Authors: Lara Prescott
When the men in black suits came, my daughter offered them tea. The men accepted, polite as invited guests. But when they began emptying my desk drawers onto the floor, pulling books off the shelf by the armful, flipping mattresses, rifling through closets, Ira took the whistling kettle off the stove and put the teacups and saucers back in the cupboard.
When one man carrying a large crate ordered the other men to box up anything useful, my youngest, Mitya, went onto the balcony, where he kept his hedgehog. He swaddled her inside his sweater, as if the men would box up his pet too. One of the men—the one who would later let his hand slide down my backside while putting me into their black car—put his hand atop Mitya’s head and called him a good boy. Mitya, gentle Mitya, pushed the man’s hand off in one violent movement and retreated into the bedroom he shared with his sister.
My mother, who’d been in the bath when the men arrived, emerged wearing just a robe—her hair still wet, her face flushed. “I told you this would happen. I told you they would come.” The men ransacked my letters from Boris, my notes, food lists, newspaper clippings, magazines, books. “I told you he would bring us nothing but pain, Olga.”
Before I could respond, one of the men took hold of my arm—more like a lover than someone sent to arrest me—and, with his breath hot against my neck, said it was time to go. I froze. It took the howls of my children to snap me back into the moment. The door shut behind us, but their howls grew louder still.
The car made two left turns, then a right. Then another right. I didn’t have to look out the window to know where the men in black suits were taking me. I felt sick, and told the man next to me, who smelled like fried onions and cabbage. He opened the window—a small kindness. But the nausea persisted, and when the big yellow brick building came into view, I gagged.
As a child, I was taught to hold my breath and clear my thoughts when walking past Lubyanka—it was said the Ministry for State Security could tell if you harbored anti-Soviet thoughts. At the time, I had no idea what anti-Soviet thoughts were.
The car went through a roundabout and then the gate into Lubyanka’s inner courtyard. My mouth filled with bile, which I quickly swallowed. The men seated next to me moved away as far as they could.
The car stopped. “What’s the tallest building in Moscow?” the man who smelled like onions and cabbage asked, opening the door. I felt another wave of nausea and bent forward, emptying my breakfast of fried eggs onto the cobblestones, just missing the man’s dull black shoes. “Lubyanka, of course. They say you can see all the way to Siberia from the basement.”
The second man laughed and put out his cigarette on the bottom of his shoe.
I spat twice and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand.
Once inside their big yellow brick building, the men in black suits handed me off to two female guards, but not before giving me a look that said I should be grateful they weren’t the ones taking me all the way to my cell. The larger woman, with a faint mustache, sat in a blue plastic chair in the corner while the smaller woman asked me, in a voice so soft it was as if coaxing a toddler onto the toilet, to remove my clothing. I removed my jacket, dress, and shoes and stood in my flesh-colored underwear while the smaller woman took off my wristwatch and rings. She dropped them into a metal container with a clank that echoed against the concrete walls and motioned for me to undo my brassiere. I balked, crossing my arms.
“We need it,” the woman in the blue chair said—her first words to me. “You might hang yourself.” I unclasped my bra and removed it, the cold air hitting my chest. I felt their eyes scan my body. Even in such circumstances, women appraise each other.
“Are you pregnant?” the larger woman asked.
“Yes,” I answered. It was the first time I’d acknowledged this aloud.
The last time Boris and I had made love was a week after he’d broken things off with me for the third time. “It’s over,” he’d told me. “It has to end.” I was destroying his family. I was the cause of his pain. He’d told me all this as we walked down an alley off the Arbat, and I fell into a bakery’s doorway. He went to pick me up, and I screamed for him to leave me be. People stopped and stared.
The next week, he was at my front door. He’d brought a gift: a luxurious Japanese dressing gown his sisters had procured for him in London. “Try it on for me,” he implored. I ducked behind my dressing screen and slipped it on. The fabric was stiff and unflattering, billowing out at my stomach. It was too big—maybe he’d told his sisters the gift was for his wife. I hated it and told him so. He laughed. “Take it off, then,” he pleaded. And I did.
A month later, my skin began tingling, as if submerging into a hot bath after coming in from the cold. I’d felt that tingle before, with Ira and Mitya, and knew I was carrying his child.
“A doctor will visit you soon, then,” the smaller guard said.
They searched me, took everything, gave me a big gray smock and slippers two sizes too big, and escorted me to a cement box containing only a mat and a bucket.
I was kept in the cement box for three days and given kasha and sour milk twice daily. A doctor came to check on me, though only to confirm what I already knew. I owed the baby growing inside me for preventing the more terrible things I’d heard happened to women in that box.
After the three days, they moved me to a large room, also cement, with fourteen other female prisoners. I was given a bed with a metal frame screwed into the floor. As soon as the guards closed the door, I lay down.
“You can’t sleep now,” said a young woman sitting on the adjacent bed. She had thin arms with sores on her elbows. “They’ll come and wake you.” She pointed to the fluorescent lights glaring above. “Sleeping is not allowed during the day.”
“And you’ll be lucky if you get an hour of sleep at night,” a second woman said. She slightly resembled the first woman but looked old enough to be her mother. I wondered if they were related—or if after being in this place, under those bright lights, wearing the same clothes, everyone eventually resembled each other. “That’s when they come get you for their
The younger woman gave the older woman a look.
“What do we do instead of sleep?” I asked.
“And play chess.”
“Yes,” said a third woman, who was sitting at a table across the room. She held up a knight fashioned from a thimble. “Do you play?” I didn’t, but I would learn over the next month of waiting.
The guards did come. Each night, they’d pull one woman out at a time and return her to Cell No. 7 hours later, red-eyed and silent. I steeled myself each night to be taken but was still surprised when they finally did come.
I was awoken with the tap of a wooden truncheon against my bare shoulder. “Initials!” spat the guard hovering over my bed. The men who came at night always demanded our initials before taking us away. I mumbled a reply. The guard told me to get dressed, and he didn’t look away while I did.
We walked the length of a dark hallway and down several flights of stairs. I wondered if the rumors were true: that Lubyanka went twenty floors belowground and connected to the Kremlin by tunnels, and that one tunnel went to a bunker equipped with every luxury built for Stalin during the war.
I was led to the end of another hall, to a door marked 271. The guard opened it a crack, peeked in, then flung it open with a laugh. It wasn’t a cell, but a storage room stocked with towers of canned meats and neatly stacked boxes of tea and sacks of rye flour. The guard grunted and pointed across the room to another door, this one with no number. I opened it. Inside, my eyes had trouble adjusting to the light. It was an office with posh furnishings that wouldn’t be out of place in a hotel lobby. A wall of bookshelves packed with leather-bound books lined one wall; three guards lined another. A man wearing a military tunic was sitting at the large desk at the center of the room. On his desk were stacks of books and letters:
“Have a seat, Olga Vsevolodovna,” he said. The man had the rounded shoulders of someone who’d spent a lifetime behind a desk or bent over in hard labor; by his perfectly manicured hands wrapped around his teacup, I guessed the former. I sat in the small chair in front of him.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he said.
I started in with the speech I’d had weeks to prepare: “I have done nothing wrong. You must release me. I have a family. There is no—”
He held up a finger. “Nothing wrong? We will determine that…in time.” He sighed and picked at his teeth with the tip of his thick, yellowed thumbnail. “And it will take time.”
I’d thought they’d let me out any day, that all would be resolved, that I would spend New Year’s Eve sitting next to a warm stove toasting with a nice glass of Georgian wine with Boris.
“So what have you done?” He shuffled through some papers and held up what appeared to be a warrant. “Expressing
anti-Soviet opinions of a terroristic nature,
” he read, as if reading a list of ingredients in a honey cake recipe.
One might think terror runs cold—that it numbs the body, a preparation for incoming harm. For me, it was a hotness that burned like fire traveling from one end to the other. “Please,” I said, “I need to speak to my family.”
“Allow me to introduce myself.” He smiled and leaned back in his chair, the leather creaking. “I am your humble interrogator. Can I offer you some tea?”
He made no move to fetch me tea. “My name is Anatoli Sergeyevich Semionov.”
“You may address me as Anatoli. We’ll be getting to know each other quite well, Olga.”
“You may address me as Olga Vsevolodovna.”
“That is fine.”
“And I’d like you to be direct with me, Anatoli Sergeyevich.”
“And I’d like you to be honest with me, Olga Vsevolodovna.” He pulled out a stained handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. “Tell me about this novel he’s been writing. I’ve heard things.”
“Tell me,” he said. “What is this
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“He’s still writing it.”
“Suppose I left you here alone for a while, with a little piece of paper and a pen—maybe you could think about what you do or don’t know about the book and write it all down. Is that a good plan?”
I didn’t respond.
He stood and handed me a stack of blank paper. He pulled a gold-plated pen from his pocket. “Here, use my pen.”
He left me with his pen and his paper and his three guards.
Dear Anatoli Sergeyevich Semionov,
Do I even address this as a letter? How does one properly address a confession?
I do have something to confess, but it is not what you want to hear. And with such a confession, where does one even begin? Perhaps at the beginning?
I put the pen down.
The first time I saw Boris, he was at a reading. He stood behind a simple wooden lectern, a spotlight glinting off his silver hair, a shine on his high forehead. As he read his poetry, his eyes were wide, his expressions big and childlike, radiating out across the audience like waves, even up to my seat in the balcony. His hands had moved rapidly, as if directing an orchestra. And in a way, he had been. Sometimes the audience couldn’t hold back and yelled out his lines before he could finish. Once, Boris had paused and looked up into the lights, and I swore he could see me watching from the balcony—that my gaze cut through the white lights to meet his. When he finished, I stood—my hands clasped together, forgetting to clap. I watched as people rushed the stage and engulfed him, and I remained standing as my row, then the balcony, then the entire auditorium emptied.
I picked up the pen.
Or should I begin with how it began?
Less than a week after that poetry reading, Boris stood on the thick red carpet in
’s lobby, chatting with the literary magazine’s new editor, Konstantin Mikhailovich Simonov, a man with a closet full of prewar suits and two ruby signet rings that clinked against each other when he smoked his pipe. It was not uncommon for writers to visit the office. In fact, I was often charged with giving the tour, offering them tea, taking them to lunch—the normal courtesies. But Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was Russia’s most famous living poet, so Konstantin had played the host, walking him down the long row of desks, introducing him to the copywriters, designers, translators, and other important staff. Close up, Boris was even more attractive than he had been on stage. He was fifty-six but could’ve passed for forty. His eyes darted between people as he exchanged pleasantries, his high cheekbones exaggerated by his broad smile.
As they neared my desk, I grabbed the translation I’d been working on and began marking up the poetry manuscript at random. Under my desk, I wiggled my stockinged feet into my heels.
“I’d like to introduce you to one of your most ardent admirers,” Konstantin said to Boris. “Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya.”
I extended my hand.
Boris turned my wrist over to kiss the back of my hand. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“I’ve loved your poems since I was a girl,” I’d said, stupidly, as he pulled away.
He smiled, exposing the gap between his teeth. “I’m actually working on a novel now.”
“What is it about?” I asked, cursing myself for asking a writer to explain his project before he was finished.
“It’s about the old Moscow. One you’re much too young to remember.”
“How very exciting,” Konstantin said. “Speaking of which, we should chat in my office.”
“I’ll hope to see you again then, Olga Vsevolodovna,” Boris said. “How nice I still have admirers.”
It went from there.
The first time I agreed to meet him, I was late and he was early. He said he didn’t mind, that he’d gotten to Pushkinskaya Square an hour early and had enjoyed watching one pigeon after the next take their place atop Pushkin’s bronze statue, like breathing, feathered hats. When I sat next to him on the bench, he took my hand and said he hadn’t thought of anything else since meeting me—that he couldn’t stop thinking about how it would feel to see me approach and sit down next to him, how it would feel to take my hand.