On the morning of June 21st, 1971, in your hometown Odessa, Ukraine, you’re just beginning to sip your coffee, when Katya, the sister of Rosa Palatnik, a young woman you once dated, knocks on your door and says:
“Leonid, they’ve arrested Rosa. The trial starts tomorrow. You’re the only one who can help. Only publicity can save her. The bastards won’t let anyone into the courthouse. You must find a way to get in and tape the hearing. My friends will transcribe it later and pass the text to the Voice of America and the BBC correspondents. You’re a member of two Unions, the Soviet Journalists and the Soviet Filmmakers. They won’t stop you. They’ll let you in the courthouse.”
You tell her:
“Katya, what the hell are you talking about? What kind of things do you expect me to do? I’ve just recently graduated from the Screen Writing School. They hired me as a scriptwriter at Odessa Film Studios. Do you know how long I have dreamed of this to happen? They’re thinking of letting me direct the shooting of a film that I scripted. If they catch me doing what you want me to do, can you imagine what they will do to me?”
“Well, tough luck, Leonid!” Katya says. “You know it as well as I do that if you don’t help, it’ll be a kangaroo court hearing. They’ll jail her for a long time.”
Unfortunately, she is right. You are in a bind. What else could you do under these circumstances! Rosa worked as a librarian on Little Arnaut Street. In her free time, she typed out all of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, The Cancer Ward. They caught her. They compared imprints of her typewriter with those on a copy of the novel they found in someone’s apartment. All over the country, anyone who wasn’t too lazy had already been retyping Solzhenitsyn’s work. But Rosa is an Odessan. By punishing her, they want to spook all of Odessa’s Jews, to stop them from bombarding the local exit visa office with applications for permission to leave the country for good. These applications are an embarrassment to the authorities and provide fodder for the capitalist anti-Soviet propaganda machine.
So, how could you say no to Katya’s request? Your romance with Rosa had been short-lived. Like the match for the world chess championship between Grandmasters Mikhail Botvinnik and David Bronstein, it ended in a draw, but you and she stayed friends. How could you let her perish in the Gulag without trying to save her?
In the morning, you head to the courthouse. Naturally, only members of voluntary police squads are present. That is, of course, if you don’t count the plainclothes dudes of the local police and the KGB. There are also Rosa’s parents who’ve arrived from the little town of Balta, a quiet provincial couple. And here you enter the courthouse. You show them your press card. They twirl it a bit in their hands, but let you into the hall. Probably, they’ve decided that one of the big Soviet papers, Izvestiya (News) or Pravda sent you to do the usual write-up for the “From the Courts” crime chronicle column.
To ensure that you do as good a recording as possible, you take a seat in the first row. An enormous, old bulky Sony tape recorder is attached to your belly. Neither Katya, nor your friends, whom you called all evening, could find a smaller unit. To conceal it best they could, they fastened it onto your stomach by wrapping it with two towels around your waist. You borrowed a baggy jacket from your studio’s cinematographer Zhora. You are a large man, but Zhora is even larger. You ran the microphone wire through your jacket sleeve.
When you and your friends were preparing for the action, it seemed that you took into account all eventualities. However, you failed to consider one thing–the horrendous phrase-mongering of the Soviet court. You thought that, since the trial is only a sideshow anyway, the court would blabber for a short while, for the sake of appearances, and then quickly convict Rosa. But, apparently, to prevent giving ammunition to the capitalist mudslingers, the judge received instructions to observe all points of the Soviet legal procedure, usually reserved exclusively for law books.
Two long hours pass, and your cassette runs out of tape! Moreover, the bloody microphone in your sleeve reacts to it with loud beeping! Loud enough for the damn judge to hear it and give you a dirty look. The whole hall stares at you. The police officers are ready to tear you into pieces. As soon as the judge announces a recess, they all throw themselves at you, pick you up under your elbows, and bring you into one of the side rooms: ‘We’re detaining you for disorderly conduct during a court hearing. What’s that beeping of yours?’
You’re buttoned up all the way. You point at your belly.
“Please forgive me,” you say. “I have a stomach problem. What can I do? I can’t control it.”
“All right, all right,” they say. “Stop bullshitting us! What do you have there?”
They unbutton your jacket and, of course, find everything. Right there, on the spot, they pull the whole tape off the cassette and tear it into pieces. And they take away your press card.
Naturally, the court found Rosa guilty and sentenced her to two years in prison.
All these things take place on Monday. The next morning you go to your film studio, but the guard at the gates is already expecting you, just to let you know that he cannot let you in.
“You have no business here anymore,” he says. “You no longer work here.”
The studio director comes out and says:
“God be my witness that I’ve seen a lot of fools in my life. But I have to admit that I’m encountering your kind of meathead for the first time. No, I take it back. You’re not even some fool. You’re a clinical idiot. We accepted your script and were about to invite you to direct your movie. Tell me honestly, what is that on your shoulders? A human head or a cauliflower?”
For a few months, no matter where you go, nobody wants to employ you. Finally, they hire you as a hospital attendant in an ambulance crew that specializes in suicide victims. Nobody else wants to work there. You stay in that job for six months. From boredom, you begin making a film, The Causes of Suicide. Your friends find you a movie camera that operates by winding, a military type, model К78. Every evening you film one of the poor souls…. All in all, you copy thirty-two suicide notes. You have an assistant. You give your ambulance driver the whole supply of medicinal spirits, which is part of the onboard medical cabinet. In return, the man procures for you big lamps so that you have enough light to film. He cuts the ropes and pulls down the corpses, and you film all of this. You discover some interesting patterns. As a rule, they hang themselves on a rainy or foggy day. In some cases, they do it because of a chronic and incurable disease. One young fellow’s hipbone was broken in a hospital four times because they had stitched it improperly. There are also cases of tragic love. Once, a boy and girl hanged themselves in the same noose because their parents wouldn’t let them get married.
You film for six months, but then someone snitched on you to the authorities that you made an unauthorized film, and they kick you off the ambulance crew for conducting “anti-Soviet activities.” The KGB confiscates everything they find during the search: manuscripts of four hundred of your poems, a few plays and film scripts, and a novel. At the KGB headquarters, they have a pool table, lined with tin. They put all your work on this table and drench it with gasoline. They want you to authorize the burning, but you already know how to act with them: if they ask you for something, it means you can turn them down. You don’t give them your permission, not that it matters in the least. They burn everything without your sanction. You are sure that you are neither the first nor the last person who lost years of work on that damned pool table.
Later, they arrest you on other business. Someone has snitched on you that your verses are anti-Soviet. One morning, plain-clothes police officers arrive at the communal apartment which you call home, handcuff you, and drive you to 5 Bebel Street, the headquarters of the Odessa KGB. They bring you to the investigator, Major Vladimir Ilyich Linkov. Later, you write a poem about this episode. Here are some stanzas that give you an idea of what this room looked like:
The number 782 is painted in pink paint
on a black bulky safe.
The walls are pale-green.
Cords of wires run above the wooden floor.
The ceiling is white and high.
A bulb is in the center of the ceiling.
The table is covered with red wrapping paper.
A phone, an inkwell, a fountain pen.
An ashtray, a blotter, and a box of matches.
There are tiny saliva bubbles in a white spittoon.
And red stains on the parquet,
most likely, it is colored ink.
And a sofa! How could I forget about it!
An idiotic interrogation follows. They try to find out about all your acquaintances. As it turns out, they know quite a few of them.
Room number five hundred sixty,
Where they didn’t torture me,
Didn’t spit in my face or stick a boot in my groin.
They spoke loudly, pointedly politely,
As if accidentally pressing
A sensitive button with a marble rocking blotter,
Turning on their Dictaphones.
Then, the investigator places photocopies of ten of your poems on the table. Apparently, they had them copied before burning them. Just in case they need them in subsequent interrogations.
“Here’s a piece of paper,” the Major says. “You have six hours to write, in your own words, what each poem means and at whom each image hints. Here, for example, you write about rooks, and that every one of them flies away, but one of them, a white one, stays. Explain who or what you are referring to.”
They offered to explain why, one autumn evening,
When rooks shouted in black boughs, I was frightened
Hearing them screaming before flying away.
I stayed in the dead garden, looking around
In a crowd of sparrows and ravens, as I was growing white,
Clapping my white wings against my white hips….
They leave you alone in the interrogation room and lock the door behind you. For six hours, you sleep on the sofa, your hands as a makeshift pillow. Out of boredom, you begin reading the wall newspaper. It is a revelation for you. At the KGB, as in any Soviet establishment, they issue the “wall newspaper,” that is, typewritten articles penned by the employees. You even found an article critical of the fact that the employees of that esteemed establishment don’t pay enough attention to practicing their shooting skills. As a commission discovered, many of them have entirely forgotten how to shoot. You peel off that article for yourself as a memento of your stay at the KGB headquarters.
Finally, they come after you. You tell the investigator:
“I see that you are a very cultured person. I’m also cultured. Therefore, I think, we’ll understand each other. I don’t feel like incriminating myself. Nothing, except mocking remarks about what each image in my verses means, doesn’t enter my mind. I myself sometimes don’t know what these images mean. I don’t feel like writing any nonsense. Why should I give you an excuse to lock me up in an insane asylum? It looks as if you began to like doing such things recently.”
They let you go that day. But then, for a few more months, they come to you at your home and drive you away for interrogation. On their orders from central headquarters, they keep questioning you about your fellow students at the Higher Scriptwriting School in Moscow. Your name turned up in the telephone books of some of them.
Meanwhile, you must make a living somehow. By this time, you already understand that you can only find employment in places where nobody else wants to work. One day you learn that the Odessa Rosa Luxemburg Confectionery Factory is looking for a loader because no one can hold on to that job over there for more than two weeks. So, you go there. The factory has a cellar ten-foot deep with an iron slope. From above, from a truck body, they throw down a sack of sugar or cocoa beans weighing over two hundred pounds. You must catch this sack and get it on your back. If you don’t catch it, the sack cracks open and the sugar or cocoa spills all over the place. No one can handle these bags. In fact, everyone who tried it before you ended up in a hospital. They tried to place a cushioned wheelbarrow at the spot where the sacks land, but the wheelbarrows are cracked in a matter of days. So, they hire you to catch those packed sacks without a wheelbarrow.
In your past, back in high school, you were the fattest boy. Everybody teased you and called you “Fatso!” and “Tub of lard!” You were fed up with the teasing and picked up weightlifting. In two years, you became the youth champion of Ukraine in barbell lifting. You have a healthy back and you know that, to take up a sack on your back, you have to use your leg muscles as shock absorbers. The moment the sack touches your back, you must bend your legs quickly. You lower one shoulder, and the sack rolls over your back sideways. Then, you take it down the factory floor and put it down. Over there two other loaders pick it up.
It is hard work. They adore you at the factory because you’ve solved their technological problem. For lunch, they give you liquid chocolate. You drink almost a liter of it and don’t eat anything else.
One day, about eleven o’clock in the morning, the factory lunch break is coming up. You are about to go to drink your chocolate as you’ve already become accustomed. And here the Head of Personnel, that brassy broad, runs to the basement and starts shouting at you loudly enough for everyone to hear: “You’ve deceived our countr-r-rу! You’ve obtained two diplomas of higher education! Get out of our factory! Hit the road!”
You shrug. What does she care about your two diplomas! Yes, it’s true. First, you had completed the Odessa Polytechnic Institute and then the Scriptwriting School in Moscow. You don’t understand why, but something in the pit of your stomach begins to churn. And, by this stage in your life, you already know for a fact that the pit of your stomach never deceives you. It’s too bad that you don’t always pay attention to it…
Well then, the pit of your stomach began churning. You leave the basement, and one of the loaders hands you a copy of the Evening Odessa newspaper. He has already opened it to display for you a huge article spread over two pages. You take the paper and get on the trolleybus. You’re riding home to Gogol Street. The chocolate factory is near Odessa-Main Railway Station, and the trolleybus route goes along the beautiful Pushkin Street. That day you’ve been unloading sacks filled with cocoa beans since early morning, and you’re covered with the cocoa dust. So, here you’re sitting in the trolleybus and reading the article:
The father of this scoundrel, Leonid Mak, professor of the Odessa Polytechnic Institute, failed to bring up his son properly. He indulged all his whims. His son felt like entering one institute, and the father said to him, “Be my guest.” His son felt like getting another education, and his father obliged him once again. We should ask a question: can we entrust the education of our young people to such a professor? We shall answer resolutely, “No!”
You read all this and suddenly understand that you’re not going to be able to look into your father’s eyes anymore. With your own hands, you’ve destroyed his teaching career. His whole life’s work. You tell yourself right there and then: There’s no way out, Leonid. Your place is now in a jail.
As you say this to yourself, they announce that the next stop is Zhukovsky Street, which is right at the editorial offices of the Evening Odessa. So, you decide that fate itself has led you to this stop.
You get out of the trolley and go up to the fifth floor of the building, to the editor-in-chief’s office. You come up to his secretary and tell her that you must see the editor.
“Where are you from?’ she asks.
“I’m from the Rosa Luxemburg Confectionery Factory.”
“Ah, so that’s why you smell so tasty! Take a seat. The editorial staff meeting’s about to end.’
You’re sitting and waiting for a long while. At last, the double door of the editor’s office opens and the editorial staff members leave one by one. Among them is one Simon, a journalist with whom you’ve been acquainted. The man notices you and is about to return to the office to tell the editor that he is in danger of getting his ass beaten, but you let Simon know with one look that, if he gives you away, it will be his own ass black and blue without delay.
Finally, the secretary says, “Please, come in.”
You enter the editor’s office. At its farthest end, behind an enormous table, Victor Yanko, the paper’s editor-in-chief, sits. You close the door behind you and quietly turn the key, locking the door so that nobody can interfere with you and him.
‘Well,’ you’re thinking, what should I do to him? Since I’m going to jail anyway, then I might as well do something worthy of a jail sentence. They’ve been already after me for two years. For two years, everything has been headed toward getting me off the streets. So, at least I should do something worth their while. Maybe I’ll throw the bastard out the window and let him go straight to hell. They’ll put me in prison all the same.
Meanwhile, Yanko finishes scribbling something. At last, he lifts his head:
“Sit down. Why do you smell so tasty?”
“I’ve come from the confectionery factory,” you say. “I work as a loader over there.”
“Ah, a blue-collar worker! The body and soul of the proletariat! That vermin Mak works at your factory. Do you know him well?’
You reply, “Very well.”
“How long have you known him?”
“All my life.”
When the man hears this, he glances at you and makes a move to grab the phone, but you intercept his hand in midair. Then, you bend over the table, grab him by his belt and his shoulder, lift him up in the air, and carry him to the window. You place his back onto the windowsill and press him down with your entire body weight. The editor kicks and tries to get out from under you, but to no avail.
“Vermin!” the editor shouts. “You’ll go to jail”
The windows are open and it’s still warm outside. It’s September 5 and, as you look down, you realize that you are on the fifth floor. Look at that, you think to yourself, what a coincidence! You, son of a bitch, are about to fly from the fifth floor of the building on the fifth day of the month.
You push him out farther and farther, so that his shoulder blades are already out of the window. The courtyard is paved with cobblestones.
The editor screams, his voice hoarse, “What are you doing?”
“Who commissioned the article?” you shout. “Who?”
Yanko squeals, “General Kouzin… General Kouzin.”
By that time, you know already that General Kouzin is the head of the Odessa KGB’s Regional Directorate. As to Yanko himself, as your friends told you, he has the rank of KGB Major.
You push the bastard out of the window a little farther. The man practically sticks out from the window and cries out with his last breath.
“What are you doing!” he cries out. “What are you doing! They’ll shoot you for this!”
Here you realize that the bastard may have a point. If you throw him down from the fifth floor, they could indeed bring in capital punishment. You’ve planned going to jail, but not to being shot…
Still pressing down the editor with your whole body, you spit in his face several times. This isn’t all that easy because your mouth is all dried up from all the excitement. Still, some nasty phlegm lands on the vile mug all the same.
You let the scum go. The man slips down from the windowsill, planting his ass on the floor. You leave. Later they’ll tell you that Yanko didn’t let anyone wipe off his face for half an hour. He waited for police to arrive and take your saliva off his mug for analysis in order to prove the identity of the man who attacked him while he was on duty.
You leave the editorial quarters and walk up Deribas Street. You don’t try to hide. You pass by the Wagner House. In Odessa, the houses still carry the names of their former pre-revolutionary owners. From your childhood, you know all of this neighborhood’s hidden passages, but now you don’t even think of using them. What for? All the same, you’re inevitably going to jail. You turn onto Gavan Street and head home, waiting for a police car to drive up any next minute and take you away.
By the time you get home, they are already waiting for you at the entrance of your building on Gogol Street. A police lieutenant and another man in a raincoat with a small suitcase. As you pass by, the man in a raincoat opens his suitcase and takes out a glass fragment for specimen collecting, brings it to your face, and orders you, “Spit!”
You say, “I won’t.”
“Spit, you bastard!”
You tell him, “You don’t need my saliva because I admit freely that I spat into that scoundrel Yanko’s face. In fact, by doing so, I was actually spitting in the face of the entire Odessa KGB. Write it down.”
“Don’t be a fool,” the police lieutenant whispers to you. “What are you saying such things for? You’ll make it worse for yourself.”
“No, no, don’t worry,” you say to him. “I defend myself in this way. I know what I’m doing. Write it down, ‘Especially in the face of General Kouzin.’”
You know that the only thing that could save you is publicity.
For once, you are right. For starters, they jail you for three days. You go on a hunger strike. They drag you to the public prosecutor. The man tells you:
“If you don’t like our Soviet way of life, then leave. Don’t make waves. Don’t spit in anyone’s face anymore. Otherwise, you’ll be charged with malicious hooliganism and get seven years of jail time. And I can assure you that you won’t survive your term. The hard-core criminals will knife you to death… So, get your exit visa, and in three days get your ass out of the country! If you stay, blame yourself.”
That’s how it does eventually happen to you, that’s how…
Dr. Emil Draitser (www.emildraitser.com) is a three-time recipient of the New Jersey Council on the Arts and numerous grants for fiction and nonfiction from the City University of New York. His work has appeared in the Partisan Review, Kenyon Review, and North American Review, as well as in the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and other periodicals. Of ten books of his artistic and scholarly prose, the most recent ones are Shush! Growing up Jewish under Stalin, Stalin’s Romeo Spy, and The Supervisor of the Sea and Other Stories. Professor Emeritus, Emil Draitser teaches Russian and East European Cinema at Hunter College in NYC. This article is part of his book-in-progress titled “Farewell, Mama Odessa”.
Born in Odessa in 1939, Leonid (Lev) Mak studied at the Leningrad University, Odessa Polytechnical Institute, and Higher Script-Writing School in Moscow. He is the author of three poetry collections: From the Night (Bookmark Press, Kansas City, 1976; in Russian), From the Night and Other Poems (Iowa International Writing Program & Ardis Publishers, Ann Arbor, 1978; in English, transl. by Daniel Weissbort), and Waiting to Exhale (Aspect Publishers, Moscow, 2009; in Russian). His poems also appeared in the Kontinent, Time and We, The New Journal, and other Russian-language periodicals. Currently, he lives in Venice, California. Lev’s poetry is deeply steeped in Judaism. In one of his poems, he writes, “Who is that man who, prostrated in the dust before the Lord, prays to spare Sodom for having ten righteous men among its dwellers? It’s my ancestor whose name is Abraham, Abram in Russian. I’m the one hundred third root of his root.”
Powerful. An insight into another world.