Agent Felix Andropov, once assigned to guard Rasputin, struggles to recreate his life and his marriage against a backdrop of extraordinary political events and a haunting series of murders in 1920 Petrograd.
(From Felix Andropov in a letter to his brother, Semyon.)
I proceeded north and then eastward through the wilderness, hunting as I went.
Instead of living from moment to moment, always assessing my health and position in the immediate scheme of things, I began to make long-range plans. I could picture Murmansk and indulged in an odd fantasy about getting there being my salvation, as if by arriving at the top of the world I might find my freedom and safety, along with clarity and vision about Russia, itself.
But I found something else.
Upon the odd barren landscape of Murmansk, I only found a different desolation. I approached something which I believe could pass as the center of hell.
Before me was a village that had been burned by the Bolsheviks.
It was completely annihilated. I understood vaguely that this had to do with teaching the villagers a lesson. Bodies were everywhere — men, women, children — all in a state of decay with a cry of despair upon their faces.
No one had been buried. No one was left to do the burying.
It was odd to see this after coming out of the forest. After a solitude of animals. And now this was my first human contact after Volkov.
No doubt you must think that this is it — the third horror I promised.
But no, Semyon!
This was not the horror, although the horror was close by.
In the middle of the village I found a gathering of living souls.
The center for the gathering was a photographer. A very young man had been given camera of a professional photographer, no doubt confiscated from its original owner during the Revolution.
Even though this young man was wrestling with his apparatus, a smug, indifferent expression cramped his face. He was about to teach another Bolshevik lesson by recording a new form of human depravity.
In front of him were several of the surviving villagers, only they hadn’t really survived in a fully human sense. Their faces were long and drawn beneath hats made of wrapped cloth and fur. An old woman sat in a tattered, plaid dress staring down at the ground. Her pointed nose aimed at something that it still repels me to describe.
Behind her was another woman. I remember her eyes — squinting hard, and focused outwards. Her expression was one of both severity and madness.
In a third tier behind her was a young man with a fur cap. It was not clear to me if he were part of the group, or an onlooker, or perhaps a friend of the Bolshevik official in the middle. This figure, distinguished by his long coat and proper attire, and by his youthful age — maybe twenty-one at a stretch, but more likely eighteen — sat in the middle on something too high for a normal chair. And he had a ledger in which he posed for the photographer as if he were keeping a disapproving record of the horrid scene around him.
Beside him, to his left, was a young man, or boy, also in a tall fur cap. The boy’s expression is the one I best remember. The mouth was open. The lips hung desolate and guilt-ridden. The eyes were robbed of the fire that would let them weep. It was an expression of a face without memory or purpose.
The figure on the lower right, perhaps another woman, was ancient and despairing. She may have lost her capacity for joy, but somehow she did not seem to have lost her mind. Under the circumstances one must view this as an achievement.
The photographer took their picture — and now I will tell you what was before them, at their feet.
There, Semyon, were the bones of human beings strewn around like the remains of pigs after a feast. In the middle of the pile of bones was half of a human carcass: the legs and buttocks of some man or woman, frozen so that the knees were bent and the feet still raised high off the ground.
In other words, Semyon, these people had become cannibals to survive.
This is what the photographer had wanted to capture to teach us all a lesson.
The young man with his long coat and his stupid contempt was writing some bureaucratized description of the scene. It was to become an example for the Bolsheviks.
Something like a greeting card with the caption “Horrors of the Old Regime.”
But it was not caused by the Old Regime. It was a product of the new one.
The photographer took not just one picture, but several.
Then everyone was marched away and shot.
The only survivors of the village were now ten years old or under, and they were left to live, or more likely to die slowly, on their own.
I went towards them to try to help them, but they ran away from me in fear.
To this day, Semyon, I wonder how I might have saved them.
Two days after I saw this I became convulsed with fever.
From then on I remember very little. Somewhere I dropped my gun.
I walked towards what was obviously some regional city. Dimly I remember deciphering the name — PETROZAVODSK.
Do you know the place, Semyon? It is full of large boxy houses and office buildings that look like warehouses. But there are also some old timber houses that are more charming.
I entered the city prepared to die.
I, too, expected to be executed. It no longer seemed like such a bad thing.
In my fever, Petrozavodsk began to swirl. It seemed to belong to a medieval scene in which everyone in the village was about to engage in a holiday dance. I remember this commotion of people and buildings.
And then I remembered nothing except darkness.
After nights of hellish but forgotten dreams, this darkness yielded to the soft, gray eyes of a nurse.
“I am Sophie Pishkov,” they whispered to me. “You have been very sick. But you will get well now.”