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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

mem­ber

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Graphic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the past: An­drew Croome

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