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Authors: Ronan Bennett

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BOOK: Zugzwang
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‘I'm off,' she said, patting a napkin unnecessarily to her mouth.

‘Is everything all right?' I asked. ‘At the university?'

‘Yes,' she said, with a nonchalant shrug.

‘You would tell me, wouldn't you, if there was anything troubling you?'

Most children, I think, would answer yes as a matter of course, if only to effect the quickest possible exit from their
meddlesome parent. Catherine, being Catherine, appeared to give the question serious consideration. She pursed her lips. That dark line of eyebrow came down in a frown.

‘I don't know,' she said. ‘I might. But in any case there's nothing troubling me.'

She was at the door when I said, ‘Do you know anyone called Yastrebov?'

‘No,' she replied.

I studied her face carefully. She was telling the truth. I knew my daughter well enough to be able to tell.

‘Why?'

‘Nothing,' I said.

And then she was gone. I smiled to myself. I was in awe of her and, after Zinnurov's promise of last night, I could afford a little sentimentality about my daughter.

I picked up the newspaper. The Mountain's article was in response to the recent wave of bomb attacks. The death toll from last night's, at the Angleterre and the Irinovka Station, had risen to seven; many more had been horribly wounded. There was also an interview with Maklakov, who sounded quite defensive. In spite of the latest outrages, the minister of the interior insisted, the police were having great success in breaking up the terrorist gangs. Only yesterday a senior member of the Bolshevik underground, a Georgian named Dzhugashvili, had been captured in the capital. Although Maklakov would not confirm it, the newspaper attributed the arrest to the Okhrana spy codenamed King who had infiltrated the Party's highest echelons.

I laid the newspaper down and went to my study to collect some books. The telephone rang.

‘I spoke to Maklakov just now,' Zinnurov said in a hearty voice. ‘Once I'd explained your difficulty and vouched for you, he was entirely sympathetic. You will not be troubled by Inspector Lychev again.'

‘Thank you,' I said.

‘Tell Anna I will see her anywhere at any time.'

He left a number where I could reach him. I waited a minute before picking up the telephone again. I asked to speak to Madame Ziatdinov.

‘I wanted to thank you for arranging the interview with your father,' I said when Anna came to the telephone.

‘Was he able to help?'

‘More than I dared hope.'

‘I'm so glad. I was awake half the night worrying about you and Catherine.'

For some long moments there was only the furred hum and crackle of the telephone line. Though we disguise our hopes with ambiguous meanings, men and women know when what they are really talking about is the thing between men and women.

‘I would like to see you,' I said.

Another pause, the business of men and women and its implications working through her mind.

‘I have some things to do today,' she said, ‘but I'll be free by six o'clock.'

We arranged to meet on Admiralty Prospect. When we said goodbye I was aware of a generalised feeling of pleasure in my groin, as though someone had inadvertently brushed against me. This impulse, this utterly unnerving and commanding impulse. I would be fifty on my next birthday. How little we grow. And how marvellous we grow so little, in this aspect of our lives at least.

I went to the window. Across the river smoke was already rising from the chimneys of the great grey factories of the Vyborg. A gentle snow was falling. I decided to drive to the office.

My first appointment that morning was with none other than Gregory Vasilevich Petrov. As Petrov was champion of the
city's poor (and hero to Catherine) so he was reviled as a demagogic opportunist by supporters of the autocracy like Zinnurov and the Baltic Barons. There were plenty of rabble-rousers in St Petersburg at that time, but what made Petrov especially loathed was his combination of oratory, impertinence and scathing quick wit – he was by far the most entertaining deputy in the Duma. His enemies' constant disparagement only enhanced his reputation among the workers and students, in spite of his manifest – and, to some, troubling – contradictions: he professed himself the authentic voice of the destitute and oppressed, yet seemed addicted to expensive restaurants, the theatre and the opera. He dressed in nothing but the finest clothes, paid scrupulous attention to his toilette and revelled in the company of glamorous young women. He had verve and imagination. He was a law unto himself. He was mustachioed, vain, arrogant and clever. He was rarely punctual and often failed to turn up at all for his appointments. I was mildly surprised when Minna announced his arrival, but I was also pleased, for he was never less than interesting.

Petrov collapsed on the couch like a man who has swum from the shipwreck to the shore. Although in public he demonstrated the energy of a man possessed, whenever I saw him he was exhausted. As far as I could tell he never rested. When not making speeches in the Duma, he was leading strikers against the police. When not locked in smoke-filled rooms arguing with comrades as they went line by line through their latest manifesto, he was in the arms of some young lover. He was perpetually in motion as if, like a bicyclist, motion alone kept him upright.

‘You missed our last three sessions,' I said.

‘I was in Krakow,' he said. ‘There was a meeting.'

‘With whom?'

‘A Party meeting. I can't tell you any more than that, except
that it was important and I couldn't miss it. You know there are areas of my life I can't go into.'

Petrov was a member of the Bolshevik faction of the Social Democrats. The Party was notorious, barely legal in Russia and subject to police surveillance and repression. In the absence of Lenin, its exiled leader, Petrov was its de facto chief. The strains involved in this alone would account for his mental and physical exhaustion, but in Petrov's case there was something else. Something tormented his soul. He wanted to tell me, to tell someone, and yet he could not. As with Anna, as with all my resistant patients, I had fallen back on the principal ally of psychoanalysts everywhere – time; I was never in a hurry.

‘On the last occasion we met,' I reminded him, ‘you said you were at the end of your tether, that you couldn't go on. How do you feel today?'

‘The same.'

There was a long silence, which he declined to disturb.

I said, ‘Have you been eating properly? Sleeping?'

‘It has nothing to do with eating or sleeping,' he answered impatiently.

‘What does it have to do with?'

He jabbed a finger at me. ‘How would it be if I went to the people I represent and they told me all about their problems – how they couldn't survive on their wages, how they lived twenty to a room and had no clean water, how rats swarmed over their children at night? How would it be if they told me all this and all I could say was: “What colour are the rats?” '

‘You have not told me your problems.'

‘Are you deaf? I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted and I'm depressed.'

‘These are symptoms –' I started to say.

‘Enough! Enough!'

His eyes were raging and red, veins throbbed at his temple.
For a moment I think he considered hitting me. Whenever I saw Petrov, I had the sense of wrestling with a violent man made all the more aggressive by his shame at finding himself in a psychoanalyst's office. He was a leader of men, he was openly contemptuous of the very science he hoped would relieve his suffering. Men who have grappled with extreme hardship from their earliest youth – as Petrov had – often armour themselves against the unhappiness that is their lot by developing an omnipotent sense of their own invulnerability. He had always battled his way out of trouble, fighting enemies tooth and nail; but the greatest enemy was in his own subconscious and the battle he had now to fight was with himself.

I stared at him fixedly; with Petrov I had to be firmer than with most of my other patients. He heaved a weary sigh and collapsed again on the couch.

‘If …,' he began, ‘if … let us say … a man is married and has children. If that man loves his wife, is devoted to her and to their children. And it is a pure love, one built on excitement and enchantment but also on years of shared experience and mutual respect. Yet that same man conceives a similar pure love for another woman. It would be difficult for him, yes? You agree?'

‘Go on.'

‘He would be torn. Confused. Depressed. Would he not?'

‘Are you in such a situation?'

‘I feel as if I am.'

‘You are married and you have children.'

‘So what?'

‘Do you have a mistress?'

‘I have many women friends.'

‘Do you have sexual relations with your women friends?'

‘It's no secret,' he said defiantly. ‘So what?'

‘Is it a secret you keep from your wife?'

‘She doesn't ask and I don't tell her.'

‘How do you think she would feel were she to know?'

‘How do you think?'

‘You imply she would be upset.'

‘To put it mildly.'

‘How do you feel about that?'

He sighed and rubbed his tired eyes. ‘My dream is to have a little house out in the country,' he said, ‘by a lake or a river, where I could fish, and the sun would be shining and the children would play and in the evenings we would sit down together for dinner and there would only be us, the family – my family. Nothing else, no one else. A simple meal, a light breeze, deer and rabbits running over the fields. And I would sleep for ten hours and wake refreshed and content, and the day would start all over again, the sun shining and the children playing.'

‘What you are describing is an impossible idyll.'

‘I said it was a dream, didn't I?' he answered sharply. ‘It's never going to happen. My life is not like that. It never will be like that. But what's wrong with having a harmless little dream?'

‘Does it help you solve the fundamental problem of your life?'

‘Which is what?'

‘I don't know. You won't tell me.'

He stared at me belligerently. ‘You have no answers, do you? You can't help me.'

‘I can't help you until you trust me.'

‘How can I trust you? I can't trust anyone.'

‘What about your comrades? Don't you trust them?'

He grunted. ‘Are you joking? The Party is a snake pit. Comrades stab each other in the back, they complain, they spread rumours, they manoeuvre against each other. You've heard of “King”, I take it?'

‘The spy?'

‘That's what the meeting in Krakow was all about – who's the traitor, who is King? God knows how many people he's betrayed – Dzhugashvili was arrested yesterday. How many more are we going to lose because of King? There is anger, suspicion, resentment – and that's my life with my comrades. Then there are the factory owners, the police, the government, Okhrana spies, all of whom would like to see me dead. My life is hellish.'

‘Then you must live another life.'

‘I can't. I believe in what I am doing.'

‘What are you doing?'

‘What am I doing?' He threw me an indignant look. ‘I am fighting against hypocrisy, that's what I'm doing. Russia is a Christian country. As is Germany, England, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden – Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, but all Christian countries, and yet millions live in poverty. How do we justify this? How do we explain it? Christianity's chief distinction is that it softens the human heart. It urges charity, brotherhood and common cause on believers. Yet it tolerates an economic and political system that runs diametrically counter to first impressions of right and wrong. This to me is utterly repugnant. Destroy Christianity. Destroy capitalism and autocracy. Only when hypocrisy is destroyed can there be justice. This is what I am doing, Spethmann.'

‘You have set yourself a very high target.'

‘You're a doctor. I want you to make my lives possible.'

‘Your
lives
?' I said.

‘Life. Lives. It feels like I'm having to live a hundred lives in one body, and it's killing me. I want you to make my life possible. Can you do that, yes or no?'

‘Not if you continue to refuse to work with me.'

Before I could say anything more, he took out his pocket watch and drew in a deep, weary breath. ‘I have to go,' he said, getting up. He put a hand to his lower back and
grimaced with discomfort. ‘I have to meet some workers in the naval yards.'

‘Minna will make another appointment,' I said, seeing him to the door.

He looked at me with sudden suspicion. ‘She doesn't know who I am, does she?'

From the very first, Petrov had insisted on absolute secrecy, fearing the mockery that would result if his enemies discovered he was consulting a psychoanalyst. We used the pseudonym Grischuk in the appointments book and in my notes.

‘I have not told Minna,' I said, ‘but your face is well known. I can't guarantee she hasn't guessed.'

‘But you said she's discreet?'

‘She is discretion itself.'

After Petrov, my next patient was a young clerk at the foreign ministry. Addicted to sex with elderly prostitutes, he liked to scour the poorer quarters for the most degraded women he could find for his purposes. He recounted his activities in forensic and scatological detail. I was always relieved when his hour was up.

That afternoon, while I was making up my notes, Minna came in. ‘I cannot find Rozental's file,' she said. ‘I've looked everywhere.'

‘I took it home with me last night,' I lied. ‘I'll bring it in tomorrow.'

‘The files are a terrible mess. I've been trying to sort them out all day.'

‘I'm sorry,' I said. ‘I was looking for something and got everything mixed up.'

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