by Vladimir Kozlov
translated by Andrea Gregovich
Translator’s Note: Konstantin Chernenko was the general secretary of the Soviet Union’s communist party from February of 1984 until his death on March 10, 1985. He was succeeded by Gorbachev, who ushered in the era of glasnost and perestroika, as well as the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union. In other words, this story takes place just a couple months before the end of the communist era.
City of Mogilev, Belarussian Soviet Socialist Republic, January 1985
Ira stepped into the office. It was narrow and cramped. There was an old, battered desk. A portrait of KGB forefather Felix Dzerzhinsky wearing his trademark cap hung on the wall. The wall cabinet was full of cardboard binders with numbers on their spines and stacks of paper.
There was a black telephone on the table, also paper and folders. The major raised his eyes and looked at her.
“Hello,” said Ira.
“Hello,” he said.
He was in a cheap gray jacket and a faded blue shirt, almost like a school uniform. His light brown hair was thinning on top, though he was probably only a little over thirty. Beneath his nose, right by the nostrils, there were a few missed whiskers.
“Take a seat,” he said.
Ira took two steps up to the table, pulled back her chair and sat down. From somewhere in the piles of paper the major pulled out a clean sheet and jotted something on it with a white ballpoint pen that had a chewed up cap. The nails on his small hands hadn’t been clipped in a while, but they weren’t dirty. The major looked at Ira, then he asked as he quickly glanced away:
“Last name, first name, and patronymic?”
“Sokolova, Irina Sergeevna.”
“Date of birth?”
“Fifteenth of September, nineteen sixty four.”
“Student in the History Department at Mogilev State Pedagogical Institute.”
He recorded all of her answers and set down his pen. The pen rolled toward the edge of the table. He caught it, then rummaged through the papers again and took out a pink sheet made on a copy machine. This sheet had lines dividing it into several equal sections, with a small cartoon drawn in each one. The major put the sheet in front of Ira. In each drawing there was a fat, gray-haired old man in a black jacket and tie. Next to him were similar old guys, only smaller and thinner. Their mouths had talking bubbles coming out of them, which were full of illegible text.
“Do you recognize this?”
Ira shook her head.
“No, I’m seeing this for the first time.”
“Well, I have evidence not only that you’ve seen it before, but that you were directly involved in its creation. Do you know what this is called?
“A comic book, I guess.”
“It’s called ‘spreading deliberately false fabrications to defame the Soviet state and social order.’ Article seventy-two of the Criminal Code for the BSSR. I can also pull up Article 58-10: ‘Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.’”
The major looked at Ira for a long time without looking away.
“What a bunch of crap,” said Stas. “Somebody ratted us out.”
“I told you not to show anybody that garbage when there were snitches around.” Igor picked up his cup of coffee from the crumb-covered table, took a sip, and set it back down. Igor, Ira, and Stas were sitting at a table on the second floor of a café called The Penguin. There was hardly anybody there, and nobody was sitting at the tables around them.
“There weren’t any snitches there.” Stas looked at Igor. “I knew everybody there.”
“Well then, since you knew them all, who ratted us out?”
“How do we know it wasn’t you?”
“Have you lost your mind? Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you wussed out. Or maybe you suddenly woke up feeling like a good communist citizen.”
“Everything you’re saying is asinine.”
“Then how about you say something good. I got hauled in, Irka got hauled in. And yet you still haven’t had the pleasure. And the biggest thing is, they have a copy of one page from the comic book. They may have more, but he only showed the one, to Irka and me. Listen, maybe you could talk to your folks—”
“And what exactly should I tell them? ‘Mama, Papa, we just happened to draw a comic strip about Chernenko and got hauled in by the KGB for it. Please do something to get us off the hook.’ Is that what you’re suggesting?”
“Well, I don’t know. It would be something at least. It’s just that they could do something, they have connections, friends. It’s not like mine could do anything. Who could they go to, the other teachers? The headmaster?”
“I don’t know.”
“And what, you think I do know? You’d better be ready, they’ll question you too. That is, if it wasn’t you to begin with.”
“Listen, I’m already pretty annoyed at you here. You want to make it worse? It wasn’t me who snitched, you got that? Not me! It was one of those assholes there—”
“That’s enough out of you, stop swearing,” said Ira. “We need to be thinking about what to do now.”
“That is indeed an important topic for consideration,” Stas picked up his cup and sipped his coffee.
“Alright, it doesn’t matter who turned us in,” said Igor. “What’s important is that we all say the same thing: we didn’t see anything, we don’t know anything. You both understand?”
The major unlocked the door, walked into the hallway, put down his black briefcase, which was worn around its corners, took off his artificial fur coat, and hung it on a hook. His wife was cutting up some liver in the kitchen. She looked up and nodded to the major. He nodded back, then unzipped his boots and pulled them down. One of his socks had a hole by the big toe. His wife kept cutting up the liver. Several places on her plump white legs were lined with blue varicose veins. The major walked into the other room. A three-year-old boy was on the floor, playing with plastic blocks.
“Wha you bing me, Pap?” he lisped with a toothless smile.
The major took a caramel candy with a picture of an airplane on the wrapper of his pocket and gave it to him. The boy started to unwrap his candy. The major walked over to the TV and turned it on. The sound came first, then the image. Hockey was on. The major sat in his chair. Interference was affecting the screen, warping the image.
Ira and Stas were lying on the fold-out couch, covered with a blanket. The reel-to-reel was spinning. Music was coming from the speakers—Pink Floyd’s Animals album. There was a bottle of port on the floor, along with two glasses, and clothes and undergarments strewn in disarray.
The entire wall above the sofa was pasted over with photographs from both Soviet and foreign magazines—George Harrison, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles. Stas sat up on the couch and reached for his pack of Opals and lighter.
“Want one?” he asked.
Ira nodded. He lit one for himself and one for her. Ira took the cigarette from him and sat with her back against the wall. They both took a drag.
“What was the general impression you got?” asked Stas. “You know. From him.”
“Why act like you don’t understand? From the major.”
“Nothing, really. He’s typical KGB, just how I’d imagined one would be. As a man he’s nothing special, if that’s what you wanted to hear.”
Stas turned and looked at Ira.
“Well, did you perhaps stir any… feelings in him? What do you think?”
Ira looked at Stas. “What do you mean?”
“What do you mean, nothing? Explain yourself.”
“I already told you. Nothing.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“I’m not suggesting anything. I just think… In a situation like this, it is necessary to consider all our options.”
Ira got up abruptly from the couch, threw aside the blanket, bent over and dropped her cigarette in the ashtray. Then she picked her panties up off the floor, put them on, and grabbed her tights.
“You misunderstood me, I didn’t have anything like that in mind… I just…”
Stas took her hand. Ira pulled away, pulled on her tights, then bent over and picked up her bra.
“Just because you made this suggestion, you know what I should do? I should tell him it was all you and Igor who drew it, and that I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
The trolleybus stop was crowded with people, their breath making vapors in the air. On the other side of the street a girl about seventeen was running—in boots but no jacket—from the dorm to the building of vocational school number ninety-eight.
The trolleybus pulled up—it was gray and old, with two sets of doors and a blue number “72” on its side. Ira got on through the back door and huddled in the corner by a window. The trolleybus rolled past a large, drab Stalin-era apartment building and turned toward the military detachment building, the bus terminal and the marketplace behind it, and the church farther on up the hill. An old guy standing nearby was breathing on Ira, his breath smelling of booze and rotting teeth. Ira tried to move away from him but she couldn’t, the trolleybus was packed too tight with people.
The major looked at Ira. He was wearing the same gray jacket with a different shirt, this one white with black stripes and a large collar. Nobody wore that kind anymore.
“So, you maintain your assertion that you have never seen these drawings and that you know nothing about them?”
“Tell me something,” said Ira. “Hypothetically, if I were to find out something that might interest you, do you think could we meet up somewhere else?”
The first “adult” show, the eleven-ten, had started ten minutes earlier. The major was milling around the entrance of the October cinema in his artificial fur coat and red rabbit fur cap, holding his briefcase. Ira came around the corner in a long, dark gray coat, without a hat.
“Aren’t you cold?” asked the major. “It’s freezing out.”
Ira shrugged. They walked inside the lobby, where the major pulled out two pale green paper tickets and handed them to the usher.
“You realize you’re really late at this point? The newsreel is already over,” said the usher.
Ira and the major walked past her toward the entry to the theater. Ira nodded at the stairs and started to walk down. The major followed her. They walked through the empty smoking room. Ira stepped into the men’s toilet and the major went in next after her. Ira closed the door, then took a mop from the corner and stuck its handle through the door handle.
“Now nobody will come in here,” Ira said as she unbuttoned her coat. She walked over to the major and unbuttoned his coat and jacket, then undid his belt, button, and fly. She squatted down. The floor-length part of her coat was rubbing on the dirty tiles.
The major pulled back abruptly. “Don’t,” he said quietly.
Ira got up and looked at herself in the mirror over the sink. It was all covered in dried water spots and the faucet was dripping.
The major tried to button his pants. The button wouldn’t catch in its hole. He left it unbuttoned and wrapped himself up in his coat.
There were a couple of vocational school types, probably around sixteen, smoking cigarettes without filters in the smoking room.
“Check them out,” one said to the other.
Ira and the major walked back up the steps.
The major sat in the colonel’s office. It was much more spacious than his. There were three telephones on the table—two were black and one was green. His papers were carefully arranged in a stack.
“So you’re telling me these two had nothing to do with the pictures?” asked the colonel, a large, gray-haired older guy with service bars on his jacket.
“Nothing at all,” said the major.
“So then why did he implicate the other two?”
“Who knows? Maybe she wouldn’t give him the time of day, so he decided to turn her in and her boyfriend too. Or maybe there was something else going on between them.”
“So where did these images come from? Somebody drew them, if not them.”
“It may have been him. He’s the slippery type. I’d investigate him, but considering who his father is…”
“Shall I release them on their own recognizance? They want to go to Leningrad on holiday,” the major said.
“Let them go,” said the colonel.
Ira and Stas got out of their taxi and walked inside the airport terminal. He had a small suitcase and she had a rucksack on her shoulder. A snowstorm had begun. Only a few cars were parked at the airport, most of them light green or yellow taxis.
The major was watching them from his car. He reached for the pack of Orbits beside his seat, pulled out a cigarette, and put his hand in his pocket.
“Fuck,” he muttered. He opened the glove compartment and rummaged through it. There was a scrap from an old Banner of Youth newspaper, one suede glove, and a caramel without its wrapper all covered in stuck debris.
The major rooted around in his pockets once again and found a box of matches. Borisov Match Factory, BSSR—40 Years of Liberation from the Nazi Occupation. He struck a match, lit, exhaled, held the cigarette between his fingers, sat with it like that for a while, then rolled down the window and threw it into a snowdrift.
A taxi pulled up. A plump man and woman got out, dragging along a child bundled up in a fur coat. The major turned the key in the ignition, engaged the clutch and hit the gas. His Moskvich lurched forward a few meters. He braked hard, then turned the car around. The gray of the airport terminal flashed into his rearview mirror.
His Moskvich passed several snowbound country houses as he drove away from the airport. Smoke was coming from their chimneys. A mangy watch dog was barking outside one of the houses.
Vladimir Kozlov was born in 1972 in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. His fiction and nonfiction has been long-listed for awards in Russia such as the National Bestseller prize and the Big Book prize. In 2011 and 2012 he was nominated for GQ Russia’s Writer of the Year. English translations of his writing have appeared in various publications.
Andrea Gregovich worked on the stories in 1987 and Other Stories to teach herself the art of literary translation over many years. She has since translated Kozlov’s novel USSR (Fiction Advocate 2014) and Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter (Amazon Crossing 2016). She also interviews translators, blogs about professional wrestling, and is writing a book about her infamous cowboy grandfather. Andrea has provided to New Pop Lit a previous translation, interview, short story, and book review.
(Read our review of 1987 and Other Stories here.)