Authors: Lara Prescott
“Have you read it?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Ivanna said. Father David and Father Pierre shook their heads.
Opening the novel again and turning to the title page, I noticed an error. “His name.”
“What about it?” Father David asked.
“It should not be written as
Boris Leonidovich Pasternak.
Russians wouldn’t include his patronymic. They’d only write
Father Pierre puffed on his Cuban cigar. “Too late now,” he said, and held his hands in prayer.
The following morning, I carefully dressed in my padded brassiere and underpants, then slipped on the shapeless black habit and veil with a stiff white band that framed my forehead. I was forbidden to wear makeup of any sort; the woman from Hollywood said I’d have to make do with a dab of Vaseline rubbed onto my lips and the tops of my cheekbones for shine. But I didn’t even do that. Looking in the mirror, I liked how my face looked: raw, pale, maybe a little older. Stepping back to take in the full look, I felt sexless—and powerful.
At precisely 0630, I left the flat for my first day at the fair. If we did our jobs correctly, we’d have given out the last of the three hundred sixty-five copies of
by the end of the third day.
On the tram built to shuttle fair visitors from the city center to the Heizel Paleis, I spotted the Atomium. It was far larger than the model had prepared me for. The official symbol of the fair—printed on every poster, every pamphlet, and almost every postcard and souvenir—the nine-sphered Atomium was supposed to represent the new atomic age. To me, it looked more like a leftover set from
The Day the Earth Stood Still.
The fair would not open for an hour, but throngs of people had already lined up outside the large iron gates. Impatient children pulled at their mothers’ purses; American high school students stuck their hands and heads through the fence, one almost getting stuck; a young French couple necked in public without regard to anyone’s stares; an elderly German woman took a photograph of her husband standing next to a woman dressed in the black skirt, black jacket, black tie, and black hat of a fair guide. It was a thrill to be surrounded by so many people while still feeling unseen. No one paid attention to the nun.
I joined the line of fair workers at the Porte du Parc gate, which led directly into the International Section. As I approached the guard, I took a deep breath and pulled out my Expo 58 badge. He barely looked at me as he waved me in.
It was extraordinary. The model hadn’t come close to depicting the enormity of it all. It was the first World’s Fair since the war, and an estimated forty million tourists from every corner of the globe were expected.
Except for the fair workers hustling to their positions and a brigade of broom-wielding women sweeping debris from the street, I had the main thoroughfare to myself. I passed the Thai pavilion and its multiple tiered roofs resembling a temple atop a gleaming white marble staircase. The U.K. pavilion bore a striking similarity to three white pope’s hats. The French pavilion was an enormous modern basket woven of steel and glass. West Germany’s was modern and simple, like something Frank Lloyd Wright might’ve dreamed up. Italy’s resembled a beautiful Tuscan villa.
I quickly located the American pavilion, and I couldn’t decide whether the building, surrounded with state flags, looked more like an overturned wagon wheel or a UFO. Immediately to its left was the Soviet Union’s behemoth—the largest pavilion by far in the International Section. It looked as if it could eat the American pavilion. Inside there were facsimiles of Sputnik I and II, which I longed to see. I’d never admit it aloud, but when Sputnik was launched, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pride. I’d never been to the Motherland, but as I looked up at the sky the night the satellite was shot into space, I felt a connection to the place of my parents’ birth in a way I hadn’t before. That night in D.C. was cloudy, and I knew you couldn’t see it with the naked eye, but still I looked to the heavens, hoping to see a flash of silver streaking across the sky. So there, standing so close to the thing—or at least, a replica of it—I wanted so much to go inside Russia’s pavilion and see it, touch it.
But I couldn’t deviate from Father David’s plan.
On the other side of the American pavilion was my destination: the City of God. The Holy See’s white building, simple and sloping, appeared small enough to fit within the lobby of the USSR’s pavilion. I walked inside the quiet building, the clacking of my cheap black leather shoes echoing off the marble floors. Vatican workers scurried about, preparing to open. They mopped the floors, set out pamphlets, and refilled the basins with holy water. They said
as I passed, and I smiled the way I thought a nun might: with just the corners of my mouth.
Father Pierre was already in position—standing next to
his hands behind his back, rocking on his heels. As I passed, his gaze didn’t break from the famous sculpture.
Down the vaulted corridor and into the Chapel of Silence, two nuns were readying the small altar facing the pews. They looked me over, then continued lighting the candles. Had I passed the test? If I hadn’t, the nuns revealed nothing. Nor did they react when I circled the altar and walked through the parting in the heavy blue curtains behind it.
“You’re here,” Father David said as I entered the secret library. He looked at his watch. “The public gates are open. You ready?”
I took my place on a wooden stool in front of the bookshelf filled with copies of the Good Book, each in its crisp blue linen cover. I was calmer than I’d expected, but Father David radiated nervous tension as he paced the small room. Four steps to the right, four steps back. I later discovered that it’d been two years since Father David had been in the field, the last time in Hungary, where he’d helped rouse the partisans to revolt against their Soviet occupiers.
We heard the first muted footsteps and whispers of visitors entering the City of God. I slowed my breath to see if I could hear what language the people were speaking. Was it Russian? Father David appeared to be listening too, his head cocked toward the opening in the curtains.
We waited on edge for our first targets to arrive, and I could feel small knots form between my shoulder blades.
Ivanna opened the curtain. Behind her stood a Russian couple, looking as if the Wizard of Oz’s curtain had been pulled back only to reveal a priest, a nun, and some books instead of a man pulling levers. I hesitated, but Father David didn’t. He greeted them warmly, in flawless Muscovite Russian. All nervousness gone, he’d transformed into the perfect priest—charming with a hint of power—whom upper-class parishioners would want to invite to Sunday dinner.
Father David asked the couple questions about their visit to the fair.
How are you enjoying it? What sights have you seen? Did you come to see the Rodin? Have you visited the model of an atomic icebreaker? An astonishing feat of science. There’s a line to view it, but it’s well worth the wait. Have you tried the waffles?
In no time, Father David quickly ascertained the couple’s story. The woman, Yekaterina, was a ballerina with the Bolshoi performing nightly at the Soviet pavilion; the older man, Eduard, simply described himself as a “patron of the arts.” Eduard boasted of the woman’s performance the night before. “She left the audience breathless. Even from the corps.”
Father David jumped on this, telling the couple he had recently seen Galína Sergéyevna Ulánova dance in London. “It was life-affirming,” he said. “As if the Madonna herself had kissed the soles of Galína’s feet. She was the physical embodiment of poetry.” The couple agreed wholeheartedly, and with that momentum, Father David seamlessly transitioned into a more general conversation about art and beauty—and the importance of sharing it.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Yekaterina said. From the rosy tint in her cheeks, it was obvious she was quite taken with the young priest and his passionate speech.
“Do you like poetry?” he asked her.
“We’re Russian, aren’t we?” Eduard answered.
The couple had come into the library only minutes earlier, and Father David was already turning to me to hand him a copy of the Good Book—which he in turn gave to the man. “Beauty should be celebrated,” he said with a holy smile. The man took the book and looked at its spine. He knew immediately what it was. Instead of giving
back to Father David, he licked his lips and handed the book to Yekaterina. She frowned, but at his nod, she put the book inside her purse. “I believe you’re right, Father,” Eduard said.
When it was done, the couple had taken the book and Eduard had invited Father David to sit with him in his box for Yekaterina’s evening performance. Father David said he would do his best to make it.
“It worked,” I said when they were gone.
“Of course it did,” Father David said, his voice steady.
Our targets came fast after that. An accordion player in the Red Army Choir hid the novel in his empty instrument case. A clown in the Moscow State Circus stowed it away in his makeup case. A mechanical engineer who’d grown up hearing her mother recite Pasternak’s early poems said she desperately wanted to read it but would likely do so only while at the fair. A translator who’d worked on the Soviet pavilion’s brochure in multiple languages told us he’d always admired Pasternak’s translations, especially his Shakespearean plays, and had dreamed of meeting him. Once, he’d seen the author dining at Tsentralny Dom Literatorov but had been much too shy to approach him. “I missed my chance,” he said. “But I’m making up for my cowardice by having this.” He held up
Before he left, he gave me a copy of one of the Soviet brochures he’d translated. Inside was a map of the entire fairgrounds spanning two pages. I laughed as I noticed that the American and Vatican pavilions were markedly absent.
Speaking Russian again brought Mama to the forefront of my mind, and I longed to see someone who reminded me of her, even a little. But most of the Soviets who came were members of the intelligentsia—educated, well-spoken, and in favor with the State. Others were young and out of the country for the first time—the musicians and dancers and other artists performing at the fair. All were city people, their hands soft and uncalloused. They could afford to travel, and even more important, were given permission to. They dressed like Europeans, in their tailored suits and French couture day dresses and Italian shoes. And although I’d never been to the Motherland, these were Russians I didn’t recognize; they were so unlike my mother, and the thought pained me.
In the afternoon, Ivanna came into the library to tell us there was an influx of Russians viewing
and she believed word had spread. “Should we slow down?” she asked.
“If anything, we should speed up,” I said. “We won’t have much time now that word has gotten out.”
“She’s right,” Father David said. “Keep them coming.”
When we’d given out a hundred copies, Ivanna stuck her head behind the curtain, holding one of the blue linen covers that had been ripped off the front of the novel. “They’re littering the steps with them.”
“Why?” I asked.
“To make them smaller,” Father David replied. “To hide them.”
We had planned to be at Expo 58 for three days, but we gave out our last copy of the Good Book midway through the second day.
Blue linen book covers littered the fair. A prominent economist removed the pages of an Expo 58 souvenir book and replaced them with
The wife of an aerospace engineer concealed it inside an empty tampon box. A prominent French horn player stuffed the pages inside the bell of his instrument. A principal dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet wrapped the book in her tights.
Our job was done. We’d sent
on its way, hopeful Mr. Pasternak’s novel would eventually find its way home, hopeful those who read it would question why it had been banned—the seeds of dissent planted within a smuggled book.
Father David, Ivanna, Father Pierre, and I parted according to plan. Ivanna would return the following day, staying at Expo 58 to distribute her religious materials. But the rest of us were to leave the fair and not return. There were no grand goodbyes, no pats on the back, no
s. Just some nods as we left the City of God one by one. No further contact was allowed. Where the Fathers were headed, I didn’t know; but I was to board a train to The Hague the next day, where I’d meet with my handler for debriefing and my next assignment.