FREE Trial Issue!
m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

Return to this issue's Table of Contents.

J A N U A R Y  2 0 0 0 

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one or part two.)

I tiptoed and listened at the door. There was a good deal of agitation in the rest of the house -- footsteps back and forth, the telephone, Vlasik shouting in the distance. I returned to Stalin's bedside, where it was quiet, and sat on the sofa to watch him. Stalin sleeping -- I was full of these phrases that first day. Stalin chewing. Stalin smoking his pipe -- a Dunhill, with the little white dot. In this room was another brass lamp, identical to the one I had held in my fist, and, even better, an iron poker by the side of the hearth. But what was the hurry? I felt almost relaxed, enclosed within his plans for me, and this was familiar too.

A little while later he woke with a start, surprised to see me. "Oh," he said to himself, remembering. He sat back and rubbed his eyes and said, "The least you could do is kiss me." I sat still. "Are you hungry?" he asked.


He ordered our dinner and then stripped off his tunic in the lavatory while we waited. I was in the hallway, watching him. He lathered and shaved and trimmed his moustache. "What should we do with you?" he asked, and I said, "Take me on a picnic?" He smiled dimly. "I'm still waiting for a nickname, you know," he said.

I said "Misha" then, because in this cave of his I would say whatever I wanted.

"Misha?" He frowned. "No." He pulled a face.

"Why not?"

"It's so weak, Keke. Is that how you think of me?"


"I see." He shook out the tunic. "Well, what can I do, then? Misha, if you like." He said it in a high voice, imitating me.

Vlasik himself brought the dinner in and laid it on the table in the first of Stalin's rooms. We seated ourselves across from each other, and Vlasik uncovered a tchokhom-bili: chicken and rice and eggplant, tomatoes, summer melon, peppers. In addition there was borscht and Baltic herring, new potatoes, baklava, acorns in syrup. Vlasik whispered into Stalin's ear, and Stalin said fiercely, "No!" There was more whispering. "No one!" He flung his hand as if shooing a fly and caught Vlasik's nose. "Go away. Go."

We waited until Vlasik was through the door, and then he gave me his plate and I filled it for him. "They hate you now," he told me, but I shrugged. "They hate you, and you hate me, and here am I, left smitten. What kind of picture do we make?" he asked.

I said, "Stop talking and eat -- you'll feel better."

He smiled at this. I was making him happy.

In the evening he built up the fire and we sat at the desk and played rummy. I said, "How soon will the Germans be here, Misha?"

He told me, "Don't ask that."

"Shall I bring the acorns from the table?" I asked.

"Not for me, no."

"Tomorrow," I said, "let's not stay in all day."

"We owe you a picnic."

"That's true -- with cheesecake."

"You'd better tell the cook now." I shrugged. "Forget it, then." He tapped out his pipe and repacked and lit it.

I asked, "Will you kill me?" -- the playful voice, floating.

He grinned and said, "Will you kill me?"

"I won't kill you if you don't kill me."

He said, "No deals. No business between lovers, Keke."

"But I don't love you," I said, while he counted his points.

"Nevertheless," he said, "no deals."

That night the fire reflected brightly off the glossy wood-slat walls, and in bed he lay on his back at first, nervous, with me just beside him. Then he rolled to face me with his poor arm tucked under the pillow. He said, "My second wife has been dead nine years. How long for your husband?"

"Almost one," I said, wondering how he had guessed I was married -- if my face or figure made it clear.

Something in my expression must have worried him, because he said brightly, "Okay, then! That's enough of that -- my mistake. Here, show me your breasts instead."

"I will not." I smiled, but my heart sank a little too. I had my uniform on still, though I had taken off my girdle and stockings and bra.

He said, "Oh, come now." He made a funny face like a boy. Less than a foot separated us in the bed, and the covers were up across our shoulders. He said, "I won't touch, just give me a peep. I've seen them before, you know."

I laughed a little. "You haven't seen mine."

"Well, that's just the point, Keke. That's my point exactly."

I said, "If you promise not to kill me, I'll show you some things." And this time he laughed -- kindly but awful. He rolled over onto his back again and stared at the ceiling. After a while he said, "Not from Georgia, I know. Certainly not from Moscow. Where did they find you, Keke?"

I was pouting. I said, "I don't think I'm interested in this conversation anymore."

He said, "What makes you think you can act that way?" -- very forceful all of a sudden, an entirely different tone. He turned to me and propped himself up on an elbow. Firelight is flattering to anyone, but it made him look younger, too, and virile, which wasn't a welcome impression just then. He pointed at me and said, "You take too many liberties."

The old thoughts returned to me: How difficult can it be to crack a skull? If he is terrible, I can do it more easily. Quietly I said, "If I vex poor Stalin, he should shoot me. Shall I get out of the bed for him?"

"What have I done to you?" he interrupted, still angry, and that made me sit up and lean. I said, "And that you don't want to ask me, Comrade Stalin!" Which broke him up, in small convulsions that he tried to keep his lips around, followed by a great wave of squinting laughter. I could feel a smile on my own lips as well, but I pushed him, both hands against his shoulders. He pushed me back, still laughing, and I pushed him back, harder this time. Then he had his hands inside my collar. It was a low, square collar, and his knuckles were against my bones there. He yanked the dress down with a little tearing; Ifelt a shot of pain when my nipples caught. He stopped laughing and stared hard at my eyes, not my bosom. My arms were confined by the sleeves tight around my elbows. He sat still, breathing. A door slammed in some distant part of the house, as if to remind me that the Germans were coming. Watching Stalin, I didn't think he was pleased with himself. This wasn't what he wanted, and he was still available to be won back -- I could see that. So eventually I decided. I said, "Shall I take it off, then?" Not solicitous -- just a question.

His laugh was thin and through his nose. He was frowning, but he nodded yes.

He was a suckler -- like Sasha, but not like Father. Nothing like Beria. When you look down past your chin at such a man, it's difficult not to take responsibility. All I had ever done with men was make myself available. Take what you need was what I knew, although none of them had needed me yet. It wouldn't work with Stalin. He was so clumsy. I wasn't sure he would get past my bosom -- stopping and starting, lying still while I touched his hair. What could be sadder than an old man's hair? And if I helped him, who would know? Most things would be erased once the Germans arrived, and even if my dead were with me, they could do nothing. I did think of Father, in fact. I closed my eyes, and there he was. I'm not responsible, I thought, crying, while Stalin huffed and breathed. And where are you when I need you, anyway?

He was up before me, whistling "Douglas the Dog" in the lavatory while he shaved. Bare-chested, with morning male smells on him, he poked his head around the corner when he heard me rustling. "Pod'yom," he said. "We have a picnic to arrange." Look how cheerful I had made him.

I said, "A picnic for breakfast?" I had not fallen asleep for a long time, but then I had slept heavily. From the lavatory he called, "It's almost noon."

The tear in my uniform was in the back -- not so bad, but it ripped more when I pulled it on. I said, "I need to change clothes."

Back around the corner came his head -- concerned this time, thinking, as he buttoned up an identical tunic. I said, "Make them bring my clothes to me."

"No," he said, "I don't think so. Come." He strode past me while I found my shoes. My underthings were on his lavatory floor.

Remarkably, Stepan was still on guard. He must have gone and returned. Stalin looked at him with that combination of stern regard and trust that certain men can manage. Pointing at me, he said, "You're to escort her to her room, wait for her there, and escort her back to me. No stops for anyone -- including Vlasik. Do you understand?" Stepan offered a military nod. I could think of no safe way to thwart the plan.

Only when Stalin was behind the door did Stepan face me -- with a stare much too cruel for such a young man. Where did they find these boys? I stepped past him, and he spat on the floor before following me.

Apparently the despairing quiet had descended over the dacha again. We met no one all the way to my room. Stepan spoke over my shoulder in a hiss that began as a whisper but gained volume along the way. "You'd better have things to tell me, little blyad'. Beria would have me kill you now. What does he say while he fucks you, then? Hm? While the Nazis rape our sisters -- what does he say? How does he like it while the tanks roll through our villages? Why don't you show me what you did for him -- here." I closed the door. It had no lock, so I propped a chair.

I expected pounding or shouts, but when I heard nothing, I slipped out of the uniform, seeing the rip in back that must have dominated Stepan's attention. At the basin I scrubbed and brushed my hair. At first, out of habit, I picked a clean uniform from the closet, and had it on before I realized it wasn't necessary. I changed into a pale-blue dress from my first life, one of the three dresses I had carried with me this far into the next. It smelled of storage -- cedar and dust -- but it put someone else in the mirror before me, an image I doubted I could claim anymore.

When I was ready, I listened at the door. Nothing. I opened it quietly and slipped out and closed it without a sound. Then I leaped, because they were right there beside me, both Stepan and Vlasik. Vlasik was amused and red in the face. He said in a stage whisper, "Sneaky little mouse. Is this your new uniform? Have your duties changed?"

They blocked the way. I had never seen Vlasik so happy -- his florid face was bright. Looking at Stepan, I said, "You heard his orders," which set him off like a dog, cursing under his breath and lunging. But Vlasik held him with a forearm and said, "Katia, dear. Ambitious little housekeeper." He pushed Stepan away. "We need to ask you just a few questions before we return you to your duties. We're concerned for Comrade Stalin, you see -- just as you are, I'm sure." He leaned toward me, Stepan behind him. "You have a picnic planned -- I know. We'll be sure to get you there safely. But you see, Russia is falling into Nazi hands just now, while you take him on this picnic, so that has us worried. You can imagine. We wonder why Stalin isn't worried, you see."

He waited as if for an answer. I was thinking how lucky I was to have no one in my life they could threaten me with. I said, "I'll tell him you asked."

He had a quick fake laugh, bright and high. "No, you won't, Katia. No, you won't. You won't tell him about this conversation at all. It's our secret, the three of us. Tell me please, do you care for Russia?"

"Get out of my way."

"Maybe you don't. Has she treated you poorly? Has Adolf Hitler been kinder?"

"He'll have you killed."

"Do you think? How long have you known him, Katia? What is it -- fifteen, twenty hours, maybe? I don't have a watch. Let's say a full day, yes? Do you know how long I have known him?" He touched his chest, his eyebrows raised. "How long I have been in his confidence? Even poor Stepan here, still a young man, yet he's been with Comrade Stalin since he was a boy. I mean, yes, Katia, granted, it's a very fine dress." He touched me now, rubbing the fabric between two fingers. "And you look well in it, yes. And you and Comrade Stalin have become close in all that time -- I know. But do you think it will be enough when he hears about your friendship with Adolf? Were your duties similar there, Katia?" He rubbed his knuckles up and down across my chest. "Did you wear this nice dress for him, too?"

I began to scream.

Immediately Vlasik said, "Shut up!" When I didn't, he put a hand over my mouth. Valechka, of all people, came running. "What's happening?" she shouted from the end of the corridor, as if we had failed to ask her permission. "Who do you have there?" Vlasik shouted back, "Shut up!"

Then came Stalin behind her. I hadn't seen him yet, but I turned to look when Vlasik let go of me. Stalin appeared more confused than angry, standing behind Valechka with his mouth open. After a long pause he said, "Keke! I'm waiting!" He held his hand out for me -- stern and impatient in his paternal way, without a glance for Stepan or Vlasik. What a strange man, I thought. I looked at the other two, but their eyes were on Stalin and they were both terrified -- for themselves, maybe, but also for him. I walked past them and took his hand. I was close to tears, and when we rounded the corner, I wrapped my other arm around his and squeezed. I had been wrong to worry that he would shoot me. In fact, I was safe only when I was beside him. He might kill me still -- but just by sending me away, leaving me to my fate. I leaned against him, and he patted my cheek.

The cook had packed a great basket, which Stalin carried. Not until we were outside in the garden did he speak to me. "You dressed properly," he said. "Good girl."

He led me across the terraces and into the trees behind, where the forest floor was cleared of brush and picked clean and mowed. Deck chairs stood in front of crude cottages, but we walked past these to where the trees were closer and darker. When we settled, I noticed that three guards had followed us from the dacha. They posted themselves in a triangle around us, politely distant. Stalin spread a gingham cloth. An oversized meal had been packed: cheese and salads and pickled beets. A wine from Georgia that Stalin was proud of. He collected some stones and built a fire within them and cooked shashlik. He was becoming himself again, I imagined, expansive and instructing. I thought, Just one night, true, but look what I've done for him. "What can I feed you next?" he asked, and I said, "A black olive." We lingered over it awhile, licking fingers. He was at ease with me now, his smile presumptuous.

Some folders were at the bottom of the basket, and later on he opened them while I lay back on the gingham. A blotch of sun warmed my stomach, and I meant to let him be, remembering what Vlasik had said. But when I looked over, he was intent, already beyond me. Everyone knows that they come at night, when you're least expecting -- they knock on the door and take you with them. They might kill you that evening, or send you away, and everyone knows you don't get a last meal.

"Misha?" I said.

Still intent on the page, he said, "Hm?"

"What did you do to me last night?" I asked, my voice coy and desperate. "I can't remember now."

It worked, of course -- he turned and smiled. And he seemed surprised by what he saw. His smile quickly drained away. Quietly he said, "You can't imagine how good you look, Katia."

That hurt very much. "Don't say my name."

"How sweet you are to me." He leaned and kissed. "What a good girl," he whispered.

Polotov and another man were waiting for him in the dining room. I thought they looked scared, prepared to beg. Stalin told me, "Wait in my room now. Finish your nap." He spoke quietly, so that they wouldn't hear, and he had let my hand go before they saw us. I made it safely into his rooms. I lay curled up in the bed for a short time, but eventually I came to my senses. I went to the desk and turned on the lamp. I took a barrette from my hair and bent it and picked the lock on the bottom drawer. Start at the bottom. A man will think he has hidden something farther out of reach there. It was crammed full of envelopes from the Council of Ministers, the Defense Ministry. Most had not been opened, but the few that had been contained money -- thick packets of large notes and receipts. They were his wages. I took a fat-bellied envelope from the bottom of the pile and left it out on the desk.

The drawer above this had two things in it: a strange telephone with no numbers on the front -- just a plain black face -- and a revolver loaded with three bullets. It was a heavy, gleaming gun, more substantial than the one at Lipki. I put the telephone up on the desk and carefully lifted the receiver. A conversation was in progress on the line, two men involved in an argument. Between the unfamiliar terms and the poor connection I couldn't follow it well. But they seemed to be talking about troops -- artillery, divisions. The voices sounded antique on the line, hollowed out and distant, their urgency a little comic. I had held my palm over the speaking end, but now I said, "Boo!" My voice bounced back to me in a dead way, making no impression on their argument. I hung up and put the telephone away.

I was trained not to press my luck, so I closed up the drawers. But I kept the revolver out along with the envelope, and found a place to hide them, wedged between the headboard and the wall. I waited for a long time more. The proper thing would be to anticipate him now, gun in hand, perhaps in the narrow lavatory. I could call to him, and he would come to see if I had left the door open. He would round the corner hopeful and lascivious. Two bullets for him and one for me.

But after I had sat a little while on the cold tiles, I realized I didn't want him dead -- at least, not if he would come back to me. If he would come and be good to me again, I would trade that for revenge -- my own and everyone else's, too. I would let him keep me if he was sweet; I would make the bed and wait around for him. Be nice. Let him take care of me. Stop saying no all the time.

I went to the last of his private rooms, where I could peek into the parlor. Approaching the door, I heard music playing on the phonograph. It was the folk song "In This Tiny Village," which I had always known, and I wouldn't have believed this was his voice singing out over the recorded tenor if I hadn't seen him through the keyhole. It was a high, weak sound that his speaking voice would never have betrayed. His brow knit in a foolish way, and his mouth bent into shapes. In my narrow view I could see Valechka behind him, and the cook, both watching with indulgent smiles, and just a shoulder past the cook, which was enough to know it was Vlasik. That was as much of the room as I could see. But when the song ended, applause and "Bravo"s came from the near side. How proud and shy he looked in the lamplight. "Encore!" someone shouted -- a girl. "Encore!" And when the needle was dropped and the song began to play again, he laughed and turned to a part of the room not available through the keyhole. "Please, Setanka. Once was enough." But he was happy, ready to be budged, and his daughter began singing it herself to prompt him. Her voice fell away when he took it up again. He watched her this time -- it was evident in his smile. He sang and watched her. They broke my heart. I turned away to the dark room and sat with my back against the doorframe, listening. I had an image in my mind of my father and husband huddled together in the next dark room, their ears pressed at that door, listening after me. And then more again in the room past them -- a sequence of ghosts left out in dark rooms, each listening after the one before.

When the men woke me in the middle of the night, I thought they were Nazis. Perhaps I'd been dreaming. They were impatient but gentle.

"We've packed your bags already," they whispered. "They're in the car. Hurry. Stalin is waiting." It was a mean and unnecessary lie: I was perfectly pliant.

They had told the truth about my bags, though. They were there on the seat. While the driver pulled away, I searched for the photo of Father -- quickly, so that I could ask him to turn the car around if necessary. But there it was. I took it from the bag and sat with it in my lap. I couldn't see it in the dark. "Where are we going?" I asked. The driver said, "We won't be long."

He took me to the station and put me on a train. It was a very short train, just two cars: the engine and a good clean passenger car, such as you seldom saw in Russia in those days. A porter carried my bags. I carried the photo. No one else was in the car, though -- only the porter and I. He picked a banquette toward the middle, identical to all those around it. "This one?" he asked. I frowned and stared, but he evidently didn't know any more than I did. "It's fine," I said. He got down from the train, and I was left alone. When I had settled and looked out the window, I saw the driver still there, leaning against his car. The whistle blew and I waved. We pulled away.

At the next station we picked up a string of regular cars, and the platform was full of passengers loading and other people staying behind. They were women and old men and the crippled -- no one fit for service. No one was loaded onto my car, and the old women watched me through the window and pointed and whispered. When we pulled out again, the sun was up. There was a water closet at one end of the car. I washed my face and combed my hair. I remembered the gun I had left hidden, and the envelope of money, and wondered if they would change my present destination, whatever it was, when Valechka found them. I tried the door at the end of the car, but I wasn't surprised to find it locked. When I called out, the voices chattering in the next car grew quiet. I resettled and fell asleep.

I woke to a more familiar landscape. We were traveling east. A porter came with a key and let in an old man who sold me tea and a sausage. He wouldn't speak -- just held things out to show and then took my money with a little bow. We stopped again at Kazan', Sarapul, Yekaterinburg, in the Urals. We passed my town, but I won't name it. I got tired of looking at Father in the photo. I thought, He wouldn't recognize me now. Then Omsk and Novosibirsk, into Siberia. All the way I had the whole car to myself.

The second night the porter let a band in. I had heard them playing for the car behind mine. They shuffled up the aisle, wary, clanking with cymbals tied to their knees and bells attached to the tips of their shoes. They had the big, flushed faces of old men from the steppe, and the bandore player had no teeth. I didn't know the song, but when it was through, I leaned and clapped. They promptly stood and turned to go, but I said, "No, wait. Another, please, one more!" It was as if they couldn't hear me. "I can pay you," I said, willing to lie. This led the last man to touch his cap, but the porter freed them and locked the door behind.

They took me off the train at Tomsk -- two officers from the camp. They were strangely polite, loading me into the car. They allowed me to bring my bags, though after that ride I would never see them again. The Victorian houses of Tomsk sink a little farther each year into the melting permafrost, and in some the ground-floor windows were not much above the sidewalks. The houses were painted bright colors, with turrets and spires, but past the last street the forest crouched above them. We drove to Kolpasevo, on the Ob. Slabs of ice still lounged along the bank. It was a low building with a tin roof. They took my blue dress and my bags. The showers ran yellow -- I don't know why. They gave me pants, a sweater, a vest, a quilted jacket, and felt boots and puttees. Special treatment -- they were expecting me.

Then I cut timber. Because it was July when I arrived, we still had black bread. We had turnips and goose feet for broth. But by January it was cattle feed and meatless bones boiled for the marrow. Also groats -- groats and groats. You rot from the inside, eating that way. Through the war I cut timber, and afterward, too, until Stalin was dead and I felt old and homely. I made no friends at Kolpasevo. No one forgave me, and I didn't want anyone to. One night I was sitting by the stove, rolling a papirosa, when some Leningradka with rings around her eyes and no hair left on her head said to me, "Did he touch you?"

She -- this woman, if you could still call her that -- she looked at me with disgust, repulsed by the very thought. Everyone waited for my answer.

Staring through my smoke, I said to her, "He suckled like an infant."

But she was as good as dead, you know. What was I thinking? I didn't impress her. She looked at me the way Stepan and Vlasik had -- a cruel look that no one would have thought to give me when I lived on Semya Street with Father and Sasha, before I was so desirable (as I never would be again). And though I should have been long past it by then, I thought I might cry under her withering gaze.

So I tapped my ash and said, "He loved me."

She stared and stared.

"I could have killed him a thousand times," I said.

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part one or part two.)

Marshall N. Klimasewiski teaches in the writing program at Washington University, in St. Louis. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker and Ploughshares, and has been included in Best American Short Stories.

Illustrations by Christopher Zacharow.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; Tyrants - 00.01 (Part Three); Volume 285, No. 1; page 49-61.