Malenkov woke up shot through with dread, suffused with it, thinking it was all set in stone—believing it to be, logically, the day after the final leg of the funeral ceremony and after the coup. Because he’d ridden to the Kremlin with Beria that morning, the previous day, after the coup he’d walked the four blocks to his Granovsky Street apartment complex on foot, alone, improbably unrecognized, and had crawled into bed crying and fallen asleep before the sun had set.
But somehow his pillow wasn’t at all mascara-stained, and he had apparently managed to get into his pajamas. Malenkov tried to remember but couldn’t. Certainly he couldn’t remember setting his alarm for 7:00 AM. He rose, crept to the kitchen, and flicked on the kitchenette radio for news of the coup. But all that played was the Tchaikovsky that had been playing for the past seven days of mourning. In bewilderment, Malenkov walked to the calendar, which Valeria kept: the date of the funeral hadn’t yet been crossed out. Valeria was stringent about the calendar.
Malenkov looked out the window, at the sun streaming into the apartment block courtyard as it had on the previous morning. And he realized it must have been a dream, an extraordinarily vivid one. He could almost laugh. Khrushchev wasn’t a scheming factionalist, obviously, Marshal Zhukov wasn’t in the business of staging coups, Beria wasn’t a foreign agent—and any rumors about his personal life were only that. Beria had assured Malenkov of this himself. A dream. The stress, maybe.
Even so, for reassurance, Malenkov rang Beria’s Lubyanka office. Kobulov, Beria’s second-in-command, answered: “What can I do for you, Comrade Malenkov?”
“Comrade General Secretary,” Malenkov corrected him, while spreading his shirt out on the ironing board to be pressed. “I was just. Is Beria there?”
“Comrade Beria won’t be in ’til eight. Can I take a message for you?”
“No, I—he’s okay? He’s well?”
“Okay, great, that’s all. Send my regards. No, don’t tell him I called. Tell him I’ll see him today at the ball-bearing. Pall-bearing.” He hung up abruptly, elated.
Malenkov went through the motions of preparing for the ceremony: stepping into his girdle and putting on his black suit, applying concealer under his eyes according to the instructions of the makeup artists from the day before—yes, only the day before. His hair was beginning to curl again through his perm. The flat was empty: his sons were at school, and Valeria was acting as mistress of ceremonies for the memorial service at the Moscow Institute of Engineering, of which she was rector. Malenkov rode alone in the elevator to the ground floor, just as he had in his dream. In the car to the funeral he looked his speech over.
He felt so relieved to see Beria alive that he had to will himself not to embrace him. Instead he gave him a somber, funeral-appropriate smile. Malenkov was surprised by how well he’d remembered the interior of Lenin’s Tomb, considering the last time he’d seen it had been in 1948, and how well the decorations in his dream matched the decorations Khrushchev had chosen, down to minute details: the banners, the ferns and palmettoes. But it wasn’t until Khrushchev approached him calling his name that Malenkov began to worry.
“Georgy, Georgy, we have to act today,” Khrushchev said.
Instead of reprimanding him, Malenkov only stared. “What—what do you mean, ‘act,’ Nikita?”
Khrushchev actually looked a little taken aback. “Georgy, were you...not...just a little bit disturbed by what we heard from Beria yesterday? All his documentation?” He made air quotes.
Malenkov’s head swam. “I can’t go through this again,” he breathed.
Khrushchev squinted at him. “What was that, Georgy?”
“Places, comrades, please,” said Mezhnikov, interrupting them. Malenkov, though almost hyperventilating, was forced into place at the head of the casket. He tried to get a look at Beria behind him but the weight on his shoulder kept him from doing so. Through the earflaps of his ushanka he heard muffled voices on the far side of the casket. He couldn’t make out what they were saying but they had to be Khrushchev, Zhukov, and Molotov. The conspirators. “Oh, god,” he said to himself.
“What, are you going to pitch over?” Beria hissed, with his usual sharp humor. Tears welled in Malenkov’s eyes at his voice. They bore the casket down to the float that would carry it for the rest of the procession, and mounted the Tomb to make their speeches. Malenkov’s mind raced, searching for explanations and solutions, how this could be happening and what he might do to avert the outcome of the previous day, or the same day, or a prophetic dream, whatever it’d been. But he couldn’t turn up anything. He stumbled through his speech, stuttering, too upset even to be glad that he hadn’t followed Valeria’s counsel and omitted the “pause” gimmick, which gave him time to catch his breath. The others didn’t seem to take much notice of him, probably attributing his state to grief for Stalin. He followed the others through the Ministry hall like a sleepwalker, receiving Molotov and Mikoyan with dull grunts of recognition. Then, on cue, Khrushchev stopped him.
“Georgy, action is going to be taken at the meeting.”
“Nicky, something is very, very wrong.”
“Yes! See, we’re on the same page. Wrong is right, Beria’s ruining everything we wanted to accomplish in the old man’s stead.”
“No, that’s not, that’s not what I mean.” Malenkov supposed there was no use explaining to Khrushchev that he’d lived these events already—unless Khrushchev was experiencing the same thing? “Nicky, don’t you feel like we’ve been here before?”
“Yes, in ’38! Secret police chiefs, Georgy, they have expiration dates. They have to be taken out.”
“Georgy, I know you’re scared, but it’ll be easy. We’ve set everything up. All you’ll need to do is press a button under the table; Zhukov and I will take it from there.” Khrushchev grabbed his arm and led him into the office. At the table, Malenkov couldn’t manage to overcome some immaterial inertial threshold that would allow him to speak up and change things, materially. He found himself signing the death warrant that Khrushchev put to him, though this time silently. He couldn’t find it in him to enter the barn after the others, and as Beria was herded past him, Malenkov could choke out only three words: “Don’t leave me.”
The first time around, when Khrushchev and Kaganovich had approached him after burning Beria’s corpse, Malenkov had, scared shitless, reassured them that they’d done the right thing, that he was with them one hundred percent. This time he fled the scene before they could find him, and after he’d made his way back to his apartment sat on the edge of his bed for a long time, regretting. As he fell asleep, he thought he heard a sound like a tape rewinding, or a record playing backwards.
Malenkov woke to his alarm. When he turned on the radio he heard Tchaikovsky’s Sixth again. The music overwhelmed him; he walked back to his bed and lay in it, sobbing dryly. Consequently he was late to the funeral, arriving only just in time to shoulder the casket. Khrushchev didn’t get the chance to speak to him at all.
Involuntarily, Malenkov found himself doing almost everything the way he had, feeling carried along inevitably by a routine that had already established itself, playing a part he’d learned rote. But this time he managed to hold his peace regarding Beria’s ankle knife. So when Beria was led gagged through the hall, he managed to crouch while hiking up his unbelted trousers, unsheath it, and, wielding it two-fisted and behind his back, to clumsily stab a Red Army colonel in the stomach. As Beria broke from the group in the resulting fracas, he was shot dead by Zhukov, through the back of the neck. He slumped against the wall and left a smear of blood as he slid to the floor. Zhukov and Khrushchev drug the corpse outside, but they could hardly set to burning it before a contingent of visiting Chinese—emissaries from Mao come to pay their respects to Stalin—arrived, summoned by the noise. “Is this how you conduct yourselves here?” one asked through a translator.
In short, this eventuality was if anything worse than the previous. Khrushchev reported over the phone that evening that the stabbed colonel, Brezhnev, had died the same afternoon. And everything had been discovered instantly. There could be no pretense of due process, as the NKVD and the rest of the country knew that Beria had been summarily executed. Half the world did. Nothing was obscured. Things were precarious; more bloodshed seemed inevitable. Malenkov realized it fell to him not only to maintain peace between the ministers, but between the Red Army and secret police, and between the USSR and the world. In a day. It was like being made to carry the coffin alone. He slept, as he had since the first loop, dreamlessly.
Malenkov didn’t bother with the radio when he woke up. He went straight to the bathroom and leaned over the sink, looking at himself in the mirror. Okay, Georgy. What can you do? What’s the most important thing to do? To stop them killing Beria. Well, that’s it. Khrushchev was the ringleader. Malenkov would talk him out of it. Malenkov fixed his face and pinched his cheeks, for color. There was really nothing to be done about his hair. It had seemed the thing to do at the time, or rather it was the only thing he could think to do at the time. He’d wanted so badly for it to look good that he’d almost completely successfully convinced himself that it did—but he felt he could admit now that the stylist had done him wrong. His feelings about his hair, funnily, reflected his feelings about his coming term as General Secretary: he’d spent a great deal of time fantasizing about a future in which people commended him on both, but all the while he had known in the pit of his stomach that neither would quite come off. When he looked at himself in the mirror, when he saw the way his peers looked at him when they thought he wasn’t paying attention, the thought he had and tried to smother was: You’re fucked.
But he wasn’t, not concretely. He raised his chin, assuming a dignified pose, and gave his reflection a firm nod. The thing was: no matter how many times he turned it over in his mind, Malenkov couldn’t find a reason why, exactly, the Council had banded together against Beria. It all seemed to be a misunderstanding. Malenkov, no theorist, felt out of his depth, but his hope stemmed from this apparent lack of motive, too. If it was a misunderstanding, he could sort it out.
At the funeral he was again, frustratingly, buoyed along by familiarity through the day, which seemed to pass faster than ever. The gravity of the occasion and the routine of ceremony hadn’t yet released their grip on him. Malenkov had always been susceptible to the allure of pomp and circumstance. But he broke their spell to round on Khrushchev when Khrushchev approached him in Lenin’s Tomb.
“Don’t tell me: you want to kill him,” Malenkov said in a whisper.
Khrushchev was visibly surprised. “Woah, how—?” he stammered, before recovering, and tilting his head to one side shrewdly. “We want to prosecute him. For all the harm he’s caused and gotten away with. Wait, are we talking about the same person?”
“Beria,” Malenkov said, waving a hand impatiently. “Why now?”
Khrushchev struggled, looking around, suspicious. “He’s not…he’s not going to be…we have no oversight on him, Georgy. He’s untouchable, because we have no power over the Organs, especially now that good will between the Army and his fucking jodhpur’d sados is deteriorating.”
“So you seize power while things are unstable?”
“Places, comrades, please,” said Mezhnikov.
“Fuck! No!” Khrushchev cursed. “Look, I’ll explain later.”
“I want you to know now that I don’t endorse this.”
“Okay! Okay, Jesus,” Khrushchev said, scurrying to the other side of the casket, obviously having heard exactly the opposite of his desired response.
“Tell the others I don’t!” Malenkov said, but Khrushchev, out of sight, made no reply. Malenkov left his hat off in order to better hear the conversation transpiring on Khrushchev’s side, and was dully shocked to hear Mikoyan sign on, though his cooperation did seem distinctly conditional. Malenkov led Khrushchev away from the group and into an unoccupied room immediately after they left the platform. “Okay, Nikita, this isn’t happening.”
“It has to happen!” Khrushchev snapped.
“What happened to rule by committee?”
“There is no committee! It’s just Beria using you to push his reforms through without review because the committee feels compelled to move as one! He’s taken advantage of Stalin’s death; he’s exploiting this tragedy.”
“We’ve met once!” Their one official meeting since Stalin’s death seemed to him then to have occurred years prior.
“He’s taking advantage of you, Georgy.”
“You all are,” Malenkov retorted, thinking of their attempts to butter him up, and wincing internally as he remembered how successful they were, the first time. “I know you have a button in there under my end of the table.”
“I have—I have fucking eyes! I see what you’re all trying to get away with! But I’m not going to press that button, Nikita.”
“Yes, you are.”
Khrushchev squinted. “In that case.” Instead of completing the clause, he suddenly pushed past Malenkov into the office, closing and locking the door behind him. In the scuffle within, Khrushchev apparently managed to reach the button; still in the hallway, Malenkov heard the klaxons activated by it very clearly. He’d guess that they were from the washroom around the corner, and from this direction came some fifteen Red Army officers, with guns drawn.
“’Ey up, Georgy,” said Zhukov, sidling up to him nonchalantly. “Wot’re you doing out here?” He waved his men on ahead. One of them, Brezhnev, rattled the doorknob to the office.
“I didn’t press that button,” Malenkov told him. “It’s Khrushchev, he’s trying to—oh, my god,” he breathed, as Brezhnev kicked down the door.
“Khrushchev’s taken your job, is it? Well, ’at’s a shame. That right, Nicky?” he called into the office. “You’ve made our Georgy redundant?”
“I’m afraid desperate times call for desperate measures, Marshal,” said Khrushchev, stepping over the cracked door lying in the threshold. He was followed by the other ministers and, behind them, Brezhnev with Beria in tow. “Comrade Malenkov wasn’t cooperating. In fact I recommend he be taken into custody as well, for the time being, until we know where his allegiances lie.”
“Sounds reas’nable,” said Zhukov. Malenkov shivered; he’d really come to fear Zhukov. “Right, hands behind your back and back to me, Georgy. I’ll make this easy for you, since this is only your first strike.”
“This is—you two aren’t even pretending to have any regard for the rule of law,” Malenkov said, in despair.
“Wot’s the use of laws that protect animate feces, eh? Strike two, lass. You’re a damn bit smarter than I thought y’were, but you’re still a fuckin’ idiot if you think Beria hasn’t had this coming.”
“Nobody deserves this.”
“A humanitarian, you are.” Zhukov clapped him on the back. "Look, Georgy, cheer up. You're Gen’ral Sec, and now you don't have fuckface to boss you ’bout anymore. You're the luckiest gehl in the USSR."
“Why are you acting like you’re rescuing me?”
“Maybe ’coz you allus act like you need rescuing.” Zhukov smacked his haunch. “Get a move on.” Malenkov was shepherded along behind the rest of the pack. In the washroom, Khrushchev handed Zhukov the kill order, and the two of them conferred in voices too low to make out. With a “c’mere,” Zhukov summoned Malenkov to his side of the room. Malenkov expected his restraints to be removed so he could sign, but instead Zhukov motioned for him to turn around and bend over. He did so, and felt the indentation of a pen on his back: Zhukov was using him as a writing surface on which to forge his signature. From there, everything went routinely, except that Malenkov was hauled into the barn in handcuffs and confined to a cell in a Red Army barracks afterward, while the rest of them decided what to do with him. Of course, their solution couldn’t be implemented, because after midnight passed he was asleep in his own bed until 7:00 AM.
Malenkov couldn’t will himself out of bed after waking. His phone rang several times, before and after the ceremony, but he didn’t answer. Nobody stopped by; he figured the coup was proceeding as planned, so they had their hands full. The radio gave no indication of turmoil, only classical music, from morning late into the night. To La Pathétique, and later to Shostakovich, he thought about how he’d achieved everything he’d ever wanted, and how within a day it had ceased to matter. He didn’t give much thought to why it might be happening, the reliving. He knew he was the only one experiencing it, and that it wouldn’t do any good at all to tell the others. They’d only think he’d cracked under pressure. Somehow he knew that if he got things right, it would all work out. Life would continue. So it was important that he followed through with the ceremony, kept up appearances, so the Soviet people wouldn’t suspect anything was amiss. He wouldn’t warn Beria; he had faith that he could bring the Council together again without Beria having to know about the plot. And besides, warning him on the day of would probably prolong his life only by a few hours. There was no time to disarm the alarms in the bathrooms—Zhukov’s men probably filed in during the speeches, so even if Malenkov entered right after the speeches were done, they would just arrest or shoot him. They’d know something was wrong if the cables to the alarms were cut, and storm into the office even sooner. The way was to undermine, Malenkov decided: he’d get Khrushchev’s cronies against him the way Khrushchev had apparently united them all against Beria, one by one. Of course, Malenkov only had a day.
To conserve as much time as possible, Malenkov forewent makeup and girdle, and borrowed Khrushchev’s method of wearing one’s pajama top as a shirt. He decided to first try Bulganin, who was according to Khrushchev the first man on board with the scheme, and who theoretically controlled the Red Army. Malenkov caught him in the Tomb: “Comrade Bulganin, I know what’s happening.”
“Er, so do I? We’re walking the old man down to the parade?”
“Procession. It’s a procession. But, no, never mind, I mean I know what you and Khrushchev are plotting, and as General Secretary I forbid it,” Malenkov said sternly.
“Well, ’s not a matter of permission, really.”
“What do you mean? You’re Minister for Defense, can’t you call off the army?”
Bulganin snorted imperiously. “Call off? The Red Army?”
“That’s what I’m asking, yes.”
“One can’t,” Bulganin said vaguely.
“I can’t,” Bulganin admitted, looking at his boots. “Zhukov doesn’t listen to me.”
“But if you could, you would?”
“Ah, no, sorry. Beria’s a complete wanker. And it’s, the others are all on board, it wouldn’t be right for me to drop out now.” Bulganin shrugged and wheeled around, taking his place at the rear of the casket.
Well, that was a bust. Who next? Kaganovich was Khrushchev’s second-in-command. Malenkov caught him immediately after the speeches, outside the Ministry building. Malenkov had long held the impression that Kaganovich strongly disliked him. He vaguely remembered a time before the war when Kaganovich was very vocal in his ideology, like Molotov, and had frequently ripped into the more junior Politburo members, himself included, for perceived laxness. Sometime during the war or afterward Kaganovich had stopped speaking up, and now spoke the least frequently of the ministers. This served only to make Malenkov even more frightened of him.
“Lazar,” he said, speedwalking to match Kaganovich’s pace and fall into step beside him. “I know this is sudden, but you deserve to know: Khrushchev is trying to seize power.” Malenkov raised his eyebrows for emphasis, maintaining eye contact with Kaganovich with only minor difficulty.
“You’d rather Beria?” said Kaganovich, completely unphased.
“You’d rather Beria seize power?”
“What are you talking about, Lazar? Beria wouldn’t undermine me.”
Kaganovich sighed deeply. “What does it matter, Georgy?”
“What do you mean? It matters everything! I mean, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me! I mean us. It’s the worst thing that could happen to the Union!”
Kaganovich fixed Malenkov in his gaze, from under his heavy, houndlike eyelids. “Frankly, Georgy, no one of you is any more or less appealing to me than the others. Except Beria, who is a cunt.”
Malenkov fell silent, knowing nothing he could say would sway Kaganovich, that the conversation was over, and that he’d failed again to alter his circumstances—there were only a few minutes before the meeting during which the coup would begin.
“Do you miss him?” Malenkov asked quietly, as they approached the double doors of the Ministry hall.
“Stalin?” Kaganovich asked. Malenkov nodded. “You don’t know the first thing about Stalin,” Kaganovich said bitterly. He entered, and then turned back to Malenkov. “Every day.”
They rejoined the group, and Malenkov stared at his shoes as he walked, assuming all was lost. But then he was accosted by a familiar voice: “I salute you, Top Boy, and I salute your haircut. Goodnight, ViennaAUGH!” Mikoyan grunted as Malenkov grabbed him by the elbow and pulled him into a narrow hallway.
“What’s that mean, Anastas, ‘goodnight, Vienna?’” Malenkov asked, his voice cracking.
Mikoyan slapped Malenkov’s hand from his sleeve and pulled it straight, frowning before looking up at Malenkov. “That’s gonna wrinkle. What’s crawled up your arse, Georgy? Means it’s a done deal, yeah?” Mikoyan curled his fingers around his eyes to form glasses, then ran a hand across his neck.
“No, it’s not a, a done deal!” Malenkov almost shouted. “Khrushchev lied to you—I didn’t agree to kill Beria!”
“Mm, ‘kill Beria.’ I love the sound of those two words together. Well, ’s moot, innit? Too late now.”
“Well, you came to the wrong bloke. I’m not about to run in there an’ tell Nicky to stop the presses. Molotov’s the unanimity freak. Me, I’ve gotten accustomed to the idea of life without the bugger.”
“What, in the last half hour?”
“I’m a quick study. Swings an’ roundabouts, Georgy, I do loves it. Never a dull moment.”
Mikoyan shrugged. “Why not?”
“You’re talking about the murder of a—” Well, innocent wasn’t the word. “A person! A human being!”
“Barely. What’s got you so het up about the sanctity of life now, ’f all times? Anyway, Beria’s on the downs, and Nicky’s on the ups. I can smell it in the air. No stopping it—only to pick the right side of history. Christ, don’t get weepy, you’ll get my vest all salted. Could never figure the two of you. If all’s you need’s someone to order you ’round, Georgy, I’ll have a go.”
“Are you coming on to me?”
“You tell me. Now get in there an’ press that button, stupid.” He mimed cracking a whip.
“I’m not pressing it. I’ll tell everyone that I’m not party to this.”
“They’ll think you’ve changed your mind, or lost the nerve in the moment. You’re not known for your iron will.” This was true. As he shuffled into the office, Malenkov considered why he did care so much about the sanctity of life, all of a sudden. Well, he’d seen something horrifying and he didn’t want it to happen again. In the past he’d been insulated from violence, or thought he couldn’t possibly afford to prevent it. But now preventing a loss of life seemed the only thing worth doing. Not this time, though—it was too late. Malenkov told Zhukov about the ankle knife, because this seemed preferable to the alternative, kinder to Beria, but all the same it stung when Beria called him a disgrace: he was right.
Molotov was the only minister he hadn’t yet tried. Malenkov rushed through his morning routine and had his driver take him straight to Molotov’s apartment building. He arrived at 7:30. Another twelve minutes were added by the stairs, because the building’s elevator was out of order, and then for a minute and a half Malenkov stood doubled over before the threshold of Molotov’s apartment, panting, wiping sweat from his brow, and working up the nerve to submit again to the process of appealing for Beria’s life.
Malenkov’s knock at the door set Molotov’s dog to barking. “Who is it?” Molotov shouted over the noise.
“Malenkov. I mean, it’s me, Vyacheslav. I mean it’s the General Secretary, for god’s sake.”
“Door’s unlocked! Come in!” Molotov called. Malenkov entered, narrowly avoiding tripping over the dog, to find Molotov at the samovar in the corner of the dining room, his back to the door. “Georgy, my boy! You’re up and about early! Make yourself at home, don’t mind me. Tea?”
“Okay? Actually, uh, I don’t really have time to chat. I just wanted to—what if I told you that there was a plot in motion against Comrade Beria’s life?”
Molotov sat with his tea, still smiling. “I would say that in my experience ‘plot’ is rather a pejorative!”
Malenkov stared at him, horrified. “You’re—don’t tell me you’re…?”
“A constantly vigilant enforcer of Stalin’s will? Guilty!” Molotov said, raising his hands level with his head. “Care to join us?”
“What? Of course not! Why?”
Molotov brought his fist down on the table, causing his cup to clatter in its saucer. “Beria hated Stalin, Georgy.”
“No, he—you and Polina are only alive because of Beria.”
Molotov blew steam off his tea. “That has nothing to do with the fact that he always hated Stalin. With personal animus!”
“But he’s dead, Vyacheslav.”
“Yes! Soon!” He sipped daintily.
“No, I mean Stalin is.”
Molotov looked up at Malenkov, wearing an expression of infinite generosity and good-humored indulgence. “He’s alive in all of us,” he said solemnly. “And he’s telling me to machine-gun the traitorous bastard! Oh, poor Georgy. Lighten up! If you put your eyebrows any closer together they’ll fuse, and that’s no way for the General Secretary to look.”
“I am General Secretary, Vyacheslav?” Inadvertently, he’d phrased it as a question.
“So you should understand the necessity of continuously purging malfeasant elements from our ranks. Continuously!”
“Why are you so convinced that Beria can’t, uh, serve Stalin’s memory?”
“I keep telling you! He insinuated himself—he made himself indispensable—but always, all along, he resented, or at least he grew to. I could always see it. He doesn’t have a cause. He doesn’t know what loyalty is. He doesn’t love Stalin like we do. You do love Stalin, Georgy?”
“Y-yes. Of course.”
“Beria doesn’t know what love is,” Molotov said matter-of-factly. “And I’m not going to let him get what he’s wanted. We aren’t.”
“I am. I mean, I’m sorry. I’m not going along with this,” Malenkov said, slowly, hoping that these were the magic words that would call off the coup. If what Mikoyan had told him was correct, as soon as Molotov learned that the anti-Beria sentiment wasn’t unanimous, he would recant.
Molotov took another sip of his tea, and looked at Malenkov for a long time before speaking. “Hm. I tried to put my doubts aside when we voted to nominate you to his post. I tried to be fair, because no-one could live up to Stalin. I ignored the warning signs. But really I knew, with your talk of liberalism.”
“Why, that you were a wrecker, Georgy,” said Molotov. “Polina, dear, lock the door. And stand in front of it. Attagirl.”
And so Malenkov came to be tied to a chair on Molotov’s balcony, while in the apartment Molotov got on the phone with Khrushchev. At length Molotov slid the glass door open. Malenkov, who had been staring through the railing at the cars and people on the street below, looked up at him.
“Nikita is on his way. He says Zhukov wants the Committee together; I told him that to my mind, capitalist running-dogs like you, Georgy, are not Committee members, and he agreed with me. So I said ‘Nicky, it is unanimous, then! Zhukov has his wish!’ And we decided that you might as well stay here today.”
“What, in your apartment?”
“Yes! Polina will keep you fed and watered. She’ll be here, poor thing, she’s not quite ready to face a world without Stalin yet, and I don’t blame her!”
“That’s not—you’re keeping me here while you carry out the coup?”
“It’s hardly a coup if its object is an interloping spy!”
“He’s not a spy! Well, he’s sort of a spy, but for us. Vyacheslav. You don’t...you don’t have to do this.”
Molotov smiled—sadly, or so it seemed to Malenkov. “Georgy. I’ve been carrying out the will of the Party for thirty years. How could I stop now?” He slid the door closed and disappeared inside. Malenkov shivered, coatless, in the cold. His shoulders ached from the unnatural position of his arms. He fell half-asleep, until he was roused by the sound of the door opening again. Polina tiptoed into view.
“Oh, you’re awake,” she remarked.
“Yeah. Um, Polina, is there any way I could get a blanket or something, if you’re going to keep me out here?”
“Will you die?”
This was a woman who’d spent the last four years in a Kazakh work camp, Malenkov remembered. “Maybe?”
Polina grunted, took the back of his chair in hand, and dragged it, and him with it, back over the threshold, onto the tile of the kitchen. “Slava told me about you,” she said, wagging a finger.
“I’m sure he did,” Malenkov sighed. Molotov’s dog began humping his leg. Polina didn’t say another word to him, and Molotov didn’t arrive back before midnight. In this state of captivity, Malenkov at least had time to think, to plan how he’d do it over.
The next morning, or the same morning, Malenkov got straight out of bed and marched to the dresser, opposite, with a purpose. He dressed, making sure to put his watch on, and then dug in the chest at the foot of his bed, under a pile of Kazakh rugs he’d received as gifts, for the slim Beretta that Valeria had given him upon his appointment to the Politburo. She had a funny sense of humor, Valeria. The gun would come in handy, he thought, now. He loaded it and, feeling bold, strapped it in its holster around his thigh, where it would be hidden by his coat during the ceremony.
He’d come to the conclusion that it was no use arguing with Khrushchev before the pall-bearing—he had only to stop the transaction on Khrushchev’s side of the casket from taking place. So in Lenin’s Tomb Malenkov shushed Khrushchev before he could say a thing, and issued a threat: “If you talk during the ceremony, Beria and I will drop our side of the coffin.”
“What’s with you? When did I say I was going to talk?”
“Fine! Christ!” Khrushchev said.
“I promise!” Khrushchev said, rolling his eyes. But he was true to his word—maybe he’d been spooked by a hardness he’d seen in Malenkov’s expression. When he pulled Malenkov aside in the Ministry hall, he started off with: “Georgy, listen, I don’t know how much you know—”
“All of it, I know everything. You want to kill Beria.”
“Who told you? Mikoyan? I knew I—”
“It doesn’t matter. I need you to tell me why.”
“Because he’ll kill us all. You heard what he said yesterday after the train incident.”
“He was just upset, in the moment! For Christ’s sake, you two want the same reforms. As long as you cooperate, he’s perfectly willing to work with you!”
“He doesn’t give a rat’s ass about reforms, he just wants to build his own personality cult! By stealing my ideas!”
“Why do you think you can change but he can’t?”
“What makes you think you’re capable of judging character?” Khrushchev spat, with real disdain.
Malenkov recoiled a pace, but regained his footing. “He's a necessary evil,” he argued, and watched Khrushchev struggle to rebut him. It threw him, because how could he begin to argue that they couldn’t afford to preserve people who’d done wrong? The two of them stared at each other in silence, both breathing heavily.
“Well, come on in, then,” said Mikoyan, popping his head out from the door to Malenkov’s office. “We can’t be long, I’ve a luncheon to make this afternoon.”
Malenkov broke Khrushchev’s gaze and walked into the office ahead of him. “I call this meeting to order,” Malenkov said, taking his place at the head of the table. He remembered to keep his coat on, minding the Beretta concealed under it.
“Ah, permission to proceed?” Beria asked, standing.
“Granted,” said Malenkov, glaring at Khrushchev.
“Thank you. Item one: the unfortunate events of yesterday evening. It’s clear that the regrettable deaths of so many citizens…”
Khrushchev started in: “Comrades, comrades, I’d like to propose a new agenda—”
“Shut up,” Malenkov ordered, in what he thought of as his commanding voice.
Beria looked at him, raising his eyebrows. “Thank you, again, Comrade Malenkov. As I was saying.” As he spoke, Malenkov brought his left hand under the table and cupped the button in his hand, defensively. Khrushchev eyed him, and he eyed Khrushchev back. The other ministers shot covert looks at one another, obviously having expected an opportunity to filibuster Beria. Without Khrushchev, none of them took the lead.
Beria caught on. “...clearer definitions of the role of each Ministry, and the elimination of overlap—I’m sorry, is there something I’m missing?”
“Yes, in fact,” said Khrushchev. “The Ministry unanimously finds the threats made against its members yesterday by Comrade Beria worthy of intense scrutiny.”
“That’s bullshit,” Malenkov said. “It’s not unanimous. This, this is a power grab.”
“Shut up, Georgy! This is what’s best for all of us!”
“Well, obviously not for—Lavrenti, they want to kill you.” Malenkov saw Beria’s eyes widen. “Run,” he told him. Beria backed toward the door, but the Red Army soldiers on either side of it drew their pistols on him. Malenkov had neglected to account for them. While he was distracted, Khrushchev dove for the button. Malenkov succeeded in fighting him off but accidentally depressed it with his own knee. “Fuck. Fuck me!” he swore. Remembering that the NKVD men outside wouldn’t be able to hear Beria’s cries for help, Malenkov ran to the window and tried wrenching it open, but before he could he heard Zhukov’s voice behind him:
“Bite your tongue, Georgy, you’re in the line of fire.” Malenkov put his hands up and turned around, slowly. “Didn’t know you had it in you. Up against the wall, now, be a dear.” Obediently, knowing he was beaten, Malenkov slunk over to stand beside Beria. While Brezhnev removed Beria’s belt, Zhukov approached Malenkov, pressed him against the wall, and felt under his suit jacket to unclip his suspenders. Malenkov felt Zhukov’s hot breath on his neck. “What’s this?” Zhukov exclaimed, encountering Malenkov’s pistol. He drew it from its holster and spun it in one hand, smiling. Then he brought the barrel to Malenkov’s chin and lifted his face with it. “Wot’d you plan on shooting with this dainty little gun? Certainly not me.”
But while Brezhnev was laughing at this, Beria suddenly ducked, going for his ankle knife. But it caught in its sheath, and while he was down Brezhnev, having taken notice, brought his gunbutt down on the back of Beria’s head. Beria slumped to the floor.
“Well, that’s a thing,” Zhukov said, and bent to check Beria’s pulse. “Alive, sadly, jes’ unconscious. Right, Leo, you take the head.”
“Why?” Brezhnev growled.
“You bashed it in, ye pillock. Boris’ll bring up the rear.” Thusly they carried Beria into the washroom to await the army takeover. Here Malenkov was cuffed and gagged alongside Beria. In the barn they were sat in chairs, back to back.
“Always thought somehow I’d see the two a’them go together,” Mikoyan said casually. “Anyway. Cor, I only know one person who can cock a plan full-up just by going limp an’ floppy. What now?”
“Should we get a doctor?” Bulganin asked, before reading the room. “Uh, never mind.”
“I won’t allow a trial for an unconscious defendant!” Molotov declared. “He needs to hear his charges, Nicky!”
“He will, Slava. We’ll wait until he comes to.”
“What about the NKVD?” asked Kaganovich from the back of the barn, where he stood with his arms crossed.
“Well, who are they taking orders from? We shot Kobulov and Aslanov, and we’ve got the king rat here. As long as we keep quiet, I think we’re far enough out of the way that nobody’ll—” Before he could finish his sentence, Svetlana and Vasily burst in through the unlatched barn door.
“You’ve killed him too! You’re picking them off one by one!” Vasily screamed, seeing Beria.
“Fuckin’ ’ell,” said Zhukov. “These two again.”
“He’s not dead, Vasily, he’s just...fainted,” Khrushchev said.
“Oh yes? Fainted? And why are he and Malenkov tied to bloody chairs in a barn?” Svetlana was seething. As she asked this, she grabbed for Khrushchev’s lapels.
“Get off me,” Khrushchev ordered hoarsely, pushing her away. “You have no idea what you’re looking at, Svetlana, this is grown-up business.”
“I’m not a fucking child!”
“Of course you are! Get them out of here,” he told the soldiers.
“Tarra, ducky,” said Zhukov as he forced Svetlana back out the door, at gunpoint.
“Okay, I stand corrected. Change of scenery,” said Khrushchev, chopping one hand into the other. “C’mon, somebody get a car and bring it around.”
So Malenkov and Beria were lifted into the back of a truck, after all, and driven to another warehouse. When they were unloaded into it, Malenkov saw that night had fallen. Hours passed; Red Army soldiers took shifts guarding the two dissidents. Beria remained unconscious, but Malenkov suspected he might be faking it. To test this, he found Beria’s clammy hand with his own, blindly, and gave it a squeeze. After a moment’s hesitation Beria returned it. Malenkov’s watch ticked down to midnight.
Malenkov woke up understanding that the coup wasn’t something he could prevent by negotiating. It had been put in motion, the wheels of it had been set to turning, days prior. He needed to bring it to Beria. He dressed without ceremony, barely looking in the mirror, and arrived at Beria’s Moscow townhouse at 7:45. He allowed himself to be patted down by one of the armed guards at the door. This is ridiculous, he thought, I’m General Secretary. “I don’t have all day,” he told one guard, seeing his own breath in clouds. The walls within were all white-washed—everything in the house was white and gold, golder for the honeyed mid-morning sunlight streaming through the windows. Malenkov smelt tea when a maid took his coat in the mudroom. He heard Vasily’s voice, and Svetlana’s: a sibling argument. It was all so homey and normal. The way he’d spent the last however-many hours suddenly felt like a dream.
He found Beria in the hall outside the guest room, with Svetlana, who was holding a flask, for some reason. She and Beria turned from each other to him in unison.
“Lavrenti,” Malenkov said. “I have something really important to tell you.”
Beria frowned at him. “Well, let’s have it.” Malenkov got the sense that he was interrupting a conversation.
“It might be, um, upsetting. It’s sensitive.”
Beria understood. “Svetlana, darling, could you help Comrade Tarasov get Vasily into his jacket?”
She narrowed her eyes, looking from one of them to the other, but nodded and went into the next room.
“Right, Georgy—are you alright? Have you slept?”
“I’m okay, yeah.”
Beria raised an eyebrow. “Well, go on, then.”
“Okay. Don’t ask me how I know this, but. They’re plotting against you.”
“A-huh. Who, exactly?”
“Khrushchev, Zhukov, uh, Bulganin, Kaganovich, and Molotov. Maybe Mikoyan. Okay, yes, Mikoyan too,” Malenkov decided.
“I half suspected. And what is it they’re plotting?”
“To kill you, I think,” Malenkov said quietly, and swallowed. “I mean, definitely, that’s what they’re going for. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you earlier. I only just, uh, overheard. I really thought we were all on the same page. Like, I thought it was over, all the purging.” He felt himself close to tears suddenly, thinking of how stupid he’d been and how long ago it felt. “I really thought we were a team.”
“Steady. Do you know how they plan on accomplishing this?”
“Um, okay, let’s see. During the pall-bearing they put a—they’re going to put a button at my end of the conference table in my office, so it looks like I pushed it, but Khrushchev pushed it. Will push it. And it’s wired to, I don’t know, an alarm somewhere? The Red Army is on the other end, basically, and when Khrushchev pushes it they all come rushing in, and your guys are out getting sandwiches, so nobody can help us.”
Beria looks at him funny.
“Well, that’s what I assume’s supposed to happen. I think maybe you should consider, um, fleeing the country.”
“Fleeing the country? With all due politesse, Georgy, fuck that. I built the atom bomb,” Beria sneered. “I think I can manage an arse with ears and a column of scar tissue in a stuffed jacket.”
“How? Poor little me, with only the whole of the union’s interior militia at my command? Oh, I think I’ll figure something out.”
Malenkov pulled Beria into a hug. Beria made a nearly inaudible sound of surprise, then reluctantly patted Malenkov’s back. “Alright, Georgy, it’s eight in the morning.”
“Right. It’s just, I’ve needed that.” Malenkov drew away and smiled at Beria. He never thought about how short Beria was. Malenkov found that he felt a sympathy verging on pity for his friend, the secret policeman: for once, Malenkov knew much more than Beria did. And in the last week—the last single day, lived seven times—he’d acquired an impression that he liked Beria more than anyone else on the Earth. It’d been reaffirmed for him that he and Beria were bound together against the rest of the world. Malenkov was done crying. He felt a clarity and lightness for the knowledge he’d gained. “You really weren’t kidding about my being tested.”
“You’ve passed,” Beria said simply. “Have you had breakfast yet?”
“No, have you?”
“No, and neither have the children. I mean—you know. Svetlana?” He opened the door to the parlor, where she was leaning against the arm of a chaise. “Svetlana, would you show Comrade Malenkov to the dining room and have the cookstaff prepare an extra plate?”
Svetlana released her skirt, which she’d held bunched between her two fists, and smoothed the fabric over her knees. “Yes. Er, wasn’t there something you wanted to tell me?”
“It’s nothing,” said Beria. “I’ll join you in a moment, I’ve some phone calls to make.”
“You’re sure you can take care of it?” asked Malenkov. “I don’t have any evidence.”
“I’ll provide that. I’ll handle absolutely everything, Georgy, don’t worry. You’ve done your part.”
“Thank you,” Malenkov said again, his legs going weak under him with relief. “Thank you, Svetlana.” He felt a bizarre sense of familial comfort when he was sat down at the table beside Svetlana, who stood holding the back of her chair, and opposite the ropy, pockmarked NKVD officer whose job it apparently was to chaperone Vasily—Vasily who entered a moment later and seated himself at the head of the table.
“Oh, hello?” Vasily said, looking at Malenkov, then to Tarasov for an explanation. “Is something going on?”
“Yes, Comrade Malenkov, what is going on?” Svetlana asked, beginning to pace around the room. Malenkov didn’t know why she wasn’t sitting; he didn’t know how to handle Svetlana like Beria, to whom it seemed to come naturally.
“Um, I’m not at liberty to. Um. These are very uncertain times. You two have my full sympathy.”
“Yes, that is what I wanted to hear when I asked that question, thank you.”
“I don’t know, Svetlana. I really don’t. Ask Lavrenti. Hey, where’s Nina? And Sergo?”
“Sergo’s apparently been out of the country on consulate business and Nina’s with—family, I suppose? In Georgia, she’s there for the week. It’s just us and Lavra here. Thank you,” Svetlana said as a bowl of porridge was placed at her seat. “I’ll get to that eventually.”
“Mild change of plans,” Beria announced when he entered. He looked briefly askance at Vasily, who was sitting in what was assumedly Beria’s usual place, his face low to the table as he shoveled eggs into his mouth—then continued. “After the speeches, Tarasov, I want you to show Vasily and Svetlana to my Kremlin office. Comrade Malenkov and I will be attending a meeting in the next wing of the Ministry building. Afterward we’ll meet you where you are. Have a car ready.”
“Why? Are we going out to dinner?” Vasily asked eagerly.
“Er, yes, exactly. How perceptive, Vasily. I suppose you two still like Aragvi?”
After they arrived together at the Kremlin, the day progressed as it had originally, except that Malenkov kept sneaking looks over at Beria during Molotov’s and Vasily’s speeches. As they filed off the Tomb and into the Council hall, Malenkov kept an eye on Beria from behind him, afraid to look away even for a moment, even when Molotov and Mikoyan made their passes at him. He brushed off Khrushchev when Khrushchev tried to catch him outside the door, unable to go through the motions of offering to demote Beria. He remained silent, as Beria had advised him to, while Khrushchev derailed the meeting and all the others began chanting and pounding the table. Malenkov’s heart raced as he let the scene play out the way it had in the first place, with Beria offering convincing resistance. Malenkov felt momentarily that there had been no repetition, as he allowed Khrushchev to lean over the table and press the button over and over again. But the men who kicked open and flooded through the double doors weren’t Red Army officers but NKVDniks.
“What the fuck?” Khrushchev sputtered.
“Shitting Christ,” said Mikoyan.
“Hands up, kindly, gentlemen,” said Kobulov, as he and the other officers trained guns on each of the conspirators. Malenkov beamed at Beria: they’d pulled it off.
“Is this not the opposite of what was supposed to happen?” asked Bulganin.
“What’s the meaning of this, Lavrenti?” asked Molotov.
“Oh, I should think you were familiar with this procedure, Comrade Molotov,” Beria replied. He was standing, with his hands in his pockets, looking extravagantly at ease. “I was informed of your plans, I placed cameras in this room, so I saw your clever little electricians at work: more than enough evidence for an arrest, and I’ll have the rest of it from each of you, individually. You should’ve left the intrigue to us spies. After the cameras, it was a simple matter of intercepting and dispatching your army men.”
Malenkov noticed that Khrushchev was staring right at him, with an expression of white-hot rage mixed with confusion. “How?” he asked, as he was cuffed.
“You cow hole bitch,” said Mikoyan.
Malenkov looked down at his name placard on the table. He found himself going stiff all over, like he had the first time this had played out, with Beria. He avoided eye contact with the other ministers as they were marched out of the room single-file. “Come with me, Georgy,” said Beria, following the prisoners at a distance. In the hallway were dozens of unconscious army officers lying facedown on the floor in handcuffs. Malenkov spotted Zhukov among them: the marshal’s nose was broken, and he was wrapped like a mummy in rope from top to bottom, in a testament to his reputation for escaping these sorts of situations. Beria clapped. “Excellent work, friends. Promotions and whores all around, once we’re out of the woods.”
As he and Beria were escorted up the stairs to Beria’s office, where Vasily and Svetlana were waiting, Malenkov got the full story: on Beria’s orders the building had been stuffed to the gills with chekists, all hiding so the soldiers wouldn’t know the game was up. Brezhnev’s men on the roof they’d locked on the roof; the men in the bathroom they’d locked in the bathroom before threading a gas generator’s exhaust tube under the door. When Zhukov stopped by the cloakroom where he’d stashed a spare greatcoat lined with submachine guns, Aslanov had stepped out from behind a hat tree and chloroformed him.
“But they will have trials?” Malenkov asked, stopping at the top of the stairs.
“Oh, they’ll have trials,” Beria promised. “I’ve enough material on each of them for ten trials apiece.”
“Georgy, Georgy,” Beria tutted. “You’re too generous. They conspired to assassinate the Vice-chairman of the Council. Don’t you think they should be held to the same standard of justice they applied to all the supposed Trotsko-Fascist spies they had offed? They’re not reformers like us, Georgy, they’re of the old breed. They’ve seen more of this than either of us have. This is how they deal with a problem; it’s only fair that they receive the same treatment. And besides, they wouldn’t go quietly. Zhukov, for one, is plenty popular. I’m afraid the choice we have is between their revenge or their death.”
This sounded familiar. Anyway, he had a point, Malenkov thought. He had several, deployed in so rapid a succession that Malenkov couldn’t begin to argue. He’d been arguing for days; he didn’t have it left in him. Even if the others were punished for their treachery corporally, capitally—well, he wouldn’t have to see it, would he? “We’ll talk this out later, okay,” he told Beria.
“Smart man.” They reached a cluster of chekists in the second-floor corridor, and in its nucleus found Vasily and Svetlana.
“Comrade Beria,” said Svetlana, stiffly. “We heard shouting downstairs. Tell me what’s happening.”
“All in due time, my dear,” said Beria, taking her by the elbow. “First, to the car. You were right all along, Vasily. There was a cabal of conspirators.” He motioned to the phalanx of NKVD men around them to begin moving to the stairwell.
Svetlana inhaled sharply. “I deserve to know these things, Lavrenti.”
“All of our lives are at stake, right now, Svetlana,” Beria said. “Civil war is going to break out starting in this building as soon as the army high command gets word and sends reinforcements.”
“We’re not going to a restaurant,” Svetlana realized, as they descended.
“I’m sorry, Lana,” said Beria, not sounding it particularly.
She pinched the bridge of her nose. “Is this ever going to end?”
“It’s over now. You’re safe. We’re all going to a safe place for a few days. Come on.” Once on the pavement they sprinted to the car, which was running, Tarasov at the wheel. They piled in, Beria with the Stalin siblings in the back seat and Malenkov in the passenger seat. “Drive, if you don’t want a new career as a human shield,” Beria advised Tarasov.
“Don’t threaten my retainer!” Vasily squawked.
“You can accomplish more with kindness than with, uh, intimidation,” Malenkov offered.
Beria sighed, and put his head in his hands. “My apologies. Habit. We are all friends here.”
Svetlana clasped her hands together between her knees, straining for positivity. “So, where are we going?”
“I’ve told Comrade Tarasov, obviously, but unfortunately I don’t know whether any of you are carrying uninvited guests.”
“Bugs?” Malenkov guessed.
“Yes, bugs. Sharp. I’ll make a complete search later. One stop, and then rather a longer leg. Ah, here we are. I need all of you.” Tarasov pulled up alongside the Radio Moscow building, and Beria put on his hat and sprang out, pulling Svetlana by her wrist.
“You’re hurting me,” she snapped. “What are we doing here?”
“You’re going to make a very special announcement to the Soviet people,” he said, producing a piece of paper from within his coat. “There’s your explanation.” He handed another page to Malenkov. “That’s your part, Georgy, in our little radioplay.” Malenkov struggled to read while walking. A few words floated up off the page to him: attempted coup, suppressed.
The interior of the radio station was already crawling with NKVD men, but the day’s programme was proceeding: the two men in the sound booth were airing prerecorded music. One of them looked up, saw Beria approaching and elbowed the other, who removed his headset and stood at attention, quivering.
“An emergency broadcast needs making, gentlemen. I don’t suppose any introductions are necessary?” Beria said, entering. Malenkov stood behind him, trying to look stately.
“It’s an honor, sir,” the older one said. “Andrei Andreevich Andreyev, sir, sound engineer, Bauman Moscow State Technical—”
Beria stopped him. “I don’t care. We need to air a message.”
“You’re in luck, sir, it just so happens that we’re approaching the end of this movement, in ten—”
“We’ll record it now and you’ll play it in an hour, actually. Or—” Beria’s eyes darted to Svetlana and he stayed the threat he was about to make. “You know the drill.”
“Wonderful! Right, Sergei, chop chop!” He made a shooing motion at the other man. “Put a lacquer on for, for Comrade Beria, and the General Secretariat, er, Secretary, and, oh my goodness. Oh god,” he said, noticing Svetlana—who was near tears, looking down at her paper.
“Yes, she’ll be addressing the people first. Make an introduction about the daughter of the nation, et cetera.” Beria waved his gloved hand. Sergei turned off the playback for the music in the booth, and they gathered around the record-lathe in the corner. When the engraving needle was dropped, and once Andreyev had delivered a halting, improvised preamble, Svetlana read from the sheet she held:
“This is Svetlana Iosifevna Stalina. I am speaking to you now to inform you of an anti-Party movement attempted by N.S. Khrushchev, G.K. Zhukov, L.M. Kaganovich, V.M. Molotov, A.I. Mikoyan, and N.A. Bulganin. These men tried to assassinate my, my...” She drew in a breath, frowned deeply, and continued, when Beria placed a hand on her shoulder: “My father’s closest and most trusted associates, Premier G.M. Malenkov and Vice-Premier L.P. Beria. It is disgraceful that these disloyal opportunists have taken advantage of my father’s passing to make a grab for power. Please remain vigilant for craven opportunist insubordination of this nature.”
Beria nudged Malenkov. He read from his paper: “This is Georgy Maximilianovich Malenkov, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the. Uh, you know, your General Secretary. Myself and Vice-Premier Beria are alive, and the attempted coup has been successfully suppressed. We are currently engaged in investigating the root of this insurrection. Thank you for your attention.” He looked back at Beria for reassurance, and received a nod.
“I understand the necessity of this,” Svetlana said measuredly, as they walked out of the station, “but I want you to know that I do feel rather the public relations tool, right now.”
“Yes, I know, you’ve a conscience, you’ve made that very clear,” Beria said. “My advice? Be glad you’re alive. And count your fucking blessings you’re with me.” He climbed into the rear of the car after her and slammed the door.
“So we can’t talk about anything?” Malenkov asked Beria, when he’d settled again in the passenger seat.
Beria leaned back, the brim of his hat tipped low over his brow. It was dark out. “Anything our enemies might be interested in. Use your best judgement.” Beria looked around the car, frowned, and then clarified: “Ask first.”
“Who are our enemies, exactly?” asked Svetlana, pointedly. “I thought you already arrested Zhukov and the rest of the Council of Ministers.”
“We don’t know how far into the Army this conspiracy extends. Investigation will be necessary.”
“Investigation,” Svetlana repeated to herself grimly. “The wheel goes ’round.”
“What was that?” Beria asked sharply.
“Um, Valeria and Volya, and the boys?” asked Malenkov.
“I’ve already assigned them twenty-four hour security details.”
“Where we’re going?”
“Well, obviously I can’t tell you that, Georgy. Have some sense.”
“I thought it was worth trying.”
“I am going to have a drink,” Vasily announced.
“I don’t know if that’s the best idea,” said Tarasov. He spoke so infrequently that Malenkov had forgotten he was there at all.
“It is the best idea,” Vasily said. “The very best.” He tipped back his flask, which had at some point come back into his possession.
“Give it here,” Svetlana demanded, quietly.
“No. I shan’t give it up again.”
“I just want a drink, Vasily, god damn it. God damn it,” she repeated, shaking.
“Oh.” He handed the flask over, and when she’d taken a long swig, and wiped her mouth, he asked, resentfully, whether anyone else in the car wanted to drain his emergency reserve of vodka.
“Um, I do, actually, if you’re offering,” Malenkov said, suddenly feeling he needed to be drunk, or as near as he could get. The liquor left his stomach burning pleasantly. When Svetlana accepted the flask from him on Vasily’s behalf she took another draw from it.
The car’s occupants fell silent as they reached the outskirts of the city. It didn’t go exactly the way it should’ve, Malenkov thought, but it was better than any alternative he could imagine. At the moment he was safe, finally, and comfortable. When Valeria looked over and marked up his speeches with her suggestions, there was a symbol she used if she decided on a second pass that something was okay as-is: “stet,” which meant “let stand,” or, as Beria would say, “as you were.” Stet, Malenkov thought, crossing his fingers and beaming the message to any speechwriter that might be listening. Leave it. It’s come together. I’m ready to move on ahead. Midnight came and went, and Beria’s Zi-S with the five of them in it sailed on through the night unimpeded. Malenkov exhaled. He hadn’t realized that he’d been holding his breath.
He looked up into the rearview mirror to get a look at Beria in the back seat, and found that Beria was studying the back of his head. Beria just as soon averted his gaze, seeing that Malenkov had caught him. But this didn’t stop Khrushchev’s warning from the previous day—the previous legitimate day, a whole failed week ago—from returning to Malenkov: “He’s using you, and then he’s going to kill you.”