Authors: D. R. Bell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Financial, #Spies & Politics, #Conspiracies, #Political, #Historical Fiction, #Russian, #Thrillers
Yakov ponders things for a while.
“Sometimes you do a physical experiment, and the results neatly fit one theory. Then you do another experiment, and the first theory does not look like such a sure thing, while some of the seemingly random data points in the first set don’t look so random. Your description looks entirely logical. But when I combine it with the events of the last few days, I am not so sure. You may want to recheck some assumptions back in America.”
He gets up.
“I am sorry. It’s late for an old guy like me. Let’s sleep on it. As a Russian proverb goes, ‘Morning is wiser than evening.’ Good night.”
Once he leaves the room, Anya says, “So where are your kids now? You have a boy and a girl, right?”
“Yes, Simon and Jennifer. They are both at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Jennifer just finished her first year, Simon is a year ahead.”
“Why are they so far away from you? Don’t you have great colleges where you live?”
“My father-in-law went there and pushed really hard for them to follow. Plus, California’s year-round sunshine was hard to pass on.”
“Is your breakup hard on them?”
“On Jennifer, yes. Fortunately, she was in college already. Simon, he grew distant a while ago. Tell me about David.”
“His father’s name is Jim Morton; he was in Moscow with the American-funded Reconstruction and Development Bank back in the 90’s. He has a wife and two daughters back in New York, I am not sure he ever plans to leave them. Jim comes here on business once or twice a year; I don’t think his wife even knows about his son. It’s his clothes you are wearing.”
“Don’t you want more?”
“Jim helps financially,” Anya stops, looks down at her hands pinching folds of her skirt. “Yes, I would have wanted more. But I no longer expect it from him. Meanwhile, I have David. I hope Jim will eventually gather up the courage to officially accept his son. I teach physics, I never had the same brilliance that my father and you share, but I am good at teaching. And, all the spare time I have goes to my son and my father. It’s a quiet life.”
She gets up, too. “I can’t stay up too late; I share a bedroom with David. I made you a bed on the living room’s sofa, let me show you.”
In the living room, I sit down on the sofa and without thinking take Anya’s hand and try to draw her to me.
She gently removes her hand. “Pavel, I survived you twenty years ago, I am at peace now. You can’t go back in time. Please don’t start something you are not ready for.”
She leaves, and I silently grieve over the old hurt I inflicted – and Yakov’s words about losing my way hurt more than he knew.
Saturday, June 10
My inner clock is somewhere in Western Europe for when I get up the sun is high up in the sky. Between bad dreams and an uncomfortable bed, I woke up a few times during the night. I make my way to the kitchen wearing Jim Morton’s PJ’s. To my surprise, everyone is there.
“What’s wrong?” asks Anya seeing my befuddled expression.
“Well, I thought David would be in school by now.”
“Pavel, today is Saturday.”
Of course. I lost track of days. I pour myself a cup of strong black coffee.
Yakov looks at me expectantly. “So, is your morning wiser than the last evening?”
“I think so, thanks to you.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I will head back to New York and try to check on few things.”
Yakov nods. “I figured you would.”
Anya asks, “Do you want to stay for a day or two, see some old friends?”
“No, I want to figure it out if possible; I can’t rest until I do. Besides, what friends do I have here besides you?”
I don’t explain that after what Pemin told me, I am weary of staying in Russia. I did not tell them about Pemin’s insinuation. With my father being an investigator, I’ve heard too many stories about people being framed and disappearing into the Gulag. Perhaps things have changed, but I don’t want to tempt the fate.
“I wager he’ll be back,” smiles Yakov.
Anya drives me to the Sheremetyevo Airport. I am back in my washed and dried out clothes, the backpack is on my lap.
“Did you say that Jim Morton lives in New York?”
“He works in New York for an investment bank, lives somewhere in the suburbs.”
“Have you been to New York?”
“No. I hope to take David there one day.”
She pulls in front of the terminal, leans over to kiss me on the cheek. “I hope it’ll be less than twenty years before I see you again. Be careful.”
I get out of the car, close the door and stand there looking at her. She pulls away from the curb without looking back.
The next flight to New York is on Delta. I use my U.S. passport to get a ticket. This being Saturday, the flight is not completely booked, and I get an aisle with an empty seat next to me. I wonder about paying all the credit card bills I am running up, but that’s a worry for the later. I am anxious about being prevented from leaving the country, keep glancing over my shoulders. But nobody bothers me and I board the plane without further adventures.
The flight is not full, but noisy, with a quite a few kids. Must be some well-to-do Russians heading on vacations to the exotic U.S. of A. Karen and I have had our share of long flights with the kids, and I am sympathetic to frazzled parents trying to keep up. Thankfully, there are no loud neighbors in adjacent seats: an older woman in the window seat puts on an eye mask and goes to sleep soon after the takeoff, while a teenager boy across the aisle is totally engrossed in his computer. I am still jet-lagged and tired, it’s midnight in New York, and I try to nap.
The plane is somewhere over the ocean when I come to. I reach into the overhead compartment and get the diary out of my backpack. I never expected that my father would have a diary. Perhaps we just can’t picture our parents as young people. At least I have never thought of my father at seventeen. I take a deep breath: he was not a talkative person and I feel like I am about to open a box full of secrets. I feel a knot in my stomach.
18 August, 1941
My name is Vladimir Rostin. Mother gave me this diary notebook today, on my 17
birthday. She bought it in May, before the war. She knows I want to be a writer like Maxim Gorky or Arkady Gaidar, she thought keeping a diary would help me to develop my writing skills. I was going to apply to study literature at the Leningrad State University, but I may have to wait until the next year. Now I can capture the events of the war here in Leningrad, and make them into a book after we defeat the Nazis.
My father, a newspaper editor, signed up with the Fourth People’s Volunteer Division and left for the front earlier. I was not home, I was mobilized to dig defensive trenches and did not have a chance to say good bye. I want to volunteer for the same division. I hope the war will last long enough for me to join him, but I doubt it will. Radio reports say that we are inflicting very heavy casualties on the Nazis and when they are all exhausted, we’ll go on counterattack all the way to Berlin.
At home it’s me, my mother Svetlana, and her father, my grandfather Viktor. My mother is a musician, grandfather retired. He is spending all his time going around the city, trying to buy food. Mother laughs at him, but he just says, “During the war, the most important thing is to have food.”
We live in a communal apartment on Liteyniy Prospekt, near the center of the city. Two other families, Monastev’s and Leontsev’s, live in the apartment; we share the kitchen and the bathroom. Monastev’s have a mother and two daughters, Nastya, 16, and Serafima, 8. Their father has been called to the war. Leontsev’s have only the mother and Andrei, 5. Andrei’s father has been arrested two years earlier, without the right of correspondence. It’s crowded sometimes, but we mostly get along. Yesterday I bumped into Nastya on the stairs, she smiled and asked me how I am doing. Like a fool, I mumbled something and ran, jumping stairs two at a time. Then I was thinking about her, but I should be thinking of defeating the Germans instead.
I have to go now, mother is calling. I will continue later.
My mother’s name was Nastya, is it her? My parents never told me how they’ve met. Perhaps they were neighbors?
My elbow takes a direct hit from a food cart, and the attendant apologizes profusely. I tell her it’s my fault for sticking it out into the aisle. She insists on making amends and offers a drink of my choice. I don’t want to refuse a free drink and opt for scotch.
My heart is sick with thoughts of my father as a young boy not understanding the hell that is about to be unleashed on his family and his city.
10 September, 1941
I was sent to dig trenches again. This time we dug them only a few kilometers from the city. We were sleeping on the ground, cold, dirty, hungry. And then the German planes attacked. Two people on my right have been killed, a boy of 16 and an older woman. On September 3
, an officer came and told us to get out, go home. It took me a day to walk back. At home, there is food rationing. We, as dependents, get only 300 grams of bread a day.
Two days ago, there was a big air raid. I was on the roof; it’s my responsibility to extinguish incendiary bombs. Then suddenly a huge cloud started to grow, it turned bronze and black, a giant fire. In the morning people said the Germans bombed the Badayev warehouses where all the city food has been stored, and now the food is gone. I can’t believe it, I am sure the government did not have all the food in one place. Later that day, a man from the building came back from the front. He was in the Fourth People’s Volunteer Division, like my father. He did not see my father, but said very few survived because on August 11
they counterattacked with old rifles against German tanks, and most volunteers have been mowed down. Then the NKVD secret police came and took the man away.
We gather around the radio when we can. Poetess Olga Berggoltz is reading poetry every day, mother really likes her. She wrote down some of the verses:
I speak with you to the sound of exploding shells,
Lit up by eerie fires.
I speak with you from Leningrad,
My country, my heartbroken country.
When there are no news announcements, music, or poetry reading, the station turns on the sound of metronome: “click…click…click.” The soft rhythm is soothing, like a sound of a beating heart.
People are saying that the city has been completely encircled and no supplies can come in. We have to break the encirclement. This morning, I volunteered for the army. The enlisting officer was from our block, he knew me and told me I am not old enough. I protested that I am big for my age. He looked at me, wrote something down on a piece of paper, and told me to go to the
station on Suvorovskiy Prospekt and give the message to Ivan Mershov. I did as told and found militzia’s officer Mershov. Mershov read the message and told me he’ll enlist me into the
starting tomorrow. “This way you’ll at least have a bigger ration,” he said. So starting tomorrow I will be a
man. My mother was upset that I signed up for a dangerous job, but glad that at least I was not sent to the front. She is crying all the time now, thinking that my father is dead. But I still have hope.
I remember the name Mershov, someone like that was at my parents’ birthday parties when I was a child. I can vaguely recall the face, but I don’t think his name was Ivan and he was not older than my father.
1 October, 1941
The rations have been cut again today, 400 grams for workers, 200 grams for dependents. We are hungry all the time. Thankfully, my grandfather Viktor managed to buy and store some food when it was still available. He rations it, saying it will be a long winter.
I am now a regular
, doing patrols around the city. Mershov paired me with an old
named Makar. Makar is always grouchy, a real curmudgeon. I carry an old heavy rifle, I did not get to fire it yet. There are always rumors of German spies in the city, and we have to be on a lookout. Yesterday an old woman came to us pointing at a tall man wearing a green jacket and screamed: “Arrest him, he must be a spy, he is wearing a foreign green jacket!” The poor man turned pale, but Makar just replied: “Be quiet, you old fool! If we start shooting everyone wearing a colorful jacket, there will be no people left in the city.” The man came over to thank us.
My mother has been visiting hospitals, hoping to find my father there. She did not, but she’s met a wounded man that saw him on the morning of August 11
. He said that very few from the Fourth People’s Volunteer Division have survived.
A few days ago, poetess Anna Akhmatova gave a speech on the radio. Mother was listening, then started crying, “She is Russia’s greatest poetess and they persecuted her for years, would not allow publishing her work.” She did not say who “they” were.
The Monastev’s received the news that their father has been killed near Pskov, back in July. All this time they were hoping for his return, and he was no longer.
My mother told me that her father was killed in the army, early in the war. The Nastya in the diary must be her.
14 October, 1941
We killed a man today. Makar and I have been on patrol when we heard screams from the direction of the bakery. We ran there and saw people from the bread line screaming at a man in a long fur coat. Another patrol was already there. They searched the man and found dozens of ration cards; he must have been stealing them. Makar and another
pushed him against the wall and shot him. People from the bread line rushed to pick the coupons lying on the ground, but Makar gave a warning shot in the air, then picked up and tore the coupons.
It’s getting colder every day. Grandfather Viktor is now mostly lying in bed covered by blankets. Just a few weeks ago, he was a robust man, but these days his yellowish face is tired and drawn, covered by a grey beard. When he gets up, which is infrequent, he moves carefully, with enormous effort. Grandfather used to read, now he just listens to the radio. Mother is giving concerts to wounded soldiers in hospitals. She is getting weaker. We all are getting weaker. It’s not only the cold and the hunger. Sounds of falling bombs, exploding shells, the fear…they all wear you down.
26 October, 1941
Grandfather died. We were not home when it happened. I was on patrol, my mother working in a hospital. He was lying in bed, all skin and bones. When we lifted the blanket, his left hand was clutching a bag full of dried up bread. Turns out for weeks he’s been starving himself, saving much of his ration for us. He probably hid the bag on the side of the bed and with his last strength got it out today, making sure we don’t miss it. I started crying. My mother hugged me and said “He is not suffering anymore, he escaped.” But I saw that she cried silently.
We had to take him to the cemetery. Snow is covering the ground, and I went to Leontsevs to borrow Andrei’s sled. Andrei’s mother looks like a ghost. Much of the wallpaper is gone from their walls - they scraped off the paste because it’s edible. But their apartment is warm, they have a little
stove that they feed with their books. I gave them a potato for the use of the sled. Mother and I wrapped Viktor into a white linen and took him to the cemetery. We walk slowly, and it took us three hours.