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J A N U A R Y 2 0 0 0
N June I was transferred to the dacha at Kuntsevo. Beria had warned me about Vlasik, but he was unavoidable. My first day he called me in. "Comrade Stalin requires clean windows," he said. "Every day, every window. Inside, outside. Comrade Stalin's bed is to be made if he sleeps in it. If he sleeps on the sofa, the cushions are to be fluffed. If he sleeps on the cot, do not take it down. Do not make it like a bed. The blanket is to be folded and placed at the foot -- go there today and learn the fold. You are never to be in the same room as Comrade Stalin. He is never to see you or hear you. You are never to speak to him, or to anyone who comes through the front door. This is your handcart. Take care with supplies. This is your uniform. This is your schedule: these rooms, these times, unless someone is in them. If someone is in them, what do you do? Guess. That's right -- come to me."
Kuntsevo bore little resemblance to Lipki -- it was modern and low and ugly, half as large -- but it felt familiar, and soon I realized that the furniture was identical in every room. The pictures that hung on the walls were the same too. In the kitchen the same bread (and fruit and meat -- everything) arrived with the same signed tags attached: No Poisonous Elements Found. We were always busy at Kuntsevo, though. A dozen or more were on the staff, and men from the politburo came and went: Voroshilov, Molotov, Zhdanov -- everyone. Beria, of course. I shared a room with Valechka, the permanent housekeeper, an old woman devoted to Stalin, who had no interest in me.
We all kept track of him through the day. Mornings the word was passed along, guard to cook to gardener: There's movement or There's no movement. His dinner lasted half the night, so he didn't wake until late morning or noon. We would listen at the doors (though we weren't supposed to), and when he left a room, we bustled in, whirling whirling, but attentive still, so that if he forgot his pipe, we could bustle back out before he saw us. "If you're too late," I was told, "don't hurry. Stop running before he opens the door. Turn to him, curtsy (he won't speak to you, but he might nod), and then leave the room calmly." This was from Valechka one night, and though I didn't like her tone, she was the first person other than Vlasik to speak to me at the new dacha. So I said, "I see, I see. And what if he does speak to me, Valechka? And if we pass in a hallway, what then?"
But I had been there less than a week when the Germans invaded, so everything changed. At four in the morning a call came from the Kremlin to the guard on duty: "Wake him up immediately," Zhukov said. "The Germans are bombing our cities." By midmorning everyone had heard the story. Stalin left for Moscow. At Kuntsevo there was less scurrying, more gossip. The younger guards talked of leaving their posts to go to the front. We heard good news and bad, side by side. Most of us believed the bad. Our front had been caught by surprise, our armies captured. I gathered my first and last information -- a telegram left out on Stalin's desk -- and passed it up through a guard named Stepan, who belonged to Beria too. I found a letter from Svetlana:
My Dear Little Secretary, I hasten to inform you that your Housekeeper got an "excellent" in her composition! Thus, she passed the first test and has another tomorrow. I send my little papa a thousand kisses. Greetings to the secretaries.
Maybe because of that word, I had come to think of these notes as my own as much as Stalin's or his daughter's. They were certainly not Beria's; I didn't report them. I lay in bed that night while Valechka wheezed and snored, and I composed a note in my head addressed to Father: "I share a room, but the old woman is good to me. Everyone is good to me, Misha," I lied. "They treat me like a daughter -- don't worry. We all think the Germans will take us as quickly as Poland. I kiss you" -- which I had never said to him and he would not have said to me, though all we did some evenings was kiss. The letter veered: "I'm glad you asked about my dolls. They're not well -- the croup. Send more peaches. -- Your Little Sparrow."
When Stalin returned to Kuntsevo, we knew the worst was true. He came alone, and though it was midday, he went directly to his rooms and would not be disturbed. Someone said he had taken his boots off and lain down in the bed -- not good, because he seldom slept in the bed. We expected an entourage to follow close behind. Vlasik ordered a meal prepared, spare cots made up with the military fold. But no one came. Everyone was quiet for fear of waking Stalin, but everyone wanted him awake. "No calls," he had said, but all day the telephones rang. The guards whispered to one another, "So long as he's sleeping, I for one am not afraid." But we knew the situation was dire. Should I kill him still? I wondered.
By the afternoon of the second day everything had gone slack. Even Vlasik had retired to his room. I walked along the terraces in the sunshine. Birds called, the familiar calls, while Germans marched through our fields. In a grove of pear trees I picked a pear, but it was a terrible mistake: when I bit into it (an early pear -- small and tart) I was back on Semya Street, in the courtyard behind our house, the shade falling under the tree there, and the sound of my husband's typing coming through the window. The radio played in Mother Andreevna's room. Father was lecturing but would be home soon. I was in the courtyard to wait for him.
Instantly I began to cry. I had to spit out the half-chewed pear. What was wrong with me? It wasn't even a pear tree in our courtyard -- it was a crab apple. I could hear my father's voice -- "Where's Sweet Pea?" -- and the old cracked voice of Sasha's grandmother: "She's in back, waiting for you." We would have been more careful had we realized that she didn't know. As it was, Father insisted on discretion. "Shush shush," he would say, pushing me away. "Here is Mother Andreevna, so quiet always in her skin slippers. Baba, you scared me." Walking away down the hall -- was she crying? And when she reported us, what did she imagine they would do with her grandson, please? Did she think he didn't know about father and me? I sat under the pear tree and watched the dacha, but nothing moved and no one emerged. Then I dried my face and stood and walked back. I went inside and stepped through the main room, past the laid table, and through the parlor where the phonograph was, into Stalin's private apartment.
It contained four rooms, all the same size, the same rug before the fireplace in each. Same desk and sofa at one end of the rug. In one was the bed, in two others bookcases. All the tall windows had thin curtains pulled closed day and night, and heavier ones that were usually left open. But in the room I had entered these too were drawn. No lamps were lit. I stood with my back against the door. As it happened, he wasn't in this room, but he might have been. What was my plan? I needed a weapon. A brass lamp stood on a table by the door. It was properly heavy, but the weight of it in my fist solidified the prospect: I would see Stalin from across a room and charge him with the lamp in my hand and strike him on his wide, familiar head. I put the lamp down. Not just now, I thought, to console myself -- but when would I get another chance? With a gun, maybe. But a lamp? I would open the door and creep back out, pray that the parlor was empty still, and slouch into the rest of my life, such as it was.
But just then I heard him. He grunted -- not so nearby, though. He was through the next room, around the corner. I knew where, in fact. I tiptoed to the short hall, expecting the door to be closed, but it was open. I should explain that the dacha at Kuntsevo, being relatively modern, had flush toilets. And I will say that he was a man who flushed before he stood up, and then looked down into the clean bowl.
He saw me when he was buckling his belt, but I had known he would. How awful it was to see Stalin shit. To know he shat was news somehow, but to see him seated with his flank squished into a roll -- not a young man anymore -- was too much. The grimace on his face, pained and juvenile. He dimpled, as you know. Would this be news to Beria? I wondered. Stalin shits -- I've seen it. Now shoot me. And Beria would have.
But Stalin didn't. When he noticed me, his expression was no more or less sour than it had been the instant before. He returned his attention to his belt buckle, his forehead pale and damp. He rinsed his hands in the sink and dried them. Then he shuffled toward me. I must have stood in his way, because he looked into my eyes and gestured with his hand: May I? I stepped aside. I made some noise, too -- it was like a squeak; who knows what it meant. He said, "Thank you," with a good deal of irony.
He shuffled into the next room, where the bed was rumpled. The heavy curtains were drawn, but a lamp burned by the desk. He exhaled a long, relaxed sigh as he climbed into the bed, punched his pillows, and propped them against the headboard. "Can you move yet?" he asked.
"Yes, Comrade Stalin."
"Will you get me a cup of tea, at least?"
"Yes." I nodded.
I began to back out the way I had come, but he said, "Go this way." He pointed. "It's shorter."
When I was through the doorway and into the next room, he called out, saying, "Keke?"
So he's mistaken me for someone else, I thought. A legitimate miracle. I turned, and he said, "The black tea from the Crimea. Ask the cook. And bring honey, too."
"Yes, Comrade Stalin."
In the kitchen the cook had fallen asleep with the radio by his ear. When I woke him, he said, "You spoke to him?" Vlasik was alerted. There is movement. Stalin's favorite server -- a fat Georgian woman -- was summoned to carry the tea. I was thinking that I might want to find an explanation for what I had been doing in his private rooms, but the fat woman returned to the kitchen with the tray still in hand. She looked at me with disgust. "He wants her." Vlasik said, "Nonsense." He took the tray himself before handing it over. "You go," he said, and then yelled, "But don't make him angry!" He lowered his voice and pointed at me. "You will tell me every word he speaks."
The little crowd that had gathered in the kitchen sent me off with plain hatred in their eyes, afraid that I had beguiled him, but the guards I passed in the foyer ushered me with pleased and curious smirks, anticipating my quick demise. Stepan was at the door to Stalin's private rooms, and he gave me a meaningful stare that was meant to remind me of Beria. Then he closed the door behind me and left me alone in the gloom with Stalin.
"Keke?" he called mildly. His voice had the gravelly weight you want from a man, but it wasn't fierce or rude. I considered my dead waiting for me, and my fate, which had been sealed the moment they were arrested and no more than postponed when the secretary at Novgorod plucked me from the platform. I said, "It's me" in a voice I imagined to be Keke's, flirting, because I had learned that this was what I had available. Perhaps I could wrestle the gun away. "I've brought you some nice tea, Comrade."
I set the tray down on a table beside the bed. I would not meet his eyes, but I thought he might be smiling. He shifted in his bed to make room and patted a spot on the covers by his leg. He said, "Can you sit with me?"
So I sat down, nearly, at the edge of the bed. "Of course, Comrade St -- "
He put his fingers to my lips, interrupting. They smelled of pipe smoke. I met his eyes now. The fringe of his moustache was ragged. His face was marked in patches -- as if he had been beaten, I thought, before I recognized the scars that smallpox leaves. He had what Beria called "the Kremlin complexion." His eyes were not cruel, as some have claimed. He said, "Don't, don't do that, Keke, please? Don't be so cold with poor Stalin." There was a gentle, teasing rise to his voice. He took his fingers away. "Be good," he said. "You'll pour?"
I nodded. But while I was fumbling with the screen, he said, "Wait, just one cup? Who is at the door?"
He turned and called out (forcefully, in the voice I had first expected), "Stepan!" Quickly I stood from the bed. When the guard leaned through, Stalin said, "Bring another teacup."
Stepan said, "Slushaius', Comrade Stalin," and closed the door without a glance for me.
Stalin pushed his covers aside. "Well," he said, swinging his feet out of the bed. He put his hand on my shoulder -- lightly, only pretending to lean -- and stood. He said, "Excuse me, Keke, please," and patted my cheek with his open palm. I could see now that his shuffle was mostly for show, a self-deprecating joke, but one arm did hang stiff, as though injured. He went into the hall and then into the lavatory. He closed the door this time.
I touched my shoulder where his hand had been. I smelled my hand -- no smell. Now that I was alone, I noticed the sound of a clock ticking. It was on the mantle over the fireplace, in which a few coals hissed. Don't forget to kill him, I thought. And who is Keke? It was possible that he had lost his mind, but I doubted it. I thought, So it's this bad. I listened for Stalin but couldn't hear anything. How will he kill me? I wondered.
There was a knock at the far door, but I didn't want to call out. The person waited a long time and then knocked again. From the lavatory Stalin said, "Keke!" with a good deal of impatience, so I sang, "Come in!"
Stepan opened the door and peered through. He saw me in the next room and glanced around for Stalin. He moved like a squirrel, closing the door and slipping into the lit room, stopping and glancing around again. He had a teacup in his hand, and he circled past me to place it on the tray. He studied me for a moment. He was a boy still, not even my age, and mixed with confusion and fear in his eyes was ordinary jealousy. So I sneered and waved him away -- shoo. He was about to whisper something (instructions? an insult?) when the toilet flushed. He scurried from the room.
Stalin said, "So." His smile was forced. He climbed back into bed and patted the same spot with his palm. "Our tea," he said. "It's cold by now, but what do we care?"
I poured and passed him his cup and saucer. I said, "It's still warm." How quietly we were speaking! I poured a cup for myself. I said, "Honey?"
"Honey, yes." He was matter-of-fact, a little impatient. I spooned a dollop from the jar while he held his cup between us. The spoon clicked and clacked. He said, "You don't know what to call me now, do you?"
I shook my head no.
"Make something up."
"Something better than that, Keke." He said, "I gave you Keke, now give me one back."
I spooned honey into my own tea and took up the saucer and sipped. He had peeled another layer of hope back, this impression of mistaken identity, but at the core beneath all the layers I was a calm girl already dead. As it happened, hopelessness was not new to me. And equally important to my calmness was the flavor of black tea with honey, which brought me back to Semya Street more forcefully than any pear. I closed my eyes and sipped again. I settled just the slightest bit farther onto the edge of his bed, as if reclining into the grave. I had been here before. I kept ending up here, in this same place, with different men. I said to Stalin, "Do you have a nickname?"
His smile was conspiratorial now; he had been watching me warm to the conversation. "Are you a clever girl?" he asked, in the voice you speak to a pet with.
I nodded. I held his gaze. We were moving in quickly.
"You're very clever?"
I said, "I'm clever." I put my teacup down.
"You don't like me, though?" -- not whispering but nearly, still with this rise, this foolish intonation. He could see through me, I knew, so I said, "No, I don't like you." I shook my head for emphasis. He wore a linen tunic with wide tan buttons. His left hand was beneath the covers, and it could be that he held a gun there. Or maybe he would just use his bare hands. Maybe his will alone would do. I leaned until my cheek was against his chest, and when he set his teacup down and stroked my hair, I pulled my legs up onto the bed and settled.
"You hate me, Keke." He kissed the top of my head.
There were three or four things from home: the tea, the darkness of the room, the fire, the sound of the clock on the mantle. I nodded. "I hate you," I whispered. How good it felt. He knew just what I wanted.
"Everybody hates me, Keke. Everybody hates me." He paused. I closed my eyes. "Let's say you are the new housekeeper?"
I nodded, my cheek rustling against the linen. I could hear Stalin's heartbeat, which for some reason made me want to cry.
"You were cleaning when you came into my room?"
A nod. This was the voice I had heard when I read his letters -- indulgent and sweet.
"You were cleaning."
"Cleaning and what else? Were you spying on Stalin?"
He kissed me. I said no, but only because in truth I hadn't been spying -- I had come into his room with no thought for Beria. If I had been spying, I would have said yes.
"You weren't spying?" No. "You were just curious, then? Girls are curious, I think -- by nature. Isn't that true?" A nod. "It's a dark room, you know -- very hard to clean. You forgot to put the light on. And what's worse, you forgot to bring your handcart with you -- nothing to clean with. What a poor housekeeper, my little Keke." His voice swooned even higher. I nuzzled. There was something in his breast pocket -- foil and paper, a pouch of tobacco. "You were curious. That's all. We get curious -- boys, girls, we all do. We want to know, don't we?" Nuzzling. "We want to see a man shit sometimes. It's true. And so? Does that make us all spies? Sometimes we want to see a man at his worst -- so what?"
I had been crying ever so slightly, but now I began to weep. Brushing the hair back from my ear, he said, "What should we do with you, little girl?" but his voice was not so good, slipping into a desperate range. I shook my head no against his chest. He said, "I don't know what to do, Keke -- I don't know what to do," and my tears subsided, because he was quickly slipping past me. The first sobs shook his chest.
I lay still with my eyes open and rode the jolts and waited a little while more, through a series of deep sighs as he wiped at his cheeks, one hand and the other -- a little frantic. He sniffled. It's a good thing men don't cry often, I thought. Finally he lay still. When he leaned, he held my head against him with his free hand, so that I would know he didn't want to disturb me. I watched him take hold of the knob on the small drawer in the bed table, but then I thought, It's a gun, and closed my eyes so that I wouldn't have to see it. He said shh and touched my hair. He lifted something from the drawer and leaned back. A part of my mind was scheming -- spring for his hand, knock the barrel away -- but the better part was relieved to be granted such an easy death and also relieved that I would not have to kill a man, even Stalin. Then he took the pouch from his breast pocket, so I knew it was only his pipe. Everything was quite familiar. I began to relax.
When he had smoked a little, he said, "Okay, up. Up, up." I sat and stood. He put the pipe down and turned onto his side to sleep. He said, "Keke?"
"Don't leave my rooms." I didn't reply. He said, "They'll take you from me, is all."
In another minute or two he was asleep.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.