in a non-descript building in the shadow of the Admiralty. I don’t know what favors my parents called on to enroll me here, in a “gifted children” school, right in the middle of Peter’s city. While taking classes, my eyes would wander to the Peter and Paul fortress across the river, to the spit of Vasilievskiy Ostrov. Sometimes I would skip a class and go to the Hermitage or visit the Bronze Horseman just a few minutes away or, in my senior year, sneak out with one of the girls to the Alexander Garden and practice kissing.
My father rarely came to the school; it was my mother’s job to keep up with my grades and teachers. I do recall him coming once, when I was thirteen. Some big party official showed up to speak that day. I remember because it was soon after Nixon resigned, and people were whispering trying to understand: How is it that the Americans forced their own president out? The big party cheese explained to us that in America they had a “palace coup” where one group of capitalists overpowered the other, that it had nothing to do with their constitution. And of course this can never happen here because our government represents all the people, not some capitalist clique. Americans were right to criticize Nixon because he was a scoundrel. We are also free to criticize our government, but only as long as the criticism is true. Because if your criticism is not true, then it’s a lie, and we punish people for lying. The big party official finished by saying that we, the students, were fortunate to grow up in our truly democratic country led by the Party and that we should always follow the Party’s direction because that’s the only way to a bright future. Everyone got up and applauded. Afterwards, I asked my father what he thought of the speech.
He looked at me and said, “Pavel, remember, you and only you are responsible for your actions, what you will or won’t do, where you will draw the line.”
The old grouch could not even give me a normal answer. Only years later, when I was already in Moscow, I understood what he was saying. It was lies, lies, lies that they were feeding us. Lies from our teachers, in our textbooks, in our newspapers, on TV, from our leaders. Lies that those in power tell in order to stay in power. Lies designed to make us follow them rather than to think for ourselves. I was angry at my father because he knew it was lies but he did not tell me. I think that’s what eventually made me so angry – foolishly believing the lies until it became impossible to do so. Most other kids must have figured things out in their teens and had learned to live within the system. They were that much better adjusted. I was the village idiot who became angry when I realized my own stupidity.
The Neva draws me like a magnet; I continue onto the embankment. It’s late. The golden spires of the Admiralty and the Fortress shine through the pale light of white nights. The white nights give the city its enchantment, immersing it in twilight from dusk to dawn. But the city pays for this during the cold, dark days of winter when long shadows of towering buildings threaten the human ants scurrying around in the snow.
The river flows for only forty miles, but its power creates a tapestry of islands. No hills here like in Paris or Rome, just flat land barely above the water level. Why did Peter the Great pick this spot? Take all the accepted rules for choosing the right location for a city, turn them on their head and you’ll get this place. No fresh water, no agricultural land, annual flooding, no hills, no trees. The city rose on the bones of its builders. Peter’s will was destiny, turning swamps into an imperial city. But behind the grandeur there was poverty and despair.
I follow the Neva to the right, along the embankment, past the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul Fortress watching me suspiciously from the other side of the river. I make my way to the Fields of Mars. People are swarming around, young, tourists, or both, celebrating the white nights. Many are drunk. From the bushes come sounds of laughter and muffled sex. The government has changed, the economic system changed, but some things remain as they were in my time here.
My mother loved coming to Letniy Sad, the Summer Garden. In June, it’s green and lush, with statues guarding it from the shadows. Here, too, one should be careful to not step on a couple. I meander down narrow paths until I find an empty bench and sit down to think. Pemin was right, the apartment is worth a lot of money – does this mean I am the main suspect now? Something about the encounter with Vakunin and Pemin did not feel right: My father was a tough investigator who did not bow to anyone, but even he would have not ordered a
Major around the way Pemin did to Vakunin. Where is my father’s computer? Where is his will? I can’t imagine someone as organized as him wouldn’t leave one. Why would he let somebody into the apartment that early in the morning? And if the
found his body at 8 a.m., how come Vakunin was calling me on my new, unpublished cell phone number just three hours later? Perhaps the St. Petersburg
has become more efficient, but to move so quickly over the death of an old man? Why were they taking care of funeral arrangements? Why was Pemin so anxious to find out when my father last spoke with me?
I go back to the voicemail: “
You remember how she used to always worry that you don’t eat enough, send you food?”
My father was not a sentimental man; this question just did not fit. Was there a hidden meaning? When I was studying in Moscow State University, my mother would indeed send me food. But she did not want to send it directly to the university, rightfully not trusting for the parcel to arrive to me intact. She would send it to a post office on Lomonosovskiy Prospekt, about 10 minutes away. I would go and pick it up there, and then, without telling her, still share with my roommates.
Is this it? Did my father send me something to that post office? Was he afraid that someone was listening and communicated in a way that only I would understand? Or am I falling victim to that Russian curse of looking for a deeper meaning in everything, and my father was just reminiscing about the past? I have to go to Moscow to find out. I look at my watch, it’s past midnight, time to head back.
Walking through a milky twilight, I think of Sarah. It’s funny, but when Karen, Sarah, Martin, and I went out, people often thought that Sarah and I were one couple and Martin and Karen were the other. Must have been the way we were bantering and laughing at each other’s jokes. It felt guilty like I was lying, hiding something. But there was nothing to hide, except for an accidental touch that took a bit longer than necessary or an occasional sideway glance and a quick turn when caught. I remember one time two years ago when our hands brushed against each other, lingered for a moment and there was that electric spark between our fingertips before we pulled them back. Once, after a party, I gathered the courage to call their house but hung up after two rings. We never crossed the line. Karen still picked up on it, said once with a touch of jealousy, “You like Sarah, don’t you?”
I shrugged. “Sure, she is funny.”
Sarah is different from Karen: while Karen is a serious, calm and stately blonde, Sarah is a lithe brunette, full of nervous energy, always ready to laugh.
Her lovemaking was also different from Karen’s: greedier, more aggressive, as if she wanted us to merge into a single being. We did not even make it to her bed at first. Sarah cried quietly afterwards but would not tell me why.
When I get to the apartment, I go through the files and the books again, searching for the will without success. I prepare my small backpack for an overnight trip. Then I remember my father’s diary and take it as well, together with the most recent photo of his.
Friday, June 9
When I was a child, I used to sleep on a folding couch in the living room. In the morning, the couch would be folded into a kind of recliner chair, except that it wouldn’t recline. After I left for Moscow, the folding couch was replaced with a sofa. I could not bring myself to stay in the bedroom, so I tried to sleep on the sofa, with little success. I was tossing and turning as the northern light of white nights seeped through the windows. I must have fallen asleep at some point, because my travel alarm woke me up at 8 a.m. I wash up, put on my suit, white shirt and a tie, and go downstairs to the already familiar
for coffee and a cake. When I come back up, Lieutenant Govrov is patiently waiting by the door.
We get into the same Lada, drive a block on the Nevskiy, then turn right onto the main Sadovaya Street. Traffic is heavy and people outside are walking with purpose, hurrying to their jobs. We turn right again, drive by the circus, and cross Belinski Bridge over Fontanka.
I ask, “Which cemetery are we going to?”
“Piskariovskoye memorial cemetery,” replied Govrov.
“What?” I can’t hide my surprise. “I did not think they buried people there now; it’s a memorial to the victims of the blockade of Leningrad.”
“Generally, they don’t have new burials there. But your father was in the city during the whole siege, and he served as a soldier defending Leningrad.”
My parents did not like to talk about the siege and would change the subject when I tried asking them about it.
“We’ve been trying to find your mother’s grave but could not,” guiltily admits Govrov.
“She did not want to be buried. She wanted her ashes to float to the sea.”
We turn left onto Liteyniy Prospekt, cross the Neva, and continue along the embankment until we come to the Piskariovskoye Prospekt. I am taking in the view of my native city and thinking that only Paris can possibly compare.
We park at the entrance gate. I’ve only been here once, 30 years ago, on a school trip. Even for horsing around teenagers this was a solemn site. Now, the thought of over half a million people buried here shocks me. We quietly go by the eternal flame, and by the mounds of mass graves, Beethoven’s music playing. Just before reaching the sculpture of the Motherland, we turn to the left. I follow Govrov down a winding path until we come to a birch grove. A few people are there already, surrounding a freshly dug grave. A hearse is parked on the side.
A man approaches and introduces himself as Petr Saratov. “I had the pleasure of knowing your father,” he says. With sunken cheeks, deep-set eyes, and thin bluish lips, the man looks like a skull with skin stretched tight over it. With this appearance, I expect his voice to sound solemn and grave. Instead it’s high-pitched, as if he is straining his vocal cords. Since he seems to be in his early 30’s, I wonder how exactly he knew my father, but don’t have a chance to ask as others come up to introduce themselves. An orthodox priest is there, which surprises me as my father was decidedly not a religious man. Vakunin and Pemin show up together, and that seems to be the sign to start.
Vakunin and another man make speeches, the siege of Leningrad is brought up a number of times, at some point a reference is made to my father raising a “brilliant young scientist,” and all eyes turn to me. Vakunin whispers whether I want to say a few words. I shake my head. We lower the coffin, and soon the ceremony is over, people start shaking my hand and leaving. To my surprise, Zorkin is here. I ask him how he knew my father, and he replies: “I am a resourceful man. And very interested in the apartment.” A man with a cane, in his seventies, tries talking to me, but Vakunin gently pushes him to move on, saying “Anton, don’t bother Pavel Vladimirovich, he must be awfully tired.” The old man hesitates, then obediently moves on, but not before giving me a sorrowful look. He looks vaguely familiar.
Vakunin continues, “Pavel Vladimirovich, the department will put up a memorial stone with a star, your father’s name, and the years 1934 – 2006. Let me know if you want something different.”
“It’s 1924, not 1934” I automatically correct him.
“But of course, I misspoke.”
Vakunin moves on. Pemin also says goodbye, and it’s just me, Govrov, and a freshly covered grave.
I stand in front of it, trying to comprehend what just happened. Heart-wrenching loneliness momentarily overcomes me. Govrov carefully taps me on the shoulder. “Pavel Vladimirovich, would you like me to take you back to the apartment?”
“Yes, please, let’s go back to the apartment.”
At the apartment, I change into jeans, a T-shirt, and a comfortable jacket. I deliberate for a minute whether I should have created some cover story, but it’s too late for that. I grab my backpack and run out. Instead of going through the main entrance to the building, I sneak into the courtyard, find an open door in one of the neighboring buildings and come out onto Karavannaya Street. I look around, don’t see anyone paying attention to me, turn left and briskly walk to Manezhnaya Square, figuring I’ll find taxis there. I am right, a few private taxis are parked there. I go to the first one in line, show him a $20 bill and say “Pulkovo One.”
As we make our way to the airport, I wonder if I will be arrested there and brought back as a primary suspect trying to escape. At the airport, I buy a ticket for the next Aeroflot flight to Moscow, exchange $200 into rubles, and get a quick lunch all the while nervously checking things around me, expecting a tap on the shoulder. But my shoulder is not touched, and I board the Airbus, squeeze into my middle seat, and breeze a sigh of relief as we take off. I try to take a nap for the duration of the short, just over an hour, flight.
We are approaching for landing from the East, over distant suburbs and green fields. From my window seat, I can see Moscow proper in the distance. Moscow and St. Petersburg, the two poles of Russia. One dates to a small 12th century fortress built by Prince Yuri Dolgoruki. Two hundred years later, after the Mongolo-Tatar devastation, Moscow emerged as the leading Russian city, sometimes by its leaders aligning with the Tatars to subdue the city’s rivals. All’s fair in love, war, and politics. From the victory over the Mongol-Tatar forces in 1380, Moscow’s reach grew and grew, primarily to the East, until it reached China’s borders and the Pacific Ocean. Moscow – the “Third Rome,” the “Second Constantinople,” the defender of the Orthodox faith, protecting it from “barbarians” in the East and in the West. As the Russian monk Filofey wrote in 1510, “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will be no fourth.”
Until the upstart in the north rose out of empty marshes. St. Petersburg: majestic, imperial, haughty. Proclaiming that Russia’s future was not in the footsteps of Constantinople and Byzantium, not in Asia, but in Europe. Peter the Great wanted St. Petersburg to be the beginning of new, European Russia.
And for two hundred years the upstart reigned, Moscow relegated to a noisy, dusty has-been. But the city that Peter founded as a leap of faith became a capital of mammoth bureaucracy. In the end, Russia rejected this implant in favor of its natural focus in Moscow. And then the curtain fell between Russia and the West.
Two cities, three tzars: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin. Should it be Stalin the Murderous? Three tzars that fought to modernize Russia, each in their own way. All left behind fields filled with the bones of their subjects, not caring how many had to die in their cause. All ruled with an iron fist, believing that their ends justified the means. All, directly or indirectly, killed their own, flesh-and-blood, sons. All fought with Europe: one was defeated, one victorious, the last one got his tanks all the way to Berlin.
As we land in the Domodedovo Airport, I am again anxious, expecting to be stopped. But no one bothers me as I make my way outside to the taxi line. This time I have to splurge $90 for the ride, but after an hour and a half in heavy traffic, I get to the post office on the Lomonosovskiy Prospekt only twenty minutes before it closes.
I look around, don’t see anyone following me, then I head in. I wait in line, get to the window, show my Russian passport. The indifferent woman behind the glass goes inside and comes back with a thick manila envelope addressed to me. I recognize my father’s handwriting. With a trembling hand, I sign off for the package, stuff the envelope into the pocket of my backpack, zip it and leave.
In a hurry to make it to the post office, I had made no plans for my stay in Moscow. I debate for a minute whether to try and fly back to St. Petersburg, but decide that this will be too much for one day. I should find a hotel, eat, read the materials that my dad sent, and hopefully get a good night sleep. Not seeing taxis nearby, I recall that there is a hotel on the Leninskiy Prospekt a short distance from here.
There are not many pedestrians, and I walk briskly. A group of two men and two women walk toward me, laughing. They stop and loudly argue about where to go eat. The sidewalk is narrow, and I try to get around them on the building side when a strong arm loops around my neck from behind, squeezes, and the lights go out.