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To choose one's victims, to prepare one's plans minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed . . . there is nothing sweeter in the world.
J. V. Stalin, in conversation with Kamenev and Dzerzhinsky
Olga Komarova of the Russian Archive Service, Rosarkhiv, wielding a collapsible pink umbrella, prodded and shooed her distinguished charges across the Ukraina's lobby toward the revolving door. It was an old door, of heavy wood and glass, too narrow to cope with more than one body at a time, so the scholars formed a line in the dim light, like parachutists over a target zone, and as they passed her, Olga touched each one lightly on the shoulder with her umbrella, counting them off one by one as they were propelled into the freezing Moscow air.
Franklin Adelman of Yale went first, as befitted his age and status, then Moldenhauer of the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, with his absurd double doctorateDr. Dr. Karl-bloody-Moldenhauerthen the neo-Marxists, Enrico Banfi of Milan and Eric Chambers of the LSE, then the great cold warrior Phil Duberstein, of NYU, then Ivo Godelier of the Ecole Normale Supérieure, followed by glum Dave Richards of St. Antony's, Oxfordanother Sovietologist whose world was rubblethen Velma Byrd of the U.S. National Archive, then Alastair Findlay of Edinburgh's Department of War Studies, who still thought the sun shone out of Comrade Stalin's ass, then Arthur Saunders of Stanford, and finallythe man whose lateness had kept them waiting in the lobby for an extra five minutesDr. C.R.A. Kelso, commonly known as Fluke.
The door banged hard against his heels. Outside, the weather hadworsened. It was trying to snow. Tiny flakes, as hard as grit, came whipping across the wide gray concourse and spattered his face and hair. At the bottom of the flight of steps, shuddering in a cloud of its own white fumes, was a dilapidated bus, waiting to take them to the symposium. Kelso stopped to light a cigarette.
"Jesus, Fluke," called Adelman, cheerfully. "You look just awful."
Kelso raised a fragile hand in acknowledgment. He could see a huddle of taxi drivers in quilted jackets stamping their feet against the cold. Workmen were struggling to lift a roll of tin off the back of a truck. One Korean businessman in a fur hat was photographing a group of twenty others, similarly dressed. But of Papu Rapava, no sign.
"Dr. Kelso, please, we are waiting again." The umbrella wagged at him in reproof. He transferred the cigarette to the corner of his mouth, hitched his bag up onto his shoulder, and moved toward the bus.
"A battered Byron" was how one Sunday newspaper had described him when he had resigned his Oxford lectureship and moved to New York, and the description wasn't a bad onecurly black hair too long and thick for neatness, a moist, expressive mouth, pale cheeks, and the glow of a certain reputationif Byron hadn't died on Missolonghi but had spent the next ten years drinking whiskey, smoking, staying indoors, and resolutely avoiding all exercise, he too might have come to look a little like Fluke Kelso.
He was wearing what he always wore: a faded dark blue shirt of heavy cotton with the top button undone; a loosely knotted and vaguely stained dark tie; a black corduroy suit with a black leather belt, over which his stomach bulged slightly; red cotton handkerchief in his breast pocket; scuffed boots of brown suede; an old blue raincoat. This was Kelso's uniform, unvaried for twenty years.
"Boy," Rapava had called him, and the word was both absurd for a middle-aged man and yet oddly accurate. Boy.
The heater was going full blast. Nobody was saying much. He sat on his own near the back of the bus and rubbed at the wet glass as they jolted up the ramp to join the traffic on the bridge. Across the aisle, Saunders made an ostentatious display of batting Kelso's smoke away. Beneath them, in the filthy waters of the Moskva, a dredger with a crane mounted on its aft deck beat sluggishly upstream.
He nearly hadn't come to Russia. That was the joke of it. He knew well enough what it would be like: the bad food, the stale gossip, the sheer bloody tedium of academic lifeof more and more being said about less and less. That was one reason why he had chucked Oxford and gone to live in New York. But somehow the books he was supposed to write had not quite materialized. And besides, he never could resist the lure of Moscow. Even now, sitting on a stale bus in the Wednesday rush hour, he could feel the charge of history beyond the muddy glass: in the dark and renamed streets, the vast apartment blocks, the toppled statues. It was stronger here than anywhere he knew, stronger even than in Berlin. That was what always drew him back to Moscowthe way history hung in the air between the blackened buildings like sulfur after a lightning strike.
"You think you know it all about Comrade Stalin, don't you, boy? Well, let me tell you: You don't know fuck."
Kelso had already delivered his short paper, on Stalin and the archives, at the end of the previous day: delivered it in his trademark stylewithout notes, with one hand in his pocket, extempore, provocative. His Russian hosts had looked gratifyingly shifty. A couple of people had even walked out. So, all in all, a triumph.
Afterward, finding himself predictably alone, he had decided to walk back to the Ukraina. It was a long walk and it was getting dark, but he needed the air. And at some pointhe couldn't remember where; maybe it was in one of the back streets behind the Institute or maybe it was later, along the Noviy Arbatbut at some point he had realized he was being followed. It was nothing tangible, just a fleeting impression of something seen too oftenthe flash of a coat, perhaps, or the shape of a headbut Kelso had been in Moscow often enough in the bad old days to know that you were seldom wrong about these things. You always knew if a film was out of synch, however fractionally; you always knew if someone fancied you, however improbably; and you always knew when someone was on your tail.
He had just stepped into his hotel room and was contemplating some primary research in the minibar when the front desk had called up to say there was a man in the lobby who wanted to see him. Who? He wouldn't give his name, sir. But he was most insistent and he wouldn't leave. So Kelso had gone down, reluctantly, and found Papu Rapava sitting on one of the Ukraina's imitation-leather sofas, staring straight ahead, in his papery blue suit, his wrists and ankles sticking out as thin as broomsticks.
"You think you know it all about Comrade Stalin, don't you, boy?" Those had been his opening words.
And that was the moment when Kelso had realized where he had first seen the old manat the symposium, in the front row of the public seats, listening intently to the simultaneous translation over his headphones, muttering in violent disagreement at any hostile mention of J. V. Stalin.
Who are you? thought Kelso, staring out of the grimy window. Fantasist? Con man? The answer to a prayer?
The symposium was scheduled to last only one more dayfor which relief, in Kelso's view, much thanks. It was being held in the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, an orthodox temple of gray concrete, consecrated in the Brezhnev years, with Marx, Engels, and Lenin in gigantic bas-relief above the pillared entrance. The ground floor had been leased to a private bank, since gone bust, which added to the air of dereliction.
On the opposite side of the street, watched by a couple of bored-looking militiamen, a small demonstration was in progressmaybe a hundred people, mostly elderly, but with a few youths in black berets and leather jackets. It was the usual mixture of fanatics and grudge holdersMarxists, nationalists, anti-Semites. Crimson flags bearing the hammer and sickle hung beside black flags embroidered with the czarist eagle. One old lady carried a picture of Stalin; another sold cassettes of SS marching songs. An elderly man with an umbrella held over him was addressing the crowd through a bullhorn, his voice a distorted, metallic rant. Stewards were handing out a free newspaper called Aurora.
"Take no notice," instructed Olga Komarova, standing up beside the driver. She tapped the side of her head. "These are crazy people. Red fascists."
"What's he saying?" demanded Duberstein, who was considered a world authority on Soviet communism even though he had never quite gotten around to learning Russian.
"He's talking about how the Hoover Institution tried to buy the Party archive for five million bucks," said Adelman. "He says we're trying to steal their history."
Duberstein sniggered. "Who'd want to steal their goddamn history?" He tapped on the window with his signet ring. "Say, isn't that a TV crew?"
The sight of a camera caused a predictable, wistful stir among the academics.
"I believe so . . ."
"How very flattering . . ."
"What's the name," said Adelman, "of the fellow who runs Aurora? Is it still the same one?" He twisted around in his seat and called up the aisle. "Flukeyou should know. What's his name? Old KGB"
"Mamantov," said Kelso. The driver braked hard, and he had to swallow to stop himself from being sick. "Vladimir Mamantov."
"Crazy people," repeated Olga, bracing herself as they came to a stop. "I apologize on behalf of Rosarkhiv. They are not representative. Follow me, please. Ignore them."
They filed off the bus, and a television cameraman filmed them as they trudged across the asphalt forecourt, past a couple of drooping, silvery fir trees, pursued by jeers.
Fluke Kelso moved delicately at the rear of the column, nursing his hangover, holding his head at a careful angle, as if he were balancing a pitcher of water. A pimply youth in wire spectacles thrust a copy of Aurora at him, and Kelso got a quick glimpse of the front pagea cartoon caricature of Zionist conspirators and a weird cabalistic symbol that was something between a swastika and a red crossbefore he rammed it back in the young man's chest. The demonstrators jeered.
A thermometer on the wall outside the entrance read minus one. The old nameplate had been taken down and a new one had been screwed in its place, but it didn't quite fit, so you could tell that the building had been renamed. It now proclaimed itself the russian center for the preservation and study of documents relating to modern history.
Once again, Kelso lingered behind after the others had gone in, squinting at the hate-filled faces across the street. There were a lot of old men of a similar age, pinched and raw-cheeked in the cold, but Rapava wasn't among them. He turned away and moved inside, into the shadowy lobby, where he gave his coat and bag to the cloakroom attendant before passing beneath the familiar statue of Lenin toward the lecture hall.
Another day began.
There were ninety-one delegates at the symposium, and almost all of them seemed to be crowded into the small anteroom where coffee was being served. He collected his cup and lit another cigarette.
"Who's up first?" said a voice behind him. It was Adelman.
"Askenov, I think. On the microfilm project."
Adelman groaned. He was a Bostonian, in his seventies, at that twilight stage in his career when most of his life seemed to be spent in airplanes or foreign hotels: symposia, conferences, honorary degreesDuberstein maintained that Adelman had given up pursuing history in favor of collecting air miles. But Kelso didn't begrudge him his honors. He was good. And brave. It had taken courage to write his kind of books, thirty years ago, on the Famine and the Terror, when every other useful idiot in academia was screeching for détente.
"Listen, Frank," he said. "I'm sorry about dinner."
"Forget it. You got a better offer?"
The refreshment room was at the back of the Institute and looked out onto an inner courtyard, in the center of which, dumped on their sides amid the weeds, were a pair of statues, of Marx and Engelsa couple of Victorian gentlemen taking time off from the long march of history for a morning doze.
"They don't mind taking down those two," said Adelman. "That's easy. They're foreigners. And one of them's a Jew. It's when they take down Leninthat's when you'll know the place has really changed."
Kelso took another sip of coffee. "A man came to see me last night."
"A man? I'm disappointed."
"Could I ask your advice, Frank?"
Adelman shrugged. "Go ahead."
Adelman stroked his chin. "You got his name, this guy?"
"Of course I got his name."
"His real name?"
"How do I know if it's his real name?"
"His address, then? You got his address?"
"No, Frank, I didn't get his address. But he did leave these."
Adelman took off his glasses and peered closely at the book of matches. "It's a setup," he said at last, handing them back. "I wouldn't touch it. Whoever heard of a bar called Robotnik, anyhow? 'Worker'? Sounds phony to me."
"But if it was a setup," said Kelso, weighing the matchbook in his palm, "why would he run away?"
"Obviously, because he doesn't want it to look like a setup. He wants you to have to work at ittrack him down, persuade him to help you. That's the psychology of a clever fraudthe victims wind up doing so much chasing around, they start wanting to believe it's true. Remember the Hitler diaries. Either that or he's a lunatic."
"He was very convincing."
"Lunatics often are. Or it's a practical joke. Someone wants to make you look a fool. Have you thought of that? You're not exactly the most popular kid in the school."
Kelso glanced up the corridor toward the lecture hall. It wasn't a bad theory. There were plenty in there who didn't like him. He had appeared on too many television programs, knocked out too many newspaper columns, reviewed too many of their useless books. Saunders was loitering at the corner, pretending to talk to Moldenhauer, both men obviously straining to overhear what he was saying to Adelman. (Saunders had complained bitterly after Kelso's paper about his "subjectivity": "Why was he even invited? That's what one wants to know. One had been given to understand this was a symposium for serious scholars . . .")
"They don't have the wit," he said. He gave them a wave and was pleased to see them duck out of sight. "Or the imagination."
"You sure have a genius for making enemies."
"Ah, well. You know what they say: more enemies, more honor."
Adelman smiled and opened his mouth to say something, but then seemed to think better of it. "How's Margaret? Dare one ask?"
"Who? Oh, you mean poor Margaret? She's fine, thank you. Fine and feisty. According to the lawyers."
"And the boys?"
"Entering the springtime of their adolescence."
"And the book? That's been a while. How much of this new book have you actually written?"
"I'm writing it."
"Two hundred pages? A hundred?"
"What is this, Frank?"
"How many pages?"
"I don't know." Kelso licked his dry lips. Almost unbelievably, he realized he could do with a drink. "A hundred, maybe." He had a vision of a blank gray screen, a cursor flashing weakly, like a pulse on a life-support machine begging to be switched off. He hadn't written a word. "Listen, Frank, there could be something in this, couldn't there? Stalin was a hoarder, don't forget. Didn't Khrushchev find some letter in a secret compartment in the old man's desk after he died?" He rubbed his aching head. "That letter from Lenin, complaining about Stalin's treatment of his wife? And then there was that list of the Politburo, with crosses against everyone he was planning to purge. And his libraryremember his library? He made notes in almost every book."
"So what are you saying?"
"I'm just saying it's possible, that's all. That Stalin wasn't Hitler. That he wrote things down."
"Quod volumus credimus libenter," intoned Adelman. "Which means"
"I know what it means"
"which means, my dear Fluke, we always believe what we want to believe." Adelman patted Kelso's arm. "You don't want to hear this, do you? I'm sorry. I'll lie if you prefer it. I'll tell you he's the one guy in a million with a story like this who turns out not to be full of shit. I'll tell you he's going to lead you to Stalin's unpublished memoirs, that you'll rewrite history, millions of dollars will be yours, women will lie at your feet, Duberstein and Saunders will form a choir to sing your praises in the middle of Harvard Yard"
"All right, Frank." Kelso leaned the back of his head against the wall. "You've made your point. I don't know. It's justmaybe you had to be there with him" He pressed on, reluctant to admit defeat. "It's just it rings a bell with me somewhere. Does it ring a bell with you?"
"Oh sure. It rings a bell, okay. An alarm bell." Adelman pulled out an old pocket watch. "We ought to be getting back. D'you mind? Olga will be frantic." He put his arm around Kelso's shoulders and led him down the corridor. "In any case, there's nothing you can do. We're flying back to New York tomorrow. Let's talk when we get back, see if there's anything for you in the faculty. You were a great teacher."
"I was a lousy teacher."
"You were a great teacher until you were lured from the path of scholarship and rectitude by the cheap sirens of journalism and publicity. Hello, Olga."
"So here you are! The session is almost starting. Oh, Dr. Kelsonow, this is not so goodno smoking, thank you." She leaned over and removed the cigarette from his lips. She had a shiny face with plucked eyebrows and a very fine mustache, bleached white. She dropped the stub into the dregs of his coffee and took away his cup.
"Olga, Olga, why so bright?" groaned Kelso, putting his hand to his brow. The lecture hall exuded a tungsten glare.
"Television," said Olga, with pride. "They are making a program of us."
"Local?" Adelman was straightening his bow tie. "Network?"
"Satellite, Professor. International."
"Say, now, where are our seats?" whispered Adelman, shielding his eyes from the lights.
"Dr. Kelso? Any chance of a word, sir?" An American accent. Kelso turned to find a large young man he vaguely recognized.
"R. J. O'Brian," said the young man, holding out his hand. "Moscow correspondent, Satellite News System. We're doing a special report on the controversy"
"I don't think so," said Kelso. "But Professor Adelman hereI'm sure he'd be delighted"
At the prospect of a television interview, Adelman seemed physically to swell in size, like an inflating doll. "Well, as long as it's not in any official capacity . . ."
O'Brian ignored him. "You sure I can't tempt you?" he said to Kelso. "Nothing you want to say to the world? I read your book on the fall of communism. When was that? Three years ago?"
"Four," said Kelso.
"Actually, I believe it was five," said Adelman.
Actually, thought Kelso, it was nearer six. Dear God, where were all the years going? "No," he said. "Thanks all the same, but I'm keeping off television these days." He looked at Adelman. "It's a cheap siren, apparently."
"Later, please," hissed Olga. "Interviews are later. The director is talking. Please." Kelso felt her umbrella in his back again as she steered him into the hall. "Please. Please"
By the time the Russian delegates were added in, plus a few diplomatic observers, the press, and maybe fifty members of the pub-lic, the hall was impressively full. Kelso sank heavily into his place in the second row. Up on the platform, Professor Valentin Askenov of the Russian State Archives had launched into a long explana-tion of the microfilming of the Party records. O'Brian's cameraman walked backward down the central aisle, filming the audience. The sharp amplification of Askenov's sonorous voice seemed to pierce some painful chamber of Kelso's inner ear. Already, a kind of metallic, neon torpor had descended over the hall. The day stretched ahead. He covered his face with his hands.
Twenty-five million sheets . . . recited Askenov, twenty-five thousand reels of microfilm . . . seven million dollars . . .
Kelso slid his hands down his cheeks until his fingers converged and covered his mouth. Frauds! he wanted to shout. Liars! Why were they all just sitting here? They knew as well as he did that nine tenths of the best material was still locked up, and to see most of the rest required a bribe. He'd heard that the going rate for a captured Nazi file was a thousand dollars and a bottle of scotch.
He whispered to Adelman, "I'm getting out of here."
"It's discourteous. Just sit there, for pete's sake, and pretend to be interested like everyone else." Adelman said all this out of the side of his mouth, without taking his eyes off the platform. Kelso stuck it out for another half minute.
"Tell them I'm ill."
"I shall not."
"Let me by, Frank. I'm going to be sick."
"Jesus . . ."
Adelman swung his legs to one side and pressed himself back in his seat. Hunched in a vain effort to make himself less conspicuous, Kelso stumbled over the feet of his colleagues, kicking in the process the elegant black shin of Ms. Velma Byrd.
"Aw, fuck, Kelso," said Velma.
Professor Askenov looked up from his notes and paused in mid-drone. Kelso was conscious of an amplified, humming silence and of a kind of collective movement in the audience, as if some great beast had turned in its field to watch his progress. This seemed to last a long time, for at least as long as it took him to walk to the back of the hall. Not until he had passed beneath the marble gaze of Lenin and into the deserted corridor did the droning begin again.
Kelso sat behind the bolted door of a bathroom cubicle on the ground floor of the former Institute of Marxism-Leninism and opened his canvas bag. Here were the tools of his trade: a yellow legal pad, pencils, an eraser, a small Swiss Army knife, a welcome pack from the organizers of the symposium, a dictionary, a street map of Moscow, his cassette recorder, and a Filofax that was a palimpsest of ancient numbers, lost contacts, old girlfriends, former lives.
There was something about the old man's story that was familiar to him, but he couldn't remember what it was. He picked up the cassette recorder, pressed rewind, let it spool back for a while, then pressed play. He held it to his ear and listened to the tinny ghost of Rapava's voice.
". . . Comrade Stalin's room was a plain man's room. You've got to say that for Stalin. He was always one of us . . ."
". . . and here was an odd thing, boy: He had taken off his shiny new shoes and had them wedged under one fat arm . . ."
". . . Know what I mean by Blizhny, boy? . . ."
". . . by Blizhny, boy? . . ."
". . . by Blizhny . . ."
From the Audio Cassette edition.