The spectators inside the Petrovsky Park football stadium threw up their arms, whistled and booed, chanted and swore, expressing themselves with an animation rarely seen in everyday Soviet life. On these terraces the ordinary working people found a much-needed outlet, a sense of freedom and release which fascinated Turgenovsky.
‘That was never a corner kick,’ shouted Beria. ‘Timofei?’ He called to one of his bodyguards. ‘Where’s that referee from? What’s his name? Perhaps we should give him a good going over in the Lubyanka, eh? That would make him open his eyes.’
Everyone in the NKVD special enclosure roared with laughter.
Beria shot to his feet.
‘Head it, damn you! Did you see that, comrade Turgenovsky? Defence is about concentration and steely discipline.’ Beria ground a balled fist into the palm of his other hand. ‘You can’t simply let strikers have the freedom of the penalty area. You must be unflinching. And to think we’re going for this year’s championship. As long as these Spartak bastards don’t pip us at the post, I don’t care. I can’t stand them.’
On sitting back down, Beria pointed to the away supporters, congregated behind the far goal amongst a sea of red banners.
‘How they love to call themselves the team of the working people! If I had my way they’d only be one club side in Moscow.’
His passion surprised Turgenovsky. Then again, Beria was a many-sided individual. Fiercely intelligent and resourceful, he was the most impressive member of a Politburo made up of one-dimensional puppets, selected for their malleability and complete lack of initiative.
‘I didn’t realize you were so interested in football,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘I always had you down as a man of more nocturnal interests.’
‘I’m a man for all seasons,’ he said. ‘When I was a youngster, I was one of the most feared players in all of Georgia. I used to be quite the trickster back then - a pacy winger with an eye for goal, and scourge of many a defensive back line.’
‘Really? Aren’t you a little on the slight side for an athlete?’
‘That was to my advantage,’ Beria replied. ‘I was so elusive, it was like tackling dust. Now, what did you want to speak to me about?’
‘It’s a, er…rather delicate matter. A young man has’ - another burst of crowd noise cut Turgenovsky short, and he waited for it to die down before continuing – ‘A young man has -’
‘Yes,’ said Beria, his eyes still locked on the pitch. ‘A young man has done what?’
‘Well, he’s turned up out of the blue claiming to be my illegitimate son.’
‘Illegitimate son?’ Beria waved away Turgenovsky’s concerns. ‘Don’t worry. It happens to me all the time. He’s probably only after a fistful of roubles. People will try anything if they think there’s some easy money involved.’
‘But he does bear an uncanny resemblance to me, and might have justification in thinking we’re in some way related.’
‘You know the story of False Dimitri,’ said Beria. ‘One of this young man’s friends probably saw your picture in the newspaper, and told him he’s a dead ringer for that famous writer. Then they hatch up a plot like this to extort money. Don’t be so gullible. Simply warn him off - tell him you’re wise to his methods. If he persists, give me his name, and I’ll make sure he never bothers you again.’
This more than satisfied Turgenovsky.
‘Thank you, Lavrenti, I knew I could rely on you. It’s such a weight off -’
Beria shot to his feet again.
‘For pity’s sake, referee! That was handball!’
There were only a few customers in the restaurant; artists and intellectuals, chatting quietly amongst themselves. At a table with a good view of the main door, Turgenovsky stared into a glass of red wine, holding it by the stem, tilting it from side to side. He regretted having agreed to a personal interview. After the war years and so many hardships, he now despised all forms of wasted time, of engagement in activities which were not purely for his own benefit or pleasure.
So absorbed was he in his own thoughts, he did not see the young man with the long hair enter the restaurant, and walk over to his table.
Turgenovsky lifted his head.
‘Oh, it’s you.’
The young man looked over his shoulder.
‘Were you expecting someone else? If that’s the case, I can always come back later.’
Turgenovsky’s grave stare told him this was no time for jokes.
‘Sit down. We’ve much to talk about.’
The young man sat opposite.
‘What’s that?’ asked Turgenovsky, only then noticing the portfolio under his arm.
‘My work. I wanted to show you a few of my paintings.’
‘Paintings? Oh – oh, I see. And what did you say your name was?’
‘I didn’t. You never gave me the opportunity. You ushered me off without a chance to explain anything. It was with great difficulty, and through the kindness and generosity of a close friend, that I managed to stay in Moscow for a few extra days.’
‘And, er’ – Turgenovsky hesitated – ‘what exactly do you want?’
‘Come now, you need only take one look at me to know why I’ve searched you out – the apple never falls far from the tree, so they say.’
A dainty waitress in a white blouse and black skirt came over to their table.
‘Is red wine all right for you?’ Turgenovsky asked his companion.
‘Bring us another bottle, will you, Anna?’ Turgenovsky said to the waitress, ‘and another glass.’
‘Certainly, Ivan Fyodorovich.’ She smiled and walked away.
‘So,’ said Turgenovsky, ‘what is your name, then?’
‘Ivan – just like you. My mother never told me much about my real father. Originally, she said he’d been killed in the Civil War. Then I saw your photograph in the newspaper, and realized there was more than just a passing similarity between us.’
Turgenovsky nodded his head. Everything made sense to him now.
‘In the newspaper?’ he said. ‘I see. So you and your pals saw my photograph and hatched up a plot to try and blackmail me. I should’ve guessed from the start. Do you know how much trouble you could be in, young man? If I were to take this matter before the proper authorities, I could have you and your whole family arrested. I could have you locked up in some Siberian gulag for the rest of your days.’
The young man shook his head.
‘This is not some scheme. When I confronted my mother, she told me the whole story, of how she took me from the State Orphanage at the age of three. All she ever knew was that a young woman gave me up in Moscow in 1920. When I saw your photograph I put two and two together. It was then I started to do some digging around. I checked your date of birth, found out where you were living at the time I was born. It wasn’t very difficult. There are scores of reference books in the libraries that celebrate your every move.’
The waitress returned with the wine.
‘Would you like anything else?’
Turgenovsky shook his head, smiled with false warmth, and waved her away.
‘Why, that doesn’t prove anything,’ he said to Ivan, when sure she was out of earshot. ‘I fear you’ve been clutching at straws, young man. It’s only natural for you to idealize your real father, to hope beyond hope that he’s a famous writer or rising star in the Party. But Moscow is a big place, and how many young women give up their babies to the State Orphanage in any given year – hundreds, maybe thousands? No. You’ve made a mistake, I can assure you. I’m not your father. Never have I been in relations with a woman that culminated in an unwanted pregnancy. I -’
Ivan banged his fist against the table.
‘Lies!’ he hissed. ‘Last year, I persuaded a clerk at the registry of births and deaths in Moscow to let me have a look at my birth certificate. There it was in black and white. Ekaterina Denezkhina - mother. Ivan Turgenovsky – father.’
Rattled, Turgenovsky lost all composure.
‘But – but she told me she didn’t put my name on the birth certificate. She promised me. She -’ he broke off, realizing he had said far too much already.
‘So, you admit it, then? You old fool! I was lying. There was no mention of the father’s name on the birth certificate. But clearly you were aware of my natural mother’s pregnancy. Clearly you’re my real biological father.’
Turgenovsky scowled. He hated falling foul of anybody’s tricks, of being outsmarted in any way, and to have been taken in quite so easily felt humiliating.
‘What do you want? Why have you come here?’
‘I want what’s my due,’ Ivan replied. ‘I’ve got twenty-five years worth of credit with you - papa. Surely, with your connections, you could give me a foot up in life. I’m suffocating in the provinces. I need to get to Moscow or Leningrad.’
Turgenovsky shook his head from side to side.
‘I – I don’t understand. I’m just a writer. I have very little influence in political matters.’
‘Don’t give me that,’ said Ivan. ‘You could easily call in a favour from a colleague and get me a place at one of the finest art schools. Look.’ He opened his portfolio and took out a few pictures. ‘I can paint in any style – realist, abstract, portraiture, anything.’ He flicked through sketch after sketch, painting after painting. ‘My tutor back home has written to every institute of merit, but due to his ideologically inconsistent past, he hasn’t so much as received a reply. All I’m asking for is a chance to fulfil my potential. I’m not looking for you to acknowledge my existence or legitimate our relations in any way. I don’t want money from you or an easy life, just an opportunity to do what I do best. You, of all people, should understand that.’
Turgenovsky looked through some of the pictures, nodding his head every now and then, more to buy some thinking time than any genuine sense of interest or admiration.
‘Actually, these are, er…rather good,’ he said. ‘You’ve much talent, and talk with great passion – and I like that. I’ll try my best to arrange something for you. Give me a couple of weeks, and you’re sure to be somewhere far more beneficial to your creative spirit.’
Turgenovsky’s Collected Verse – A Triumph! Novy Mir, August 1945
Not content with being the most important novelist to have emerged since the Revolution, Ivan Fyodorovich Turgenovsky has now turned his immensely gifted and class-conscious hand to socialist-realist poetry. Born of humble origins, Turgenovsky truly is a man of the people. In this poignant and inspirational collection, the reader is given a startling insight into the motivations of the toiling masses. There is such simplicity and power in his rhyme structure, his imagery and expressive language. Never has the workers’ experience been better represented. Once again, comrade Turgenovsky has proved himself to be a most adept chronicler; the foremost authority on the psyche of the proletarian whole. He is, in simple terms, a most outstanding Soviet artist. This collection only cements his position in our society. Comrade Turgenovsky deserves all the recognition he gets, and will surely receive another Stalin Prize for work which has electrified the literary scene.
The lamp on Turgenovsky’s desk cast a grainy beam of light over a pile of manuscript pages. Beside these was a half-empty bottle of vodka. He poured a generous measure into a cut glass tumbler, tossed it back in one go, and rubbed his free hand across his face.
‘Why, why, why?’ he said out loud, and waited, as if expecting a reply from the empty room.
Then he read the top page of the manuscript again.
During the first thaw at the end of January, the cherry orchards smelt exceedingly fragrant. In the middle of the afternoon, warm rays of sun illumined traces of the sad, barely discernible cherry-bark sprinkled with a chilly covering of disappearing snow, and scented with the ageless aroma of rich soil peering through this vanishing veil of white.
His latest offering was pale and imitative. He had acceded to every censorial pen stroke from Stalin and Zhdanov, to the point of putting his name to their work, just like the articles that appeared in Pravda and Red Cavalry.
Someone knocked at the door.
Turgenovsky gathered up the manuscript, and slipped it inside his desk drawer.
The gaunt, grey-haired poet Boris Pasternak entered the room. His round expressive eyes were full of melancholy, as if some especially troubling thought was occupying his mind to distraction.
‘Boris! What a surprise. Please, come and sit down.’
Pasternak took the seat opposite.
‘I hope you don’t mind me barging in like this. I saw your driver outside, and he said you were still here. I need some advice. You’ve been around the Union and the Party for such a long time now. You know how everything works. More importantly, you’ve produced the finest novel of the times, and managed to keep you head on your shoulders and your reputation intact.’
Turgenovsky nodded, encouraging Pasternak to continue.
‘I have the germ of an idea. I want to write a novel, too - a big, sweeping, epic novel.’
‘A novel? I thought you were a man of verse.’
‘I know,’ said Pasternak. ‘But parts of my proposed book have been knocking around since the twenties. I started seriously outlining it during my time at Peredelkino just before the outbreak of war. Now I want to make a proper start. It’s almost become an obsession of mine. But I don’t want to fall foul of the authorities, to waste my time. I want some sort of assurance that it will be treated fairly.’
‘I understand,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘But what makes you think the book will not be seen in a favourable light?’
Pasternak bit into his bottom lip.
‘Let me explain,’ he said. ‘My main character is a doctor called Zhivago. He’s from a moneyed, well-to-do family, and his whole life is turned upside down during the Revolution and Civil War. Only due to the fact that he can be of some practical use to the Red Army does he survive, working at the front line, treating injured soldiers. For many years he’s separated from his wife and children, but regardless, finds love in the arms of another woman.’
‘Write it,’ Turgenovsky advised him with such levity it bordered upon entrapment. ‘It sounds wonderful.’
‘You really think so?’
Turgenovsky took another glass out of his desk drawer.
‘I do,’ he replied. ‘Let’s drink to the success of your new project. Times are changing, Boris. When your novel is ready for publication the political climate is sure to be much more open.’
Turgenovsky poured vodka into the two glasses.
‘Thank you,’ said Pasternak. ‘I don’t have much time to devote to writing at present, but if I chip away a little at a time, I’m sure I can get something together in the next few years.’
‘Time isn’t important,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘The joy of creating is the thing that keeps us all going.’
Pasternak looked relieved.
‘Word has it that you’ve been working on something new,’ he said. ‘I read your collection of poetry, which was very much to the Party line. Will your novel be the same?’
Turgenovsky lowered his eyes. It felt embarrassing and out of place to talk to a great poet about verse he knew to be second-rate.
‘Those poems, those poems. I was in an impossible situation, Boris. I hope you realize that.’
‘I’m not criticizing you. In a recent letter, Anna told me about the young woman you were living with in Tashkent. When something like that happens, it puts everything into perspective.’
Turgenovsky lifted his head.
‘I’ve never told anybody this before,’ he said after a long pause, ‘but Nina, my lover in Tashkent, was pregnant with our child when she was arrested. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about her and the baby, and how wonderful our lives together could’ve been – a bit like your Zhivago character, I suppose. These are such harsh times, Boris. I’ve tried my best to carry on with my work here at the Union and with my writing. But I’m afraid my mind has been somewhere else altogether.’
Pasternak made a strange, choking noise. He looked close to breaking out in sobs. His sensitive soul was stirred so deeply by someone else’s troubles, it was as if he were the one suffering firsthand.
‘I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say.’
There was another knock at the door.
‘Comrade Turgenovsky,’ said Zochenko from the corridor outside. ‘It’s getting late. We should really be leaving for comrade Stalin’s dacha now.’
In the middle of the smoke-filled dining-room, Khrushchev stood on a wooden chest, guzzling back a glass of vodka, while Stalin and a few members of his close circle cheered him on.
‘Go on, Nikita!’ shouted Zhdanov. ‘Only one more to go after that.’
Unsteadily, Khrushchev clambered down from the chest. As he did, Poskrebyshev, his white tunic flapping loose from the back of his trousers, rushed over, grabbed him by the wrists, and twirled him round and round. When he let go, Khrushchev tottered and swayed. His eyes were no more than slits in his fleshy face, and stumbling slightly, he groped the air in hope of finding something to hold on to, only for Poskrebyshev to hand him another glass.
‘This is for the new world record, Nikita.’
Everyone started clapping.
Khrushchev brought the glass to his lips, gulping down the vodka. Triumphant, he tried to perform some sort of bow, and the glass slipped through his fingers. As he knelt to pick it up his trousers fell to his ankles, revealing a huge pair of white underpants soiled like a dirty nappy.
They all roared with laughter, even Turgenovsky, as he edged into the room
‘I wouldn’t want to be charged with washing those things out,’ said Zhdanov through a mouthful of moist chocolate gateau.
‘I think it would be best to throw them away, Nikita Sergeyevich,’ Poskrebyshev joined in. ‘Some stains won’t wash out.’
Stalin ushered Turgenovsky over.
‘Ah, Ivan Fyodorovich - better late than never - get yourself a drink.’ Stalin gestured towards the table. ‘Raise a glass to Nikita’s laundress. That poor bitch deserves a bonus for having to deal with such abominations, perhaps a Stalin Prize, a medal of honour, even.’
Turgenovsky helped himself to a glass of vodka.
‘And I take everything about the novel is to your satisfaction?’ asked Stalin. In that way peculiar to himself, he seemed to be able to switch from profound drunkenness to clear-headed calculation in a matter of moments. ‘I know your artistic freedom has been a little restricted on this particular project. But in light of what is needed to help us recover following the war, and the sacrifices that will have to be made, especially in the countryside where families have lost their fathers and sons, I felt something direct and straight to the heart of the matter was required. I hope you don’t feel compromised in any way.’
‘On the contrary,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘I’ve enjoyed the whole process. Of course, it was a very different writing experience, almost experimental - working in a collective manner, revising and refining, to get that perfect socialist lustre, so to speak. When alls said and done, it’s been an enlightening few months, and I couldn’t think of anyone better to have collaborated with.’
A contented smile hovered on Stalin’s lips as he patted Turgenovsky’s shoulder.
‘If only your peers saw things like that, saw things as they really stood.’
Stolichky took off his leather gloves, placed them on the desk, and sat in the chair opposite Zhdanov.
‘So, what have you got for me?’ asked Zhdanov. ‘Our creative brethren have been getting a little complacent over recent months. I think it’s time we gave them something to think about.’
‘As a matter of fact, I heard an interesting story a few days ago. A colleague of mine was interrogating a prisoner in the Lubyanka – nobody special – a career criminal who’s been in and out of prison since long before the Revolution. In the course of having his front teeth extracted by pliers, he started rambling about Turgenovsky’s first novel.’
Zhdanov jerked upright.
‘That’s right,’ said Stolichky. ‘He swore he was in prison with an old Bolshevik called Ronzakov, a great writer, so he said. And he’s convinced this Ronzakov character read him parts of Turgenovsky’s first novel about five years before its official publication. I know it sounds absurd, far-fetched even, and I have no idea where it came from – the prisoner was being investigated for anti-Stalinist comments he made at work.’
Zhdanov rubbed his forehead.
‘How strange,’ he said. ‘And has anyone heard of Ronzakov before, the alleged author of the novel?’
‘That’s where the plot thickens.’ Stolichky smiled, showing off his gold teeth. ‘I checked our records, and a Party official called Ronzakov headed a delegation sent to the provinces to engage with the provincial workers just after the Revolution. And you’ll never guess who his assistant was?’
Turgenovsky pulled the protective sheet away from the canvas, revealing Repin’s The Barge Haulers on the Volga. The sweeping painting was harrowing in its white, silvery light depicting eleven men in filthy rags dragging a huge barge upstream. In clear physical discomfort, the gradated lines of each individual head conveyed the rhythm of their toil, and bodies mounting in exhaustion and despair.
As he stepped aside, he watched Ivan run his fingers over the canvas, careful not to touch the painting itself, following the lines of each individual brushstroke in the way someone would trace their hands over a lover’s body.
‘Incredible!’ said Ivan. ‘Look at the detail, the way he captures the very souls of his subjects. He was the true master, someone who transcended his art.’
‘I agree,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘In this one room alone’ - he pointed to rows of covered canvases and wooden crates - ‘are some of the greatest works of art Russia has ever produced. They were evacuated here during the height of the war. Only now are we looking to return them to their rightful homes. On odd occasions I’ve had the whole place to myself, and have sat in front of one of these great masterpieces for hours on end, studying the subtle nuances of each, the individual flourishes of the consummate draughtsman. Sometimes I’ve put myself in place of the artist, and over time I feel I’ve gained a real insight into the creative process, attaining a new understanding of the painter’s art. Who knows, I might even take it up one day; put brush to canvas, so to speak.’
For a moment the younger man’s face displayed something harsh and contemptuous.
‘If only it were that simple,’ he said. ‘But it takes years to master any art, hours of hard work and dedication to hone your skills, to gauge the depth and roundedness of your own talent. It’s not something you could obtain in a few hours of aimless observance.’
There was a long pause.
The more of himself he saw in this young man, the less comfortable Turgenovsky was with the whole situation. All the flaws of his past character, the crassness of youth, things gradually exorcized over time and bitter life experience had reappeared incarnate, like something from a recurring nightmare.
‘Yes, Repin was a man or rare genius,’ he said. ‘However, my own personal favourite of his is something altogether different.’ He shuffled to the side and removed the sheet covering another canvas. ‘This, to my mind, is a work of great power and beauty.’
There stood Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and His Son. Altogether darker in composition, this brooding masterpiece showed the grief-stricken Tsar cradling his son in his arms after murdering him in a fit of jealous rage.
‘I love those crazed, protuberant eyes,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘After a frenzied altercation, when he was again master of his mind, the Tsar realizes exactly what he’s done – killed his own offspring – whom, as it happens, was also called Ivan. Comrade Stalin is fond of reminding everyone that Ivan the Terrible once strolled along the same Kremlin walkways as we do today. I think he likes to associate himself with someone so unflinching and merciless.’
Ivan stifled a phantom yawn.
Turgenovsky pretended not to have noticed, and looked away so as not to betray his rising anger, his eyes coming to rest on a crowbar leaning up against a wooden crate. For the split of a second the darkness of a mad thought flashed through his head, and he stepped to the side, so the crowbar was obscured from Ivan’s view.
‘Yes,’ said Turgenovsky, ‘if nothing else, it’s a fascinating story. How this tyrannical Tsar, the man who ousted the Mongol hordes, a man of such fearsome repute, a man, indeed, who could’ve had anything he wanted in life, but decided to take his son’s wife instead. Strangely enough, this was once common practice in medieval times. When a woman entered her husband’s family home, she was expected to provide the, er…physical intimacies to both her spouse and his father.’
‘Such sexual profligacy is rooted in our history, then,’ said Ivan. ‘Do you not think, papa, that this just shows how retarded Stalinism and the current regime really is? - referring back to some sixteenth century despot! Granted, we’ve made great industrial advances since the Revolution, but victory in the last war seems to have shortened memories. Back in the thirties people from small towns like mine - happy-go-lucky souls without a political bone in their bodies - were taken away in the night and shot. Even as a young child I knew this was wrong. When the history books are opened for generations to come, Stalin will be seen as one of the most brutal dictators in human history. No one has turned on their own people in the way he has. The man is completely deranged.’
There was another long pause.
‘Now,’ said Ivan, ‘interesting as all this has been’ - he shrugged ironically, and made a sweeping gesture with his hands - ‘your potted history lesson included. It’s not my real reason for being here. Have you made some enquiries and called in a favour, as I asked you to do?’
‘Put it like this: I don’t envisage there being any, er…problems in that regard.’
‘Good,’ said Ivan, ‘because I’ve changed my mind somewhat. For I feel, after all these years, that you’re morally obliged to do a little bit more for me. A place at art school is all well and good, but I’m going to need supplies, books, adequate clothing, an annual stipend, even. Canvases and paints are not cheap, or easy to obtain these days. And would it really be so horrendous to acknowledge our true relations? I’ve been doing some thinking, and there may well be some kudos attached to being your son. Also, there’s my accommodation to consider. If you could stretch to a studio apartment, nothing too fancy or elaborate, just big enough to house my work. I would, of course, live there, cutting down on your outlay immensely.’
Such arrogance enraged Turgenovsky. With difficulty, he managed to control his voice, while lowering his hand behind his back.
‘How very thoughtful. But before we get into the more finite details’ - his fingers brushed up against the crowbar – ‘could you answer me one question? In this painting, how does Repin convey that wonderful sense of proportion? The oriental rugs all crumpled underfoot, for example?’
‘Well, if you insist.’ Ivan knelt down and pointed at the painting. ‘It’s all about -’
Turgenovsky grabbed the crowbar, raised it high in the air, and dashed it against the back of his son’s head, just like Ivan the Terrible in Repin’s painting. So powerful was this blow, Ivan’s skull cracked open, and he collapsed to the floor. Blood poured from the wound, forming a puddle of darkest red. In a frenzy of poisonous energy Turgenovsky raised the crowbar once again, and rained down blow after blow, obliterating those familiar features, the very face that belonged to him in his youth.
‘Here’s your art school,’ he cried, ‘and your studio, and your canvases and paints!’