Authors: Lara Prescott
He turned back around. “We do thank you for your help in getting Pasternak to sign the letter. We won’t forget it.”
“It was Boris’s letter, not mine.”
“My friend Isidor Gringolts—I believe you know him? He told me personally it was you who wrote most of the letter. His work on the matter has also been recognized.”
Of course Gringolts had been sent by them. How could I have been so stupid?
“We’re now relying entirely on you to put this matter behind us,” Polikarpov continued.
Big House was dark, except for the light in Borya’s study. The car pulled up and I saw his silhouette in the window. The light shut off and the downstairs light turned on. I wanted to go to him but did not dare leave the car. I could see another figure walking back and forth, shorter and hunched. Zinaida wouldn’t allow me even to stand on her porch.
Borya emerged, wearing his cap and jacket, an odd smile on his face as if he were about to embark on a holiday. The driver got out and opened the door for him. He didn’t register any surprise at seeing me in the backseat. Nor did he express worry when Polikarpov confirmed we were indeed on our way to meet with Khrushchev. The only uneasiness Borya relayed was that he wasn’t wearing suitable trousers for the occasion. “Should I go back inside and change?” he asked, when the car was already headed down the road. Polikarpov chortled. Even stranger, Borya joined in, laughing hysterically. His laughter infuriated me and I shot him a look, which he pretended not to see, which infuriated me even more. At a stoplight, I felt like opening the door and getting out, leaving these men to deal alone with what they’d wrought.
We arrived at Entrance No. 5 of the Central Committee building and followed Polikarpov through the gate. Borya stopped at the heels of a guard. “Identification,” the guard said.
“The only identification I had was my Writers’ Union membership card, which they’ve just revoked,” said Boris. “Thus I am without identification completely. Worse, I’m without proper trousers.” The guard, a young man with full lips and freckles across his cheeks, chose not to engage and waved us through.
Polikarpov left us in a small waiting area, where we sat for an hour. Borya touched my gold bracelet, which he’d given me three New Years earlier. “Should you be wearing this?” he asked. He brushed a piece of my hair behind my ear. “And the pearl earrings? And the lipstick? It might give the wrong impression.”
I opened my purse. Instead of taking off my jewelry and wiping off my makeup, I took out a small vial of valerian tincture and drank it down to calm my nerves.
Finally Borya’s name was called and we stood. “You are not needed,” the guard said to me. Ignoring him, I took Borya’s arm and we walked down a long corridor and into an office where Polikarpov sat waiting. The strong scent of aftershave greeted us. Polikarpov appeared to have showered, shaved, and put on a new suit. He acted as if he had been waiting all day for us. It was another intimidation tactic; we would not be meeting with Khrushchev at all. He cleared his throat as if to give a speech. “You will be allowed to remain in Mother Russia, Boris Leonidovich,” he said.
“Why did we have to come here when you could have told us this hours ago?”
He ignored me and raised a finger. “There is more.” He pointed to two chairs. “Sit.”
I could hear Borya grind his custom-made teeth. “There is nothing more!” he exploded. Finally, the anger I’d longed to hear. He was standing up for himself at last.
“You have caused so much anger from the people, Boris Leonidovich. There is little I can do to calm them. You have no right to muzzle them. They have a right to express themselves. Tomorrow,
will include several of these voices. There is nothing we can do about that. The people have their right. Before you will be given permission to stay, you must first make peace with the people. Publicly, of course. Another letter is needed posthaste.”
“Have you no shame?” Borya asked, his voice still raised.
“Come.” Polikarpov motioned toward the chairs again. “Let’s sit and talk like gentlemen.”
“There is only one gentleman here,” I said.
Polikarpov chuckled. “Would the great poet’s wife agree?”
“I will not sit,” Borya continued. “This meeting is over. You speak of
What do you know about
“Now look, Boris Leonidovich, this whole business is almost over. You have a chance to make things right with me and with
I’ve brought you here to tell you everything will soon be right again as long as you cooperate.” He came around the desk, placing himself between Borya and me. He put a hand on Borya’s shoulder and patted him as one would a good dog. “Goodness me, old fellow. What a mess you’ve landed us in.”
Borya shrugged his hand off. “I am not your underling, some sheep you can direct to pasture.”
“I am not the one who has stuck a knife in the back of my country.”
“Every word I’ve written was truth. Every word. I am not ashamed.”
“Your truth is not our truth. I am only trying to help you rectify things.”
Borya started for the office door.
“Stop him, Olga Vsevolodovna!” Polikarpov’s bravado disappeared. He looked pathetic and desperate. It was clear he’d been ordered to quietly put an end to the whole affair but had wanted to puff out his chest first and was now failing at the task.
“You must first apologize for speaking to him like that,” I said.
“I apologize,” he said. “I do. Please.”
“End this now,” Borya said, still standing in the doorway. “I beg of you.”
The next day, twenty-two letters authored by “real” Russian people appeared in
under the headline
SOVIET PEOPLE CONDEMN B. PASTERNAK’S BEHAVIOR.
Each one parroted the party line:
Judas! Traitor! Fake!
A construction worker from Leningrad penned that she had never heard of this Pasternak before, so why should we pay him any mind at all? A garment worker from Tomsk wrote that Pasternak was on the take from the West, funded by capitalist spies who’d made the writer a very rich man.
Polikarpov decreed that one last letter of apology, addressed to “the people,” was needed. I wrote the first draft, edited it to Polikarpov’s specifications, and persuaded Borya to sign it.
The night the final letter was printed in
he came to Little House wanting to make love. But the shining brave poet was gone. In his place stood an old man. He touched my waist as I stood at the sink peeling potatoes. And for the first time, I moved away.
Most of it was waiting: waiting for the intel, waiting for the assignment, waiting for the mission to begin. I waited in hotel rooms, apartments, stairwells, train stations, bus stations, bars, restaurants, libraries, museums, laundromats. I waited on park benches and in movie theaters. I once waited for a message at a public swimming pool in Amsterdam for a full day, and left so sunburned I had to wrap aloe-soaked gauze around my shoulders and the tops of my thighs.
Nine months after the World’s Fair, I waited yet again—in a hostel in Vienna, for the seventh World Youth Festival to begin.
Set for late July, the festival would be ten days of rallies, marches, meetings, exhibitions, lectures, seminars, and sporting events. There’d be a Parade of Nations, the release of a thousand white doves, and a grand ball at the end—all dedicated to promoting “peace and friendship” among tomorrow’s leaders. During the fest, the expected twenty thousand international students attending from Saudi Arabia and Ceylon to Cambridge and Fresno could take part in union-led tours of an electrical plant, hear presentations from leaders in the voluntary work camp movement, or attend lectures on the peaceful use of atomic energy.
The Kremlin had invested an estimated $100 million to ensure the festival’s lasting influence on its participants.
But the Agency had other plans.
popped up across the USSR and Pasternak’s notoriety skyrocketed, the Soviets began searching for the banned book in the luggage of citizens returning to the Motherland after being abroad. It was a propaganda coup for the Agency, and as a result, they decided to double down—to print and disseminate even more copies. This time, instead of the blue-linen-covered edition printed in the Netherlands, we’d made a miniature edition ourselves—printed on thin Bible stock, small enough to fit in a pocket.
I’d gone to Vienna early, to await the arrival of two thousand copies of the tiny book.
Animal Farm, The God That Failed,
were also designated for distribution, and dozens of us awaited the arrival of the books that would fill our “Information Booths” throughout Vienna, ready to hand off to student delegates taking in the sights. It was the Agency’s own way of spreading
peace and friendship.
My hair had grown out a bit since Brussels and was dyed back to a brassy shade of its former blond. And I dressed as if on my way to a poetry reading: black turtleneck, black clam diggers, and black ballet flats. I’d become a student again.
My first location was to be the Wurstelprater. I was to scout out the amusement park prior to the start of the festival, to determine the most trafficked spot from which I could hand out the most books before inevitably being asked to leave.
After passing the ghost train, merry-go-round, bumper cars, shooting galleries, and biergartens, I decided the foot of the Wiener Riesenrad would be the most advantageous spot, as I could envision every student tourist wanting to take a ride on the world’s tallest Ferris wheel. Plus, I got a small thrill from standing so close to the ride featured in one of my favorite movies,
The Third Man.
With my location set, my next step was to visit a dry cleaner on Tuchlauben, where I would tell the clerk I’d been sent to retrieve a suit for a Mr. Werner Voigt and ask if I could pay in Swiss francs. I’d then be given the bagged suit with a ticket noting the address where the first batch of miniature
s would be located. Dissemination would begin the following day.
But first, I was hungry. I decided to stop and buy two plate-sized potato pancakes before leaving the park—one for dinner and one for breakfast. The food stand was strategically placed next to the Riesenrad, a trap for everyone waiting in line. It was there, standing in line for food behind an American tourist wearing unflatteringly tight lederhosen, that I saw her.
She was there, in line to ride the Ferris wheel, her back to me.
Sally was wearing a long green coat and white gloves, her red hair cut a bit shorter than I’d last seen it. Even from behind, she was beautiful. It reminded me of the first time I saw her in Ralph’s. How the first thing I saw when I turned around was her hair.
It was strange seeing her like that, in a place where I was no longer myself, where she was no longer herself. Reality had shifted. And so much time had passed. Over the last year, I’d let myself come to believe I’d gotten over her. Maybe, I’d told myself time and again, there was never even anything to get over.
But there she was. She’d finally come for me.
Sally tilted her head, as if she could feel me notice her. She didn’t turn around to see if I’d seen her, but she didn’t have to. She knew I would. Of course I would. Should I join her in line? Run up from behind and put my arms around her? Or wait for her to come to me?
I got out of the food line and shifted a few steps over to the line for the Ferris wheel, cutting in front of a group of French-speaking students who paid me no mind.
I inched forward, several spots behind Sally. When she reached the ticket booth, she removed her wallet from her purse. But just as she was handing her money to the woman in the booth, a tall man with salt-and-pepper hair came up and plucked it out of her hand. He paid and she kissed his cheek.
She didn’t even have to turn completely around for me to know.
I watched as the man with salt-and-pepper hair opened the door to the enclosed red gondola for the person who wasn’t Sally. I bought a ticket anyway and boarded by myself. I looked up to see if I could see the Sally look-alike again, hovering somewhere above me. I couldn’t. The ride rocked as we left the ground. I leaned out the open window and watched as the world below became quiet and small.
I saw her again and again. Long after I’d handed out my last copy of
in Vienna and gone on to the next mission, and the one after that. Our time together had been brief, but that didn’t matter. I’d see her for years to come: hailing a rickshaw in Cairo, her red manicure a flash of color in the dusty street; boarding the last train in Delhi, her matching luggage held by a man twice her age; in a New York bodega, petting a cat who was standing atop a stack of cereal boxes; in a hotel bar in Lisbon, ordering a Tom Collins with extra ice.
And as the years passed, her age always stayed the same, her beauty sealed in amber. Even after I met a nurse in Detroit who opened doors inside me I hadn’t known I’d locked. Even then, I’d still see Sally sipping coffee at a diner counter, or sticking her arm out of a dressing room for another size, or in the balcony at a movie theater watching a picture by herself. And each time, I’d feel that same inner gasp, that exquisite anticipation—that moment the lights go down and the film begins, that moment when, for just a few seconds, the whole world feels on the verge of awakening.