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.)
As I proceeded through fields and trees toward Petrozavodsk, instead of living from moment to moment, I finally began to make longer-range plans. I could picture some new urban attraction and indulged in a fantasy about how that city might become my salvation, a place where I might rediscover my freedom.
But on the second day, I found something else.
Upon the barren landscape on my way northeast, I discovered a new form of desolation. In fact, I approached what might have passed for the center of hell.
Before me was a village. Several soldiers were standing guard, so I made my way carefully. It had been burned by the Bolsheviks days before as a holdout in support of the White Russians. Completely annihilated. I intuited that this had to do with teaching the villagers a lesson, and as I would later find out, this turned out to be right.
Bodies were everywhere—men, women, children—with a cry of despair upon each of their faces. No one had been buried, because, it seemed, no one had been left to do the burying.
No doubt you must think that this is it—the third horror I promised.
This in itself was not the horror, although the horror would soon emerge nearby.
In the middle of the tiny village, I found a gathering of living souls. At the center for the group was a photographer. The young man had been given a fancy camera, most likely confiscated from its original owner during the Revolution. Even while he wrestled awkwardly with his apparatus, a smug, indifferent expression cramped his face. He was about to create anotherBolshevik lessonby 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. I still remember several of them vividly.
An old woman sat in a tattered plaid dress staring down at the ground. Her pointed nose aimed at something that repels me to describe. Behind her was another woman, also seated. I remember her eyes: squinting, hard, and focused outward. Her expression was one of both severity and madness.
In a third tier behind her was a young man with a fur cap. At first it wasn’t clear to me if he were part of the group, or an onlooker, until I realized that he seemed to be in league with the photographer. Distinguished by his long coat and proper attire, and by his youthful age—maybe twenty-one at a stretch, but more likely eighteen—he sat on something too high for a normal chair, elevating him above the others. He held a ledger in which he posed for the photographer with an accountant’s eyes, recording his disapproval of the scene before him.
A teenage boy was standing beside him to his left. The boy’s mouth was open. His lips hung desolate and guilt-ridden. His eyes were robbed of the fire that would let them weep. It was a face without memory or purpose.
To his right stood a woman, ancient and despairing. She may have lost her capacity for joy, but she did not seem to have lost her mind. Under the circumstances, I viewed this as an achievement.
These were only some of the ten or twelve faces before me as I watched from behind an aging pine tree, not fully hidden from view, but not clearly visible.
The photographer took their group picture. He took it three times.
And now I will tell you what was before them, at their feet.There, lay the bones of human beings strewn around like the remains of pigs after a feast. In the middle of the pile was half of a human carcass—the legs and buttocks of some man or woman, frozen so that the knees were bent with the feet raised high off the ground.
As I was to learn, the Bolsheviks had surrounded the village, starved it, and then burned it.
These people had become cannibalsto 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 continued to write some bureaucratized description of the scene. It was to become an examplefor the Bolsheviks. A cameo. Something like a greeting card from hell with the caption “Horrors of the Old Regime.”
But the horror here was not caused by theOldRegime.
It was a product of the newone.
Once the photographer had taken not just one picture, but several, everyone was marched away and shot.
After witnessing this nightmare, I became convulsed with fever.
From then on, I remember very little. Somewhere I dropped my gun.
After turning southeast for a day and a night, I approached my presumed destination. Dimly I remember deciphering the name—PETROZAVODSK on a sign at the edge of Lake Onega. Do you know the place? 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 belonged to a medieval scene in which everyone in the town was about to engage in a dance. I still remember this commotion of people and buildings vividly.
And then I remember nothing but darkness.
After nights of hellish but forgotten dreams, this darkness yielded to the soft, gray eyes of a nurse.
“I am Sofie Pishkoff,” they whispered to me. “You have been very sick. But you will get well now.”