|Jan/Feb 2011 Fiction|
And grimacing dumbly, you writhe,
Look back, feebly, with cruel jaws,
A creature, once supple and lithe,
At the tracks left by your paws.
—Osip Mandelstam, The Age
March 1, 1953, 4:00 a.m.
I won't be around to finish this, but there shouldn't be any doubt how it will end. The real question is how you managed to escape—so far—the very fate that I'm going to suffer. For that, you can thank my old friends Khrushchev, Beria, Malenkov, and Bulganin.
The four of them were here last night at my dacha. We had spent the early part of the evening at the Kremlin watching a cowboy film (High Noon, starring Gary Cooper) and after it was over I invited them back to Blizhnaya for a late meal. We ate and drank until nearly dawn. I should say that they ate (although my appetite for power continues to be insatiable, my interest in food has waned of late) and they drank, prodigiously. I have never been much of a drinker, preferring light Georgian wine to headier stuff, like vodka. What's more, I have always had a professional interest in listening to tongues loosened by alcohol, and last night was no exception.
What I heard disturbed me.
Actually, it was what I didn't hear that made me fear for my life.
Throughout the evening, Lozgachev and Matrena Butuzova kept my four friends' glasses filled. Every dinner of mine always ends in a tutorial for my guests, something my four friends knew from long and often personally painful experience. For this reason, they usually began a dinner evening with me tentatively, sipping at their vodka rather than tossing it back in the Russian style. Consequently, I would have to engage them in a drinking game to get them to speed up. My favorite game was to guess at the temperature outside the dacha. The penalty for guessing wrong was to drink a full glass of vodka for each degree that the guess was off the mark. Last night, I didn't need to order anyone to play drinking games. My four friends were availing themselves rather generously of my liquor supply.
The most amazing part is they appeared to get more sober the more they drank.
What's going on here? I thought. Just at that moment, Lozgachev brought a plate of herring to the table and set it down in front me. No, no, I said, pointing at Khrushchev. Nikita first. The old Ukrainian bear took a piece of the gristly Russian herring from the plate and bit into it without the slightest hesitation. Hmmm-hmm good, he said. I asked him to pass the platter around to the others, and the herring was almost gone by the time it got back to me. I picked at the herring with a fork. I was sure it wasn't poisoned, but I had lost my appetite.
Bring me some mineral water, I said to Lozgachev. I preferred my Georgian wine, but I wanted to stay as sober as my four friends. What's more, I feared that one of my guests might have put some poison in the wine. This was an irrational fear, and quite unfair to my friends, because I always had Lozgachev taste the wine as soon as he had uncorked it, just as I always had one of my guests sample the food before I ate. Still, the ancient Romans believed that the most effective way of killing someone with poison was by drugging someone's wine. My fruity Georgian wine might mask the lethal under taste of arsenic or cyanide. At least with the water, I might be able to tell the difference.
As Lozgachev brought the water, I tried to engage my comrades in conversation about the movie we had watched that evening. What did you think of Bolshakov's translation? I said. Our print of the movie didn't have any subtitles, and it was Bolshakov's job as Minister of Cinematography to translate the film out loud.
Beria laughed. His English must be as bad as his Russian, he scoffed, because I didn't understand a single word he said.
Khrushchev and Bulganin snickered. Malenkov lowered his head, suppressing a guffaw. My comrades knew, as I did, that Bolshakov didn't know any language other than Russian (not even Georgian), and that his translation was based on a one-paragraph summary of the movie's plot that he had to enact for us as the movie unfolded. The effect was often as comical as a Chaplin film, although it typically made less sense.
I looked Beria straight in the eye. Well, then, I said, I guess you missed the whole point of the movie.
No, no, Comrade Stalin, Beria sputtered. The point of the movie is... that Americans are mindless conformists.
It's true that Americans are conformists. But that's not what the movie is about! I slammed my fist hard upon the table. No, no, Comrade Beria, the movie is about a marshal, a leader, a keeper of the law, who is morally compelled to face a returning enemy, a deadly enemy, only to discover that his comrades refuse to help him. I looked past Beria at Khrushchev, Bulganin and Malenkov. High Noon, my dear comrades, is about loyalty and betrayal. That's what the movie is about.
Although I didn't explicitly say so, it was the whole point of our night together, too.
I turned forcefully back to Beria and put my nose a few inches from his face.
Tell me, comrade, have the killer doctors confessed to Zhdanov's murder?
Beria removed his pince-nez spectacles and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Our leader, their confessions are imminent, he said.
They are Jew spies, I spat, and the longer it takes to bring them to justice the worse it will be for our Party, our people and ourselves. You know what the Ministry of State Security discovered about that traitor Varfolomeyev and his ties to the American capitalists, Jewish capitalists like DuPont, who have the American generals in their hip pockets. Varfolomeyev said they were planning to blow up the Kremlin by firing nuclear devices from the windows of the American embassy. It started with the doctors who killed Zhdanov and it won't end until they destroy all of us. Look at you, blind men, kittens, I said to the four of them. You don't see the enemy. What will you do without me?
A smile curled on Beria's face when I said that, and I shivered with rage. I wanted to wipe that smile off Lavrentiy's face then, and I wanted to do so as violently and as cruelly as possible. I probably would have, too, had I not been suddenly overcome by the pounding in my temples, the loud and irregular beating of my heart in my chest.
No, no, Leader, Beria said to me calmly, reassuringly. They'll confess. With the help of patriots like Timashuk, we'll complete the investigation and come to you to ask for permission to arrange a public trial.
Bulganin, Malenkov and Khrushchev nodded agreement in the background.
Well, then arrange it, I snapped.
Later, after I had grown tired of berating them and sent them home, after I had retired to my little dining room and closed the doors and lay my tired old body on my divan, I thought about the evening and what I had heard and didn't hear.
I heard the usual sycophantic coos, the patently obvious attempts to curry favor.
I heard whispers when my back was turned, sounding raspy like a file and prickly as a knife.
I didn't hear sincerity in Beria's voice when he told me that the doctors would confess to their crimes.
I didn't hear much at all from fat Georgy Malenkov. Georgy, who was always eager to talk, even when sober, and who had said practically nothing at all the entire evening, notwithstanding all the vodka he drank.
Come to think of it, neither Nikolai Alexandrovich Bulganin nor Nikita Khrushchev had much to say either.
Nikita, always on guard, Nikita, who napped in the afternoons so he could stay awake and remain alert on the evenings he spent in my company, not only had nothing to say, but even allowed his eyes to droop, sleepily and contentedly, as if he had found peace and were about to lay his head down on the table. At one point, I thought about ordering him to get up and dance the Gopak, a Ukrainian folk dance that requires the dancer to squat down on his haunches and kick out his heels. It would have been amusing to see the arthritic old lumbering bear dance the Gopak once again, but, for whatever reason, I didn't ask him to do it. Perhaps I feared that he might display more energy than I thought possible, and then I would worry about what dastardly thought had innervated him.
The silence that was most disconcerting to me was Nikolai Alexandrovich's. Of the four friends, I liked him the best. With his receding hairline and white Vandyke beard, he reminded me of Lenin.
My beloved Lenin. When he died, I had him embalmed and put on display in a mausoleum like one of those Christian saints whose bodies, bones and locks of hair are preserved in a sacristy. Lenin, of course, was an atheist and would not have been amused by his sarcophagus. His wife, Nadya, upbraided me for turning him into an object of almost religious veneration. All I can say is that it seemed expedient at the time to show the world a mourning Stalin. I was there, at the head of the procession that led from the house in Gorki where he died to the place in Red Square where we interred him. The earth was covered with a thick blanket of snow and the air was bitterly cold, like the soul when all the heat has gone out of it. Trotsky, whom Nadya would have picked as her husband's successor if she had had her way, was nowhere to be seen. He later maintained that I had given him the wrong date for the funeral, but, if you ask me, Leon never really knew the time of day. In fact, he was late for his own funeral by more than 24 hours, the blow that Ramon Mercader delivered to his skull failing to kill him instantly, as it should have, if Mercader had not closed his eyes when he struck Trotsky with his ice axe. Leon's last words were, I will not survive this attack. Prescient fellow to the very end.
But of Lenin, I must tell you that the man who told the Congress in his last Testament that I was too rude a fellow to succeed him was not the same Lenin who telegrammed Penza in 1918 that he should find some truly hard men and hang the bloodsucking kulaks who plundered the poor and battened on famine. No, the Lenin of the Last Testament, which the Congress (fortunately) never got to read, was another man entirely. Actually, he was more of a woman than a man, an old woman weakened by reliance on his little herring, as he called the cold fish he had married. I once called her a syphilitic whore, and there may have been some truth to that, if Pavlov was right about the cause of Lenin's death. In any event, my rebuke to her was earned: against medical advice, she cozened the life out of him after the second of his four strokes by talking about things she had no business talking about at all, like who might be the best to succeed him. Nadya had not earned an opinion on that subject, and Lenin was in no mood to discuss it, having confided to me that he would like to take his own life if the paralysis that had crippled his right arm spread to other parts of his body. In this business, Lenin wanted me, the rude and unpleasant fellow, the truly hard man, to be his accomplice. He asked me once to poison him with potassium cyanide, but I refused. My loyalty was rewarded with a letter in which he chastised me rather bitterly for slurring his wife's reputation by calling her a whore. Lenin demanded an apology, and I gave him one. Nadya was no whore. Truth be told, it had been years since she had allowed any man, Lenin included, between her legs. Perhaps for this reason, he turned to Inessa Armand for comfort. Oh, I would like to kiss you a thousand times, he wrote to her on the eve of World War I, which he foresaw, but rude, unpleasant Stalin will not comment on the eroticism of a man whose passions were aroused by thoughts of trench warfare and mass graves.
Nadya, of course, outlasted him and his passions. But she did not outlast me. In 1939, on her seventieth birthday, she choked on a piece of cake I had sent her as a present. Rumor has it that the cake was poisoned, but if you ask me, I think Nadya simply couldn't stomach a gift from me. And so, she died, gurgling on her own vomit, her own black bile.
Something is wrong. Perhaps it is all this talk about succession and successors; perhaps it is because my postmortem of the evening tells me that my would-be successors, my four fine friends, are not afraid of me anymore. Whatever. Something is wrong, palpably wrong. I feel it right here in the pit of my stomach. It manifests itself in a desire to heave. I reflexively bring my hand up to my mouth, and watch the blood drip from my nose onto my fingers.
Something is very wrong. Blood drips from my fingers onto the tunic of my uniform, white like the one I wore to the Potsdam Conference, but without the starred epaulets at the shoulder tips. It's just a nosebleed, I tell myself as I tilt my head back to staunch the flow. At exactly that moment, I remember the smarmy little smile on Beria's lips and the room suddenly goes tipsy. The world is rotating round me, like planets around the sun. I try to stop the dizzying, free-falling sensation and lift myself from the divan, first with my left arm, the useless one, and when that fails, I try with both, releasing the fingers that had been pinching my nostrils and pushing hard on the divan with my right hand. Blood drips from my nose onto the pink fabric and I can hear myself grunt from the exertion of trying to rise from the divan, but it is no use, standing up is impossible. I find myself falling back, falling back into the world, into the room, into the divan, my legs going all rubbery and fluid, my body becoming liquid, like water swirling down a drain. Just before I vanish, I notice the glass of mineral water sitting on my nightstand, the soft wash of color at the bottom of the glass, blue like the sky or like a robin's egg. I reach out to touch it, to bring it to my mouth and eat it, then everything—me, the room, the divan and the glass of water—rises up like a wave and crashes hard on the shores of my consciousness. The last thing I remember is the sound, muffled and cautious, of a plot hatching.
March 1, 1953, 10:00 a.m.—Intermetamorphosis
Where to begin? With the performance of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi or the pictures of wolves' heads I sketched on a pad a little less than 24 hours ago? Back then, the floor was solid beneath my feet, and the air merely conductive. Now, everything cracks and shakes, and the air trembles with similes. So wrote Mandelstam in one of the greatest masterpieces of the Russian language, of any language, Mandelstam who gave his life for a poem, not the masterpiece, but another one, just sixteen lines in length. Nothing to die for really. Mandelstam's death was simultaneously my finest piece of work, and the most criminal. It shows how suffering both elevates the soul and crushes it. But let us leave that lesson for another time, if there is one. Instead, let's start with Kirov.
I mean Zhdanov, of course. There are so many parallels between their lives and careers that my confusion is understandable.
Both men were born in the same year. Both were committed Marxist-Leninists. Kirov served the Party as a youth by printing revolutionary literature. Zhdanov served the Party by redefining literature, for it was Zhdanov who described writers as the engineers of the human soul and did so without the slightest intimation of irony. I once asked Pasternak what he thought of this phrase and he looked at me thoughtfully for a long time before he rather sheepishly replied that he would use his talent someday to leave a human portrait of me, which in retrospect he never did. Unlike Pasternak, Kirov and Zhdanov understood that the production of souls is just as important, if not more so, than the production of tanks. This perhaps explains their rapid rises through the ranks, and their popularity with the crowd, although, if you ask me, I think the masses were more taken with their appearances than with their intellects.
Both men were rather good-looking, much better looking than me.
After their deaths, I renamed their birthplaces after them.
An assassin shot Kirov in the back of the head. Zhdanov got out of bed to go to the bathroom and died of a heart attack. Okay, the parallels do not extend to the manner of their death, other than the facts that both of their deaths are a mystery and foul play may have been involved in each man's demise. Strike that. Foul play was definitely involved (Zhdanov's death was no mere potty accident, but was hastened by others, as Timashuk observed), and just as Comrade Stalin brought Kirov's killer to justice, not to mention all of his many accomplices, so too he will get to the bottom of Zhdanov's death and unmask those who were responsible.
A newsreel film of the funeral plays in my head. Dum-dum-duh-dum-dum-duh-dum-dum-dum-dum da. MS of the coffin being borne out of the Cathedral where it had been lying in state. CU of the pallbearers carrying the coffin, Comrade Stalin nearest to the camera. WS of the mourning crowd. Angle shot of Soviet leaders on stone dais. MS crowd listening. CU head shot woman crying. CU Stalin holding up his hand.
LS guns firing salute. MS coffin being lowered into grave. CU widow looking on. CU head shot widow's tears. LS guns firing.
MS shot soldiers marching. CU Stalin holding up his hand. MS military band in parade, pan to back view. CU portrait of Kirov/Zhdanov, surrounded by flowers.
My memory of the funeral is so real I can almost smell the flowers. Then I remember that I am remembering a newsreel, and the air becomes all stale and putrefied, like wilted petals in a vase. I pick at a dried spot of blood on my tunic. Who will come to my funeral? I wonder. Who will bury me? Khrushchev, Beria, Bulganin and Malenkov, of that I have no doubt. My four so-called friends are double-dealers, hypocrites and spies, and I will ensure that none of them succeeds me.
I am about to ring Lozgachev for my tea and page Poskrebyshev to order their arrests, when I remember that I have already replaced Poskrebyshev with Malenkov for the crime of having studied medicine in his youth. I am puzzling over what to do when I notice something move behind the drapes. Perhaps it is Kirov's assassin Nikolayev, or someone like him, come to aim his Nagan revolver at me, or perhaps it is just the rustling of the wind through an open window. Ending the speculation, a small dark shadow suddenly darts out from the drapes and scurries into a far corner of the room. It appears to be a rat (perhaps it is the one Hamlet mistook Polonius for), but it is difficult to see in the pallid morning light filtering through the partially opened drapes.
I wonder if one of the laboratory animals Lozgachev uses to test my food has escaped. Come here, Laverty, I say to it, but the creature does not move. I reach to turn on the light on the stand next to my divan when a tremor suddenly seizes me. My arm shakes in an uncontrollable frenzy, knocking the glass of mineral water from the stand, its blue liquid dribbling onto the hardwood at my feet.
The rat, if that is what it is, looks up at me, its red eyes glowering. Comrade Beria, I say to it. Is it you?
Even in the bad light, the creature's resemblance to my NKVD head is unmistakable. The beady eyes, the long curved claws. What do you see in our eyes? I ask it. The shrieking iron? The flame hurled through still heavens? But, like Beria (like you, too, maybe), the rat lacks a poetic soul, and it misses my allusion entirely.
Instead of engaging me in conversation, the rat nibbles on a carpet thread. Then it notices the liquid pooling at my feet, and suddenly lunges in my direction. I pull my old white legs back onto the divan, feeling the pain in my right arm increase. Underneath me, the rat greedily laps up the water on the floor.
Ahhh, it says, with a burp, like Beria after dinner, or, I imagine, after sex, when he has finished raping one of the women he has had his security men pick up in his limousine, take back to his soundproofed Moscow apartment, and strap, face down, upon the floor. Imitating Beria after coitus, after his NKVD men have taken his victim away, the rat, having finished convulsing, sniffs the air, its nostrils dilating, before rolling over on its back, where it rests, feet up, bloated and satisfied.
All right now, enough of these theatrics, I say to the creature after a minute or two have passed. But nothing happens. The rat does not move. I drum my fingers against the nightstand. Still nothing. I try hammering out one of those annoying little compositions by Shostakovich, one of the ones that led to his second denunciation by Zhdanov, but the rat doesn't bear me any mind. Finally, I decide that genuine action is warranted. Slowly, very slowly, I lower a toe and jab it in its side. I withdraw my foot quickly, so fast I almost knee myself in my chin, all the while expecting the rat to bite into my calf. But there is no bite: the rat just continues to lie there on the floor. A thin trail of drool leads from its mouth onto the hardwood.
You're not Beria at all, I say to the dead thing on the floor. Just another Kirov, another Zhdanov, another, another... another Stalin?
March 1, 1953, 6:00 p.m.—Fregoli Delusion
Am I Stalin or a man thinking he is Stalin? It is not an entirely frivolous question. To the contrary, it is a very serious epistemological one. It goes to the basic issue of identity, of who one is really. There is a story that one of the prisoners who were liberated from the Bastille was a lunatic who variously believed that he was either Julius Caesar, Louis IX or even God. Upon his release from the Bastille, this prisoner, a feeble old Irishman with a beard a yard long, was proclaimed a hero of the Revolution. Imagine his thoughts as he was carried through the streets of Paris on the backs of his liberators to the boisterous cheers of an adulating crowd. He must have thought that he really was God, or at least his lieutenant on earth.
As the story goes, a sympathetic citizen gave the Irishman shelter for the night, and after the citizen went to sleep, the Irishman pillaged his home. The following day, he was locked up again—not in the Bastille, but in a lunatic asylum in Charenton, where he was to spend the rest of his days. The point of the story, I guess, is that he really was crazy after all, although, judging from the Terror that followed in the wake of the Revolution, one may ask who was crazier, the old Irishman or his French brothers outside the asylum walls.
Evidence that I am Stalin:
• I have pockmark scars on my face, the legacy of the smallpox I suffered as a child, and a withered left arm that I incurred when I was run over by a horse-drawn carriage on the streets of Tiflis when I was six
• My Georgian accent betrays the fact that I did not learn to speak Russian until I was 10
• In short, I look and sound like Stalin—in fact, I bear a close resemblance to the Stalin on the posters that one sees everywhere in the Soviet Union, except that I am not as large or as imposing as the man in the posters (did I mention that I wear lifts in my shoes?)
• People address me as Stalin
• I believe in Marx and Lenin and not God
• People seem to fear me
Evidence that I am a pretender:
• I bear only a superficial resemblance to the man in the posters. (As I said, my face is pock-marked and I am very short)
• People call me Stalin because that is what I call myself—in fact, the very name Stalin is made up, a coinage derived from the Russian word for iron
• I never met Marx and neither Lenin or God exactly believed in me
• Khrushchev, Malenkov, Bulganin and Beria weren't exactly shaking in their boots last night
The evidence, on balance, I would say is mixed. Perhaps my conviction that I am Stalin is some form of lunacy.
DeWitt, the Irish lunatic who believed he was God, ending up sharing a cell in Charenton with the Marquis de Sade. Imagine their conversations. De Sade was a fanatical atheist, his description, not mine. He once wrote that anything beyond the limits or grasp of the human mind is either illusion or futility, yet he spent his life testing limits and probing the dark recesses of his own all-too-human mind. Perhaps he and DeWitt had something in common after all. They met initially in the Bastille, where de Sade had been imprisoned for attempting to poison several prostitutes with the aphrodisiac Spanish fly. At the Bastille, de Sade shouted revolutionary slogans from the windows of his cell, inspiring the storming of the prison and DeWitt's sudden elevation to the status of a god. (De Sade was not present when the Bastille was stormed, having been transferred to Charenton ten days earlier, nor did he see the adoring crowd bearing DeWitt on their shoulders). But surely, de Sade could not have denied DeWitt's facticité, as they say in French, or that he believed in his own divinity. Conversely, DeWitt must have realized that de Sade was God's own creation. I believe their conversations at Charenton may have inspired de Sade to write Justine, the misadventures of a 12-year old girl who suffers rape, torture and eventual death because she fails to realize that the deity she worships is evil.
It occurs to me that there is not just one Stalin, but several.
There is the Stalin who was born Joseph Vissarionovich Djugashvili, the son of a cobbler, wife and child beater, and notorious drunk. Sometimes, my dreams are haunted by a thin dark figure wearing a peaked cap, a tightly belted black Circassian coat, and baggy trousers tucked into high unpolished boots. Black eyebrows shadow his eyes and a thick black mustache droops over his sneering lips, covering the ludicrous smile on his face. What do you have to smile about, Crazy Beso? The thrashings you gave me? Thrashings so hard I pissed blood for days afterward. I may have become a drunken beast like you (instead of the sober one I am now) had I not fallen seriously ill.
The smallpox saved me from you. It left me with a face like a pineapple, and fevered nightmares of the sweat-soaked bed where I lay blistered and boiling one minute, freezing cold the next, with nothing but scabs for a bedcover, but it saved me from an apprenticeship at the Adelkhanov Shoe Factory and the kerosene smell of the low-lit cellar lamps, the fetid almost fecal reek of animal skins and tanning leather. Even today, I can almost smell the tannin on my hands, the bating dung in my nostrils, and I can almost understand your need for the cleansing taste of vodka in your throat.
There is the Stalin whom everyone called Soso, the Georgian name for Joe, the fragile child whose real father was a priest named Charkaviani or a police chief named Davrickewy or a wrestler named Egnatashvili or any of a number of other men who slept with the virgin whore who was my mother. Keke was her name and she encouraged me to believe that Beso was not my real dad. You're nothing like him, Soso, she told me, nothing like him at all. She reminded me constantly that I got my eyes from her—amber like her hair, but with more than a hint of black in them—and she wanted me to be a priest. She also told me that I had the hidden strength of a wrestler (this is when I was suffering from the smallpox) and that she needed me to police the unruly soul that was my father.
I know only that I later studied at seminary, with Father Charkaviani's help, and that my boyhood friend, Josef Davrickewy, called me his half-brother. I know that I once felt such a bond with Koba Egnatashvili that I took his first name as my own, and that I trusted his family so much that I made his son Sasha—Sasha the Rabbit—my food taster before Lozgachev served in that role. But I do not know if there was any truth at all in the stories my mother told me about her lovers.
One memory gives them a hint of credibility. I remember once being in her garden. I was playing soldier when my mother lured me to her side with a rose, a beautiful red rose. I recall that I dropped the wooden stick I was using as a sword and reached out to take the flower into my small hand and smell it. As I did, my mother unbuttoned her blouse and exposed her tits. Which would you prefer, little Soso, she asked me, the rose or my breast? I remembered pricking my finger on a thorn on the rose's stem as I looked up at her in amazement. My mother took my finger into her mouth and sucked the blood from it before she cradled me to her bosom.
Did I invent my mother's shamelessness or my father's cruelty? Is everything about me made up? Later in my life, I told everyone that I was a shoemaker. Besoshvili—Son of Beso—I called myself. Indeed, there was a time when I admired my father. His life was all rebelliousness, and I thought he was a peasant hero. He could be kind, too, not always the brutish lout. Sometimes at night he let me taste wine from his fingertips. But that was before the rose's bud had blossomed. The lily had not yet awakened to feel the breeze blow or hear the lark singing, Bring joy to your motherland.
There is the Stalin who called himself Soselo and imagined himself to be a poet. From the time I was seventeen until I was nearly twenty, my highest ambition was to write verse. In the summer of 1885, I took a swatch of my poems to Ilia Chavchavadze, a famous Georgian poet and the author of Is He Human, This Man? He liked my work well enough to show it to his editors and they agreed to publish five of my poems in Iveria. After our meeting, Chavchavadze called me the young man with the burning eyes. I think he wanted to be my father. He was killed in 1907 by a band of assassins. There is a vicious rumor that I was involved in planning his death, purportedly because he had criticized the Bolsheviks for advocating violence, but, truth be told, I have always been fond of Chavchavadze's poetry and have never shied from publicly praising his work. He more than likely died at the hands of the Tsarist secret police or, perhaps, the Mensheviks, but I can understand why his killers may have put a higher purchase on political necessity than literary merit.
What I'm saying now isn't said by me.
It's dug up out of the ground like grains of petrified wheat...
Those lines, which were not written by me, but by Mandelstam, remind me of Chavchavadze. I picture Mandelstam's coins, dug up out of the ground and depicting a lion on their face, being placed over the eyes of the old Georgian prince after his death. Perhaps someone pressed one of those coins into Charon's hands, paying for Chavchavadze's journey through the underworld.
These ancient memories—of Chavchavadze, of Beso and my mother—weary me, make me feel old. As Mandelstam wrote,
Time wears me down like a coin,
Until there's not even enough of me
I reach out to dispel the darkness, to chase the shadows that envelop me, and turn on the light on the stand next to my divan. I see the dead rat at my feet, the overturned glass of water, a cracked eggshell, the blue sky and the far shore. I remember my own poem, the one I wrote when I was seventeen:
As he walked from house to house
Knocking on strangers' doors
With his oak mandolin
Playing his simple song.
And in his song, in his song,
Pure as the radiance of the sun
Grand Truth can be heard
Of lofty sublime dreams.
The hearts that turned into stone
Are forced to beat once more
For many he ignited Reason
That once slumbered on in Darkness.
But instead of bestowing on him glory
The people of his land
Brought the outcast
Poison in a cup
They told him, Damn you!
Drink! Drain it to the bottom
Your song is strange to us
Your truth we do not need.
March 1, 1953, 6:30 p.m.
The pencil that I have been using to write this has fallen under the divan, where it lies beyond my reach. It is no matter. It is a foregone conclusion that I will not, cannot, finish this account. I think, for a moment, of Trotsky's unfinished play, the one he wrote in collaboration with Sokolovsky and that was burned by their friends when the two of them were arrested by the Tsarist police and sent to Odessa prison. Trotsky lost a manuscript but gained a new name in the process, shedding his given name of Bronstein for the pseudonym he would use for the rest of his life, Trotsky, the name of his Odessa jailor, the name he forged on the passport that took him to London, where he met Lenin and founded Novy Mir.
The reason I cannot reach the pencil is because virtually the entire right side of my body has gone numb. I can feel a tiny prickly sensation on the underside of my right foot, but there is no feeling at all in my right hand and right arm, and my right leg feels like a dead log. (You are thinking that I have no feeling in my cold heart, either, no feelings at all, but your humor is lost on me at this moment.) It is like Novocaine in a tooth, air leaving a room, the emptiness in your stomach when you haven't eaten for a while.
I send commands from my brain to my hand but nothing happens. It is like talking to Khrushchev. Beside me on the stand, the light in my table lamp burns brightly.
I am wondering why Lozgachev has not come with my tea, or why my security guards, Starotsin and Tukov, have not come in to check on me. For that matter, where is Orlov, my dacha commander? Surely they know I am up by now. Surely they can see the soft glow of the light from my table lamp in the space between the bottom of the doorframe and the sill. Then I remember Beria's man Khrustalev giving Orlov the day off and telling the others not to disturb me when I retired for the evening.
Help, I shout at the door, but my voice is barely a hoarse whisper, and I wonder if my vocal cords are paralyzed, too. Help me-e-e-e-e, I rasp, but my cry cannot be heard.
We live, not sensing our own country beneath us,
Ten steps away they dissolve, our speeches...
I am beginning to appreciate the irony of Mandelstam's little epigram, the one he wrote—strike that— the one he composed in 1933. I say composed because Mandelstam, fearing perhaps that someone might find the poem and turn it over to the police, never actually put it down on paper. Instead, he memorized his little creation, and recited it occasionally to his friends—strike that—to people that he thought were his friends. Of course, one of them betrayed him. It was only after his arrest that a hard copy was made and only because his interrogator insisted that he transcribe the poem as part of his confession.
The poem was juvenile: it made fun of my appearance, from my mustache to my chest and fingers to my boots. It belittled my Georgian roots. I could have laughed that off, but Mandelstam's little epigram also criticized my farm collectivization policies, hinting darkly that I was slaying peasants in the Ukraine. He had the audacity to liken each purported killing to picking berries from a bush and eating them, as if each peasant death was a snack or treat for the great dictator Stalin. Well, I dictated the rest of Mandelstam's life, that much is sure.
I wonder if I can reach the pencil with my left hand, the one I damaged when I was six and got hit by a phaeton. I had bet Sasha that I could touch the axle of the horse-drawn carriage as it rumbled through the streets. And I did. Unfortunately, my left arm got caught up in the wheel. I heard a sound, like a clap of thunder, the sound of the wheel thumping on the hard dirt road, the sound of bones fracturing, of tendons being ripped and torn. Somehow, as the rumbling carriage dragged me on the ground, turning me over and over and over again, I managed to pull my arm free, but the damage had been done. The arm was never any good to me from that day on. Over the years, it has atrophied from under-use, becoming thinner and thinner and thinner, and causing me to hide it under my tunic when I am on the dais or to tuck my hand in my pocket when I am out in public.
My left hand, in short, is more of a memory than a useful tool. In fact, I can still feel the wrenching pain of that morning, taste the dust from that Tiflis street, feel the summer sun burning hot on my collar. Of course, in later years, I told everyone that I had damaged my hand in a fight over a woman in Chiatura, or in a wrestling match, or in a beating by my father. There are days when I can remember these constructed alternative realities in great detail, recalling the soft mounds of the woman's breasts, the tattoo on the biceps of the wrestler, or the smug, self-satisfied smile on Beso's face after he hit me.
Perhaps I should leave the pencil where it is. The world does not need another confession after all, although I must admit it is so much fun to read one. I can't tell you what joy I had reading Bukharin's confession that he was morally complicit in Kirov's death, but then again I had written most of it.
In my mind's eye, I can see the pencil moving across the page, the heavy strokes it leaves on the paper, the aggressive angular formations of the words:
Personal Confession of L. Beria
On the evening of February 28, 1953, I, L. Beria, conspired with the despotic fascists, N. Khrushchev, G. Malenkov, and N. A. Bulganin to assassinate the Leader of the Soviet Union. Our plan was to kill Stalin at a dinner he gave in our honor. We chose this moment because we hoped that our Leader might be caught off guard; in fact, the commandant of our Leader's dacha was not around, and Stalin had virtually no one to protect him. I, Beria, personally administered the poison with which we sought to take his life. Although I played a central role in this devious plot, I did not act alone. N. Khrushchev, G. Malenkov, and N.A. Bulganin were active co-conspirators in the plot to take our Leader's life. Moreover, all of us were in league with agents of Israel and the United States. We acted upon their express instructions and with their covert assistance. Our plan, in short, was to engineer a take-over of the Soviet government, weaken our people's resistance to the capitalist imperialists abroad, and undermine the personal security of every person in the Soviet Union. We would probably have succeeded in this goal had we not underestimated our Leader's inestimable heroism and indefatigable will to live.
/s/ L. Beria, March 1, 1953
Taking my weak and withered old left hand out from under my unbuttoned tunic where it lays, lame and immotile, I reach under the divan and grope, fingers trembling, for the pencil on the floor. I nearly have it in my grasp—I can almost feel the nub of it beneath my fingertips—when it suddenly rolls away from me, like my wife Nadezhda before she killed herself, and I hear a loud report in my head, clamorous and deafening as a thunderclap or the pistol shot that ended Bukharin's life. Thump, thump, thump goes the vein in my left temple, and I find myself tumbling, tumbling down onto the floor, like a boy caught in a wheel or an executed man falling into a freshly dug grave.
March 1, 1953, late
Someone is standing over me. Through a shower of floaters that drift amoeba-like in my eye, I see a woman in a black dress embroidered by red roses. She is wearing a scarlet tea rose in her black hair. Tatochka, I say to her. It's me. Your Joseph. The second I say this I know I am hallucinating. Tatochka, or Tatka, was my pet name for my wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva. (Russian for Titania, it was my way of calling her a fairy princess.)
I know I am hallucinating because my dear Tatka, my Nadya, has been dead for more than 20 years.
From somewhere high above me, Lozgachev and Starotsin are speaking in low voices. Is he dead? Starotsin says in a fearful tone of voice. No, no, Lozgachev says in a voice that does not seem to come from as far away. I can feel a pulse. And then, in a whisper's breath, he says to me, Comrade Stalin, what's wrong?
I look up to make eye contact with Lozgachev and see Tatka hovering over me. What's wrong, comrade? she coos.
A memory strikes me like a thunderbolt. I am sitting in the room where Tatka died. With me are her brother, Pavel, and his wife, Zhenya, who were among the first to arrive after Tatka killed herself. No one has had time to clean up the blood, which stains the bedroom carpet in the spot where she was found. I am sitting in a chair a few feet away, holding the revolver in my hands that, moments earlier, had been found at my wife's side, along with a suicide note that said, There is no other way to escape him. To Zhenya's horror, I point the revolver at my forehead. Why did Tatka feel she needed to get away from me? I say to myself. What's wrong with me? I ask aloud.
Outside in the Moscow darkness a clock chimes.
A flashback. I am in Baku, a young man of 25, watching a two-year old child in a white dress running barefoot along a cliff overlooking the Caspian Sea. She has my nose, and my chin, and my amber-colored eyes. In fact, she looks like my daughter Svetlana, although the memory I am replaying dates from a time long before Svetlana was born. The girl on the cliff is Svetlana's mother, Nadya. She turns her nose toward the sky; sunlight drizzles her freckled cheeks. Beneath her shoeless feet, the glistening surface of the sea shimmers under the summer sun.
Suddenly, a thundercloud blots out the sky. After the cloud passes, I scan the dark horizon for the girl but I cannot see her. Although there are family members around, the girl is not with them, and the Allileuyevas seem oblivious to the fact that she is gone. Alarmed, I put down the book I am reading (Mikhail Bakunin's Appeal to the Slavs) and race to the edge of the cliff. Looking down, I spot the child where she has fallen, her head bobbing above the surface of the once tranquil Caspian, which is now beginning to grow turbulent from wind waves and swells. Stripping off my shirt, I dive in and pull her by the hair from the choppy seas. Once safely back on shore, she looks up at me and smiles.
In her smile, the one frozen on her face in the moment the bullet pierced her temple, there is an unspoken understanding. Both of us understand that she should have died by drowning twice, once on that afternoon on the Caspian, and a second time on the night of our honeymoon, when I submerged her in the turbulent water of my seething self. Don't, she said, as I placed my suffocating hands on the nape of her neck. Don't, she cried, as I squeezed her throat, and I could feel her gasp for air when I came on top of her. Her little hands moved like gills beneath me, and her tiny mouth expanded and contracted in a series of ovals, resembling a fish at feeding time or a creature when it dies. Honey, she said to me as I moved inside her, I cannot breathe.
Look, Lozgachev says to Starotsin. His pocket watch is broken. He must have broken it when he fell. Lozgachev remarks that the time on the watch is 6:30. See, he says to Starotsin reproachfully. I told you we should have come in to check on him earlier.
Behind him, Tatka's mouth upturns in a smile.
Am I hallucinating Tatochka or did she hallucinate me? On the evening that she died, we attended a dinner to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the Revolution. A proper Bolshevik, Tatka normally wouldn't be caught dead wearing Western garb, but on this occasion she slipped into a black evening dress with a rose appliqué—the very same dress that her apparition is wearing now. She also applied makeup and let her hair down—typically, she wore her hair straight back and parted in the middle. When she was finished with her hair and makeup, she got up and twirled in front of me, ending with a little curtsy, like a little girl. I must have frowned because Tatka looked at me sternly. I dressed up for you, she said. Can't you tell me how nice I look? I wanted to tell her that she reminded me of Olga, the slut who was her mother, but I bit my tongue and said nothing.
For the rest of the evening, she gave me the cold shoulder. At one point, she got up and danced with her godfather, Abel Yenukidze, who, like me, was almost 25 years her senior, but had an affectation for women much younger than he. At 31, Tatka was one of the youngest women in the room (although not perhaps young enough for Yenukidze, who liked them in their teens or even younger.) I think Tatka danced with him to piss me off.
At dinner, I rose to give a toast. To the destruction of our enemies, I said. Everyone raised a glass. Everyone but Tatka.
Why aren't you drinking? I said to her. Nadezhda Allileuyeva ignored me. To get her attention, I picked a piece of orange peel off my plate and threw it in her direction. Hey, you, I said. Have a drink!
Tatka glowered back at me. My name isn't hey, she said, as she pushed her wine glass toward the center of the table, signaling that she would not drink.
I lit a cigarette and took a deep drag, making the tip end of the cigarette glow orange. Yeah, yeah, I know your name, I said to her. It's Manda, I said, using the Russian expletive for cunt, as I flicked the cigarette at her.
Sparks flying, the cigarette bounced off her dress and fell into her lap. She slapped at it with a hand, sending it flying onto the floor, but not before the cigarette had made a tiny burn in the silk fabric of her dress.
Bastard! she said, as she rose from the table.
Bastard? Bastard, I said as I grabbed her by the throat. I brought my nose within a half an inch of the temple in which she shot herself and whispered fiercely in her ear, Your mother knows whose daughter you are. Releasing my grip, our eyes locked in the unspoken understanding we had between us. Maybe mine, I hissed as I released her, and she stormed from the room.
A vein thumps in my temple and I feel Lozgachev's hand on my back as he and Starotsin attempt to lift me from the floor and raise me back onto the divan. Oh, shit, Lozgachev says, loosening his grip. His whole backside is wet. I fall with a thud back onto the floor. Jesus Christ, Lozgachev, Starotsin says.
Lozgachev sniffs at his hand and winces. He's pissed himself, he says. Never mind that, says Starotsin nervously. Let's get him up on the divan so we can go and call the others.
I feel myself rising, rising, like a swimmer on a wave, as Lozgachev and Starotsin lift me from the floor. This is what Lazarus must have felt like, I think, remembering a lesson from my seminary days. What happened to Lazarus after Jesus resurrected him? According to legend, he traveled to Cyprus, where he founded a branch of the Eastern Orthodox Church and died for the second, and final, time.
The wave crests, and I tumble over it. Ahead of me, Tatka's head bobs on the water, her long black hair streaming behind her. I reach out for her and feel myself falling back onto the divan.
Nadezhda stands over me, a wine glass in her hand. With her other hand, the free one, she removes the tea rose from her hair and brings it to her nose. She sniffs the flower, her nostrils flaring, before she tosses it at my feet. Tatka raises her glass in a toast. To the destruction of our enemies, she says.
March 2, 1953, predawn
During the night, I am visited by two men, one my most accursed enemy (although I did not realize it until recently), the other my closest friend, or so, at least, he thought before I had him killed.
My first visitor was Lavrentiy Beria. My eyes were closed when he entered the room, but I could sense his presence from the smell of cheap cologne. Beria always wore too much cologne, and the cologne he used had a harsh and acrid smell, like burning smoke or Russian leather mixed with too much alcohol. It was rumored that he kept a bucket full of it in a cell in the Lubyanka prison where he and his associates tortured enemies of the state. When they were finished with their work, Beria and his men would douse themselves with cologne, virtually bathing in it from the waist up, to mask the smell of gunfire and of blood.
Perhaps he had gone to Lubyanka to finish his interrogations of Zhdanov's doctors, as I had instructed him to do last evening. Perhaps I had misjudged Lavrentiy after all. Then I remembered the rose in Tatka's hair, and it occurred to me that Beria had probably spent the last few hours in his Moscow apartment playing the flower game, as he called it.
Whenever he felt like playing this game, Beria would send his henchmen out into the streets to abduct young women. Beria's men would induce the women into their boss's limousine by whatever means necessary—beating them, drugging them, or simply lying to them—and take them to Beria's apartment. There, Lavrentiy would order the women to strip and get down on the floor on all fours with their heads together in a circle, one that obscenely resembled a flower. What lovely petals, Beria would exclaim as he walked around the circle and inspected his captives. And then, like a bee, he would pollinate one or more of them.
I felt his hand on my wrist. Comrade, Stalin, he said, patting it, and when I did not respond, I felt him slip his fingers under my wrist and feel for a pulse. His hand felt plump, moist and deathly cold on my wrist. Should I ring for a doctor? Lozgachev whispered in his ear. No, no, Beria said. There's nothing wrong with Comrade Stalin. Nothing that a little rest won't fix. Comrade Stalin just fell out of bed during the night—bad dreams, perhaps?—and now he's back on his divan and sleeping peacefully. We should let him sleep.
I felt a cold draft as Beria turned away from me. Then I heard him exclaim, what's this? From the sound of pages turning, I deduced that he had found the scraps of paper I had been writing on from the floor where they had fallen. I don't think Comrade Stalin would want anyone to read this, he said to Lozgachev. Beria handed Lozgachev my manuscript. Burn this, he said.
Manuscripts don't burn, I croaked. But, of course, they do. And, of course, neither Lozgachev nor Beria heard my cry before they exited, Beria clapping his hand on my guard's back and marshalling him out of the room.
I thought of Gogol who burned the second part of Dead Souls in his fireplace at the insistence of Father Konstantinovskii, and who later recanted the act on his deathbed, remarking that it was a practical joke played on him by the Devil.
Many artists have had their work destroyed, only to recreate them from memory. The Polish composer and anti-Soviet traitor Andrzej Panufnik reconstructed his Tragic Overture after he fled Poland in 1944, leaving the original manuscript behind. Carlyle, I'm told, rewrote his three-volume history of the French Revolution after a maid used the first draft for kindling. I was thinking about his heroic act of creation and re-creation when Nikolai Bukharin entered my room.
At first, I thought he was Lenin. With his Budyonny cap, mustache and hairy chin, he bore a striking resemblance to him. (Why do so many of my associates look like Lenin?) I was about to address him as Vova, and would have, too, if I had been able to speak, when Bukharin handed me some paper and a pen.
What a god-sent you are, I thought, smiling gratefully. Then I noticed the writing on the paper he had handed me. Koba, it said invoking the nickname I had used when I first joined the Bolsheviks, this is perhaps the last letter I shall write you before my death.
I did not need to read the rest of the letter to know what it said. It had been written in the waning days of 1937 while Nikolai was awaiting execution for the murder of Sergei Kirov and other crimes against the state, monstrous crimes, immeasurably monstrous crimes, as Bukharin himself had called them. In the letter, which was addressed to my eyes only and delivered in the dead of night, he begged for his life, appealing to the tender mercies of my nature, to my soft side, so to speak, and it might have worked if I had one.
In the letter, he invoked the memory of my dear departed Tatka, claiming to have hallucinated her in his Lubyanka cell. Once I saw Nadezhda Sergeevna, he wrote. She never would have believed that I had harbored any evil thoughts against you.
In better days, before I learned of his immeasurably monstrous crimes, Bukharin had a pet fox that liked to sit in Nadya's lap. On that dark night when I received Bukharin's letter and read it for the first time, I remembered his fox. It had a brilliant red coat, red like the rose appliqué on the dress Tatka wore on the day she died and brilliant like her smile on the day I saved her from drowning. What a wily fox you are, Nikolai, I thought, when I read the letter, and I told myself I would kill him for his presumptuousness alone, even if he were innocent of any other crimes.
Kill me if you must, Koba, Bukharin wrote in his last letter and his apparition said the same thing to me last night in my room. If I am to receive the death sentence, he said, then I implore you beforehand, I entreat you, by all that you hold dear, not to have me shot. Let me drink poison in my cell instead. For me, this point is extremely important. I don't know what words I should summon up in order to entreat you to grant me this as an act of charity. Politically, it won't really matter, and besides, no one will know a thing about it. Have pity on me! There are times when I think I can steel myself to look death in the face, then my resolve fades, like the image of your dear Nadya last night in my cell, and I find myself in such spiritual disarray that I am drained of all strength. So if the verdict is death, let me have a cup of morphine, I implore you.
He was shot in his cell on March 18, 1938 in the Russian style, with a bullet to the back of his head as he kneeled on the floor, his hands tied behind him. If I had it to do all over again, I would have given him a cup of poison.
March 2, 1953, first light
Nikolai Bukharin's face appears before me as if in a dream, but I am not dreaming. Zuh-zuh-zuh, I say to him, hearing the sounds trapped in my throat like bees in a bottle. Bukharin leans in toward me and brings his ear close to my mouth. Va-va-Vor, I say aloud, expectorating the Russian word for thief.
Whore? Bukharin says in English as he pulls his ear away from my mouth and looks me in the face.
Nyet. Vor! I shout at him again.
He looks down at me in amazement.
The letter was mine, I say at last. Your words. My letter. After you sent it to me, I locked it in my desk drawer, and I can see you've taken it.
No, no, he said. I was merely trying to help. You asked for some paper.
Some help you are, I told him. The paper you've given me is covered with words—words written in the cramped style of a prisoner who doesn't know if he will ever be given another sheet of paper to write on again. I mean, God, man, there isn't even any space left in the margins, and the paper is covered with writing front to back.
Bukharin squints at me through eyes that almost resemble the vertical slits of a fox.
What do you expect me to do with this? I say heatedly as I hold up the pen he has given me.
Edit me, he says.
After Bukharin leaves, I tell myself that I don't really need paper or a pen to draft this history. I can write it in my head, just as Mandelstam wrote his little epigram to me or just as Carlyle reworked his study of the French Revolution. In my mind's eye, I take Bukharin's letter and toss it on the floor. Then I throw the pen after it. I don't need it, I tell myself. I don't even need a reader. I am writing this in my head, I cry aloud. I am writing YOU!
March 2, 1953, early morning.
I am staring into the eyes of a fox. Its gold-green, cat-like eyes look out at me from under pince-nez glasses. Comrade Stalin! it says, placing a paw on the back of my hand, we are all so worried about you. We didn't want to disturb you, but you cried out in your sleep. We came the minute we heard your voice. We, everyone, just want to make sure you are all right. I feel the fox's claws dig into my hand, and my whole body shakes in spasmodic recoil. There, there, the fox says, digging its claws in deeper.
Zuh-zuh-zuh, I say, but it is impossible to form words. The fox perks up its ears, and leans in closer to me. I feel its hot, animal breath on my face. Comrade Stalin, it says, don't worry. We're all here to help you.
From a spot somewhere behind the black-tipped ears of the fox, Nikita Khrushchev looks down at me opaquely, like a man confronting some eternal puzzle, the mystery of life in death. Flanking him are Georgy Malenkov and Nikolai Alexandrovich Bulganin. Their faces are etched with concern. Not for me, but for themselves. They are concerned that I will live, that I will regain the ability to speak, that I will condemn them for their crime against their Leader, that I will order them to die.
Arching his back, the fox stretches on Nadya's lap. Have you read this? it says, pawing at the book my wife is holding in her hands. The book is titled Stalin and the Crisis of the Proletarian Dictatorship. Several hundred pages in length, it is very heavy reading. Nadya's hands tremble under its weight.
Beria removes his pince-nez and examines me with his naked eyes. You look very pale, very pale, like you have seen a ghost. And your pulse is very rapid. Has something given you a fright? I think we are going to have to summon a doctor to look at you. One of those killer doctors, I think I hear him say, but Beria just smiles and his three associates act like they have heard nothing.
The fox sniffs Nadya's trembling hands. It rubs its back against the spine of the book. Ryutin's quite a writer, the fox says to me. Not a master like Mandelstam, but a real page-turner nonetheless. And what a knack for phrases. For instance, he calls you The gravedigger of the Revolution.
The fox rubs its round black nose against Nadya's thigh. What I'm saying now isn't said by me, so please don't take offense. It's dug up out of the ground like grains of petrified wheat...
Nadya had heard stories from some of the students she met in the classes she took on ulitisa Pokrovka in that old baroque mansion with the scalloped niches and clusters of angels and Corinthian pilasters that had been built for a Count but now housed a technical school where she was studying industrial management along with Khrushchev. Unaware of who she was, or whom she was married to, they whispered to her about the famine that was sweeping the Ukraine, about what happened when collectivization literally petrified the wheat fields, turning them into stony, barren places where nothing would grow. My wife listened in petrified awe to their stories about the bands of orphaned children begging for bread and the peasant farmers who ate their own sons, like Saturn did, according to ancient myth. The gravedigger of the Revolution, she called me one night after I silenced her from talking about the Hunger, as she wanted to call it. I wouldn't expect you, a woman, to understand how difficult it is to implement radical economic change, real change, the kind that can transform the face of the nation. She turned her back to me then, and stared at the wall, and I knew she was picturing the face of a starving child in her mind and not the face of the new Soviet economy (but in the end I was right, because my Five-Year Plan led to more rapid industrial growth than was experienced by any other nation at any other time in history). Eventually, after the silence grew unbearable, I got up and stormed out and left her there to cry herself to sleep. A little while later, I found the Ryutin book in one of her drawers, and took it out, and burned it, much like the corpses of those who had died during the Holodomor, as the Ukrainians called the famine.
Comrade, the doctors have been summoned, Beria says, his eyes burning.
Later, after I found the Ryutin book, after Nadya had dressed for dinner, and we fought over a toast, I picked up the gun that killed her from the floor where it had fallen. The doctor who performed her autopsy thought this was suspicious: he believed I had disturbed a crime scene. In his report, he opined that my wife had been shot from a distance of four meters—implying that it was impossible for her to have shot herself. He was asked to reconsider his opinion. His revised report stated that she died of peritonitis resulting from a burst appendix.
In 1938, he was one of the doctors who were put on trial with the Twenty-One, the bloc of rightists and Trotskyites that included Nikolai Bukharin. By that time, he had already been exposed as a breast biter, a violator of women, and as one of the men who had hastened Maxim Gorky's demise by forcing him, under the guise of physical exercise, to carry stones from one place to another. He was shot in an Orel prison in 1941. His family was told he had committed suicide, and, indeed, in one sense, he had.
A word about Ryutin. Although I burned his book, I was not able to destroy him, at least not initially. Sergei Kirov opposed me. Kirov who I had elevated from the depths of the Azerbaijan branch of the Party to command the Party in Leningrad and later brought with me to Moscow. He rewarded my favors with ingratitude, opposing my demand for the imposition of the death penalty upon Ryutin after he was denounced by the Presidium and the matter of his fate was referred to the Politburo.
A year later, Kirov paid for his disloyalty with his life. Some members of the American press and so-called western historians maintain that I had Sergei Kirov killed. This is a lie whose viciousness is exceeded only by its audaciousness. I loved Kirov and treated him like a member of the family, like a blood relative. After he was assassinated, I personally led the investigation into his death, an investigation which conclusively established that Kirov's assassin, Nikolayev, acted in part from personal jealousy—Kirov was sleeping with his wife—and in part for financial gain, having been paid to perform his despicable act by the Zinovievites and Trotskyites who planned the assassination. And, oh yes, I have heard the wagging tongues declare that Kirov and the assassin's wife, Milda Draule, could not have been lovers, that he never would have fallen for a woman as plain as she was, but this is all just part of the cult of personality that has risen up around Sergei Kirov after his death. To listen to the wagging tongues, one might think he was a Christian saint. But Kirov was just a man, and a weak one at that, and Milda did not need to possess the beauty of a film star or the grace of a ballerina to attract him to her. To tell the truth, Sergei would have slept with my ugly old mother Keke, or my plain old Nadya Alliluyeva, if either woman had given him the chance.
Five years after Kirov was assassinated, Ryutin finally met his death. Gravedigger of the Revolution, indeed! Unlike Bukharin, unlike all of the other Zinovievites and Trotskyites, Ryutin never recanted and refused to admit any guilt for his crimes before he was executed. Nadezhda Sergeevna would have been proud of him.
March 2, 1953, some time in the a.m.—Murder by Medicine
I am dreaming about Nadezhda Alliluyeva in her coffin, her hair arranged to conceal the gunshot wound in her temple, when Professor Lukomsky shines a light into my eyes. As the doctor examines me, I remember a summer morning in the Alliluyevas' apartment on Rozhdestvenskaya Street, the light streaming through the window of the room Olga had offered me while I was in hiding from Kerensky and his Provisional Government. In addition to the window, the room had a bed and a desk and a mirror on a stand that I used to shave Lenin when he stayed with me there, before he left for Razliv. The room was comfortable and had all the trappings of home and best of all I could see into Tatka's bedroom through an adjoining door. From my bed or desk, I could see her dressing table and the pretty young schoolgirl who sat in front of it, combing her shoulder-length hair.
His pupils are dilated, Lukomsky says, before he asks Lozgachev to help him remove my shirt so that he can take my blood pressure.
That morning, the one I remember, the light framed her face like a halo. The summer sun shone in her eyes.
It was the summer of 1917, and we were falling in love with each other. It was before the Revolution, before the history at the end of History began, before she had learned to despise me.
I hear a ripping sound as Lozgachev tears off my shirt and strips me down for the doctor. He grabs my urine soaked pants and pulls them off, too, leaving me naked and exposed on the divan.
Something makes me think of the angels on the Apraskin mansion. Are they looking down on me in disgust? Then Lozgachev drops a blanket on the divan, and with my left hand I reach for it and pull it over me.
The fox sees. He rubs his bewildered eyes once, twice, to make sure he is not hallucinating my movement, my activity, my signs of life. Then he drops onto a knee beside me on the divan and looks at me worriedly. Comrade Stalin, Comrade Stalin, Beria says sweetly, piteously, before he takes my hand into his and kisses it.
His sickening gesture finished, Beria gets up off his knees and turns to Lukomsky and the other doctors who have assembled in my room. Help him! Help him! he says to them urgently. Help save Comrade Stalin's life!
The doctors set about their work. While Lukomsky takes my pulse, someone else thrusts his fingers into my mouth and plucks out my dentures. Another applies a cold compress to my head and yet another sponges me down with aromatic vinegar. Someone, perhaps it is Lukomsky, rubs a blunt instrument over the sole of my foot. In the midst of all of this activity, Professor Lukomsky solemnly announces that my pulse is 78, my blood pressure 190 over 110, I have a positive Babinski sign but my tendon reflexes are unobtainable, and that the laugh line on the right side of my face is gone.
Behind Lukomsky, a couple of men are wheeling an iron lung machine into the room, and an assistant suddenly appears beside the professor holding leeches in a jar.
Lukomsky takes one of the leeches from the jar and puts it behind my right ear, where it attaches itself to my skin with its teeth and begins to suck blood from my head and neck.
Let me tell you about the killer doctors.
Let's start with Levin, Kazakov and Pletney, the doctors who hastened—no, caused—Maxim Gorky's death and took the life of his son, too. Gorky was the most famous man in the Soviet Union, the founder of Socialist Realism, my friend and confidant. What's more, he was universally respected. After he died, George Bernard Shaw telegrammed condolences and Andre Gide attended his funeral. I put his face on a special set of postage stamps.
The killer doctor Levin had visited Gorky in Sorrento before Gorky returned to the Soviet Union at my request in 1933. Gorky had gone to Sorrento nine years earlier, citing the need for a healthier climate, which was true (it was not healthy for him to be in the same country as Trotsky, and the Soviet Union remained a dangerous place for him even after Trotsky went into exile, thanks to the Trotskyites and Rightists, like Bulganin, who remained behind.) Gorky also suffered from tuberculosis, a disease to which he became particularly susceptible after shooting himself in the lung in a botched suicide attempt when he was 21. Levin had gone to Sorrento several times to offer Gorky treatment for his lungs there, and the two men grew quite close (a feigned closeness on Levin's part), although they were never really as close as Gorky and I came to be.
It was Gorky who taught me how dangerous a place America was. He had gone there in 1906 to raise funds for the Bolshevik cause. He was greeted in New York by William Dean Howells, Mark Twain, Jack London and Upton Sinclair. I come to you a beggar, he said, that Russia shall be free. On the eve of his fundraising tour, his American friends put him up in the Hotel Belleclaire, which had a commanding view of the Hudson River and the Upper West Side. In his letters home, Gorky described New York as a fantasy of stone, glass, and iron, a fantasy constructed by crazy giants. Lunatic monsters longing after beauty, or so he called the architects of America's foremost city.
Fantasy turned into cruel reality and New York quickly became a dark place for him. The puritanical American press castigated him for traveling with Maria Andreeva, his mistress, rather than his wife, from whom he had long been separated. The news was barely 24 hours old when Gorky and Mme. Andreeva were evicted from the Belleclaire and tossed into the street in the middle of the night, their belonging piled up on the pavement in the rain. Gorky left America, and never went back again.
Never trust the Americans, Gorky told me, one afternoon at my dacha. He reminded me that over 13,000 troops had participated in the Entente Intervention, the Allies' abortive attempt to overthrow the Russian Revolution in 1918. Josef, he said, as he spat phlegm through a mustache that looked like walrus whiskers, be forewarned: They will try again.
And so they will, so they will; in fact, they pose an imminent danger. But I am getting ahead of myself. I was telling you about Levin, Kazakov and Pletnev.
Lukomsky places a second, third and fourth leech behind my ears. My neck stings with pain.
Levin, as I told you, was cozying up to Gorky. But all the while he was reporting what Maxim said and did to Genrikh Yagoda, Beria's predecessor as NKVD Chief, and as dangerous a man as ever lived. Unbeknownst to me, Yagoda was in league with Trotsky. Together they plotted Kirov's death. They also enlisted the traitors Levin, Kazakov and Pletnev in a plot to murder Gorky.
As their prosecutor, Vyshinksy, later wrote, the plot against Gorky was arranged to make his murder look like natural death from illness. Vyshinky compared it to the way Buturlin was killed by Pancenko using diphtheria bacilli, or Pope Clement II was killed by smoke from a poisoned candle.
First, they weakened him. The killer doctors changed Gorky's medicines, eliminating those that were good for his heart and lungs and substituting others that were not as beneficial. They injected him with stimulants, such as caffeine, digalen and camphor. They also put him on a regimen of physical exercise that was must too strenuous for a 68 year-old man. When Gorky asked if he should hike in the Crimea, Levin told him to do it. A few days later, Maxim caught pneumonia. He began to cough up blood. Even though he was in extremis, his doctors idly stood by and did nothing.
Actually, if they had done nothing, nothing at all, Maxim Gorky might still be alive today. Instead, his doctors, his killer Jew doctors, administered the coup de grace while he was in a weakened state. Many years later, moments before he was shot in his Orel cell, Pletnev confessed that they finished Gorky off by feeding him poisoned chocolates.
Lukomsky takes five more leeches from his jar. He methodically arranges them on the back of my head, placing them between my left ear and the midpoint of my neck. As the leeches fasten themselves to my neck and begin to drain my blood, I suddenly wonder if Lukomsky is Jewish. Bloodletting is frequently mentioned in the Talmud, which holds that the removal of blood from the body has hygienic value.
Blood rushes in my ears and the room goes tipsy, like Rimbaud's drunken boat.
In the background, I hear someone ask if he should inject me with camphor.
An image. My last image of Gorky is of me bearing his urn on a flower-decked red coffin from the House of Unions on Sparrow Hill, where his body had lain in state, to his final resting place in the Kremlin. Molotov, Andreieff, Yaroslavsky and myself bore the coffin aloft, and I can almost feel the weight of it on my right shoulder. I wore a black band on my left arm, a plain tunic, and a pair of calf-high military boots. At Red Square, Gide and Tolstoy eulogized Gorky in front of the thousands of mourners who had gathered there. In the newsreel footage of the event, children, women and even grown men weep as my hands place the urn containing his ashes on a pedestal draped in red and black.
The urn reminds me of Lukomsky's jar, and I am sent reeling back into the present. Someone jabs at me with a needle and I wonder: Where will my ashes rest tomorrow?
March 2, 1953, mid-day—Return of the Killer Doctors
Someone has rolled me onto my side and is giving me an enema. My unknown assailant inserts the nozzle of a clyster syringe into my ass. I feel the pressure of the liquid filling my colon.
I am a student of death and I know that it is almost always accompanied by degradation. Malraux, who was Gorky's friend, described man's fate and hope as the struggle against humiliation, implying that it was the most epic struggle in which a man could be engaged. I believe the opposite. I think the struggle against humiliation is commonplace, and that man always loses the struggle.
Malraux was right about one thing. He said that Satan was the Degrader, the Humiliator, and defined hell as being degraded to the point of death, whether death comes or passes one by.
I open my eyes and look into the face of Satan the Degrader. He is fat, balding and middle-aged and has an obsequious expression on his face. Lukomsky, (or is it Levin or Pletnev or Vovsi or Feldman or any of a dozen others?) asks for another jar of leeches.
The past has a way of repeating, and not always from lack of memory.
A year or so ago, I learned that Levin and Kazakov and Pletnev are living still, living in the guise of successors named Vovsi and Kogan and Feldman and Grinshstein. Just as Levin and Kazakov and Pletnev kept the knowledge of a weakened constitution from Maxim Gorky, these criminals concealed evidence of a silent heart attack from Andrey Alexandrovich Zhdanov and prescribed treatments designed to hasten his end.
Zhdanov's death was murder—murder designed to resemble death by natural illness.
The world may never have been the wiser had it not been for the vigilance of Lidia Timashuk. Timashuk was a cardiologist at Kremlevka, the Moscow hospital where Zhdanov was a patient. She was troubled enough by what she saw there to write a letter to the head of the Kremlin guards in which she warned that Zhdanov's treating doctors had underestimated his unquestionably grave condition, causing her to fear for a fateful outcome. Two days later, Comrade Zhdanov died.
Eventually, Timashuk's letter made its way to me. But not before Georgi Dimitrov died at the Barvikha sanatorium, Dimitrov, healthy one day, gone the next, linked to Zhdanov by the same treating doctor. Isn't it strange? I said to Ivan Smirnov when he shared this fact with me one day in the winter of 1949 while we were out in my garden looking at my lemon trees. One doctor treated them both and they both died. Coincidence? I asked. Coincidence, Ivan said. After our talk, however, coincidences continued to occur, one coincidence piling up on another like a bumper car crash. First Zhdanov then Dimitrov then Choibalsan then Thorez. What did these deaths have in common? The answer occurred to me when I pulled Timashuk's yellowing letter from the archives and re-read it. One name jumped out at me, a name that recurred in the treatment records of Dimitrov and Choibalsan and Thorez, the name of Miron Vovsi, my own personal physician.
I had him arrested the next day and launched an investigation to ferret out his accomplices and co-conspirators (about which I will have more to say later, if there is a later.) But the revelation continued to haunt me, along with the inevitable question (and the inevitable answer that needs not be stated): who would have been next?
Lukomsky puts a stethoscope on my chest and listens intently through the earpieces. I think we're losing him, he says.
March 2, 1953, late afternoon
The children shuffle in. First to see me is Svetlana, who resembles her mother so closely that I almost think I am hallucinating again. She is red-haired and freckled, and has Nadya's lips and cheeks, but fortunately for her she does not have her mother's eyes, her mother's cold, unfeeling eyes. Svetlana's eyes dance; they glow with excitement. She looks at me with all the wonder, the buoyant expectancy of a child, and you would not think that she was viewing her soon-to-be-dead father's corpse.
We were close once. There was a game we played together when she was a child, a game in which we reversed our roles, with her becoming the superior, the dominant parent, and me her willing subordinate. Svetlana would give me orders in writing, Orders of the Day, she called them, addressed to Comrade I. Stalin, First Secretary of the Party. Sometimes, for example, she would order me to go to the cinema with a few of my comrades and to take her and Vaska, too. When I received my Order of the Day I would always dotingly reply, To Mistress Setanka. I submit to your order with pleasure. Your Little Secretary, I. Stalin.
Of course, we grew apart as she got older. She was always drawn to the wrong men. Once, she got involved with a Jewish filmmaker who was more than twice her age. Svetlana, I said, people will think he is your father. Don't be silly, she told me, every one knows who my father is. Apparently, however, this man, a filmmaker named Kaplan, did not. He flirted with her incessantly in my presence, the way Abel Yenukidze used to do with my Tatka. He really pissed me off. I tried to break them up. But the more I interfered, the more involved she got. Father, she said, he's an artist, a writer. I thought you liked literary men. She called him a writer but he couldn't even write a Russian sentence, and there was nothing literate about him. Just another rootless cosmopolitan, from my point of view. To chill the romance, I had him exiled to Vorkula, near the Arctic Circle. Svetlana never forgave me.
After Svetlana leaves, my son, Vasily, comes to my bedside. My eyes are closed, welded shut in the dream I am having about a red-haired and freckled girl, but I can smell the liquor on his breath as he leans in over me, feel the twitching fear that has lived inside of him ever since he was born. You bastards, he says to my doctors, you're killing him. Someone (I believe it is Lenin, but it could be Bulganin) claps him on the back and leads him from the room.
I dream about Svetlana when she was a child. In my dream, she is running on a cliff overlooking the Caspian Sea. Vasily, whom we called Vaska, is there, too, dumping sand from a pail onto the beach where he is sitting and molding it into the turrets of a fort. Svetlana runs past him, her red tresses flying, her bare feet leaving an imprint in the sand where Vaska is sitting. As she thunders by, Vasily's sand castle collapses, prompting him to leap up and push his sister off the cliff.
My heart beats fast for my precious little girl, my little sparrow, as I once called her. I want to save her from the swelling Caspian Sea, but I am frozen and immobile in my dream, much like I am now, in my bleak reality. I am about to give her up for lost when a figure steps out of the water's white foam, holding a young woman in his arms.
The man looks like me, but he is much younger with smooth shaven cheeks and no mustache. I peer at him through the sea's salt spray. Yakov? I ask him. Is it you? My first born nods at me, smiling agreeably, but even as he does I feel myself pulling against the tug of the dream, which threatens to carry me down and away, like a swimmer caught in an undertow. The Yakov I remember was no hero, had no heroism in his bones at all. When I told him that he could not marry his Jewish fiancée he did not spit in my face and run off with the girl, as he probably should have; instead, he fled to his room and shot himself. Of course, the bullet missed his heart, and he survived, prompting me to tell him, scoldingly, that he couldn't even shoot straight. Later, he died, for real this time, in a German prison camp where he was interned during the war. Nearly overcome by starvation and driven by despair, he flung himself on the camp's electric fence after a group of British prisoners of war told him I had massacred 15,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest (which was a lie then and remains a lie today, making Yakov's death all the more tragic).
The man in my dream blushes with shame. He is no hero. He lays the corpse he is holding down on the sandy beach. My poor little sparrow, I cry out, but the woman on the beach is not Svetlana. She is Yakov's mother, Ekaterina Svanidze, my first wife, and the only person I ever truly loved.
March 3, 1953
Night terror. My own breath sounds. Pain. I imagine the pain my Ekaterina must have felt after she came down with the typhus. Is it comparable to this? A year or so into our young marriage, Ekaterina, or Kato, as I called her, had fallen ill while we were in Baku, and I decided to take her and Yakov to Tiflis to stay with her parents. She needed someone to look out for her, and I couldn't do it at the time. I was underground, doing the black work of the Social Democratic Party, which left me little time for my family. On the trip from Baku to Tiflis, she drank bad water at a station, and her condition grew even worse.
Rose-colored pustules began to appear on her chest. Over the next few days, they turned bright red. She looked speckled as an egg. Don't worry, Kato, I told her, it's just a rash. You'll be fine, I said. But she wasn't fine. She was so feverish she couldn't speak. We rode in silence to Tiflis. Outside the city, we passed a wall. It was crumbling and in need of repair, and there was a gaping hole in one section. Someone's escaped, Kato said, hoarsely, as we passed the hole in the city wall. A few hours later, she made her escape as well.
She died in bed at her parents' house shortly after we got there. The rash on her chest had turned jet black and had spread to her arms and legs. She shivered uncontrollably. Koba, she said, with a sudden gasp, as she reached up toward me. I took her in my arms and cradled her until I felt her spirit leave her body. Then I gently put her back down on the cot, and arranged her hair softly with my hands. Her pupils had dilated, and completely filled her irises. I brought my thumbs up to her lids and closed her eyes.
We had married at 2 o'clock in the morning (the only time a priest would marry us) and she departed around the same time. In another irony, she died where we had met—in the home her father had offered me as a safe house from the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police. It was there, at the Svanidzes' that I had wooed her and asked her to be my wife.
I was absolutely inconsolable at her funeral, which was held in the same church where I had married her sixteen months before. Hardly anyone was there except for me, her parents and two sisters, Yakov, and my friend, Josef Iremashivili. At the church, I jabbed an elbow into Iremashivili's stomach.
This creature, I said, pointing at her open coffin, softened my heart of stone. Then I placed my hand over my heart and told him, it is all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.
Words fail me even now. At the graveyard, I threw myself onto her coffin after it was lowered into the ground. Iremashivili and one of the gravediggers pulled me out. I would have thrown myself back into the grave again, and asked them to bury me with her there, had I not spied two Okhrana agents lurking in the graveyard. After I spotted them, I picked up the gravedigger's shovel and shook it at them. Then I ran, turning my back on Kato, on her family, and on my little Yakov, who I would not see again for more than a decade.
As I ran, I remembered something Prince Chavchavadze had read to me once when he was trying to broaden my knowledge of poetry. The lines came back to me as I fled. In youth when I did love, did love, I thought it was very sweet. But age, with his stealing steps has clawed me in the clutch, and hath shipped me intil the land, as if I had never been such. No sooner had I remembered these whispered words than I felt my heart harden, and I vowed to myself that I would never, ever love anyone again.
This is the furnace in which my hard heart was forged. My wife and my father died in the same year, the year in which I, Stalin, was born. To be sure, it would be another five years or so before I would officially call myself the Man of Steel, but you may have it on good authority, my authority, that 1907 was the turning point of my life, the year the cauldron made me and cast me into iron. It was in 1907 that my father died from a knife wound incurred in a drunken brawl, breathing his last breaths in the Mikhailovsky Hospital in Tiflis, where the police had taken him after he was found, gutted and bleeding, in the street. He died alone. If I had known he was dying I would have taken him in my arms, like I did with Kato, and held him and hugged him and kissed him sweet goodnight, closing his eyes in death, just as I did with Kato. Unfortunately, I did not learn of his death until some time later, even though I was in Tiflis at the time. Of course, even if I had known he was dying I would not have been able to see him. The Okhrana would have seen to that.
The world views me as a sociopath, but the world forgets that evil predated me, that the apparatus of terror existed long before I was born. The Department for Protecting the Public Security and Order, or Okhrana, as it was called, was not my invention, nor Lenin's either. It was brought into being by Alexander II, and had its roots in the Oprichniks, the dark brotherhood created by Ivan the Terrible.
The Oprichniks dressed in black and rode black horses, instilling fear everywhere they went. Their saddle pommels were emblazoned with a severed dog's head and a broom, signifying the hounding and sweeping of treason from the realm. Considering themselves to be men apart, they had an almost religious devotion to Ivan IV, and used whatever means necessary to root out disloyalty to the tsar, including torture and execution without trial. The Okhrana, who succeeded them, adopted many of their methods, and added some of their own. The Okhrana internationalized the Oprichniks' inquisitorial methods, operating torture chambers in Warsaw and Riga and other places outside Russia. They used agent provocateurs. They intercepted and read the private correspondence of people suspected of intrigue for one reason or another, a practice called perlustration. It was perlustrated mail, in fact, that led to the arrest of Lenin's older brother, who was hanged at the political prison in Petrokrepost for plotting to kill the tsar. After his death, his poor mother, Maria Ulayanov, asked a priest in the village where she lived if she could borrow a cart to use to retrieve her son's body and bring it home for burial. The priest refused. A mother is known by her sons, he said, or so Lenin told me when we met in London in 1907, a few months before my Kato died. Lenin never forgot the insult, banning the Russian Orthodox Church and its hypocrisy as soon as he seized power.
When I became a revolutionary, I took to wearing black, black like the hooded tunics the Oprichniks wore or the tattered Circassian overcoat worn by my father. In addition to my tunic-style jacket and high boots, I donned a black fedora, tilting it forward to shield my eyes. I thought it made me look more mysterious and menacing.
Sometime after I left the seminary, the Okhrana took a picture of me at a political rally and stored in their files. In the intervening years, I was followed by Okhrana agents nearly everywhere I went, and I adopted different aliases and guises to throw them off my trail. Once, I even dressed up like a woman to escape them, a ploy that did not work. It was at a party fund-raiser at a concert house in Petersburg a few years after Kato died, and I was fingered by a traitor, a double agent, who pointed me out to the plain-clothed Okhrana officers who had positioned themselves at the back of the concert hall, near the only exit. I was wearing a silk cravat the traitor had given me, but once I saw the Okhrana men I took it off and ducked into a bathroom to exchange clothes with the young woman who had accompanied me to the party. I donned her long dress, put make-up on my cheeks, and wrapped a babushka around my face to conceal my mustache. Unfortunately, my boots—my high ankle boots —gave me away. I was clapped in handcuffs and arrested. Shortly thereafter, I was sentenced to four years' imprisonment without benefit of trial and transported to Turukhansk, a tiny Siberian village on the frozen Yenisei River.
It did not matter. I had already become a frozen man, one who had drifted apart, like an iceberg, from his peers. After my wife and my father died, I was expelled from the Social Democrats and made an outcast from my own party. This was because the work I did—black work that provided the revolution with the money it needed—could not be sanctioned by the party, at least not officially. Around this time, the rumor also circulated that I was an Okhrana agent. This was a ridiculous rumor, absurd on its very face, and I have no doubt that it was circulated by the Okhrana themselves, who would name party members as their agents in order to cast suspicion on them and sew dissension everywhere. This tactic did not work with me. It did not work because everyone with whom I came in contact swiftly learned how ruthlessly devoted I was to the cause. I had become a man apart, living in a world apart, and no one could separate me from my purpose or divide me from myself.
Someone sits down beside me. He pats the back of my hand, and speaks to me in a doting and fatherly tone of voice. For a moment, I think it is Beso, but the voice sounds more like Lenin. Comrade Stalin, it begins, my brother...
I doubt that he can hear you, someone interrupts.
No problem, the man says. I'm just trying to be of some comfort.
Lenin leans over me and whispers in my ear. Brother, he says, this is the way it was when I was dying of the stroke and you were plotting to succeed me. Do you remember? Do you remember how frail and impotent I looked after the stroke paralyzed my body and I struggled vainly to even speak, saliva speckling my beard, unable to tell the world what a serious threat you were? Do you remember sitting at my bedside, smiling sweetly, as you posed for the photographer as my heir? Do you remember holding my hand in yours, just as I am holding your hand now? Do you remember me breathing my last breath? Do you remember my last words? Do you remember me telling Gavrilushka, my cook, with a final, gasping explosion of sound and expectorate, that I had been poisoned?
Lenin leans back in his chair and laughs. Of course you don't. The photograph of you at my bedside was faked. You weren't even in the room when I died. I was in Gorki and you were elsewhere, probably out in the yard strangling one of my Nadya's cats.
I try to look at him, but it is an effort to raise my eyelids. Through a slit, I see my friend, Nikolai Bulganin, sitting beside me in a chair. Everyone expects you to survive, he says. Everyone knows what an iron will you have.
I suddenly wonder where my double is. That is to say, where my doubles are. I have four of them. They are primarily used as decoys, to divert the attention of foreign agents and would-be assassins, but once or twice, when I wasn't feeling up to snuff, I had a double stand in for me on the dais in Red Square, and there have been times when I have sent a double off to a public reception. There have been times, in fact, when I have been at one function while one or more of my doubles was attending another. With my doubles' help, I have mastered the art of multi-location, an ability previously attributed to Christian saints and occultists, but never before to a First Secretary of the Communist Party.
Three of my doubles I have never seen, and the other one, a man who used to be known as Felix Dadaev, I met only once. It was an awkward meeting, kind of like viewing oneself in a mirror. In this case, the mirror talked. I do not remember what he said, only that he sounded exactly like me. He mimicked my gestures perfectly, too. I noticed that he kept his left hand stiffly inside his overcoat.
Dadaev, I was told, had been a dancer, juggler and illusionist before he became my double. This skill set was perfect for the job. I noticed when we met and had a chance to examine him closely that his ears were slightly smaller than mine and his skin was clearer, but Dadaev impersonated me so effectively that no one else would have noticed that he wasn't the real Stalin. I wonder if he is standing on the dais in Red Square now, a First Secretary with a puppet's strings, or whether Beria and his co-conspirators have been required to perform a quintuple murder, killing my four look-alikes at the same time they poisoned me.
Just before our meeting ended, I asked Dadaev, whether he believed the stories about Leopoldi Fregoli, the famous Italian illusionist who helped to inspire the Futurist movement. Fregoli was reputed to have the ability to exit stage left in one guise and to enter, almost immediately, at stage right, dressed as another person. In fact, he was so protean in his ability to change appearances that it was rumored there was more than one Fregoli, a rumor he squashed by inviting members of a skeptical press to come back stage to watch him work. Dadaev had no idea who I was talking about. Upon reflection, I did not find his ignorance on this subject to be very surprising: he was employed to impersonate one man, and not hundreds. Then again, in my life and times, I have adopted dozens, if not hundreds of aliases, and appeared in many different disguises. Perhaps I should have had a hundred doubles, a hundred doppelganger selves.
In Turukhansk, I walked the frozen sea of my soul. Alone for the first time in my life, without friends or family, without a wife or lover, I learned that I had no need for other people, although there were times when I missed sharing a bowl of tobacco, talking political shop, or even just conversing about the weather, which, in Turukhansk, never changed. The weather was cold, so cold saliva froze on the lips and one's breath crystallized in the air. Fortunately, I had my books to distract me.
I had inherited the library of a drowned man. The library, as I called it, was a collection of books that had been accumulated by an exile named Innokenti, who ended his life about the time he had finished reading the last work in his collection (The Peasant and Death by Ivan Krylov, which would have driven me to suicide, too, if it were the only book left in the world to read.)
Luckily for me, Innokenti's collection was fairly large, and I never got around to dealing with Krylov, or Goncharov or a half dozen other writers that Innokenti had favored from Russia's so-called Golden Era.
Instead, I spent my time reading and re-reading some criticism by Belinsky and a novel of Dostoevsky's that has long been my favorite, a work known in the West as The Possessed but in Russia by its actual title, The Devils. It is the story of a group of revolutionaries who plot to overthrow the government but end up murdering one of their own. Although the novel is about a murder, it is framed by two suicides—the suicide of Kirilov, who leaves a note taking blame for the murder plotted by the revolutionaries, even though he plays no real part in it, and the suicide of Stavrogin, who hangs himself, leaving a note that declares, No one is responsible. I did it myself. Stavrogin's last words implicate a third suicide, that of a 12-year-old girl whom he had molested and driven to despair. Most commentary on the novel focuses on Kirilov and Stavrogin, who are doppelganger selves but with a difference, one genuinely blameless, the other genuinely blameworthy. To me, however, the most interesting character in the book is Pyotr Verkhovensky, who incites others to kill but never accepts blame for any thing; he is, in a word, beyond guilt, if not beyond good and evil.
A few months after I arrived in Turukhansk, I was transferred to a town called Kureika. I was permitted to take only a few of my belongings, and, of necessity, left Innokenti's library behind, including my well-thumbed and heavily annotated copy of The Devils. It did not matter, because, by then, I had most of the book memorized.
Kureika was even closer to the Arctic Circle than was Turukhansk. Days and nights were a seamless dark there for most of the year, and it was impossible to tell what time it was by looking at the sky. Kureika, of course, was even colder than Turukhansk, and the most important commodity a man could have there was warm clothes. In Kuerika, I heard stories about how fast a man could freeze to death. First the capillaries in your hands and feet constrict, and your extremities go numb. Color functions as a crude gauge, a sort of personal thermometer, to how well your fingers and toes are doing: during the initial stages of frostbite, the skin turns red, then pasty white; purplish black tells you that you are at risk of losing your appendages. The real danger, of course, is when the body's core temperature drops, an event signaled by violent shivering followed by stupor and apathy and the paradoxical desire to take off all one's clothes—yes, it's true—a freezing man feels like he's burning up inside. Why freezing to death feels like being set on fire is something I can't explain to you. I only know that it did not happen to me, although it was the fate of many of those whom I exiled to Siberia.
In his last letter to his wife, written in a transit camp near Vladivostok, Osip Mandelstam asked her for warm clothes. It is rumored that he was starving, and that he traded his overcoat for a lump of sugar. Perhaps that is what prompted his request for warm clothes. In any event, he never received them: The package his wife sent him in response to his last letter was returned bearing the notation, Death of Addressee.
Some say he went mad before he died, rummaging through garbage for something to eat, shivering without his overcoat in the calamitous Siberian winter, howling like a wolf at the Arctic moon, which hung like a jewel in the sky.
I didn't freeze to death in Kureika, but I was at risk of going mad, like Osip Mandelstam. I think the boredom I experienced was even worse than the dark and the cold and the enduring loneliness. To pass the time, I often wrote poetry by kerosene lamp or talked politics with my dog Tishka, the closest friend I had during my years in exile. The poems I wrote by lamplight to keep my sanity did not survive my time in Kureika. Nor did my poor Tishka, who ran off one night to chase a howling wolf or escape a howling poet, I don't remember which, and never returned. I imagine he either froze to death or was eaten by some hungry predator. In any event, his memory flickers inside me like a candle in the night, and sometimes, I can almost feel him curling up beside me in bed in the dark, his hot tongue lapping at my face and neck.
Mandelstam, I am told, composed poems in his head while walking in Voronezh, shortly before he was interned in the camp near Vladivostok where he perished. After he died, he was buried in a common grave, stuffed like a hat inside the sleeve of the Siberian steppes.
Do you hear, Night, step-mother of the stars' gypsy camp, what comes now and later? Mandelstam asked this question in his Voronezh Notebooks. It is a good question, the question of the day. I do not know what comes now, but I know what happens later. Here is my prophecy: The United States will attack my country. In fact, the U.S. has been planning an attack since at least 1949. The U.S. attack, when it comes, will utilize both nuclear and conventional weapons. According to my agents abroad, the U.S. has the present capability to bomb over 100 Soviet cities, destroying most, but not all, of our industrial base.
By contrast, we could take out two, maybe three, American cities using nuclear bombs. Conventional weapons would add significantly to this tally, and, if Comrade Beria is to be believed, we are only months away from the development of a hydrogen bomb—the Super, as the Americans call it.
Even with the Super the gap between our nuclear arsenal and theirs is great, and will only increase over time. That is why it is important to strike now, a fact I impressed upon my colleagues at dinner just a few nights ago.
Insanity, read Beria's face, and Khrushchev's and Malenkov's and Bulganin's. But my scheme is not as insane as it sounds. First, we have an enormous edge over the Americans in the number of ground troops. After the last war, the Americans demobilized rapidly, sending their soldiers home to buy houses in the suburbs and refrigerators and cars and all the other staples of a capitalist economy. In contrast, the Red Army remains the largest army in history, with more men, tanks and artillery than all the NATO powers combined. By my estimate, we could control all of Europe and capture the British Isles, too, during the first couple of months of a third world war thanks to our superiority in conventional ground forces.
Second, the Americans are much better at making money than winning wars, and are not at all psychologically prepared for an attack on their homeland. Americans have not experienced the horror of war like we did during the Great Patriotic War, when more than 30 million people died, many of them civilians. Americans simply do not have the ability to stomach what happened to us on the eastern front; they do not have the will to survive what we survived during the Nazi advance on Moscow or the siege of Stalingrad.
During the last world war, the Japanese launched thousands of balloon bombs off the coast of the western United States. One of them touched down in Oregon, killing five children and creating local panic. Unfortunately, the balloon bombs were unguided (most of them fell harmlessly into the ocean) and Japan did not follow up with more attacks or with a propaganda blitz, allowing the U.S. to censor news of the attacks before word could leak out. Imagine, however, the impact that a bomb attack on Los Angeles or San Francisco would have, particularly a nuclear one.
The bomb, of course, is one of two great American inventions, the other being the car. Bertrand Russell once said that the automobile has only increased the distances over which we have to travel. The bomb may have similarly unintended consequences. The scientists who midwifed it thought it would protect them from German anti-semitism. But their uber weapon was never used against Germany. Some of them even helped to deliver it to me, leader of a nation where The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, the ur-text of anti-semitism, was first published (or, one should say, forged.) Like the pogroms of old, The Protocols was a tsarist invention, but when it first appeared in America, all references in the text to Jews were replaced with references to the Bolsheviki, and jew and communist became intertwined, virtually synonymous in the American lexicon, if not in the American subconsciousness. In that subconsciousness, Judeo-Bolshevism quickly replaced German fascism as the enemy. In fact, Truman elected to drop the bomb on Japan in order to pre-empt a Soviet invasion of Japanese-ruled Manchuria and beat the hated commies to the prize. He maintained that he was merely trying to foreshorten the war, but he was also looking ahead to the next one, and wanted to send a clear and unmistakable message to me.
In other words, ironies abound. And what an irony it would be to see the Little Boy that America birthed slouch home, dragging its atomic shadow over the Seward Peninsula and the Cascade Mountain Range. No more Golden Gate Bridge. A true sunset for Sunset Hills. Tinseltown reduced to bits of sparkling material. (The world may even thank me: Hooray for bombing Hollywood, that phoney super-Coney Hollywood...)
(Actually, if I had my way, I would like to drop a couple of atom bombs on targets further east, like New York City, where Gorky was scorned and humiliated, or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the heartland of industrial America. Unfortunately, the elements of surprise and bomber range mitigate against striking these targets.)
The point is that it is not insane to contemplate a war between the Soviet Union and the United States. The insanity lies in believing it is not contemplatable, in not thinking the unthinkable.
Insanity, of course, is the last word in The Devils. Dostoevsky drops the word, like a hanged man falling through a trap door, at the end of a scene where Dasha and Varvara Petrovna discover that Stavrogin has killed himself. At the inquest, Dostoevsky wrote, our doctors absolutely and emphatically rejected all idea of insanity.
In Kureika, I rented a room in an izba, a log house common to rural Russia. This one had an unheated entranceway where the cattle slept in winter and two sleeping rooms heated by a tin chimney. The izba was owned by the Pereprygin family, who lived together in one of the rooms while I occupied the other. My room was furnished with nothing more than a wooden trestle bed and a small table that I made myself. Fishing and hunting nets hung from the walls, and soot from the chimney covered everything—table, bed, nets and tackle. The room in short was a genuine hellhole.
One day, the Pereprygin's thirteen-year-old daughter Lidia walked into my little hellhole of a room. I was sitting on my bed in my underwear and a sailor-striped vest when she walked in. She instantly reminded me of Matroyshka, Stavrogin's twelve-year old lover in The Devils. The moment I saw her, I wanted to put the fingers of my hand on her pale white shoulder, bring her close to me, and draw her breath into mine.
The next morning I went out hunting. I caught a fleeting glimpse of Lidia sleeping on my trundle bed before I left. When I returned, I half expected to find her hanging, like Matroyshka, from one of the nails on the walls of my tiny room. Instead, I found a set of clothes made of reindeer fur laid out on the bed—Lidia's gift to me.
She lost our first baby in childbirth and then immediately got pregnant with another. I remember puffing thoughtfully on my pipe in our tiny room when she told me the news. It occurred to me that it was absolutely insane for me to be spending my life in Kureika with my pregnant peasant little girl while Russia was galloping, like a reindeer-propelled sleigh, toward revolution. I brought a hand to Lidia's face and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. Then I put on my overcoat and escaped.
Escape has been a major theme of my life. In November 1903, I was accused of organizing a demonstration in Batum; fifteen people were killed when the tsarist police fired into the marching crowd. After I escaped Batum, I was captured and exiled to the village town of Novaya Uda. I escaped from there within a month. A few years later, I was arrested for a second time and exiled to Solvychegodsk. Once again, I escaped. In 1912, I got in trouble for writing an article in Pravda, which I founded (I am the creator of Truth, does that surprise you?) After my arrest, I was sentenced to Narym, but my prison cell could not contain me there, and I escaped for a third time. Later, as I have told you, I was exiled to Turukhansk and Kureika, and made good on my escape for a fourth time.
In 1903, around the time I was exiled to Batum, the escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini escaped from a pair of Russian handcuffs during a tour of Siberia. If I had known about this when it happened, I might have called myself the Russian Houdini, or simply Garri, the Russian equivalent of Houdini's first name, instead of Koba, which I called myself at the time.
Koba, as you know, was the name of my putative father, the wrestler, Koba Egnatashvili. It was also the name of the Caucasian bandit-hero in Alexander Kazbegi's The Patricide, which I read when I was a seminarian, and which inspired me to take up the career of banditry, a craft I practiced on behalf of the Bolshevik cause during my underground years. Was I attracted to Kazbegi's book by its title? Did I harbor a secret desire to kill my real father? Was that why I took another man's name as my own? I have never put much faith in Freudian psychology. Once, when I was suffering from insomnia, I consulted with Vladimir Bekheterev, chief of psychiatry at the St. Petersburg Medical Academy. He told me I couldn't sleep because I was suffering from grave paranoia. As it turned out, Dr. Bekheterev's condition was far graver than mine: He died the day after I consulted with him, keeling over right after eating lunch, I am told. It must have been an epidemic case of food poisoning because several of his colleagues died at the same time and many other members of the Academy staff came down with an undetermined illness.
It occurs to me that the name of my undetermined illness, the one I am suffering now, is exile. I am in exile yet again; this room, this divan and this body imprison me. The mind can be a prison, too. Although I have never felt exiled from myself, my consciousness, I know that many men, most perhaps, are manacled by their own thoughts, their desires, their fears. This was certainly true of the poet, Osip Mandelstam, a mental exile if there ever was one. After I learned about his odious little poem, the one in which he mocked me, I sentenced him to Cherdyn, a small town near the upper reaches of the Kama River in the Northern Ural. This wasn't a harsh sentence, but it nearly drove the poet mad. He attempted suicide by defenestration, throwing himself from a second-story window and breaking several bones. As he lay shattered on the sidewalk, he told his rescuers that he was ready for death. But Death was not yet ready for him. Showing mercy, I softened his sentence and allowed him to return to Moscow, where he wrote several poems in my honor, not very good ones, but better, far better than his odious little epigram. Later, I rewarded him by having him re-arrested and sent into exile once again, this time to the correction camp in Vladivostok, where he died.
Mandelstam may have been a better writer than me, although my 365-page History of the Communist Party—Short Course, which has been translated into 67 languages, continues to be compulsory reading for Soviet citizens. (Some critics seem to have confused it for a work of fiction rather than the seminal work of nonfiction that it is. Others say my History was penned by ghostwriters, a spurious claim, as none of the alleged ghosts have come forward to take credit for the work. For that matter, isn't any writer a ghostwriter, a conjurer of spirits, a necromancer of lives already lived?) But to my point: Mandelstam may have been a better writer than me, but he lacked my spiritual and mental toughness, my will to survive. Although I am exiled to this room, this couch, this besieged and beleaguered body, I am not a mental exile. I am not in psychic chains.
My thoughts race as fast as my bounding pulse. How shall I get out of here? What Houdini-like trick can I come up with to fashion my escape?
Something resilient is stirring inside of me. Perhaps it is just the crackles in my lungs or the fluttery feeling of my heart in my chest, but it sounds like a pair of wings scraping against the sky.
In Kureika once, I watched Lidia candle an egg from her father's coop. Look, she said, as she held the egg up to the candle's light. There's a chick inside. Lidia raised the egg up to my ear and asked me to listen to it. It sounded scratchy like an early disc recording or the sandpapery voice of someone with a bad cold. I think your egg wants to sneeze, I said, as I pushed her hand away from me. Lidia told me I was being silly. That's the sound the chick's egg tooth makes, she said, as it chips away at the shell from the inside. It takes a couple of days for a chick to peck away enough of the shell for it to break free.
I wonder how long it will take me to break free of the shell that is my body. All I know is that if I escape I know exactly what I am going to do.
First I will exact revenge against everyone who has plotted against me —the doctors in this room and the one's involved in Varfolomeyev's plot, but I will not stop with them. I will avenge myself against the foreign agents who set the doctors' plot in motion, the Israeli and American spies and the governments that employed them. Before I am done, I will also destroy the internal dissidents, the double agents, and co-conspirators who worked covertly to facilitate this attempt on my life—from Beria, Khrushchev, Malenkov and Bulganin down to the rootless cosmopolitans in the streets.
When Houdini was in Russia, he escaped from a Siberian transport cell. The cell, which was used to take political prisoners from Moscow into exile, sat or was set on a horse-drawn carriage. Its walls were lined with zinc and the only opening was a tiny steel-barred window on the door. Before Houdini was placed in the cell, which was essentially a safe on wheels, the Russian secret police manacled and chained him. Photographs from this era show a man bent over from the weight of the cuffs, locks and shackles that bind him. His plight, in a word, was inescapable. Yet, somehow, Houdini managed to escape. Some say he used a Gigli saw, a piece of serrated wire that neurosurgeons use to cut through the human skull, to pierce the zinc sheet lining of the transport cell and break out. Ask me, I think he bribed the tsarist police. In any event, he made good on his escape. Just as I shall make good on mine.
People are filing into my room, perhaps to say their last good byes. It reminds me of a receiving line at a funeral, and I want to jump up and say, Wait! I am not dead yet! Unfortunately, I am unable to move (although, I must say, the pain has remitted quite a bit.) In any event, I think the receiving line is good. It increases the possibility that I may find an ally, someone who will help me to unmask the plot against me, against the fatherland, against all of the Soviet Union. All I need to do is send a signal, give a sign, communicate by sound or gesture, make myself understood somehow.
I suspect that the people who are filing into my room are members of the Central Committee of the Party and the Council of Ministers. Some of them—Beria, Bulganin, Malenkov and Khrushchev in particular—are my avowed enemies. Others, like Vorishilov, who dropped the Sword of Stalingrad on my toes in front of Churchill and Roosevelt, are completely useless. But a few of them—such as Brezhnev and Suslov—are my protégés, and perhaps may be counted upon to help.
Someone, I believe it is Lozgachev, thrusts a teaspoon of soup into my mouth, causing me to gag. The sputtering sound that comes from my lips sets everyone in the room on edge. Very well. I have their attention.
The thought occurs to me that I might blink my eyes in some sort of code. I think about signaling save our souls in eyelid Morse, but I cannot remember whether it is three longs followed by three shorts, or precisely the opposite.
In any event, this is not the message that I want to send. I would rather send, Arrest Beria, or, I have been poisoned, but I cannot begin to imagine how to blink out those words.
Suddenly, a memory comes at me full throttle. I remember signing an Order directing Colonel Abrasimov to get proof that Raoul Wallenberg was an American agent acting in concert with Israeli intelligence. The Order was part of my attempt to unmask the foreign agents behind the Doctors' Plot. Colonel Abrasimov later reported back to me that Wallenberg had been sending secret messages to a Jewish prisoner from his cell in the special detention center at Warchne-Uralsk by tapping code on the prison wall.
My memory flashes back to Batumi Prison, where I was incarcerated for eighteen months in 1902 and where I first learned the prison alphabet. The alphabet consists of a series of taps, sounded out on the wall or the prison plumbing, each series corresponding to the letters in the Russian alphabet. To understand the correspondence, picture a rectangle consisting of five rows with six letters apiece—
Now overlay this rectangle with another one:
1,1 1,2 1,3 1,4 1,5 1,6
2,1 2,2 2,3 2,4 2,5 2,6
3,1 3,2 3,3 3,4 3,5 3,6
4,1 4,2 4,3 4,4 4,5 4,6
5,1 5,2 5,3 5,4 5,5 5,6
Each letter in the first rectangle corresponds to the number of taps in the second. Thus ah equals 1,1, or tap pause tap, beh equals tap pause tap tap, veh equals tap pause tap tap tap, and so on until one reaches the end of the first row. Tap tap signals that the letter is found in the second row, Tap tap tap the third row, and so forth. Thus, zheh is tap tap pause tap and chay is tap tap tap tap pause tap.
The prison tap code is at least as old as the Decembrists, who used it to communicate with one another n the czarist prisons of Nicholas I. I learned the code at Batumi from a prisoner in a neighboring cell who asked me for weeks who I was. At first, I thought he was a madman. Later, I thought he was just trying to annoy me. Fortunately, the man persisted, ignoring my admonitions for him to stop, and I began to realize that he was engaging in a novel form of discourse. When I finally unraveled the code and learned what he was trying to say to me, I tapped back in a spirit of pure exhilaration, I am Soso. After that, I was like a chattering child, enthralled with the discovery of speech, tapping out new words and phrases on the cell walls, my prison toilet, the posts and springs of my bed. At one point, the prison guards entered my cell and bound me in order to constrain my newfound love of prison language.
This is the language I will utilize now, a language more primary and basic than the language of love.
My paralyzed right hand cannot move, but I command my left hand to act. Slowly, I drop my left arm over the side of the divan, and wiggle my fingers to increase the circulation. I feel a sharp, stabbing pain in my left shoulder. My temples begin to throb. Taking a deep breath, I gingerly place my hand on a leg of the divan, and tap, slowly at first, then louder and more vigorously.
Tap tap pause tap tap tap tap...
Tap tap tap pause tap tap tap tap tap tap...
My fingers work the legs of the divan as if they were telegraph keys.
Who are you? I tap out to the people in the room. Who are you? I ask them.
It was while I was in Batumi (not the prison but the city for which the prison is named) that I first learned how to kill. I was only twenty-one years old, and had never had a murderous thought before. To be sure, I had experienced anger, hatred and resentment, and, yes, there were times, particularly after Beso beat me, that I wanted to return the favor and punch back, but I had never before entertained the notion that it was all right to kill.
This changed while I was in Batumi. I had come to Batumi, a Georgian oil port on the Black Sea coast, to organize the refinery workers there. One of my first acts was to print and distribute pamphlets attacking the Rothchilds, a multi-national banking family of German-Jewish origins who also happened to own the refinery. The pamphlets also extolled the virtues of a Leninist-style Marxism, and I had Lenin's vision of a militant sect of professional revolutionaries in mind when I came to Batumi. The problem I encountered was that the Georgian intellectuals who ran the local party were too soft and the workers who we were trying to organize could not be trusted.
I was standing at a window one day watching several workers who had arrived to attend a meeting of our local committee file into the meeting room. Something about the appearance of one of the men struck me as very odd. I can't tell you was it was that struck me as odd, what it was about him that registered falseness. Perhaps it is like looking at a painting and realizing intuitively that it is a fake. At any rate, I remarked to the party worker standing next to me that the man was a secret agent. Later, my intuition was confirmed when the man was seen at a rally in a policeman's uniform.
Something had to be done. The man, whose name was Karzkhiya, threatened my work in Batumi; indeed, he threatened my ongoing existence there.
I issued an order to have him killed. No person, no problem, I said. It was the first order of this kind that I had ever made, and I issued it half-seriously, almost half-heartedly, not really believing that anyone would carry it out. But it was carried out, and Karzkhiya's life was extinguished, and I realized for the first time that there are any number of men (and women) who are just waiting for an opportunity to act on an order like the one I had given.
This is my insight into human psychology: most people are weak and cowardly and passive and willing to be bossed around, particularly if the boss's directives sanction them to transgress. With just a little bit of encouragement the masses will lie, cheat, and steal; they will take bribes and bribe others; they will extort; they will betray their acquaintances and friends and relative and spouses; they will even kill on command.
I also realized for the first time that I was different. Later, I read The Devils and understood that I was like Verkhovensky, gifted with the personal charisma to have my thoughts and ideas carried out by others. Moreover, I have not relied always or solely upon others when necessity required me to act. The murder of Karzkhiya was a necessary one; his existence imperiled others and if I had not stopped him many of my comrades, myself even, may have been tortured or killed by the Okhrana. Karzkhiya was an impediment—to us, to the revolution, and to justice.
Of course, as I have often remarked, the death of one man is a tragedy while the death of millions is a statistic.
I am thinking about the death of millions, picturing in my mind's eye an atom bomb blast over Los Angeles, when someone turns on a radio, and music floods the room. The music, which is instantly recognizable, drowns out the sounds I am making, the tap code I am registering on the leg of my divan.
The music is the national anthem of the Soviet Union. It occurs to me that the anthem is not only sweeping over the room, but is also being broadcast to the far reaches of my country, to little huts in the mountains of Central Asia and tiny villages near the Arctic Circle, where the snow and ice never thaw.
I introduced the National Anthem during World War II, substituting it for the Internationale and using it to precede news of our victories in the field. It is majestic and soaring and always fills me with pride, particularly the second stanza:
Through days dark and stormy,
when great Lenin led us
our eyes saw the bright sun of Freedom above.
And Stalin our leader
with faith in the people
inspired us to build the land that we love.
Nearly forgetting my predicament, I retract my hand from the leg of the divan, and attempt, futilely, to bring it to my forehead in a salute. Although I cannot salute, although I cannot rise and stand, I can and do imagine myself on the dais in Red Square, my lips curling in a smile as the chorus of the anthem swells.
Long live our Soviet Motherland,
built by the people's mighty hand,
long live our people united and free
strong in a friendship tried by fire
long may her crimson flag inspire
shining in glory for all men to see.
It is almost enough to bring a tear to the eye, but it is the announcement that comes next that is truly sorrowful.
The announcer solemnly declares that a great misfortune has befallen our party and our people—the grave illness of Comrade J. V. Stalin.
I am so stunned by what I am hearing that I do not quite grasp the rest of the announcement, just a few fleeting words and phrases, such as hemorrhage of the brain... paralysis... loss of speech... serious disturbances in the functioning of the heart and breathing. I understand only that the words and phrases are about me.
The announcer says something about the medical team that has been called in to treat me, how gifted they are, how they are providing the best medical care possible anywhere in the world today. Then he says something that I find as disturbing as the litany of medical problems that he has just recited to the nation. He says that the Party's Central Committee and the Council of Ministers sadly acknowledge that my grave illness will require my more or less prolonged non-participation in leading activity. I recognize this jargon for what it is: the coup is underway; the corpse is not yet dead, but the fight over who will succeed me has begun. I feel my blood pressure rise.
After the announcement ends, someone turns the radio off, and there is a moment of hushed silence in the room. In the silence, I realize that all the eyes in the room are focused on me. It is my moment, my best, and perhaps, last chance to communicate with an ally, if, indeed, I have any allies left at all.
I drop my arm over the side of the divan, and begin to tap, quite deliberately, on the leg of the sofa.
Tap tap tap tap pause tap...
Tap tap pause tap tap...
Tap tap pause tap tap tap tap...
What's that sound, Nikolai Bulganin exclaims.
Yes, indeed, what's that? echoes Nikita Khrushchev.
Look, Georgy Malenkov says. Our leader's hand is moving.
I think he's having a seizure, Beria says, alarm sounding in his voice.
No, No, I think he's trying to tell us something, General Suslov interjects.
I turn in the direction of the general's voice, like a flower turning toward the sun. Using all the strength I have left in me, I raise my torso from the divan and struggle to sit up.
Oh, my God, Malenkov says. Comrade Stalin is coming back to life.
Yes, like Lazarus, I think, and it occurs to me as I think it, that I have been precisely four days dead, just like the Biblical Lazarus of Bethany.
I feel a cold hand on my shoulder. Help me, help, me Beria says. Help me get him back on the divan. He's having a seizure, don't you think?
I open my eyes, and stare, unblinkingly, into the frightened face of my NKVD chief. Terror glistens in his eyes.
Oo—oo—oo... I hiss at him.
Oo—BEET—sa, I say loudly, expectorating the Russian word for murderer in Lavrentiy Beria's face.
He recoils from me, my spittle dripping from his nose like a melting icicle. His body quakes.
Oo—oo—BEET—sa, I say again. As I pronounce my sentence on Beria, I raise my withered left arm and point a shaking finger at him.
Beria draws back and away, shrinking from my pointing finger like the waning crescent moon or like the witch in that Alexander Volkov novel after Ellie douses her with water.
Oh poppa, I hear my daughter Svetlana exclaim. You poor poor poor dear lamb.
I turn my head in her direction and see that she is looking past Lavrentiy Beria, that she has tracked my pointing finger to a picture on the wall.
It is a picture she had given me when she was younger, and it has graced the far wall of my room for years. It is a picture of a little girl feeding a lamb. The girl in the picture has red tresses like Svetlana and the lamb's fleece is as white as the snow on the Siberian steppes in winter.
You poor, poor lamb, she sobs.
I want to tell my daughter that she's got it wrong, that she's missed my point (quite literally). Unfortunately, Svetlana isn't the only one who doesn't understand what I am trying to tell them. I jab my finger repeatedly in the direction of Lavrentiy Beria, but no one seems to notice. No one seems to give me any mind. It dawns on me that all eyes are following my daughter's gaze, that everyone in the room is staring at the picture of the little girl feeding the lamb.
From a corner of the room, Lozgachev timorously exclaims that he thinks Comrade Stalin is hungry.
Beria exhales a deep sigh of relief. Yes, yes, he says. Let's give him some soup.
I want to tell them that they are all idiots, blind, stupid kittens, impenetrably ignorant fools, but it is suddenly difficult to breathe and I feel my strength waning. Someone (I think it is Beria) takes my pointing finger and folds it back inside my hand. Someone else puts a hand on my shoulder and gently lays me down on the divan. Nyet, nyet, nyet, I mutter breathlessly.
Nyet nyet nyet nyet.
I dream about a lamb being slaughtered, its white fleece spoiled with blood. The poet Osip Mandelstam appears in my dream. Why are they doing this? I ask him. He tells me they are welding the vertebrae of century to century with the blood of everyone who has been sacrificed on the altar of false consciousness.
Don't worry, he says looking up at me. They don't want yours. You're bloodless.
I tell him that I don't understand what he means about the lamb, that his words don't cathect for me, that they don't make any sense at all, but he just laughs and tells me that my fingers looks like worms. Don't you ever wash your hands? he says. Your fingers are like slimy worms.
In my dream, Mandelstam is seated in a garbage heap. He looks quite shabby. He is very thin and frail, and the coat he is wearing has holes in it. He jokes that his coat has been eaten through by worms. The worms will eat you, too, he says.
I dream about a shepherd girl in a pasture. She has red hair and my daughter's amber eyes. She is feeding hay to a lamb.
The lamb chews on the hay contentedly. The shepherd girl smiles. Above them, above the pasture, the sky is blue with a couple of cirrus clouds. They resemble tufts of lambswool.
Suddenly, the sky fills with cirrus clouds, which obscure the blue tint of the sky. The shepherd tells the little girl to run. A storm is approaching.
The clouds instantly darken. Metal rains down from the sky, falling in hail-size pellets on the lamb and the fleeing shepherd girl.
I am on a Hollywood set watching a crew film a movie. The movie is a western. It stars John Wayne. The Duke, as he is known, lopes out of a trailer onto the set. He is wearing a cowboy hat and a western leather vest. A canvas-colored bandana is tied around his neck. A six-shooter sits on his right hip in a holster.
The Duke is in a jocular mood. He stops to banter with members of the film crew, and he says something funny to the stunt coordinator, and although I cannot overhear the joke he makes, it is funny enough to make the man laugh.
What a good-natured guy he is.
For a moment, I almost forget why I wanted the Duke killed.
Then I remember his fervent anti-communism, the political film he made that flat-out enraged me (Big Jim McClain), and the fact that he was a Bircher. There was a time in the Kremlin that I called him John Bircher Wayne.
I once sent assassins onto the set of a movie Wayne was making in Mexico with orders to kill him, but, unfortunately for me, the attempt failed.
Wayne walks out onto the dusty street of the western movie town, which, with its false store fronts and fake facades reminds me of the Potemkin villages that I had constructed overnight to fool foreign visitors into thinking that communism was modernizing Soviet Russia. Wayne pulls his six-shooter from his holster and twirls it.
He sees me sitting on the set and deliberately takes aim, lining up my forehead with the front site of his pistol.
Before he can pull the trigger, a plane appears in the sky over the movie set. The sound of its engines distract John Wayne. The plane is one of our strategic bombers and the Duke looks up at it in gape-jawed amazement, as if to say, What on earth are you doing here? While he is looking at its fuselage, the plane's bomb panels open and our version of the Fat Man drops out.
Wayne watches the atom bomb plummet down toward him. He suddenly realizes that he is standing at ground zero, and that there is nowhere, absolutely nowhere to go, nowhere to run to, nowhere to take shelter.
Duck and cover, Mr. Wayne. Duck and cover, I tell him.
Will life go on? Will the world continue to exist without me?
I seriously doubt it.
March 4, 1953, 2 a.m.
I am dreaming I am a crab scuttling across the ocean shelf when a voice on the radio calls me out of my crustacean self.
Medical bulletin, the voice on the radio announces. On the night of March 2, 1953, the announcer continues, J. V. Stalin had a sudden brain hemorrhage, affecting vital areas of the brain, as a result of which he developed a paralysis of the right leg and right arm, with loss of consciousness and speech. On March 2 and 3 suitable measures of treatment were undertaken, directed toward improvement of the disturbed functions of breathing and circulation. So far these measures have not brought any substantial change in the course of the illness.
At 2 a.m., March 4, J. V. Stalin's condition remains serious. Considerable disturbance of breathing is observed; frequency of breathing is 36 per minute and the rhythm of breathing is irregular, with periodic, prolonged pauses. It is observed that pulse beats are up to 120 a minute and there is complete arrhythmia. Maximum blood pressure is 220, minimum 120. Temperature is 38.2 Centigrade. In connection with the disturbed breathing and blood circulation, inadequacy of oxygen is observed. The degree of disturbance of the function of the brain has increased somewhat. At the present time a series of therapeutic measures are being applied to restore the vitally important functions of the organism.
The organism thinks that the report is not so good. But the organism is still functioning, however inadequately.
Osip Mandelstam speaks to me from his garbage heap, his ragged voice intoning the words of a poem:
As long as it still has life
The creature lifts its bone
And along the secret line
Of the spine, waves foam.
Walking Corpse Syndrome
In 1880, a French neurologist named Jules Cotard delivered a lecture on a new psychosis, one he called le délire de négation, or nihilistic delusion. In his lecture, Cotard described the strange case of Mademoiselle X, a woman who believed she was a walking corpse. Because she thought she was already dead, the woman refused food, believing that she had no need to eat. She died a few days later of starvation.
I think I am suffering from the same malady that afflicted Mademoiselle X. Like her, I believe I am dead, or, at the very least, have lost my soul.
As I look back on my life, I realize that I have acted as if I did not exist most of the time. I remember once getting very upset with Vasily for using my name to curry personal favors. But father, he objected, I'm a Stalin, too. No, you're not, I angrily retorted. You're not Stalin and I'm not Stalin, either. Stalin is Soviet power. Stalin is what's in the newspapers. Stalin is the face on the posters. But he's not you. He's not even me.
Like Mademoiselle X, I have forgotten who I am.
Perhaps I never was.
There are several other similarities. Mademoiselle X denied the existence of God. As Kirilov says in The Devils, God is the pain of the fear of death. But I do not fear death; indeed, I never have. In fact, I have willed death. I personally signed warrants approving the execution of thousands, and millions of other deaths have been attributed to me. Dostoevsky once said that if God does not exist, everything is possible. I know that God does not exist because I have done everything. I have done things that could only occur in the absence of a benign and caring deity.
Mademoiselle X believed some of her organs were missing and that her body was putrefying. I believe I am in a process of irreversible decay, like an overripe tomato plucked from the vine or an apple that has fallen on the ground.
Moreover, for some time now, I have been missing the organ that some people think matters most, the one Aristotle called the seat of motion, the beginning and end of life. I am speaking, of course, of the heart.
There is a character in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past named Dr. Cottard who is modeled after the real life Jules Cotard. Proust's Cottard is a buffoon. He smiles all the time because he is never sure whether the people he meets are serious or not; if they are not, his smiling demeanor fits right in and if it turns out they are serious his smile conveys the impression that he is inwardly amused, as if he were being entertained by a private joke. The real joke, of course, is Cottard, who, in Proust's view, is not much of a doctor, not much of a diagnostician.
My treating doctors have diagnosed me as a fatality. It is evident in their demeanor, in the weary expressions that hang from their faces like jowls. I suppose their oath requires them to go through the motions in spite of the inevitable outcome. Or perhaps they are simply afraid that they will be blamed for my death. Whatever the case, they continue to administer treatments.
This one injects me with camphor. That one turns me on my side and gives me another enema. When the two of them are finished, Dr. Lukomsky reappears with his jar.
No wonder my blood pressure spikes. It is no surprise that my pulse races.
Lukomsky applies more leeches to my skin. I think of Mandelstam's greasy worms.
I don't know whether it is the leeches that trigger it, but I begin to hiccup uncontrollably. I also begin to sweat profusely. My eyes open and close involuntarily.
The effect is almost like a stereopticon projection where images flicker past one another until image and after-image blur. In the magic lantern cinema of my mind, I watch Beria knell down in front of me and kiss my hand. The imagery is accompanied by a flapping sound, like a bird taking wing. Flap, flap, flap, flap, flap. With a supreme act of will, I try to close my ears to the sound and clamp my eyes shut against the spectacle of Beria kneeling at my bedside. When my eyes stay shut and Beria thinks I am unconscious again, he rises and harshly curses me, spraying my face with his saliva. Some of his spit lands on my closed lids, and my eyes begin to blink out of control again. The Beria cinema vérité recommences as fawning devotion is followed by undisguised insubordination, quivering fear by envenomed rage. Finally, Khrushchev tells him to sit down and behave. Can't you see he's dying? Nikita says.
I am conscious of the sound of my own breathing, the beating of my heart within my chest. Each breath is shallower, shorter, each beat weaker and less regularly spaced.
My chest rises and falls like waves on an inclement and uneven sea.
Someone turns the radio on again. I am expecting another bulletin on my condition, but this broadcast is different from the last.
The radio is like a stethoscope. It broadcasts the thoughts of everyone seated in the room. Beria, for example, is wondering how long this drama can go on, and what will happen when it is over. Part of him thinks that he might become First Secretary of the Party, but another part fears that his co-conspirators will throw him into Lubyanka Prison, try him in absentia, and take him out and shoot him in the head.
Bulganin and Malenkov are wondering whether to cast their lots with Beria or with Khrushchev.
Khrushchev thinks it might be a good idea to have Beria arrested at the earliest possible opportunity.
My daughter Svetlana wonders how she will get along without me and my repeated interferences in her life. She thinks she will miss her papa when he is gone, but she also wonders what freedom will be like. She thinks freedom may be another suitor, and she is not quite sure whether she should embrace it or run from its embrace.
Lozgachev wonders if it would be all right to eat the soup.
Through the end of my metaphorical stethoscope, I can hear the dead speak, too. They all have their own particular intonations and inflections, like heart sounds. Over there, in that corner of the room, Sergei Kirov is asking why I had him shot. He has been dead now for almost 20 years, and it amazes me that he has not yet figured it out.
The room is peopled with the dead. I hear the sighs of Kirov's assassin, Nikolayev, who mumbles something about being out of work and down to his last ruble. I had a wife and child to feed, he sighs. Blood oozes from the holes in his forehead, chest and torso where the bullets from the firing squad pierced his body. He holds out a bleeding hand to me.
The walls of my room dissolve into space, and I can hear Nikolayev's infant son, Marx, speaks to me from the orphanage where I had him sent after I liquidated his mother. Why do you call this country the motherland? he asks. Is it because of all of the mothers who are buried here?
Mothers and sons, the voices of the dead murmur from the Ukraine, from the Katyn forest, from the steppes of Siberia and the Arctic Circle.
I feel like I am back in Kureika, where it is impossible to tell what hour it is, where time dilates like the seamlessly gray sky. I remember once looking out from the window of a brilliantly lit room at noon and seeing my own reflection in the polar twilight. That is what it is like right now right here where I am.
Solipsism syndrome is the state of mind in which one believes that everything is a dream and nothing is real. The sufferer believes that everything is in the mind and that there is no reality independent of the imagination. Solipsism syndrome is the psychological counterpart to philosophical solipsism, the idea that I and I alone exist, that there is no empirical reality outside one's own mind. Solipsism syndrome, I would venture, is the condition, not only of those exiled to places like Kureika, or the isolated villages that make up the Soviet gulag, but also to those warehoused in nursing homes and madhouses. In this sense, of course, solipsism syndrome is quite unlike philosophical solipsism because it postulates that others may exist independently of the mind that imagines them.
In the dream I am dreaming, a man in a white lab coat is shaving my chest. He places metal discs on the places he has shaved after rubbing my skin with cotton pads soaked in alcohol. The pungent smell of the alcohol tickles my nose. (I realize that this is an olfactory hallucination.) When the man is done attaching the metal discs to my chest, he repeats the process with my arms and legs, shaving the skin, rubbing it with alcohol, attaching the metal discs to the bare areas. After he is finished, Lukomsky tells him that he doesn't like the way he has placed the leads, and the man detaches several of the discs on my left arm then attaches them all over again.
All right now, Comrade Stalin, someone says (not a real person, an imagined one), please lie very still and try not to breathe until the test is over.
This instruction is laughable. Trying not to breathe is no problem. Continuing to draw breath is the issue.
Okay now, I am told. You can breathe normally again.
If only I could, I'd like to tell him.
Look at this, Lukomsky says, pointing at a zig-zag pattern on a strip of paper he is holding in his hand. Not so good, he says, shaking his head. Not so good.
To the contrary, I think my imagination is reaching new heights.
There are many instances in literature and art of works of imagination that are left unfinished by their creators.
For example, Maxim Gorki died before he could finish his last novel, Klim Sangin. Of course, some might argue that it was not death, but the hand of fate, that stilled Maxim Gorki's pen.
Sometimes, the mere fear of death is enough to keep a writer from writing. The Yiddish writer Isaak Babel was so fearful that his work might offend the state that he stopped writing all together. In a speech he gave to the Congress of Writers in 1934, he praised me for depriving writers of the right to write badly, jesting that he had mastered a new literary genre—the genre of silence. I was not amused by Babel's speech, and, in 1939, when he returned to the Soviet Union from France, I had him arrested. Interrogated at Lubyanka, he confessed that his refusal to write was a deliberate attempt to undermine the values of socialist literary realism. For his insolence, he was shot in the head.
Sometimes, works of art are not so much as left unfinished as they are abandoned by their authors. After writing two chapters of a novel that was to be entitled Solus Rex, the Russian émigré author Vladimir Nabokov gave up on the project. The novel was to have dealt with a disconsolate widower who invents a mythical northern country called Thule to distract himself from his grief; the widower gradually begins to inhabit his fictional world. Instead of finishing the novel, Nabokov fled to America where he befriended William Buckley and became a lepidopterist. One might argue that he began to inhabit a fictional world himself, much like the hero of the work he abandoned.
Nabokov should never have left Russia. As I told the playwright Bulgakov once, a Russian writer cannot live outside his fatherland. If Nabokov had stayed here he might have realized that ours is the only country in the world that truly appreciates literature. In other countries, writers are largely ignored, or, at best, jeered. But only in Russia, as Osip Mandelstam once said, is poetry respected enough to get people killed.
The Night of the Murdered Poets
Seven months ago, 13 members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were shot to death in the basement of Lubyanka Prison. They were executed after a trial in which they were found guilty of espionage and treason. The 13 were plotting to establish a Jewish republic in the Crimea and use it as a bridgehead to allow further operational maneuvering by the Zionists and American capitalists who funded and orchestrated the plot and recruited the 13 to carry it out. Ultimately, they intended to use the base in the Crimea to launch a wider attack against the Soviet Union, supported by Israel and the United States, and almost certainly involving the use of atomic weapons. Fortunately, they were caught before their conspiracy could bear bitter fruit.
Of the 13, only five were poets and writers, but it will be those five, I suspect, who will be remembered in the future. Osip Mandelstam's lover, the poet Anna Akhmatova, once likened poetry to memory, and the Yiddish poet, Peretz Markish, who was one of the five executed at Lubyanka, equated poetry with remembrance of suffering. My heart is like a mirror, Markish wrote, that has been dropped on a stone. Let me gather up the broken pieces and glue them together with stabbed and bleeding fingers so the world may see my crippled broken image. This is exactly what I wanted to prevent. Accordingly, I ordered that copies of Markish's books, and the works of the others, be removed from public libraries, taken out of circulation, gathered up, and destroyed. The Jews already have enough martyrs and do not need to add the names of five more to their Black Book of victims.
One of the five, Itzik Feffer, was asked at his trial whether Jews were the only ones to have suffered in the Great Patriotic War. He had the audacity to say yes. Feffer had once traveled to the United States and met Albert Einstein and read a poem to him that contained the lines, I have often withered but have not perished—I am a Jew. In point of fact, however, Feffer withered under interrogation, fingering his fellow poets in the Crimea plot, along with a hundred others.
Among those he fingered was the poet and children's writer, Leib Kvitko, perhaps best known for a poem that contained the following lines:
Is pain of all pain
And a Russian death
Is death of all death.
You're killing him, you're killing him, Vasily sobs.
Khrushchev puts his arms around my son. Vasily leans his head against Nikita's chest, and cries.
I have stepped into this river before.
In front of me, on the other side of this frozen river, the snow is piled in banks. I have a sudden desire to tear off my clothes and dive into the snow.
I am burning up.
I feel like I am on fire.
Sweat oozes from every pore.
After my imprisonment in Batumi for revolutionary activity, I was exiled to Siberia. This was my first exile, about a decade before I was sent to Kureika, and I tried to escape shortly after I was transported there. The path I chose took me across a frozen river. Freedom waited on the other side. I stepped gingerly onto the ice, and tested it. It seemed safe enough to walk on. My first steps were very slow and tentative. I moved on tiptoes. But them, as freedom loomed larger in my eyes, I broke into a trot, putting the full weight of my booted feet down on the surface of the frozen river. As I did, the ice cracked beneath me and gave way. For a moment, I saw my broken image in the cracked mirror of the river's surface. As I sank into the icy water, I remember experiencing the same sense of delirium, of intense heat, that I am feeling now.
Fortunately, it wasn't my time to die yet. A peasant saw me fall and pulled me from the river. He took me to his home and warmed me by a stove and gave me dry clothes to wear. After I bid him goodbye, I set off for the next village, where I was arrested by the police and taken back into exile.
Exile was so much harder for me then because freedom had come so close, and the dream of escape burned so much hotter inside me from that point on in time. Even today, especially today, I remember the icy hot feeling of nearly freezing to death and the fire that continued to consume me after I was returned to Siberia.
After he was exiled to Siberia, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that he felt like he was buried alive and shut up in a coffin. The memory of exile was so intense that, for years afterward, Dostoevsky feared that he might actually be buried alive. Consequently, he left notes everywhere begging his survivors to allow a period of time to lapse before embalming him in order to make certain that he was really dead.
Lukomsky's stethoscope feels cold against my chest.
He announces, solemnly, to everyone in the room that my heart has a hollow tone.
What does it mean, doctor? my daughter, Svetlana, asks him.
It means that his heart is failing.
Is there anything you could do? Svetlana asks.
I could inject him with camphor and some adrenaline to stimulate his heart and make it beat stronger, but...
But what? Beria interjects.
The injection could kill him, Lukomsky says.
Although my eyes are welded shut, I can picture the smile on Comrade Beria's face. I feel an intense desire to place my hands around his neck and strangle him.
What would you like me to do? Lukomsky asks Svetlana.
I don't know, she says.
Vasily, do you want me to give your father an injection?
My son says nothing.
The children are afraid to make this decision, Beria suddenly interjects, so let me make it for them. Give Comrade Stalin the adrenaline and camphor.
I wonder if Mandelstam experienced an adrenalin rush the night he was arrested. Did Isaak Babel's adrenal glands release a stream of epinephrine in the moment before he was shot? I feel the needle pierce my skin and the adrenaline surge throughout my body. It is a chance, perhaps my last chance, to communicate, to issue one final order.
I lift my left hand and point. I do not quite have the strength to sit up and I lack the vision, the ability to see, exactly where I am pointing, although I have aimed my index finger in the direction of Comrade Beria's voice. J'accuse, I say to myself.
He's pointing to heaven, my daughter says.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Svetlana is a sweet girl, but she has always been an idiot.
If I had voice I would tell her that I believe in the Devil and that I believe in the soul, but I do not believe in God or a hereafter.
I lost my faith, if I ever had it, a long, long time ago.
As my heart beats quicker, my mind races to catch up with it, and I think about everything that I have lost—power, my innocence, Tatka, Kato, Lidia and Yakov. Then I feel a wave rise up out of my internal sea, and I ride it to the crest.
Father! Vasily shouts.
Vasily, Beria hoarsely rebukes him. Perhaps you should take your sister out of here. She doesn't need to witness this.
Aeschylus, who was called the Father of Tragedy, is said to have written 90 plays, but only 6 survive. The other 84 are thought to have perished in the great fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria.
According to ancient sources, one of the lost plays, Achilles, was adapted and performed in Egypt prior to the fire, and a copy of the adaptation is believed to be extant. One story, circulated by the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, claimed that a manuscript of the adapted play was buried with the director. Perhaps someday someone will find the manuscript in the wrappings of his mummy, if his tomb is ever found. Perhaps someday someone will unearth the story buried inside me, too.
A few days into his final illness, Maxim Gorki dictated some notes on his unfinished novel. The end of the story the end of the hero the end of the author, he said. But it wasn't the end of the author, not yet. Nine speechless days later, Maxim Gorki died.