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Authors: Lara Prescott

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BOOK: The Secrets We Kept
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Every morning after, he’d wait outside my apartment. Before work, we’d walk the wide boulevards, through squares and parks, back and forth across every bridge that crossed the Moskva, never with any destination in mind. The lime trees had been in full bloom that summer, and the entire city smelled honey sweet and slightly rotten.

I’d told him everything: of my first husband, whom I’d found hanging in our apartment; of my second, who’d died in my arms; of the men I’d been with before them, and the men I’d been with after. I spoke of my shames, my humiliations. I spoke of my hidden joys: being the first person off a train, arranging my face creams and perfumes so their labels faced forward, the taste of sour cherry pie for breakfast. Those first few months, I talked and talked and Boris listened.

By summer’s end, I began calling him Borya and he began calling me Olya. And people had begun to talk about us—my mother the most. “It’s simply unacceptable,” she’d said so many times I lost count. “He’s a married man, Olga.”

But I knew Anatoli Sergeyevich did not care to hear
that
confession. I knew what confession he wanted me to write. I remembered his words: “Pasternak’s fate will depend on how truthful you are.” I picked up the pen and began again.

Dear Anatoli Sergeyevich Semionov,

Doctor Zhivago is about a doctor.

It’s an account of the years between the two wars.

It’s about Yuri and Lara.

It’s about the old Moscow.

It’s about the old Russia.

It’s about love.

It’s about us.

Doctor Zhivago is not ant
i-Soviet.

When Semionov returned an hour later, I handed him my letter. He scanned it, turning it over. “You can try again tomorrow night.” He crushed the paper into a ball, dropped it, and waved at the guards to take me away.

Night after night, a guard would come for me, and Semionov and I would have our little chats. And night after night, my humble interrogator would ask the same questions:
What is the novel about? Why is he writing it? Why are you protecting him?

I didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear: that the novel was critical of the revolution. That Boris had rejected socialist realism in favor of writing characters who lived and loved by their hearts’ intent, independent of the State’s influence.

I didn’t tell him that Borya had begun the novel before we met. That Lara was already in his mind—and that in the early pages, his heroine resembled his wife, Zinaida. I didn’t tell him that as time went on, Lara eventually became me. Or maybe I became her.

I didn’t tell him how Borya had called me his muse, how that first year together he said he made more progress on the novel than he had in the previous three years combined. How I’d first been attracted to him because of his name—the name everyone knew—but fell in love with him despite it. How to me, he was more than the famous poet up on the stage, the photograph in the newspaper, the person in the spotlight. How I delighted in his imperfections: the gap in his teeth; the twenty-year-old comb he refused to replace; the way he scratched his cheek with a pen when thinking, leaving a streak of black ink across his face; the way he pushed himself to write his great work no matter the cost.

And he did push himself. By day he’d write at a furious pace, letting the filled pages fall into a wicker basket under his desk. And at night, he’d read me what he had written.

Sometimes he would read to small gatherings in apartments across Moscow. Friends would sit in chairs arranged in a semicircle around a small table, where Borya sat. I’d sit next to him, feeling proud to play the hostess, the woman at his side, the almost wife. He’d read in his excited way, words toppling over each other, and stare just above the heads of those seated before him.

I would attend those readings in the city, but not when he’d read in Peredelkino, a short train ride from Moscow. The dacha in the writers’ colony was his wife’s territory. The reddish-brown wooden house with large bay windows sat atop a sloping hill. Behind it were rows of birch and fir trees, to the side a dirt path leading to a large garden. When he first brought me there, Borya took his time explaining which vegetables had thrived over the years, which had failed, and why.

The dacha, larger than most citizens’ regular homes, was provided to him by the government. In fact, the entire colony of Peredelkino was a gift from Stalin himself, to help the Motherland’s handpicked writers flourish. “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks,” he’d said.

As Borya said, it was also a fine way to keep track of them. The author Konstantin Aleksandrovich Fedin lived next door. Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky lived nearby, using his house to work on his children’s books. The house where Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel lived and was arrested, and to which he never returned, was down the hill.

And I didn’t say a word to Semionov about how Borya had confessed to me that what he was writing could be the death of him, how he feared Stalin would put an end to him as he’d done to so many of his friends during the Purges.

The vague answers I did offer never satisfied my interrogator. He’d give me fresh paper and his pen and tell me to try again.

Semionov tried everything to elicit a confession. Sometimes he was kind, bringing me tea, asking my thoughts on poetry, saying he had always been a fan of Borya’s early work. He arranged for a doctor to see me once a week and instructed the guards to give me an additional woolen blanket.

Other times, he attempted to bait me, saying Borya had tried to turn himself in, in exchange for me. Once, a metal cart rolled down the hallway, knocking into a wall with a bang, and he joked that it was Boris, pounding on the walls of Lubyanka trying to get in.

Or he’d say Boris was spotted at an event, looking fine with his wife on his arm. “Unencumbered” was the word he used. Sometimes it was not his wife, but a pretty young woman. “French, I think.” I’d force myself to smile and say I was glad to hear he was happy and healthy.

Semionov never once laid a hand on me, nor even threatened to. But the violence was always there, his gentle demeanor always calculated. I had known men like him all my life and knew what they were capable of.

At night, my cellmates and I tied strips of musty linen around our eyes—a futile attempt to block out the lights that never shut off. Guards came and went. Sleep came and went.

On nights when sleep didn’t come at all, I’d breathe in and out, trying to settle my mind long enough to open a window to the baby growing inside me. I held my hand on my stomach, trying to feel something. Once, I thought I felt something small—as small as a bubble breaking. I held on to that feeling as long as I could.

As my belly grew, I was allowed to lie down an hour longer than the other women. I was also given one extra portion of kasha and the occasional serving of steamed cabbage. My cellmates gave me portions of their food as well.

Eventually, they gave me a bigger smock. My cellmates asked to touch my belly and feel the baby kick. His kicks felt like a promise of a life outside Cell No. 7.
Our littlest prisoner,
they’d coo.

The night began like the others. I was roused from bed by the poke of a truncheon and escorted to the interrogation room. I sat across from Semionov and was given a fresh sheet of paper.

Then there was a knock at the door. A man with hair so white it almost looked blue entered the room and told Semionov the meeting had been arranged. The man turned toward me. “You have asked for one, and now you have it.”

“I have?” I asked. “With whom?”

“Pasternak,” Semionov answered, his voice louder and harsher in the other man’s presence. “He’s waiting for you.”

I didn’t believe it. But when they loaded me into the back of a van with no windows, I let myself believe. Or rather, I couldn’t suppress the tiny hope. The thought of seeing him, even under those circumstances, was the most joy I’d felt since our baby’s first kick.


We arrived at another government building and I was led through a series of corridors and down several flights of stairs. By the time we reached a dark room in the basement, I was exhausted and sweaty and couldn’t help but think of Borya seeing me in such an ugly state.

I turned around, taking in the bare room. There were no chairs; there was no table. A lightbulb dangled from the ceiling. The floor sloped toward a rusted drain at its center.

“Where is he?” I asked, immediately realizing how stupid I’d been.

Instead of an answer, my escort suddenly pushed me through a metal door, which locked behind me. The smell assaulted me. It was sweet and unmistakable. Tables holding long forms under canvas came into focus. My knees buckled and I fell to the cold, wet floor. Was Boris under there? Is that why they’d brought me here?

The door opened again, after what could’ve been minutes or hours, and two arms lifted me to my feet. I was dragged back up the stairs, down more seemingly endless corridors.

We boarded a freight elevator at the end of one hall. The guard closed the cage and pulled the lever. Motors came to life and the elevator shook violently but did not move. The guard pulled the lever again and swung the cage open. “I keep forgetting,” he said with a smirk, pushing me out of the elevator. “It’s been out of service for ages.”

He turned to the first door on the left and opened it. Semionov was inside. “We’ve been waiting,” he said.

“Who is
we
?”

He knocked twice on the wall. The door opened again, and an old man shuffled inside. It took me a moment to realize it was Sergei Nikolayevich Nikiforov, Ira’s former English teacher—or a shadow of him. The normally fastidious teacher’s beard was wiry, his trousers falling off his slight frame, his shoes missing their laces. He reeked of urine.

“Sergei,” I mouthed. But he refused to look at me.

“Shall we begin?” Semionov asked. “Good,” he said without waiting for an answer. “Let’s go over this again. Sergei Nikolayevich Nikiforov, do you confirm the evidence you gave to us yesterday: that you were present during anti-Soviet conversations between Pasternak and Ivinskaya?”

I screamed but was quickly silenced by a slap from the guard standing next to the door. I was knocked against the tiled wall, but I felt nothing.

“Yes,” Nikiforov replied, his head still bowed.

“And that Ivinskaya informed you of her plan to escape abroad with Pasternak?”

“Yes,” Nikiforov said.

“It’s not true!” I cried. The guard lunged toward me.

“And that you listened to anti-Soviet radio broadcasts at the home of Ivinskaya?”

“That’s not…actually, no…I think—”

“So you lied to us, then?”

“No.” The old man raised his shaky hands to cover his face, letting out an unearthly whine.

I told myself to look away, but didn’t.


After Nikiforov’s confession, they took him away, and me back to Cell No. 7. I’m not sure when the pain began—I had been numb for hours—but at some point, my cellmates alerted the guard that my bedroll was soaked with blood.

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