Brave new worlds
In this edited extract from the winner of the 2008 The Australian / Vogel award for new writers, Andrew Croome, writing about the famous Petrov defection case, sets a compelling scene in 1950s Canberra
RUSSIAN childhoods . . . Evdokia has a memory from the famine year in which she turned five. It is her grandfather. While no one is watching, he takes a milk cup from her fingers and pours its contents on the floor. Because if hunger is a burden, then so too are the hungry.
In Canberra, she thought it would take a fair amount of doing before you could starve to death. The shopping centres were white- stone temples and long streets. Fruit stores sold their produce in the open air: melons, pears and strawberries in huge boxes. There was an etiquette in the idea, this statement of politeness and wealth, and you took what you liked, in any quantity, and what’s more, you could afford it.
And the children were so healthy. If there was a difficulty living here, it was their rhapsodic brightness and its propensity to break her heart. They came tumbling from the preschools, the girls in long white socks and pleated skirts. It was the kind of pain that couldn’t be helped, Mothercraft Centres everywhere you looked.
She imagined Irina with her now. Irina in a blue skirt, skipping along Lockyer Street. Irina leaping into Volodya’s arms.
She posted a long letter to Tamara, her little sister. This is a koala, she wrote. Here is where we live. She had photographs of Irina and Tamara playing with woodblocks on the floor.
It was all these thoughts of children that set her troubles in motion.
‘‘ The Soviet Union is a fortress besieged by world capital.’’
May Day arrived, and she and Pipniakova spent £ 6 at the butcher. Before dinner, Nikolai Kovaliev gave a speech on the value of May Day and of Russia’s military might. Chezhev played a short film of the 1950 parade: tanks and tractors moving past the crowds in Red Square, the thousands in lines and rows, in squares and floods, in the assembled and disassembled shapes of human throng. Everyone was proud. The next morning, she had an instruction. It came by telegraph. Moscow Centre had changed her codename. It was truly the strangest thing. PLEASE UPDATE YOUR RECORDS AND USE THE FOLLOWING IN CORRESPONDENCE. They wanted her to be known as TAMARA. She sat at her desk in the ambassador’s antechamber, feeling somewhat lost. It might have been coincidence, but they knew her whole history, as they knew everyone’s. So what were they trying to convey? She sat and pondered and by lunchtime couldn’t avoid the conclusion that it was some form of threat. Tamara would be their retaliation should anything go astray.
She put herself into her work, counting columns and doing sums. It was difficult in this silly system of pounds and pence. She was distracted by her sister, picturing her on the bicycle they had, bumping down Moscow streets.
The ambassador’s antechamber was near the embassy’s main doors. The chamber had no door, and so she was subject to the noise of everyone’s comings and goings, the deliveries and the visitations, the idle chatter of the doormen. There were also the children, who often played at the entrance while their parents worked, chasing each other with fitful squeals.
That morning, Lyosha Koukharenko came into the room. The boy was four or five. He was wearing a red jumper with his collar sticking up. ‘‘ What is it?’’ she asked. He was about to speak when a thing came flying past his head. It hit the near wall with a blunt thud. It was an orange. Lyosha turned to see who had thrown it, but not before Evdokia stood up in a rage.
She screamed. She went to Lyosha and smacked him. The children, the food, Irina: it was a vortex of these things. She marched the boy past a dazed Chezhev, who had been asleep, while the remaining children scattered westward towards the lodges. She yelled after them that this wasn’t the place to play. Lyosha began to cry. She took him to his mother, who was an assistant in the consular section.
‘‘ Valya Koukharenko, here is your boy. You mothers. Keep your children away from the front gates.’’ ‘‘ What has happened, Evdokia Alexeyevna?’’ ‘‘ They are throwing oranges. They are always so badly behaved.’’
She made a ruling, as she was entitled, that children stay away from the embassy during the day. It was a necessary and reasonable act, altogether in keeping with the idea that this was a place of work.
Then she made another ruling. This concerned the furniture in everybody’s homes, which was owned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and on which rent should be paid. That was a Moscow directive, clearly set out in the embassy regulations. Ambassador Lifanov came to see her. The staff were unhappy about it, he said. Couldn’t she defer her decision? No, she explained. She had to think of the Moscow auditor, who would punish irregularities.
Masha Golovanova came and told her that Lifanova and Koukharenka were spreading stories behind her back. They said she was embezzling money and using it to buy Western clothes. This made her laugh. Let them be jealous, she thought. If they have no income and their husbands won’t buy them Australian things, what fault is it of hers?
There was a meeting of party members at which party memoranda were relayed. Present was the embassy leadership, Evdokia the only woman. The minutes of such meetings went to the central committee of the party in Moscow.
At the conclusion of this meeting, Kovaliev stood up. ‘‘ There is one more matter,’’ he said with a wooden face.
‘‘ Yes,’’ the ambassador said. ‘‘ Comrade Petrova, perhaps you will care to explain it.’’ She looked on. ‘‘ Of course, we are mentioning the matter of your desk,’’ said Kovaliev.
‘‘ Yes,’’ the ambassador nodded. ‘‘ I do not know what to say, it is such a remarkable offence.’’
She studied them for a moment. Volodya tightened in the chair beside her. What on earth did they mean?
‘‘ Come, Comrade Petrova,’’ said Kovaliev. ‘‘ We must sort this out. Under the glass of your desk there is a picture of a dog playing piano, is there not?’’ ‘‘ Yes,’’ she said carefully. ‘‘ You have put it there?’’ ‘‘ Yes.’’ ‘‘ What is it for?’’ She was quiet. Kovaliev gave her a few moments and then became stern. ‘‘ This is a party meeting, Evdokia Alexeyevna. Come, we are asking you why it is there.’’
‘‘ It is humorous,’’ she eventually replied. ‘‘ I do not understand your interest. It is a nothing picture.’’
The secretary towered. ‘‘ Then you admit, do you, that this dog is for comic effect?’’
‘‘ I admit nothing,’’ she said. ‘‘ What is the meaning of this?’’
Kovaliev paced. He pulled on the cuffs of his jacket. ‘‘ There is something else, is there not, under the glass?’’ ‘‘ There is,’’ said the ambassador. ‘‘ Yes,’’ said Kovaliev. ‘‘ There is a portrait of Stalin, is there not?’’ Her heart sank. ‘‘ Tell us, Comrade Petrova. Why do you ridicule the supreme leader of the Soviet people through comparison to a minstrel dog?’’
A toxic taste came to her mouth. Her elbows hurt. ‘‘ Of course,’’ she said warily. ‘‘ I meant no insult. It is simply that . . .’’
‘‘ Ah!’’ Kovaliev said. ‘‘ Then you concede that insult is taken.’’
She could have kicked herself. It was the silliest of ways to begin.
‘‘ She does not concede,’’ Volodya said suddenly. His voice was forceful and as he spoke both Kovaliev and the ambassador shrank a little, and Evdokia saw that they were mindful of her husband’s authority, and that in hatching this plan they hadn’t been sure how he would react.
‘‘ That is right,’’ she began again. ‘‘ I must protest. Nikolai Grigorievich, as you must know, this is a very serious charge. Frankly, I do not know why you make it. You know as well as I that these pictures are at the opposite poles of the glass, which itself is a very wide sheet. The idea of offence here is laughable.’’ ‘‘ But, Comrade . . .’’ ‘‘ Your allegation is baseless,’’ she continued. ‘‘ The two pictures must be half a metre apart. I think it is the allegation alone here that brings insult to the supreme leader.’’ She waited a moment. ‘‘ The allegation alone.’’
Kovaliev sat. From nowhere he took out a comb, driving it through his hair, pulling again on the cuffs of his jacket. She knew she’d been underestimated. She was not inexperienced in the means of party threat.
‘‘ I demand that you render my protestations in the minutes,’’ she added quickly.
The ambassador spoke. ‘‘ Nevertheless, Evdokia Alexeyevna, you will, of course, remove it.’’ ‘‘ The picture?’’ ‘‘ Yes.’’ ‘‘ As I say, it is nothing.’’ ‘‘ Then you will remove it?’’ ‘‘ All right,’ she said. ‘‘ Only this fuss.’’
The meeting ended. She went to her desk and placed the picture in her pocket, then she and Volodya left the embassy by the rear gate. Outdoors, the darkness was new and a slight, coldish wind had the air on the move.
‘‘ You must write a letter,’’ Volodya said as they walked. ‘‘ Yes.’’ ‘‘ Copy each committee.’’ ‘‘ I will.’’ ‘‘ Include a diagram.’’ ‘‘ Yes.’’ ‘‘ Show the charge as a stunt. I will write to Moscow Centre, too.’’ ‘‘ The ambassador is undermining the MVD?’’ ‘‘ No. I will send it as gossip, which they will like.’’ ‘‘ I will draw Stalin but not the dog.’’ ‘‘ You have enough black marks already.’’ Volodya stopped them at the corner, checking the empty street. The sound of a radio faintly emanated from a window at No 13.
‘‘ You need some insurance,’’ he said. ‘‘ There is a man coming to Canberra tomorrow, staying two days at the Kingston hotel.’’ ‘‘ An agent.’’ ‘‘ He is a communist, a journalist who wants to help. I have asked him to give us something useful on the political scene, things the newspapers don’t print. You handle him. He is writing, that is all. Pencils and paper. He will need somebody who speaks English.’’
The breeze picked up. There was a raucous bark from inside their house as they approached. Jack was growling in his clever way, seeing it was them but putting on his show. As they got to the front door, Volodya tapped the glass, sending the alsatian into an overblown spin. Whenever the dog’s big hips wobbled, his whole body leaping like a jack rabbit, Evdokia thought they were on the verge of giving way. Volodya went to make dinner. She sat down at the bureau, reaching for some paper, switching on a lamp.
The fish goes bad, beginning at the head.
Graphic representation of the past: Andrew Croome