Death of Gagarin, the Ultimate Soviet Hero, Pravda, 28th March 1968
Comrades, we have lost one of our most courageous sons. Yesterday, the peerless cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, was killed while testing a new fighter jet for the Soviet military. This tragic accident has robbed us of one of the colossal figures of the twentieth century. In death as in life, comrade Gagarin pushed the boundaries of human possibility. He raised the bar, so those who followed could scale to even greater heights. In so many ways he represents the revolutionary sprit that still drives our great nation forward. Who can forget that glorious day in April 1961 when news of the first space launch crackled through our transistor radios? Who will ever forget the moment we heard Gagarin whistling The Motherland Hears? Personally, I feel honoured to have known a man of Gagarin’s unique stature, and to have been able to call him a friend as well as a comrade. Like no other Soviet citizen, his name is written in the stars he was brave enough to conquer.
Signed: Ivan Fyodorovich Turgenovsky – The People’s Writer
In full uniform, Yuri Gagarin was escorted out of the granite-faced institute by armed guards. His fleshy face betrayed the odd clumsy razor stroke (it had taken three orderlies to shave him that morning), and his eyes looked dull and lifeless. The very things that express the most human emotion were devoid of almost any.
There was a car waiting on the shingled drive. Through force of habit, Gagarin walked over to it.
A guard grabbed his arm.
‘No, comrade Gagarin, we won’t be leaving just yet. We have a small matter to attend to. Some schoolchildren have been bused in from Moscow to meet you.’
Gagarin lowered his head. Thoughts of his own children and old life crowded his mind.
‘This is the first stage of your recovery, remember?’ said the guard. ‘Please, follow me.’
A KGB operative opened some double-doors leading into a low-ceilinged storage room, where a dozen uniformed riflemen stood in wait
Gagarin looked directly at them, but no fear or panic registered on his face.
The KGB operative handcuffed Gagarin, and led him to the other side of the room.
The riflemen got into position. No one said anything. There were no last words, and Gagarin offered no resistance. He just stood there with his head bowed.
An officer stepped forward.
‘Men, take aim. Fire when ready.’
Twenty senior members of the Writers’ Union were sitting around a conference table. Everyone looked bored and disinterested. The man with the beard and horn-rimmed glasses had been talking for some time.
‘Comrades, a new form of literary anarchy has come into existence. Thousands of people are typing and distributing these blasted samizdat books. The security forces have seized truckloads. They range from illicit Western texts to more subversive, homegrown polemics by undesirable elements like Solzhenitsyn. It’s reached epidemic proportions. We’re at crisis point. Writers not ideologically pure must be taken out of circulation. And I think our one and only option – no, let me rephrase that - our one and only duty to the Soviet people is to expel Solzhenitsyn from the Writers’ Union with immediate effect.’
The response to this was muted.
Sensing a split in opinion, Turgenovsky got to his feet. These men had been handpicked. They were sheep. All they needed was a prod in the right direction.
‘Comrades,’ he said, ‘those who support the motion - and remember: amputation of the gangrenous limb is only performed to stop the rest of the body becoming infected – please raise your hands.’
Arms shot up in the air.
The motion was carried by 18 votes to 2.
As the committee members shuffled out of the room, Turgenovsky walked over to the window and raised the blinds. It had negligible effect. The sky remained dark and ominous with the threat of yet more rain.
He swung round.
In the doorway was a short, non-descript man with a neat side-parting to his greying hair. His black suit, white shirt and black tie gave him the look of a conscientious undertaker.
He walked into the room and leaned against the conference table.
‘What was the outcome of your meeting? I take it you’re not the bearer of bad news?’
‘You’re certainly eager, comrade Korasov. The meeting has only just finished. But rest assured. My colleagues were all in accordance – well, the motion was carried by a huge majority – put it that way. Our good friend, Alexander Isayevich, is no longer welcome here. He’s been expelled from the Union of Writers, and won’t find a platform or legitimacy amongst the ideologically stable elements of our society.’
‘Excellent,’ said Korasov. ‘But I fear the contagion has already had widespread effect. The proliferation of banned works is a cause for real concern, and we may well have to take serious action, we may well have to eliminate certain people from the scene.’
This made Turgenovsky feel uneasy.
‘I’m, er…sure you’ll act in our best interests. Give me an update when I return from Czechoslovakia.’
Korasov stood and straightened.
‘Oh, you’ll be kept up to date,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry about that. In fact, your services may well be required in facilitating an operation of utmost importance.’
‘Me? How can I possibly be of help? I’m just a writer.’
‘Let me give you an example,’ said Korasov. ‘Our laboratory people have just developed a deadly serum which is transferable by the merest of pinpricks. If a target, for example, was passing an operative in the street, and happened to contrive a coming together – the type of everyday occurrence seen in Moscow or Leningrad – the serum could be administered through the tip of an umbrella, or something commonplace like that. And it goes without saying, the less suspicious the decoy, the more likely the operation’s success.’
‘I – I don’t understand. What’s that got to do with me?’
‘We’ll talk again when you get back from the sanatorium,’ said Korasov. ‘Enjoy your break. I hope your treatment is successful, and you return feeling like a new man, ready to tackle any new challenges facing the Party.’
The half-open hotel room door emitted raucous sounds and potent marijuana fumes. Hippy-types talked and smoked on the landing, cocooned in worlds of their own altered imagining. Inside, young women with flowers in their hair danced around, weaving invisible patterns with their hands, long-haired musicians strummed guitars, played bongos or shook tambourines, and semi-clad couples cavorted on a four-poster bed.
As soon as Turgenovsky walked in, he was close to turning and walking out again. But the straggly-haired Allen Ginsberg, in a white robe and with his bushy beard and glasses, patted him on the shoulder.
‘Relax, Ivan,’ he said. ‘This is where all the hip cats are at, the bodhisattvas, the playthings of the Godhead. Come over here. Let’s find a quiet corner where we can groove off each other like two eternal brothers who’ve drunken deeply from the bacchanalian cup.’
He led Turgenovsky and his driver, Zochenko, over to a table by the window.
They pulled out some chairs and sat down.
‘What brings you to Prague?’ asked Ginsberg. ‘Are you here for a soul vacation?’
‘You’ll have to excuse me,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘I’ve spoken very little English over the last few years. I have difficulty understanding everything you say.’
A little slower, Ginsberg repeated the question.
‘Oh, I have my blood cleaned twice a year at a clinic in Bohemia,’ Turgenovsky replied. ‘And when my people said you’d like to meet, I was only too happy to oblige.’
‘Your blood cleaned?’ Ginsberg looked stunned. ‘Wow! That’s far out, man. You know, your first novel has been available in the States for a while now. When we were at college, me and Jack used to take a copy into one of the big parks in New York, and read a chapter out loud at a time.’
‘Jack Kerouac?’ said Ginsberg. ‘You never heard of him? He’s a great American writer. He wrote On the Road, this mad, spiralling road trip of a book that encompasses the hopes and dreams of an entire generation of searchers and seekers, roaming the vast dusty highways of a forgotten America, trying to return to the primal source, the beatific energy fields of creation, the essence of being and doing, memory and forgetfulness, to listen to the soul jukeboxes play in the empty churches of the mind, to breath in the scentless odours of our forefathers faded visions.’
Turgenovsky lost the thread of what Ginsberg was saying soon after he mentioned the title of the book.
‘Yeah, we loved that first novel of yours,’ said Ginsberg. ‘How does that one line go when the young girl sees her father killed? “Darkness reigned over the vastness of the steppe. Wind rustled through the long grass where Gregor had fallen…” I can’t remember it all now. But I see a lot of similarities between you and Jack, style-wise, in that beautiful lyricism. Had Jack been living in Russia fifty years ago, I’m sure he would’ve written something along the same lines, with the imperious backdrop, confronting the big questions that move the heart and mind. Someone like Jack revels in that kind of thing. It’s his bag. He loves the Wolfean flow of words, that oneness with all natural forms, the idea that we’re all sum parts of a bigger whole. You dig?’
Some chanting and wailing noises crackled from the stereo speakers. Anyone not standing already got to their feet, and started skipping around the room. Ginsberg joined them, throwing up his arms, shaking his head from side to side so the beads around his neck rattled together. He chanted “Om”, and everyone else joined in.
When Ginsberg returned, he took a tin from the pouch he was wearing around his waist, and put it on the table.
‘You fancy smoking a little peace weed?’ he asked. ‘This is some really mellow shit.’
He took a stick of marijuana from the tin, lit it, pulled on it once, and handed it to Turgenovsky.
‘Do you think that’s wise, comrade Turgenovsky?’ said Zochenko. ‘Marijuana is a potent narcotic.’
Turgenovsky hated being told what to do, and waving Zochenko’s words away, he put the joint to his lips and drew a little smoke into his lungs.
A moment passed. His eyes widened and his lips curled. He passed the joint back to Ginsberg.
‘Mellow shit.’ Turgenovsky chuckled to himself. ‘And what’s that other stuff called – there on the table?’
‘LSD,’ Ginsburg replied. ‘You should try a little. It would help cleanse the doors of perception and channel your original thought processes before they become contaminated by the mind control unreality of everyday experience.’
‘In Russia we have the KGB,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘It sounds like the same thing. Ha! And a meeting like this wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago, you know. You’d have been considered far too subversive. They’d have probably had me arrested. You’re quite the demonic one, Allen. You remind me a little of Stalin. He had the same magnetic energy. If you asked anyone in this room to do something, they probably would – no matter how outlandish. That’s quite a gift.’
‘I’m just a conduit,’ said Ginsberg. ‘All influence towards an inverse action is wholly acquisitive.’
Turgenovsky rubbed his eyes. The room had started to move in a disconcerting way.
‘What? I – I think your medicinal tobacco has gone straight to my head. I’ve never been much of a smoker.’
‘You should get stoned everyday, man,’ said Ginsburg. ‘There’s so much groovy shit growing in and around Russia. I read a book a few months back about this mystical plant that grows wild in Abkhazia?’
‘Abkhazia? In Georgia?’
‘Yeah.’ Ginsberg nodded. ‘There’s a plant with amazing life-enhancing properties that reverses the aging process, reinvigorating damaged cells, and restoring youthfulness to whoever ingests it. But it has to be prepared properly. You need to get in touch with a local spirit doctor or something. If not done just right, it’s highly toxic and could kill you.’
Turgenovsky stared into space.
‘Life-enhancing properties…restoring youthfulness…’
A loud bang sounded from outside.
Everyone in the room exchanged worried and confused glances.
Zochenko shook Turgenovsky’s shoulder.
‘Comrade Turgenovsky,’ he said. ‘We must leave now. Look.’
Unsteadily, Turgenovsky got to his feet, walked over to the window, and watched a convoy of Russian tanks drive along Wenceslas Square.
Once outside, Zochenko tried to guide Turgenovsky through the mass of bodies fleeing the invading tanks, but his legs would no longer obey his commands. Every few steps his knees would buckle, and he would almost collapse to the floor. As Zochenko helped him back to his feet, Turgenovsky stared at the fires up ahead. People were shouting and screaming, and running along the side streets. Some had been injured and stemmed blood from their wounds with ripped clothing, anything that came to hand. Others supported those who could no longer walk. Shells shook buildings. Windows were smashing all around. Fragments of glass fell to the pavements, showering splinters over the fleeing crowds. Turgenovsky could not tell if this was actually happening, or part of some terrible hallucination. His eyes felt like somebody else’s. Frightful images flitted in and out of focus. He could barely breathe. Every shout and scream, thud, crash or explosion seemed to be amplified, making him twist and turn, jump and leap, dart and stare, looking this way and that.
‘Come on, comrade Turgenovsky,’ shouted Zochenko. ‘Our car is just around the next corner. We must hurry. It’s not safe out here now.’
They ran into a group of blood-stained women. On their knees, crying and wringing their hands, they prostrated themselves before a thick-set man with a dead child in his arms. Turgenovsky stared at the corpse of a boy who could have only been five or six-years-old. His neck was draped to one side, dry blood plastered to his forehead. Turgenovsky watched the women grab the boy’s legs and arms, pulling at his tattered clothing. The depth of their misery stirred something deep inside of him. He started to sob, gently at first, until he too dropped to his knees, and falling face first to the ground, lost all consciousness.
Anton Bazdeyev strolled towards the market square. It was another bright, beautiful morning. All was well with the regional Party secretary until he saw the debris from last night’s celebrations. Tables and chairs had been turned over. The cobblestones were strewn with chicken bones, broken glass, ticker tape, ribbons and flowers. On any other day, Bazdeyev would have rounded up a few dutiful citizens and made a start on tidying everything away. But he was due to meet Turgenovsky for breakfast, and they had so much to discuss - the burning issues of the day, of love and law and poetry. It filled him with great excitement, and forgetting any sense of duty, he continued on his way.
He was carrying a picnic basket full of local preserves, cured meats and boiled eggs, freshly-baked bread, even a small bottle of vodka, should their conversation need enlivening. More important than these provisions, Bazdeyev had brought along some of his own literary work. Work he had undertaken in his spare time over the space of many years. There was some verse, a short story of which he was particularly proud, and the opening chapter of his novel. He could almost hear Turgenovsky’s words of praise: “Exquisite prose, Anton Antonovich, so beautifully written. Where have you been hiding all these years? Come – come back to Moscow with me. Every Soviet citizen should have the pleasure of reading your wonderful books.” The closer he got, the more Bazdeyev rehearsed his greeting. “Good morning, Ivan Fyodorovich, did you sleep well?” Or should he say “comrade Turgenovsky”? No, no, no, Bazdeyev argued with himself, the great writer had insisted on first name terms. “Literary men like you and I shouldn’t be so formal.” Bazdeyev chuckled. He remembered that comradely embrace from last night, and dismissed all nervousness. Moments like this should be savoured.
Up ahead, Antipova, the roly-poly washerwoman, was taking some sheets out of Turgenovsky’s room.
Bazdeyev dashed over.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked. ‘And what’s that?’
He pointed to the blood-stained under-sheet.
‘What a mess!’ she said. ‘Apparently, comrade Turgenovsky suffered a terrible nosebleed during the night. Look at the state of these. Blood is no easy thing to get rid off, that it isn’t. He must’ve bled half to death.’
‘Oh – oh, I see,’ he said. ‘And where is comrade Turgenovsky now? Was he escorted to another room?’
Before Antipova could answer, Razumikhin came strolling round the corner. This neat, conscientious lad of seventeen was so reliable, Bazdeyev had made him unofficial night porter. Anything Turgenovsky or his entourage required during the early hours, Razumikhin was instructed to provide.
‘Ah, comrade Razumikhin,’ said Bazdeyev. ‘Where did you transfer comrade Turgenovsky to? I hope you used your head, and found him another room that was to his satisfaction.’
Razumikhin looked confused.
‘I, er –’
‘Come on,’ said Bazdeyev, ‘out with it. I haven’t got all morning. I have an important meeting arranged with the great man himself.’
For some reason, he lifted up his picnic basket, presumably to emphasize the point.
‘I’m dreadfully sorry, comrade Bazdeyev. But Turgenovsky’s train left an hour ago. He told me to give you his sincerest apologies. He was called back to Moscow on urgent Party business.’
A Question in Point: Answered, Pravda, 29th September 1968
An article appeared a few years ago questioning the true authorship of a particular book. With great pleasure, we inform readers that these ridiculous claims have been proven completely false. Let us outline how this was done. As is widely known many important historical papers were lost when the offices of the Writers’ Union suffered bomb damage during the Great Patriotic War. Amongst those papers were original draft copies and notes made by writers of the finest Soviet novels to have appeared since the Revolution. This tragedy was well-documented. But nowhere in the aforementioned article were any other writers singled out and accused of having perpetrated some kind of mass deception; of stealing ideas from others and passing them off as their own. It seems only the most celebrated writer, who has enjoyed international recognition, was seen as a worthy target - the more successful the personage, the greater the impact of any sensationalized falsehood. But in a society as free as ours the truth will always come out, and over the last few weeks parts of an original manuscript have surfaced in Leningrad, and its authorship verified. It was indeed written by the victim of this cowardly attack. Moreover, these extracts - many of them handwritten and dated - along with parts of the fully-typed text will soon be exhibited for public viewing. Once again, our enemies in the West will have to go back to the drawing board. Once again, they have plunged the depths of untruth to create yet another storm in a capitalist teacup. Only one troubling doubt remains. Why did one of our most worthy publications see fit to print an article that had no basis in fact? Such misguided editorial decisions must be fully investigated, and those implicated brought before the proper authorities. These rogue elements - the “literary scum” - should be weeded out before their poisonous roots take hold on our freedoms of expression, and strangle our glorious culture once and for all.
Signed: A Not Very Interested Party
The cafeteria’s mud-caked windows emitted a flaky and uneven light. In a darkened corner, Turgenovsky sat in a booth seat, partially obscured by a wooden beam. Faded menus stood on the dozen or so other unoccupied tables. The sound of sizzling meat, the clatter of pots and pans, and the odd curse came from the kitchen out back.
Solzhenitsyn walked over to Turgenovsky’s table.
‘Ivan Fyodorovich,’ he said with a guarded, considered smile - the type of smile someone uses to mask their true first impressions. ‘We meet at last. May I sit down? I’m sure we have much to discuss.’
Turgenovsky nodded. Already he felt something bitter-tasting in his mouth.
‘I was just thinking how peaceful it is here,’ he said. ‘Now I’m approaching the autumn of my life, I can see myself retiring somewhere like this – deep into the heart of the Russian countryside - somewhere quiet and remote, where I can write to my heart’s content.’
‘Please, let us speak frankly,’ said Solzhenitsyn, taking the seat opposite. ‘You didn’t come all this way to talk about your retirement plans.’
Turgenovsky’s face did not quite conceal his dislike for Solzhenitsyn’s tone.
‘It seems that circumstance has cast us as enemies, Alexander Isayevich. Now that irrefutable proof has emerged showing that I did indeed write my debut novel, I’m sure you’re not so ill-disposed towards me – you wouldn’t have agreed to meet otherwise.’
Solzhenitsyn looked like he wanted to say something, but thinking better of it, he nodded and gestured for Turgenovsky to continue.
‘During my time at the Writers’ Union, I’ve had to make lots of compromises. I understand that for a man who’s suffered at the hands of the Party; who’s endured the very harshest punishments, this makes me look like the worst kind of coward, and invalidates the quality and relevance of my work. But please believe me, by meeting you here today, I’m in no way trying to condone everything I’ve done, and the decisions I’ve made. In Stalin’s time it was very much toe the line or face the consequences – we both know what I’m talking about - and I saw many of my peers pay the ultimate price. Was I guilty of turning a blind eye? Of course I was. Did I keep my mouth shut to save my own skin? Of course I did. But everything was done in the interests of preserving the sanctity of the writers’ art. I knew it couldn’t go on forever. I knew there would be a thaw - eventually. I just had to hang on in there. And if you remember rightly, it was me who saved many classic texts from extinction in those early days, and it was me who helped so many of the brightest artistic lights. You need only look to the cases of Akhmatova or Pasternak. Behind the scenes, I worked tirelessly, to the detriment of my own work and reputation. So you must understand how deeply wounded I was when those accusations regarding the true authorship of my debut novel started to circulate. I don’t want to get into the details here. We’ve both had our say – rightly or wrongly. What I want to do is clear the air, and offer the same advice and protection I gave other writers during the height of the purges. Be careful, Alexander Isayevich. You’re a new breed of problem for the Central Committee. And when we encounter something we don’t understand we often act rashly, deploying unreasonable force. I fear for your safety. Don’t throw away your life for some hollow form of martyrdom. You still have much to say; you still have many books to write. That is the most important thing of all.’
There was a long pause.
‘You’re a very eloquent man,’ said Solzhenitsyn. ‘I’ve spoken to many people about you, and they all told me the same thing: how incredibly convincing you are. I will reserve judgment on whether you are indeed the author you claim to be. At present, only you know the truth. And the proof you refer to, while highly persuasive, is far from conclusive. But I admire you for arranging this meeting. It’s never easy confronting forces you know to be hostile. And I sincerely appreciate your concern for my welfare. The KGB follows me everywhere. In fact, I saw an agent just this morning.’
Turgenovsky bit into his bottom lip. Those fools were supposed to have kept out of sight.
‘In real terms,’ Solzhenitsyn went on, ‘I fear for my own safety only in so much as I do indeed want to write more books. But I have many manuscripts in the hands of many invisible allies, and therefore, feel my future and legacy are assured. I look upon my message as a sacred one, and my only concern is delivering the truth in hope of cleansing the nation of its Stalinist legacy. We’ve had no Nuremberg. We need to face up to our past. We need to bring people to account and assess our collective guilt. We -’ Solzhenitsyn broke off, and stared out of the window.
‘Is everything all right?’ Turgenovsky turned his head. The agent Solzhenitsyn referred to was standing in full view of them.
‘There’s the operative I told you about. The fool is trying to conceal himself behind a tree. They’re like children playing hide-and-seek. I must leave in a moment. Quiet and peaceful as it is here, I should never have come. I’m far too exposed. I fear an attempt may be made on my life today.’
‘Today? Surely not.’
Solzhenitsyn got to his feet.
‘I must go now.’
‘If you insist,’ said Turgenovsky. ‘But let me at least walk you to the door.’
On the street outside the two writers prepared to take leave of each other. It was clear there was going to be no handshake or warm embrace. Regardless, Solzhenitsyn lingered, and seemed keen to say something else.
‘I want to ask you one last thing.’ He stared hard at Turgenovsky. ‘Did you really write that book?’
Without averting his eyes, Turgenovsky nodded.
‘Yes. Yes I did.’
Solzhenitsyn had a blank expression on his face that was impossible to interpret.
‘Goodbye, Ivan Fyodorovich.’
As he turned to walk away, he bumped into a young woman carrying an umbrella.
‘Ah!’ he cried, rubbing his thigh, where the sharp point of the umbrella had jabbed into him. He glared at the woman. ‘You should be more careful, young lady. You could do someone an injury with that thing – and on a beautiful sunny day like this.’
The woman looked apologetic.
‘I’m terribly sorry, comrade,’ she said. ‘How clumsy of me. My husband insisted that I take an umbrella out with me today. A dramatic change in the weather is forecast this afternoon.’
Solzhenitsyn shrugged, and went on his way.
Turgenovsky and the woman exchanged a nod in passing, before walking in opposite directions.
On returning to his lodgings, Solzhenitsyn felt light-headed and nauseous. He put this down to the heat, and went up to his room to rest for a while. When his landlady brought him some tea about an hour later, he was barely conscious, delirious and burning up, and had vomited over the floor. The landlady acted fast, preparing a traditional homemade draught used to treat children who had consumed poisonous mushrooms. Carefully, she funnelled the mixture into Solzhenitsyn’s mouth, and made sure he held it down by rubbing his belly and whispering soft, practiced words of reassurance. It seemed to have a positive effect. His breathing levelled out, and his temperature dropped considerably.
In the middle of the night, he was violently sick again.
By morning, there was no sign of improvement. If anything, his condition seemed to be worsening. The landlady administered the same potion. This time, Solzhenitsyn could only hold it down for a few minutes. Frantic, she called for the local doctor, but was told he was visiting a pregnant woman in an adjoining village, and would not be back until nightfall. In a rare moment of clarity, Solzhenitsyn told her to wire a message to his wife, and another to Tvardovsky in Moscow. After relaying these, he asked for a priest.