Gorgeous morning in the awakened city, fresh new green, the angled rays of the sun glittering in spiders’ webs, birds twittering, the fragrance of buds, grass drenched in dew, the air cool, bees hovering around blossoming branches, Sunday, the tolling of a distant bell... Spring in Chisinau!
It had been months since I was liberated from the political prison in Northern Russia. Behind me were dozens of blood transfusions, restorative dental tortures, and scary talks with a cardiologist. I had gotten my so-so bill of health and was waiting patiently for the Soviet Immigration Office to approve my visa. One day, as I was sipping coffee at a small table outside of a restaurant in downtown Chisinau, someone light hand touched my shoulder:
“What are you up to these days, colleague, what are you up to?”
The voice sounded unfamiliar, as well as the short laugh.
I turned around to see the man.
At first, I didn’t recognize Professor Oliescu as he suddenly stood there in front of me. It wasn’t just his voice, but his face, pale and utterly different. And yet I still felt that I knew him. Something in his aspect could never be changed.
“Don’t you remember me?” he asked noticing my confusion. “Yes, yes, they can do this to you – they and their newly invented mill-stones! But your prison wasn’t a vacation either, I’ve been told.”
I kept looking at his face, in silence. In reality, it was no longer a face, but two cheek-bones with thin skin over them, sticking out like miniature mountain peaks, and the muscles that formed an expression, an expression that reminded me of Professor Oliescu, were so weak that they couldn’t hold his laugh for a long time, that’s why his laugh was short and much too large; it distorted his face; it seemed huge in relation to his eyes, which were set far back in his skull.
“Professor!” I exclaimed, stopping myself from adding: I was told that you were dead! Instead: “Well, well, how the hell are you?”
“I’m great, my friend!” he laughed. “It’s spring in Chisinau, nature’s booming awakening!”
I tried to make out why he kept laughing. I knew him as a serious man, as Professor of Electromagnetics at the Chisinau State University, but every time he opened his mouth, his face formed that uncanny expression of mirth. To ask seemed impossible.
“Those mill-stones roughed me up quite a bit,” he said. “But I got lucky.”
He paused, and I had a chance to take another look at him. Actually, he wasn’t laughing at all, any more than two cheek-bones with skin over them is laughing. I apologized for not recognizing him at first.
“You’re not alone, colleague,” he assured, “but I’ve gotten used to it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I feel embarrassed.” I felt an impulse to leave, but before I could speak, he began coughing suddenly and couldn’t stop, and when he finally did, I saw two bloody spots percolating through his handkerchief.
“Scary, isn’t it?” he said. “I’ve got a few scarier things hidden under my clothes.”
“We all have our scars to show, I guess,” I said. “Some deeper than others.”
“Don’t we, buddy? Scars of the century, aren’t they?”
His skin looked as if it could crack at any moment, like old leather or clay, and he had a belly that looked like a small party balloon held up by his thin ribs. His eyes were the only thing unchanged since I last saw him, lovely, but sunken. I glanced at my wristwatch.
“Why are you suddenly in such a hurry?” he asked. “How about a drink for the occasion?”
He was a colleague of mine back in the old days at the university, I looked up to him and respected him more than any other professor in the country, but I really had no time for a drink.
“My dear professor,” I said because he was holding me by the arm, “I do have to go: my conference starts in less than an hour.”
“Then some other time, right?” he said, and I knew in that moment that this man was really already dead.
“Yes, I should like that,” I said paying for my coffee.
“I hope you still remember my old apartment,” he said. “They gave it back to me, those imbeciles, so I can die under a roof – instead of a starry sky.”
Maybe it was a laugh, I thought while checking the street for a taxi, maybe he kept laughing all the time because he was still alive, standing in front of me in downtown Chisinau, despite the rumors that he had been tortured badly and died in the camp.
As lack would have it, a taxi stopped next to us and a young couple paid and got out. I occupied the back seat, lowered the window and said: “It was nice to see you alive and laughing…”
“We should meet again!” he interrupted. “I have a lot to tell you, enough for a thick book, and I hope you’re still a good listener.”
“I’m always up for a good story, professor,” I said, “always up for a good story.”
I tried to distinguish the color of his eyes and couldn’t.
“In the meantime, call me,” he said stepping back from the taxi. “It is allowed now.”
I promised and gave the driver the address of the conference.
“You may take a nap,” he said moving into the traffic. “It’s quite a ride.”
“Can you make it in thirty minutes?”
“I’ll certainly try.”
“You’ll be rewarded,” I promised.
I cranked up the window, closed my eyes – and suddenly my memory took me back to the very beginning.
My wife always thought that someday I’d be a big success. I taught Russian literature and Linguistics at Alecu Russo State University of Beltsy, a mid-size city located in the northern part of Moldavia, within the historical region of Bessarabia with which the city’s own history is closely intertwined. Then came the Seventies, Brezhnev’s time, deadly like a marsh, when everybody had to make a choice, and mine wasn’t the wisest one. Despite my reputation as a recluse, I still held regular gatherings in my apartment to entertain close friends and colleagues. The guests enjoyed slow dancing and drinks and always seemed to have a good time. Not my wife though. “You used to be witty and cheerful, my love,” she said once. “Now you don’t say a word, as though you’re afraid of your plain language.” I didn’t deny it. Of course, I could make an effort to be smart and funny; it’s just I had the feeling I had said it all before and the things I really wanted to discuss were dangerous and forbidden.
I was in my late twenties then, healthy and still ambitious.
I met plenty of people every day, killers and those who ordered the killings: you couldn’t tell by looking at them! All sorts of things happened around me, colleagues taken away in the middle of a lecture, neighbors disappearing, close friends no longer answering their phones, but as soon as I stepped onto the porch of my apartment, I didn’t feel like talking about it.
More than once I thanked God for television.
In 1978 I began conducting underground seminars and attending gatherings, organized by two Jewish professors, where we discussed the latest news channeled from Great Britain, America and Israel. In the fall of 1979, I flew to Moscow and met with a few of my colleagues from the state university. The meeting took place in a dacha near the Russia’s capital. We talked about dead friends and those who will die in the nearest future, a new distribution strategy, as well as about the need of a printing shop somewhere in Moldavia or Ukraine, preferably in Moldavia. That was dangerous, could’ve cost me more than professorship or advancement opportunities, but everything went fine.
When a month after my return home I was invited by the local KGB office for a chat, it was a shock: KGB? I didn’t know what to think, but this wasn’t an institution I could ignore. In the lobby I was met by a young lieutenant, who escorted me to a Spartan room – a desk and two chairs – and left, wishing me a nice chat. The wait wasn’t long. The operative who soon walked in, greeted me with a smile and introduced himself as Major Anatoly Orlov. He turned out to be a well-spoken, educated man of thirty, polite and a good listener. His smile disarmed me. He knew a lot about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Everything seemed normal, somewhat uneventful. Checking something in a tiny notepad, Anatoly assured me that I’ve done nothing wrong, and the reason for the invitation is rather prosaic: his department was informed recently that some students from the university I worked for had been distributing printouts of BBC’s radio transmissions. All they need now is to establish the names of those students.
“This is like a mountain off my shoulders, Comrade Major,” I said. “Really.”
“So, you don’t know anyone?”
“None of my students is capable of such a thing. They’re just not brave enough!”
“Great!” he said and glanced at his watch: “Look at that: almost noon!”
Then he suggested lunch at the nearby café, and I told myself that to break a bread with a KGB Major in a public eatery doesn’t seem like a wise idea, but couldn’t refuse. After all, lunch is lunch, a harmless thing. I ordered a beef-stroganoff, and for the next forty minutes there was just a casual chat about nothing. Then we shook hands. Sunny day, everybody in white shirts.
Anatoly called again a week later to request another meeting, this time outside of his chatting room.
“A park perhaps?” I suggested. “There is one right next to the university…”
“I have a better idea: the residential complex on Garden Street, right behind the bookstore, apartment 603, at ten o’clock next Tuesday.”
“Next Tuesday?” I asked. “I need to check my schedule…”
“I’ve taken the liberty: your first class doesn’t start until 11:45 a.m.”
“It won’t be about my careless students I recon?”
“Not anymore, my friend: it’ll be much more productive actually.”
We chatted for another few minutes; then the line went dead. I stood motionless in the hallway, with the receiver still attached to my ear, unsure suddenly of how to live my life, how to go back into the living-room and entertain my family as if nothing happened…
It was a nine-story apartment complex behind the very popular downtown bookstore; it had two elevators, but I took the stairs, as though afraid of meeting a familiar face. My hands were sweaty; I wiped them with a handkerchief. I reached the sixth floor and stopped: remembered suddenly Anatoly’s quick remark before he disconnected the line. “The mill-stones of history never stop,” he said. “That’s why it is very important not to get between them. In your case though, it’s a bit too late, my friend: your hands were already caught when I got you.” And I understood: that’s all they needed, a hand, even a finger, then it was only a matter of time to get my body and mind squeezed between the mill-stones and grind me into a flat, blind, obedient human being. Just one finger!
I pushed the red button.
The door was unlocked by a tall woman of satanic calm and undistinguishable age.
“Lazarus, isn’t it?” she asked, holding the door open. “Please, come in.”
“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, “is this…”
“You’re not lost, Lazarus: Major Orlov is waiting for you,” she said and accompanied me into the living-room.
Anatoly stood next to wall-to-wall bookshelves with an unlit cigar in his hand, said as though reading my mind, “Her name is Iraida Borisovna Borodina. She’s a retired schoolteacher, a great hostess and a widow: her husband, General…”
“A great hostess?” I dared to interrupt.
“Sit down, Lazarus!” he ordered, ignoring my question.
And I understood: the casual time was over.
We were about the same age, Anatoly just a few months older, with a typical – milky-buttery – Russian face. A graduate from Leningrad State University, where he studied literature and Russian language, he was recruited by the KGB as soon as he completed his first two years of education. He possessed a practical mind, a good memory, and was moving quite fast up the ranks.
“A cigar?” he offered.
“I actually quit,” I said hurriedly. “About a year ago…”
“I’ll take it as a no, but don’t ever lie to me again!” he interrupted in a slightly raised tone of voice, pulled a tape-recorder out of his chest pocket, and for the next half an hour I listened to my underground seminars and the discussions I had with my colleagues at that dacha near Moscow. Then he turned the recorder off and said as if nothing happened, “The purpose of today’s meeting is to offer you a job, to point out the advantages and explain the privileges…” At that moment, Iraida Borisovna came into the living-room with two cups of steaming tea and a small sponge cake on a silver tray, placed everything on the table and walked away. In silence.
“Please, help yourself,” said Anatoly. “It’s an herbal green tea from China – very healthy. Does wonders to a man’s sex drive, I’ve been told.”
I took a sip of tea, and asked: “Simply say: you’re offering me to betray my own people?”
“Have a piece of cake, Lazarus, and let’s talk seriously: you’re not betraying anybody, not necessarily; at least for now, you’re a Soviet citizen, aren’t you? To defend the interests of your country was never considered a betrayal. I’m not asking you to kill people…”
“Don’t see any difference!”
“…to poison them, to knock out their teeth. Your name will never appear in any documents or pronounced in the interrogation room. If it makes you feel better, you will never know what happened to them, how they were punished or if they were punished at all. As far as I see it, you’ll be a ghost, Lazarus, an invisible man. Our organization is interested in a circle of your colleagues and friends, Jewish in particular, with whom you have established a lasting relationship. The information about their plans, thoughts, and the contents of the letters constantly channeled to them from around the world, especially from United States and Israel, are just a few examples of what can be used…”
“A risk-free job, isn’t it?”
“Nothing is completely risk-free, professor, even this healthy herbal tea…”
“I’m actually a college lecturer…”
“Not for long… Any interest in advantages and privileges?”
“Not today, no.”
“Finish your tea, Lazarus!”
“Do I have a choice?”
“To avoid punishment? Not really, but that would be something to talk about in details at our next meeting on Monday. For now, I just want to remind you that everything I’ve said is strictly confidential and not for public discussion.”
“It’s for your own good, believe me.”
I looked straight into Anatoly’s eyes, trying to understand why a young man of his abilities would dedicate his one and only life to a system that is hated by every civilized country? Is it the money or the power to manipulate people’s lives? Or both?
“Don’t judge me and don’t try to understand me,” he read my mind again. “I’ve chosen this life and I’ll never regret it. Regarding my offer: if you decide not to accept it, your life and the lives of your close ones will change forever…and not for the better.”
I kept silent.
“Until next Monday then?”
I kept silent.
“Is it Monday or Tuesday?” he asked.
“It’s Monday,” I said.
We shook hands.
Out of the building, I went to the nearby park and played a couple of timed chess games before my first class of the week…
Next Monday I awoke early and took a long shower. A door slammed, then another: my wife and kids were gone, so it was 7:45 a.m. I had a little over two hours to make a decision, hopefully the right one. I shaved, combed my hair, breakfasted. At 8:45 a.m. I was ready. I stood in front of a mirror trying to find any doubts in my tired blue eyes and couldn’t. It was my opportunity, I told myself, to make something out of my miserable life. Anatoly was right: in a few years no one will remember: time, like a miracle doctor, will erase from peoples’ memories the good deeds and the bad deeds. Anatoly was right: if not I – then it’s someone else, younger, more decisive, and braver. Survival is the name of the game.
I finally left the apartment.
Cloudy sky as usual, freshness in the air, magic of chlorophyll.
I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore. Once inside, I asked for a telephone.
“Please be quick,” said the young freckled clerk.
“I will,” I promised and dialed the number.
“Borodin’s residence,” answered Iraida Borisovna.
“Anatoly please,” I said after a pause: I wasn’t ready to talk to the wife of a dead war hero.
“I’m listening,” Anatoly appeared on the line.
“It’s me,” I said. “I’m not coming.”
“You shouldn’t be calling from the bookstore.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“It’s very understandable.”
“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday,” I said: I didn’t really know how to end this conversation. “It’ll be on me then…”
“I doubt it,” said Anatoly, and the line went dead.
I thanked the freckled clerk and left the bookstore. A huge cloud above the nearby park finally gave birth to a light cool rain. I inhaled deeply and began walking down the boulevard, an unknown creature in a gray raincoat whose life had just changed forever…
A month passed. On Friday, as soon as we finished watching the late-night movie, my wife was ready to go to bed, and I promised to join her after a quick cigarette.
“Are you alright, honey?” she asked.
“As alright as I can be.”
“I can change that for the better in a heartbeat,” she said touching my arm.
“I’ve no doubts, love… How about a rain-check?”
“A rain-check it is…don’t take too many though.”
On the balcony, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Feteasca Neagra in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the food. What then? I glanced at my wristwatch: almost midnight. A black “Volga” attracted my attention because it appeared suddenly and stopped under a streetlight. Three tall men in shiny leather raincoats got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building.
I finished my wine and put out the cigarette. A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.
They came for me.
I stepped out of the balcony and stopped: my wife was already in the living-room, her face white as paper, her hands visibly shaking.
“Who do you think that might be?” she whispered. “It’s after midnight, for God’s sake!”
“There is something I meant to tell you,” I said, “but it seems that I suddenly ran out of time…”
“KGB!” a man’s voice interrupted from behind the front door. “Open immediately!”
“You meant to say we ran out of time, honey?”
“Yes… Give me a moment, please,” I walked briskly through the hallway and unlocked the door.
“Citizen Trubman?” asked one of the three men.
“Do you realize that it’s after midnight, comrade…?”
“Captain Samoilov,” the man introduced himself. “Have you said your good-byes?”
“Of course not!” I said. “You haven’t called ahead of time.”
“We never do,” he glanced at his wristwatch. “Would five minutes be sufficient enough?”
I turned around and went back. My daughter was already standing next to her mother, crying; the little one was asleep, thank God.
“I didn’t tell her anything,” said my wife. “She just seems to know things…”
“Four minutes!” reminded Captain Samoilov.
I hugged my daughter and said: “I know it’s frightening, sweetheart, but that’s the way they pick up and escort people to their commander for a chat…”
“Sergey’s father was picked up this early in the morning,” she interrupted through tears. “We haven’t seen him since.”
“We haven’t, I know, but I’ll try to be back as soon as possible…”
I had just enough time to kiss and hug both of them: Captain Samoilov’s subordinates walked briskly toward us, picked me up by my armpits and escorted out of the apartment.
There wasn’t any wait at the elevator: the driver of the Volga held the door open…
“We’re here!” the taxi driver brought me back to earth. “Twenty-five minutes exactly.”
“You’ve earned your reward,” I said. “What’s the charge?”
“Seventeen rubles and some change.”
“Here’s thirty, my friend,” I got out of the car and began walking toward the entrance of my friend’s apartment building and saw the driver staring after me distrustfully…
It’s all in the past now, but not forgotten: arrest, interrogations, tortures; time in the prison; survival. On December 4th, 1990 I and my family, my wife and our two daughters, boarded the shiny Boeing-747 bound for New York. And today, 29 years later, my dreams and hopes are fulfilled, I’m breathing the healing air of freedom.
My interrogators and torturers? I forgave them. God won’t.