The Tsar abdicates in February. The Provisional Government gets around to letting Fyodor out of prison in March. In April, he meets his Uncle Grigor at a Petrograd cafe. They talk about magic, death and revolution.
“I don’t care, Fyodka. Romans or Visagoths, Christians or Mohammedans, Tsars or…” The old man waves his hand, making a show of remembering the word. “…Bolsheviks… They’re all just different acts in the same circus.”
Fyodor and Grigor sit at a table by the window. They drink their tea in the Ukranian style, with apple slices.
Most of Grigor’s little sermon is familiar from the letters they exchanged while Fyodor was in prison, but one line rankles. “Politics change. What we do doesn’t. You should remember that.”
Fyodor wants very badly to correct that ‘we,’ to tell his uncle that there’s a reason he hasn’t so much as looked at his magic books since he was fourteen years of age. Instead, he blows on his tea and watches the steam rise up and disappear. When he does speak, his voice is subdued.
“In ancient Rome, who did the work?”
Grigor favors him with a sad, indulgent look. It’s exactly the way he always looked at Fyodor back home in the Ukraine, when they spent long winter afternoons playing chess. The look says, ‘I see why you’re moving your bishop like that, and I wish you wouldn’t, but I suppose this is the only way you’ll ever learn.’
“You’re talking about slaves?”
Fyodor takes a sip of his hot sweet tea and arranges the words in his head. “Slaves, yes, and also free men and servants. Did any of those people get to make decisions?”
“About when they would work, and what they would produce and how the profits would be divided. Did the people who worked in the kitchens in ancient Rome get to elect a committee that ran the place, or did even the lucky free ones have a choice between going hungry and doing what some unelected boss told them to do?”
Grigor says nothing. Fyodor presses his advantage. “And the Visagoths? The Mohammedans?”
Grigor lets out a theatrical sigh. “No, no they did not elect committees. Any more than they had steam trains, or poison gas. What is the point, exactly?”
Fyodor tries one argument, then another. His uncle is resolutely unimpressed. Outside the window, people come and go. As he argues with his Uncle, Fyodor sees two separate Party agitators stake out street corners to pass out leaflets and harangue passers-by. Two men who look to be coming back from work at a factory gesticulate at each other. One of them keeps pointing at the headline of a Bolshevik newspaper.
Fyodor lets himself get excited. A stupid thing to do, in chess games of any kind, but he can’t help himself. “For God’s sake, Grigor. Six words. ’Soviets of Workers’ and Soldier’s Deputies.’ That’s a new thing in the history of the world. Ordinary people taking charge of society, trying to run the factories and the cities by and for themselves and to hell with all the old parasites.”
Grigor rubs his beard. “Parasites?”
Grigor puts his mug down on the table. He stares at Fyodor until the silence is unbearable.
“Yes, parasites. Landlords, capitalists, people who live off of other people’s sweat.”
“Like, say, your father?”
Grigor’s tone is all mildness and curiosity. (‘Are you sure you want to move your queen instead of your knight? Well, it’s your decision…’) Fyodor remembers the endless hours of magic lessons, how long it would take him to float his pen a few inches in the air and how quickly it always fell back down again. He remembers Grigor using just such a mild tone to ask him what he’d been doing with his time instead of studying his magic books. He also remembers that Grigor’s tone never stayed mild.
The old man’s face is neutral. Waiting. Testing.
Ten arguments rise to the surface of Fyodor’s mind. None of them make it to his lips.
He finishes his tea in three long gulps and puts it down on the table. When he speaks, all the fire has left his voice.
“How is he?”
Grigor shrugs and slumps back in his chair. “I think you know.”
Neither of them says anything for a long time. Fyodor is about to say that Father’s sickness is one problem that neither magic nor revolution can solve. Then Grigor surprises him. “I’m looking into something that may help him. Not just yet, mind you, but in a few years, if I can ever get it right.”
Fyodor gives him a sharp look. He’s seen his uncle chant away a gust of cold air. He’s seen him heal small cuts with a wave of his hand. But this…
“You can cure him?”
Grigor shakes his head. “I don’t think that’s possible.”
When Grigor speaks, only his eyes give away his excitement. His posture is casual, his voice calm and composed.
“I’m learning how to raise the dead.”
His uncle’s words come back to him at odd times, sitting on the toilet or drifting off to sleep. When they do, Fyodor always devotes another pointless minute to trying to puzzle them out. Was the old man joking? Delusional?
None of it adds up, but Fyodor has better things to worry about.
Day and night, he goes to committee meetings in offices and mass meetings in warehouses. He smokes cigarettes and prepares announcements and argues about the Party line. Some days, he doesn’t realize he’s forgotten to sleep until he sees the sun rise through the windows of the Party office.
Months after the overthrow of the Tsar, the landlords still have the land, the capitalists still have the factories and Russian and German workers are still shooting at each other in the capitalists’ war. As the people go hungry in the cities and the corpses keep pouring back from the front, the Provisional Government’s daily announcements and explanations form a tangle of complexity that put old Grigor’s chess stratagems to shame. The slogans of the Bolshevik Party, now, those are simplicity itself:
And, most importantly of all, the thing that ties them all together, the way to achieve everything else and the single thing that separates the revolution brewing in the factories and the streets from the whole of previous human history:
All power to the Soviets!
In July, the movement takes action. The whole bottom of society boils over and everywhere, red flags are flying and feet are stomping and workers are chanting and singing in streets that are suddenly and gloriously theirs. The Provisional Government loses its collective mind.
Trotsky is arrested. Lenin goes into hiding. The death penalty, abolished months ago, is restored. Fyodor spends three days in a crowded cell before being released along with some forty others considered too unimportant to keep locked up. When they get out, a crowd of two hundred Bolsheviks greet them at the prison gates. They all march back to the office together, singing The Internationale at the top of their lungs.
Back in the Party office, Fyodor helps prepare a front-page headline that sums it all up:
These people think they can imprison history!
In August, General Kornilov marches on Petrograd to snuff out the flame of revolution. The Provisional Government releases the rest of Fyodor’s comrades from prison, the local Soviet organizes the defense of the city and, for a few days, everyone is together.
In the September elections, the Bolsheviks win control of the Petrograd Soviet. Every day, more soldiers desert from the front to join the movement. In the countryside, the peasants take matters into their own hands and seize the lands of the gentry.
Fyodor starts chain-smoking the moment he wakes up every morning, and starts sleeping in the smoke-filled Party office every night. The days bleed together.
By the time they’ve set the date for the insurrection, Fyodor fancies even the birds in the trees are in on the plot. When he steps out into the chilly October air, the streets somehow manage to smell of revolution.
On the night when Trotsky leads the Red Guards in storming the Winter Palace, Fyodor is at the great man’s side.
Revolutionary sailors in the Battleship Aurora fire a blank shot, and most of the Palace’s defenders scatter. The whole thing is over almost before it begins.
The next day, the Military Revolutionary Committee will hand over power to the assembled All-Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, inaugurating the first time in the history of the planet that the working classes have seized the machinery of state power. Tonight, Fyodor and his comrades celebrate.
Hours after the Palace is secured, he finds himself alone with the Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollantai in an isolated room on the third floor. They end up splitting a bottle of very good vodka before slowly and rhythmically unmaking the bed of an absent aristocrat. When Fyodor finally drifts off to sleep, muffled noises of celebration still drift up from the lower floors.
For the first time in years, he dreams about his old magic lessons. He’s thirteen years old again, but this time, he chants the words with a flawless precision that he never achieved in real life. When his pen rises into the air, the writing desk it was resting on rises with it. Both objects float, unmoving, halfway between the floor and the ceiling.
Grigor smiles in encouragement. “Good work, Fyodka. For your next trick, I’d like you to un-do the power of death in the world.”
Fyodor bites his lip. “I’m not sure I know how to do that one.”
“I don’t see why not.” Grigor gestures at the window of the study. Just outside, the Red Guards are storming the Winter Palace. One of them is grown-up Fyodor.
“You’ve just created a classless society. How much harder can what I’m asking possibly be?”
Fyodor wakes up.
Alexandra Kollantai is shaking him and babbling in a still-drunken panic. It takes Fyodor far too long to realize what the problem is.
Her naked limbs are still entangled with his. A sheet is still draped over them. The two of them are floating four feet above the bed.
Counter-revolutionary ‘White’ armies rise up in every corner of the old Russian Empire. Fourteen foreign nations send forces to help them crush the nascent workers’ state. Winston Churchill drunkenly rants to the House of Commons about “smothering the Bolshevik baby in its crib” before it’s too late and the revolution spreads to the rest of the world.
The ensuing Civil War is fought along the longest front in the history of human warfare. The new Commissar of War, Leon Trotsky, relentlessly tours the front lines in his special red train. As a member of Trotsky’s staff, Fyodor goes with him.
At first, Trotsky, with his glasses and goatee, looks absurd in a military uniform. That doesn’t last. After a dozen stops, then two dozen stops, after watching Trotsky give speech after speech to the troops and scream orders at stubborn commanders, General Trotsky’s uniform starts to seem as natural as the nicotine-stained suit and tie that Comrade Trotsky used to wear to Central Committee meetings.
As well as the Commissar and his staff, the train carries a constantly replenished supply of boots, propaganda pamphlets, tobacco and matches for the soldiers of the Red Army. There are months where they are a constant target of sabotage and armed attacks. During such times, Fyodor becomes far too accustomed to emptying the chamber of his side arm.
At other times, the “little red train” glides from location to location as smoothly as a ship in calm waters. On some insomniac nights, Fyodor sits with General Trotsky in the main cabin. They sip vodka and discuss the philosophy of “dialectical materialism,” the patterns of conflict and contradiction postulated by Marxist theory. In Trotsky’s rhetorical hands, everything from Darwinian evolution to the current revolutionary struggle is illuminated through the lenses of dialectical thought. Fyodor watches the lamplight glint off the General’s glasses and listens.
Sometimes, when he goes to bed after these sessions, Fyodor takes out a very private notebook. In it, he scrawls notes about how dialectical materialism might account for the existence of magic.
His pages are littered with question marks.
One day, the train stops in the Ukraine, not five hundred miles from where Fyodor grew up. General Trotsky has been arguing with the local Bolshevik leader, Christian Rakovsky, in terse telegrams and long phone calls. He’s here to continue that dispute in person. As Trotsky and Rakovsky’s voices rise and fall, grand phrases like “solidarity” and “revolutionary duty” are used so much that a casual listener might fail to note that they’re arguing about grain shipments.
It’s a sweltering summer day, and everyone stands outside. Fyodor shares a cigarette with a soldier whose name he can’t remember. The man is going on about how sure he is that his village sweetheart is cheating on him. Fyodor nods sympathetically. In the background, horseflies buzz and Trotsky and Rakovsky argue about grain shipments.
Off to the left, a new voice starts up, louder and more insistent than the others. Fyodor turns to the speaker. It can’t take him more than a few seconds to make sense of what he’s looking at, but somehow the time seems to stretch into a long and lazy afternoon. It’s an old babushka, her hair frazzled and her face red with tears. Something in her hand glimmers in the sun.
Fyodor knows he should do something. Toss his cigarette on the ground and make a run for this woman. Scream a warning at the others. Shoot her.
All he can do is stare at her gun. It just seems so…wrong.
The nub of his cigarette burns his finger. He drops it. The old woman’s screams finally cohere into a string of recognizable words. Ivan. You bastards. You fucking Red bastards. You shot Ivan. Ivan…
Then Fyodor sees that three guns are already pointed at the babushka. Trotsky himself is trying to reason with her, to tell her to put the gun down, that this Ivan wouldn’t have wanted her to throw her life away like this, that she should just…
Fyodor doesn’t know which “Red bastard” the old woman meant to shoot, but as he looks down at his chest, all he can think about is the irony. With Leon Trotsky and Christian Rakovsky standing yards away, the revolutionary leader this woman managed to assassinate…
He giggles, just for a second, then passes out.
Searing pain brings him back, doctor’s knives and hospital noise and burning vodka being poured down his throat. He’s alive. The realization crashes through him again and again, like a drumbeat, like the thumping of his heart. He’s alive, he’s alive, he’s alive.
He loses consciousness and sleeps without dreaming.
He’s thought about dying for the cause more times than he can count. How he would be remembered, what his last words might be, all the ways it might happen. The Reds losing the war, and a hail of bullets ripping through his chest as the Whites overwhelm the last outpost of the Revolution. The Reds winning, and a bitter counter-revolutionary taking final revenge on Trotsky and his staff, like Lincoln being shot at the theatre. A bomb planted in the little red train while the war rages on…
It never occurred to him that would be shot in the chest by a grief-crazed old woman.
At last, he’s transferred to a hospital in Moscow. The Soviet capital is here now, not Petrograd, and during his first days in the hospital, Fyodor gets a steady stream of visits from friends and comrades working in the Kremlin. Then they trail off and he’s left with nothing but the sun shining through the window, a daily newspaper, and his own thoughts.
Grigor seems to have aged decades in the four years since their last meeting. His beard is more white than gray. His eyes are hollow. He walks into the hospital room with a limp, then pulls a chair up to the bed.
When Fyodor tells his uncle the story of how he was shot, the old man just listens in silence and nods. At the end, he asks a simple question. “Who’s Ivan?”
Fyodor gives him a sharp look, but his uncle’s eyes betray nothing but sadness.
“I don’t know.”
“You almost died in revenge for this Ivan, and you aren’t even a little bit curious?”
When Fyodor pushes out the words, they taste like dirt and grime and old cigarette butts. “We’ve had a lot of people shot. We’re at war.”
“I see.” Grigor leans back in his chair. “I seem to remember you not being so understanding about wars, once upon a time.”
Fyodor rolls over to face the window. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I’m awfully tired. Maybe we can talk more tomorrow?”
When Grigor visits the next day, they don’t argue. Instead, the old man gives him something wrapped up in an over-sized silk handkerchief. It’s the size of a short stick, and hardly wider. When Fyodor hefts it, feels the steel through the cloth, his heart sinks. He can barely get the words out. “He was in France?”
Grigor nods. “In a villa in Paris, made as comfortable as good doctors can, and surrounded by people who love him.”
Fyodor doesn’t open the handkerchief and look at the thing. He doesn’t scream and he doesn’t cry. He just sits, propped up against his pillows, and stares.
When Fyodor was twelve years old, his father took him to the study and showed him a saber decked with jewels. He told him how and why the Tsar had given it to his father’s father’s father. It was a story of great heroism and nobility, from which Fyodor could no doubt learn many things about his own noble heritage. He didn’t listen.
He’d already been reading forbidden books under the covers, and arguing about forbidden thoughts when he was alone with his uncle, and he knew damn well that his noble heritage was soaked in the blood of serfs. Still, the way the light played off the blade and sparkled in the jewels held his attention. His father cradled the thing with the kind of tenderness Fyodor had never seen him show a human being.
“When I die,” his father told him, “you need to make sure you have this. Keep it safe, for your own son, and part of what we are will never die.”
As the day of his release approaches, a position is arranged for Fyodor at the Kremlin. He argues with visitors about the Party line, and how to deal with the twenty crises that come to his attention with each daily newspaper. Whites and peasant ‘Greens’ are making trouble in the Ukraine, threatening noises are still coming from foreign capitals, and a naval mutiny at Kronstadt is threatening Petrograd itself from across the ice. While he’s lain in his hospital bed stewing in private grief and private doubts, the Revolution has been fighting for its life. Fyodor resolves to fight with it, and to put everything else aside.
As he becomes absorbed in Party and Soviet work, slowly but surely, his mood lifts. Sometimes, when he’s asked jovial, curious questions about the nobleman’s saber sitting by his bed, Fyodor makes up stories. Other times, he tells them the truth, then jokes that he’s planning to use it to scratch his ass. On some mornings, he even wakes up and yells for his tea straight away, without first devoting twenty minutes to staring at the ceiling and thinking about the fact that his father is dead.
The next summer, Grigor visits him in his office at the Kremlin. Fyodor is full of curiosity about how the old man got in, but he doesn’t ask. He just ushers him to a chair by the desk and offers him some vodka. They clink their glasses. Fyodor has the shortest of sips and starts in on his uncle, peppering him with questions about the new apartment Fyodor set him up with and whether he’s happy there.
Grigor gives perfunctory answers, then holds up his hand for silence. “That’s not why I’m here.”
Fyodor takes another sip of vodka and waits for the old man to continue. The silence stretches on, and Grigor glances behind him. Fyodor follows his eyes to the file cabinet. On top of it, resting on a pile of papers, is his father’s saber.
Grigor places his empty glass on Fyodor’s desk. He gets up, walks to the cabinet and grabs the saber. Then, with shocking speed, he runs to the desk.
Fyodor is absolutely still. He doesn’t twitch until his uncle has brought the blade home inches from his arm. Finally, he lets out a breath.
Grigor brandishes the saber. On it, he’s skewered a cockroach. “Dead, yes?”
Fyodor stares at him, then gets up, jerky and unstable, to close his office door. When he turns back, his uncle is removing the cockroach with two delicate fingers, leaving a trail of fluid on the saber.
“Yes,” Fyodor says at last. “The bug is dead. I concur.”
Grigor cups his hands together as if to warm the dead insect. He begins to murmur. Slowly, melodically, the murmur becomes a chant. Then his face opens up to a wicked smile. “Nothing larger, just yet, but this is a start.”
He kneels to the ground, and un-cups his hands.
The cockroach scampers across the floor.
When Lenin dies, Fyodor’s place in the funeral march is only a few feet behind the coffin. As the wind whips against his greatcoat and he watches the dejected revolutionaries all around him, he finds it difficult not to think about everything else that’s died.
A few years ago, there were workers’ uprisings in Germany and Hungary. Rumblings in France. Even in America, there was a general strike in Seattle, and union longshoreman refused to load guns onto ships to send to the White Army. The world revolution that was supposed to come to the Bolsheviks’ rescue, feeding Russia with the industrial base of Europe, seemed like a real possibility.
A few years ago, the city Soviets and factory committees and soldiers committees represented the most expansive kind of democracy the planet had ever seen. Ordinary people were running their own political, military and economic affairs in a raucous never-ending stream of arguments and proposals and counter-proposals. Workers didn’t have bosses, soldiers didn’t salute and a dozen competing socialist parties jockeyed for votes in the Soviets.
Hardly more than five years ago, in the first heady days after the Red Guards stormed the Winter Palace, the death penalty was abolished. That one lasted for almost a week.
The recently-confirmed General Secretary of the Party, a gray blur of a man named Josef Stalin, gives his speech. At the end, Fyodor claps three times and crosses his arms over his chest. When Trotsky arrives at the podium, Fyodor claps until his hands hurt.
Even now, the emerging lines of division on the Central Committee are painfully clear. He only hopes that when the struggle for the soul of the Revolution breaks out in earnest, it won’t be too late.
That night, Fyodor drinks vodka with a dozen comrades in Allexandra Kollantai’s apartment. She’s been abroad, making diplomatic history as the world’s first woman ambassador. She’s only back in Moscow for a few days. She and Fyodor don’t talk much, but then, it’s a quiet occasion.
She looks like an old woman now. Fyodor tries to remember rolling around the sheets with her in the Winter Palace, and the image seems incredible. He makes his excuses early, and wanders off to find his uncle.
When he gets to Grigor’s apartment, it’s empty save for two things. One is a starved-thin street dog with a knife wound its chest. When Fyodor kneels down to examine the thing, it stares at him with dead eyes.
The other is a note. It’s in Grigor’s handwriting and it’s addressed to no one in particular.
“I couldn’t bring it back. I’m sorry.”
Stalin and Bukharin are open about it now. They’re happy to abandon the workers of the West and focus everything at home. It’s a slogan for them, something they actually take pride in. “Socialism in one country.”
What kind of “socialism” they’re talking about, Fyodor has no idea. War measures and “temporary emergency regulations” and a thousand hateful things everyone was willing to swallow while they fought off fourteen armies have become the permanent law of the land. No other socialist parties compete with the Bolsheviks for votes in the Soviets, no back talk is allowed in the Red Army. Slowly but surely, one-man management is being re-introduced on the factory floors.
Fyodor is invited to no less than ten weddings between Party officials and the apolitical daughters of the old aristocracy. He thinks about the years he spent in prison, and the years riding around on the little red train, and he wants to scream.
When Trotsky finally announces the formation of the Left Opposition, it feels like a long nightmare is ending. The Old Bolsheviks, the core people who know what’s what, are going to set everything right. Fyodor tours the country, speaking to Party cells and distributing the Bulletin of the Opposition. They advocate the old politics, a renewed focus on revolution abroad and real workers’ democracy at home.
They have to fight every day just to be heard, but it’s a glorious fight.
Even when the Stalinists shout him down in meetings, even when he and his comrades find themselves deprived of more and more positions and responsibilities in the Party, Fyodor doesn’t care. It’s 1917 all over again, the days of nothing but smoking and organizing and preparing leaflets, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the summer of 1926, Kamenev and Zinoviev, the Party bosses of Moscow and Leningrad, defect to the Opposition. They hold a huge rally in downtown Moscow. Trotsky and Christian Rakovsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev, they all speak from the same platform. Fyodor runs around introducing each new speaker. He settles arguments behind the scenes. He checks constantly with the comrades monitoring the edges of the crowd to make sure Stalinist disruptors aren’t going to try to shut them down.
Today, they don’t dare. Red flags whistle in the summer wind, hundreds of feet stamp the pavement in time and everyone sweats and bickers and swats away flies. Lenin’s widow, Nadya Krupskaya, speaks from the podium. She says that if her husband were alive today, he’d be in prison.
Everyone cheers, and, just for a minute, it feels like they’re going to win.
The first time Fyodor is punched in the face by a Party comrade comes two months after Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulate and re-join Stalin’s fold.
The expulsions haven’t even happened yet, not officially, but Fyodor and his comrades have been told they can’t come into the meeting. He demands to know why not, and the heavy-built man at the door just shakes his head. They stand their ground. The man blocking their way gets so close that Fyodor can smell the onions and sour cream from the bastard’s dinner.
Fyodor shoves him. The heavy-built man knocks him to the ground. Before he closes the door, he turns around and spits out a last insult.
In the last couple of years, Fyodor has been called a great many absurd things. Disruptor. Traitor. Counter-revolutionary. The heavy-built man doesn’t bother with anything nearly so political.
What he says is, “fucking Jews.”
The day after Fyodor is officially expelled from the Party, he wanders the streets of Moscow and thinks about nothing at all. He watches the dogs begging for scraps at storefronts and the workers riding by in bicycles and the Party bureaucrats being driven around in their limousines.
Finally, just because it’s cheap and it’s something to do, he decides to watch a movie. The theater is half-empty. Even the old man playing the piano looks bored. Fyodor sits there for a while before he realizes that the film is one he’s seen before. It’s Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potempkin.”
The scenes play out in black and white on the flickering screen. Fyodor watches the cruelty of the officers. He watches Bolshevik agitators speaking to the sailors. He watches the wicked old priest thumping the crucifix against the palm of his hand like a club while he waits for the mutineers to be executed. Then the firing squad turns around and they shoot their own officers.
Five years ago, that scene would have elicited cheers from old revolutionaries in the audience, as the piano music swelled and everyone in the theater was carried away with emotion. Now, the patrons just look bored.
Somehow, in that moment, everything that’s been building in Fyodor’s insides just breaks. He lurches forward in his seat, and he rocks back and forth, over and over again. Everyone is staring at him. He doesn’t care. Fyodor weeps.
The years in Siberia come and go with a simple and dreary rhythm. Fyodor listens to the radio and drinks vodka and plays chess with the other exiles. A local girl who lives alone makes dinner for him sometimes, and sometimes they even sleep together. They don’t talk much after.
For a while, the radio is full of British spy plots and sabotage, and then it’s the Germans. Old Bolsheviks who devoted their lives to the Revolution keep turning out to be Nazi spies. Fyodor plays chess and drinks vodka and waits his turn.
When the time finally comes, his interrogator is a man who looks to be about eighteen. He wears a neatly-pressed police uniform and stinks of cologne.
Fyodor reads over the confession he’s supposed to sign. “It says here that I met with Leon Trotsky on the Ukranian-Polish border on August 6th of last year, and that he conveyed orders to me from Hitler.”
The interrogator tenses. “Yes?”
Fyodor sighs. “Would it bother you if your own records showed that I was in this office, being talked to by one of you lot on August 6th?”
The interrogator sits up, stiffer than ever. “You won’t sign it?”
Fyodor thinks over the likely consequences of a refusal to sign, and how much good it would do. He gestures for a pen.
A combination of deep boredom and desperate hope makes death row a hub of smuggled messages, buzzing with gossip and absurd rumors and never-ending speculation. Notes pass through Fyodor’s cell in a constant stream.
The commandant committed suicide. The place is being closed for an investigation. Stalin is dead, and every political prisoner in the country is going to be released.
Fyodor dutifully passes each piece of paper through to the next cell, often wondering if even the man who wrote some message believed what it said. Half the time, he doesn’t more than glance at a note before passing it on.
One night, he gets a message that stops him cold. Before he even makes out his own name at the top of the slip, he recognizes his uncle’s handwriting.
“I’ve done it, Fyodka. I’ve really done it. This time tomorrow, the power of death is at an end.”
Two days later, Fyodor is led out to die. He remembers five of the men led out with him from his days in the Left Opposition. He nods to them, and they nod back. One of them walks up and hugs him before the guards jostle both of them back into line.
For the last several hours, the notes Fyodor has passed back and forth through his cell have taken on an air of psychosis. Rumors of guards fleeing the prison, of strange noises and stranger sights glimpsed through cell windows.
Whatever it all adds up to, the undeniable truth is that the men in the firing squad all look terrified. They don’t want to kill him.
Still, orders are orders. Whatever’s got these men so scared, Fyodor is betting they know that the consequences of disobedience are worse.
He’s not wrong.
Guns are cocked. The countdown starts.
To his left and his right, the old Oppositionists standing with him link their hands with his. Someone starts singing the old revolutionary anthem, The Internationale. Fyodor sings with them, enjoying the cool air of the prison yard and the sound of the music and the flickering illusion that it might not be too late, that the people could still rise again and save the Revolution from itself. It feels like he’s back in Petrograd, marching beneath a red banner and dreaming about a world without rulers and ruled, masters and servants, a world fit for human men and women to live in. It’s nonsense, but it’s a good way to feel, a good way to die.
The first bullet rips through his chest. Then another, and another, and he crumples into a heap on the cold ground and even the pain is gone. Everything fades to darkness.
Then Fyodor wakes up.
All around him, his dead comrades are beginning to stir. Across the yard, a guard screams. It’s a desperate, terrified sound.
Slowly and quietly, Fyodor rises to his feet.
Copyright 2011 Ben Burgis
About the Author
Ben Burgis writes speculative fiction and realist fiction and sometimes even grocery lists and rent checks and Facebook status updates. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast program in Maine, where he spent his residencies sitting in workshops during the day and sneaking bottles of whisky into swimming pools at night with degenerates like Zachary Jernigan and the lady sometimes known as Caspian Gray. These days, he enjoys a respectably bourgeois life as an adjunct community college professor in Florida.
His story “Smokestacks Like the Arms of Gods” was the first piece of full-length original fiction to run at Podcastle, and his story “Dark Coffee, Bright Light and the Paradoxes of Omnipotence” appeared in Prime Books anthology People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy. He blogs at benburgis.livejournal.com.