Malenkov had two tasks to accomplish before returning to Stalin’s bedside: to call Lidiya Timashuk, and to fix his hair. The first of these was a Committee movement, and the second seemed, suddenly, eminently necessary. He phoned Timashuk from Stalin’s office, feeling awkward among his boss’s things. Unable to bring himself to sit in Stalin’s chair, he remained standing, and twirled the cord around his finger while it rang. On the third ring, she answered: “Hello?”
“Comrade Timashuk. It’s Georgy Malenkov.” He’d met her a couple of times since Beria had asked her to testify against the doctors who’d advised the late Zhdanov. It had been necessary, Beria had explained, to preempt suspicion—regarding the circumstances of Zhdanov’s death—from falling on Malenkov.
“Comrade Malenkov!” said the doctor. She was a cardiologist of some sort, if Malenkov’s memory served. “To what do I owe the honor? I thought you only called me when government officials died under suspicious circumstances,” she joked.
“Um,” said Malenkov.
“What? Oh, oh my god.”
“Who?” She paused, then drew in a breath. “No.”
“I can’t go into detail on this line, but. It’s who you think it is. I think. Um, could you round up some doctors? Trustworthy ones, I mean. We sort of figured you knew where to find them?”
“Absolutely I do, Comrade Malenkov.”
“And you could bring them by the dacha? Um, his.”
“Yes, of course. Of course. I’ll be there within the hour.”
Putting down the phone, Malenkov caught movement out of the corner of his eye and swiveled towards it: his own reflection in a mirror across the room. He was standing pigeon-toed, and his tunic was wrinkled—his faux-military, imitation Stalin tunic. He felt wrong, completely wrong, for a moment, beside Stalin’s desk. Then he blinked, and noticed his hair. Right. That he could do something about. He tried to slip out to his car without anyone noticing, but Beria caught him and asked him to come for a talk in the woods, which he was happy to do, of course. Then Svetlana arrived, and by the time they’d gotten her inside the dacha and comfited, Lidiya had arrived with the doctors. So it wasn’t until the afternoon, while they were sitting vigil with Stalin, that Malenkov was able to break off from the group and head into the city.
He had his driver stop at the first phone booth they reached to find a Moscow salon through the operator and have it cleared out ahead of time for him. When he arrived, he allowed himself to be talked into a perm and color treatment in addition to a trim—and then because he had his glasses off he couldn’t exactly monitor the stylist’s progress. While he sat with sheets of foil in his hair, he dialed the number for Stalin’s dacha desk, from his address-book, on a phone the salon owner was honored to bring the Acting General Secretary. Beria answered.
“Who is this?”
“It’s Georgy, Lavrenti. How are things?”
“Things? No change. Where’ve you gone?”
“Never mind that, I’ll be back soon. Hey, do you think Lidiya will be discreet about the, uh, the incident?”
“Lidiya? Discreet?” He laughed, for some reason. “I rather think she will be, yes.”
“Okay, good. Hold on, they’re motioning for me to come sit under the drying dome.”
“Nothing. I—hey, were you and her, uh, seeing each other?”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” He couldn’t read Beria’s tone through the line, but then he had trouble with it in person, too.
“Nuh—I don’t know.” He’d seen her try to take his arm, earlier, as the group of them had shuffled into the room where Stalin lay in bed. “I don’t know, I’m sorry I asked.”
“Don’t be, she was a very pretty woman. Is. Jealous, were you?”
She looks like Olive Oyl, Malenkov thought bitterly. “Don’t be silly, haha. Okay, I really have to go, Lavrenti. I’ll be back in just a sec.”
“She’s a doctor, you know, it’d be hygienic,” Beria said, before hanging up. Malenkov didn’t bring this disquieting statement up with Beria the next time they saw each other because by that time he’d forgotten both the conversation and the fact that Dr. Timashuk had been at the dacha at all. He didn’t see her again, so it was really a non-issue. There was a lot going on, and he’d never had much of a memory.
Nikita Khrushchev stood before his wardrobe, picking through his clothing options for the reception that day. “Nina! Where’s my nice suit?” he called into the other room. Cheerful, companionable shouting was the mode of communication de rigueur in the Khrushchev household. They were a loud people.
“What? All your suits look the same,” his wife retorted from the hallway.
“This is the nice one! The one without stains!”
She poked her head around the corner, and narrowed her eyes at him. “What’s this for?”
“Stalin’s funeral. You know that.”
Nina stepped into the bedroom and leaned her shoulder against the wall, resting the laundry basket in her arms on her left hip. “I know you. I know it takes more than the death of a premier to inspire care-of-appearance in you, Nikita Sergeyevich.”
“What are you talking about, Nina?”
“Oh, nothing. No business of mine.”
Khrushchev squinted. “That’s right.”
She smiled infuriatingly. “Unrelatedly, I imagine Marshal Zhukov will be in attendance, today?”
“I know you,” she said, with satisfaction, setting the basket down. “I married you, remember. Your crushes don’t bother me.”
“I’m a good Communist, Nikusya. I know how to share.” She kissed his forehead.
“Just let me know if you want me out of the apartment tonight.”
After Vasily’s diplomatic turn in convincing Khrushchev and company to allow him a speech, he consented to be led by Svetlana into the next room, where there were apparently refreshments. “Fish! Let’s eat!” said Svetlana, obviously trying to be exciting. “I remember when you speared that Oriental carp,” she continued, before trailing off. The salmon Vasily found at the buffet table, indeed, chased from his mind lingering thoughts of sordid acts in the back-alleys of Chelsea and the West Village. But then there was the listening. He was expected to do an awful lot of it, and when he cleared his throat and opened his mouth or otherwise showed signs of preparing to add his piece, Svetlana, who had him by the elbow, would squeeze him. He hated that. Vasily, Vasily concluded, was not the problem. People was the problem. People was, frankly, bastards. For a few minutes he played along, staying quiet, and then when he’d gained enough of Svetlana’s trust that she released his arm, he slipped away into the hall and then down the stairs to the atrium. He thought there might be dancing, but there didn’t seem to be. Dancing. He shouldered his way through the crowd, hoping to find a bathroom or cloakroom, his stomach still smarting from the blow delivered by Marshal Zhukov earlier.
Then Vasily heard piano music from one corner of the room. He noticed that the pianist was a woman, and beautiful, in a shiny dress of a sort he’d never seen before. He considered whether she might not be a plant, strategically deployed to seduce and ruin him. If she was, he decided, he could outmanoeuvre her. Vasily walked over to her piano and put his elbows up on its surface suavely. “Hello,” he greeted her, with regal bearing. Her eyes darted up to him, squeezed shut, and then returned to her music. “Don’t stop playing on my account. I know it must be overwhelming, to be approached by the son of the father of the people, but I don’t expect special treatment.”
“I’m so glad,” she said, not looking up.
“So am I.”
“What is it you want?”
“Em,” Vasily said, not having thought this far ahead. Small talk, Vasily, small talk. “Did you know my father was murdered?”
She met his gaze and frowned. “Was he?”
“Well, that’s my...working hypothesis. Those vultures that hung around him, emm.”
He snapped his fingers. “That’s them.”
He saw her neck muscles (tendons?) work as she gave a little laugh. “I’m sure they didn’t.”
“Do you ever talk about anything other than your dead father?”
He squinted. “Hockey. No, hockey’s shit.” It was important to consider what one’s conversant liked, herself, in these situations, or so he’d heard. “Music.”
“Oh, yes? Do you know what I’m playing right now?”
“Eh, Chopin. I’m not so much with Chopin. I’m good on Mozart, though, play me any one Mozart and I’ll give you its, whatsit, call number.”
She smiled for the first time, and transitioned smoothly from the Chopin into:
“His Seventeenth, in G Major,” Vasily said proudly.
If she was surprised or impressed by his party trick she hid it well. “I suppose you went to conservatory as a child?”
“Ha, no, when I was a child my father had me memorize the different piano concertos, so he could tell me to fetch a record by its melody. He could never remember the numbers when he’d been drinking.” Oh, but that was his father again. Think, Vasily!
“I’m surprised you can recognize this, now, then.”
“Oh, I’m sober as a church, currently. Off the stuff.”
Vasily checked his watch. “’s been an hour and thirty minutes, now. I was hit, you see. One good punch can expel it right out of you, the drunkenness. In concentrate.”
“You were punched.” This was one of those statementy questions.
“Yes, but I also negotiated...speaking rights, so it hasn’t been a bad day, really, all told...I’d call it...a draw.” He was distracted by the way the light shon on her hair; he looked from the chandelier to her and back. “All in all.”
“What did you say your name was, again?”
“Vasily. Iosifovich, of course. Vasily Io—”
“Vasily was the name of a holy fool,” she said.
“Oh yes? A Christian, I expect?” He had his chin resting in one hand, winningly he hoped, and his ankles crossed under him.
“He went about the people preaching God’s truth, in rags or naked.”
“Ah, exhibitionist, I shouldn’t wonder. They existed back in antiquity, too, you know.”
“Insane. Or full of the spirit, depending on who you asked.”
“What’s your name?”
“Maria, that’s beautiful. Italian, is it?” he asked rhetorically. “Maria, when is it you get, er, off shift?”
“When the reception ends.”
“No shit? I know our workers have the most stamina of any workers in the world, but that’s ridiculous. Can I bring you something?”
“I don’t drink.”
“Drink? Who said anything about drinking? I’m a teetotaler. I mean solid...nutrients.”
“I can’t eat while playing. Or for an hour before or afterward.”
“Like swimming, eh?”
“No, it’s more of a spiritual cleansing.”
Then Vasily heard a woman’s voice, Svetlana’s, calling his name. He snuck a look behind him, hopefully too rapidly for the naked eye (Maria’s) to perceive, and saw an incoming blur of black and orange. “I must away. So, ah, I’ll be seeing you?” he said to her.
“I doubt it,” she replied, resuming her pianism.
As usual, damage control fell to Delov. After he’d given his subordinates the new orders to find the real little girl for Comrade Malenkov’s photo opportunity, he’d had the bad luck to be the nearest NKVD officer to the debacle that occurred with the foreign dignitaries, Vasily Stalin, and Field Marshal Zhukov. Comrade Beria pulled him aside afterward to tell him he had to make clear to Zhou Enlai that Vasily hadn’t meant any of the things he’d said.
“Do you want me to enumerate them?” Beria asked.
“No, no, I heard,” Delov replied. He’d been standing just outside the parlor. He swallowed, pulled his tunic straight and entered, making a beeline for the Chinese diplomats. “He didn't mean any of that, about the, uh, cocks and balls,” Delov told the man with the thickest eyebrows, who he assumed was his target.
Zhou’s interpreter began explaining the retraction. Zhou raised one of those impressive eyebrows and looked Delov up and down. Here Delov began to get the sense that something had been lost in translation.
After his pollen-induced allergy attack had run its course, Mikoyan, having nothing better to do, decided to fuck with the new General Secretary. Mikoyan found the man of the hour, in his horrendous white Ice Queen outfit, hovering near a buffet table. When Mikoyan nudged him he jumped a little before turning around, shoving the last of a profiterole into his mouth. “Whagh?”
“Stressed, Top Boy?”
“No,” he said, chewing. “Why?”
“No reason. Hey, I’ve been thinking: ever considered changing your name?”
“Well, you didn’t get a Bolshevik name.”
“I was too young,” he said firmly.
“Ah, yeah. But listen. Lenin, okay, Stalin, but then…Malenkov?”
“Progression’s off, Georgy. We’ve got River-man, Steel-man…”
“So what would I change it to?”
“Milk-man?” Mikoyan proposed. “Ice cream man?”
“No, no. Maybe something nuclear-themed?” He seemed to be getting excited about it. When he pushed his glasses up Mikoyan caught sight of one of his amber-colored, teardrop-shaped bakelite cufflinks: his lack of dress sense extended all the way down to cufflinks. Christ. Mikoyan felt a pity that verged on the erotic, which was possibly how Beria felt all the time around Malenkov. Who was still hung up on Beria, clearly, but afterward, Mikoyan would be there. Mikoyan thought of himself as a scavenger, like a slick vulture, in that he was content to pick up damaged goods after they were left. He’d stroke a bruised ego if he could get stroked in the process, uh-huh. And, well, maybe he was a little hot for it in part because it was a limited-time offer: Malenkov’s star showed every sign of falling very shortly.
When he turned around and left, Malenkov, Mikoyan saw that even the soles of his shoes were white.
First Stalin’s son, and now his daughter. Maria watched out of the corner of her eye as the redheaded girl, Svetlana, grabbed the one who’d just left her and said a sharp word to him before handing him off to a man in NKVD uniform. Svetlana then started toward her. Maria asked the Lord to grant her the strength to suffer these fools—and was blessed with an idea to this end.
“I am so sorry about him,” Svetlana said.
“Hm? Why would you be?”
“Well, obviously he was bothering you, and I’m his—well, obviously, you know who we are.” She laughed modestly.
“No. He didn’t give a name. Your husband?”
“God, no! You really don’t…?” Svetlana gestured wildly until she found the nearest portrait of Stalin.
“I don’t know what you’re getting at,” said Maria.
A look of bliss replaced the bewilderment on Svetlana’s face. “You don’t know who I am,” she repeated.
“Well, I’m...nobody, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! I’m nobody,” she insisted, smiling. “Nice to meet you.”
“Where are my manners? Terribly sorry, terribly—ah, Lyudmila. I’m just, I’m here because, well, obviously my brother is in the Air Force and came to pay his respects. No other reason. Why I should be here. Lyudmila, oh, Kirillova. That’s me!”
“It’s a pleasure.”
“But I’m bothering you now, too. I’ll be going.” She turned on her heel and tripped off lightly, as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.
Suddenly Malenkov wanted to die. This was an overreaction; Mikoyan had only made a helpful suggestion about his image. But these things tended to send Malenkov into a spiral. He had no idea how anyone saw him. Needing reassurance he sought out Beria, and found him at the cheese tray. “Lavrenti.”
He looked up from his plate. “Yes?”
“Does...does my hairline look okay?”
Beria sighed. “What is it you want from me when you ask these questions, Georgy?”
Malenkov thought on it. “I guess I just want to feel like you...appreciate...the effort I’ve put into my appearance, recently.”
“Ah. You want me to give you one.”
“It’s more that I was...wondering why you hadn’t yet?” Beria had a knack for making him interrogate his own motivations.
“Well, I have been busy. You know, there are plenty of people here who I’m sure would be honored to throw a leg over. I think I saw the Kyrgyz Party head giving you the eye.”
“I wasn’t asking you to try and turn me out.”
“Mm, but you make it so easy.”
“I don’t have to take this kind of talk from you, you know.”
“Would that be because you’re above that now?”
“Y-yes! Don’t make it sound stupid!” Malenkov thought about upending his drink on Beria. He’d always wanted to try that. But he didn’t want to ruin the reception for Beria, not really, just to teach him a lesson, so he’d realize what he had. That would be ideal. “Excuse me,” he said archly, and made his way back from whence he’d come.
Never had Mikoyan looked so appealing, in his silk chrysanthemum-patterned tie. He was making conversation with an editor of Pravda, so Malenkov waited for this to reach a natural conclusion before approaching. “Anastas, um. I’ve been thinking. You know how we staked out in my apartment yesterday and watched Khrushchev and Bulganin from my window?”
“How could I forget?” asked Mikoyan, swilling his champagne in its flute debonairly.
“Do you want to maybe do that again?”
Mikoyan squinted shrewdly. “Would this be a sleepover you’re proposing?”
Marshal Zhukov didn’t lie. He barely exaggerated. When he said he’d ride a frocked Aslanov raw he’d meant it. But Aslanov was only a diversion; Zhukov was after his co-conspirator. There was an appeal, Zhukov thought while watching Khrushchev gesticulate, to a bald man: an openness, an easy masculinity, and a vulnerability, too. Like a naked mole rat, Khrushchev was. A sexy one. Zhukov had missed Khrushchev. He hadn’t had regular access to him since Kiev, Stalingrad. This kiss, the first in a long time, had been lovely, though he hadn’t had the chance to get his tongue in.
“Malenkov’s a bit tricky…” Khrushchev said. Weasely, Nicky. Had to keep a firm grip of him, aye. Zhukov could do.
“No, we need fucking all of them,” he said.
“Well, I’ll get him,” Khrushchev promised, drawing his chin back into his neck endearingly.
Zhukov smiled. “Such a little schemer ye are. I allus knew.”
“That you were more’n a fool. C’mere, ye daft baldy cunt.”
Zhukov drew him in again for a kiss, by the waist this time, and this time Khrushchev accepted it without pursing his lips. Zhukov raked his tongue across the roof of Khrushchev’s mouth, and then withdrew. “Mm. Ye’ve tried the cake.”
“You’re insane,” Khrushchev said, gagging a little from the tongue.
“Nay, I know cream cheese frosting when ah taste it. Where’s the nearest empty boardroom in this building? I fancy a roll in the hay, don’t you?”
“I...I don’t have any...time to do that,” Khrushchev said hesitantly, obviously wanting it. Well, who wouldn’t?
“I can see you’re horned up from bloodlust too, Nicky, don’t hide it. Ah’ve my pick of girls but I’ll dance with the one what brung me.”
“Okay. Okay, but it’ll have to be quick.”
Zhukov planted a kiss on top of his head. “Nikita Khrushchev, I’ve loved you since 1942.”
“Shut up. What are you doing back there? Stop that!” Zhukov had taken a long sniff of his neck. Presently he blew a raspberry.
“Ah have. I know you’re just using me for your political gain, but the fact remains.”
“I’m not, Gosha.”
“I don’t blame you, Nicky, it’s muck or nettles.”
“I’m not! You know me, I wouldn’t let anyone else do—that…” The rest of his sentence, if there was one, eluded him as Zhukov palmed his crotch and deftly unbuttoned his pants.
Mezhnikov knew what Khrushchev wanted. His asking was just for polity’s sake: obviously the minister wanted ruched satin for the casket-trim (who wouldn’t?), and obviously he wanted Mezhnikov. Mezhnikov saw the way Khrushchev looked at him out of the corner of his eye. Oh, he put up a pretense of exasperation—“Shut it, Triumph of the Will,” and the like—but beneath his gruff exterior and cheap suit there was, Mezhnikov knew, a sensual being. Those lips. There was only to awaken the man in the minister, and to this end Mezhnikov knew exactly what had to be done. After Comrade Malenkov had made his scheduled appearance on the balcony, and when the post-viewing reception was winding down, all guests having mingled nicely in the ballroom and now bidding each other goodnight, Mezhnikov snuck off to the cloakroom. There he’d hung the carpetbag he’d brought with him, after seeing that Khrushchev had hung his own coat there. Mezhnikov stepped inside and went to it. He made quick work of changing, having timed it out perfectly in advance. Like a funeral, a seduction had to be planned painstakingly, down to the last detail. Khrushchev arrived, however—though Mezhnikov had his back to the door he was alerted to Khrushchev’s entrance by a draught—several minutes earlier than Mezhnikov had estimated, and Mezhnikov was caught without the rose he’d planned to hold between his teeth, with only his lingerie top on, and with his two choices of panties in his hands. He decided to improvise, holding both aloft and assuming an alluring comportment before turning to Khrushchev.
“Lace, comrade? Or no lace?”
Marshal Zhukov, who Mezhnikov saw had his arm around Khrushchev, slammed the door.
When Mikoyan arrived at Malenkov’s apartment that night, he found the door open and, within, Malenkov sitting on the side of his bed in his undershirt. He was removing his watch; it figured that the watch’d be one of the last things to come off. Mikoyan wondered whether the glasses stayed on.
“Wot, no lingerie?” was how he announced his presence.
“What?” Malenkov looked up, startled. His face crumpled. “Should there...should I…?”
“No, no, kidding. Want my shoes off?” Mikoyan asked.
“Yeah, that’d be. That’d be nice,” said Malenkov, rising and giving him an awkward hug. “Hi. Come in, come in.” Malenkov patted his back, then motioned for him to follow. Jesus, but this was a rebound shag. There was an eau de divorcée hanging ’round the place.
“If this is your attempt to make Beria jealous, Georgy dear, we can just not and say we did.”
Malenkov looked away, a tell of his. “It’s not about Beria.”
“One Caucasian bloke good as anuvuh to you, then?” Mikoyan elbowed him, trying to lighten the mood. “Chaser, are you?”
“No-oo! Jeez, no. Anastas!” Malenkov picked up a drinks tray from the bedside table and sat, setting it on his lap after crossing his legs daintily.
“I didn’t mean it. An’ besides: good taste.” Mikoyan sat down beside him on the bed. “Is that for drinking or just decoration?”
“I’m working on it,” Malenkov said, digging a miniature scoop into the icebucket. He was such a milksop that he took his vodka with ice, watered down to see-through. “Um. I’m Macedonian, you know, ethnically.”
Was he trying to invoke a sense of solidarity? “Whatever.”
Malenkov fixed his drink and passed it to him. “Just so I have this straight, you. You’re gonna wanna lead, right? I mean your...in my…” He made a vague hand gesture.
“I should think, yeah.” He meant Malenkov was practically a bird. Mikoyan was put in mind of Groucho Marx seducing Margaret Dumont. Did Beria usually throw him on the bed, or what? He toasted, and Malenkov toasted back.
“Um. We will have to be in the bathroom,” Malenkov said. “I mean.”
“Bugged. I follow. But are you sure you don’t want...someone who might be listening...to hear? You’re sure that's not the aim?”
“Anastas, come on, you have to believe me. This is not some cynical ploy.” He frowned, as if to communicate that in addition to being sincere he wasn’t suicidal, which is what he’d have to be to let that audio evidence be collected.
So it’d be safe to assume he’d tell Beria in person. Alright, that Mikoyan could work with. “In that case. I suppose it’s the bathroom ‘cos to cover up the noise you can only go to it while flushing. Ya?”
“Fucking spies.” Mikoyan took a drink. “Fucking apartments.”
Radio Moscow’s Director Andreyev was dedicated to his job to a degree that would alienate most anyone with whom he might want to establish a relationship. Fortunately he’d come to know that most people were insufferable. Andreyev lived alone, and roomed in a flat above the radio station’s concert hall. Almost always he brought his work home with him: recordings to quality-test, program schedules for the next day to review. And Sergei. Well, really Sergei invited himself. Andreyev would bid goodnight to the orchestra, if they’d had one in that day, to the janitor, and to Sergei, and then wordlessly Sergei would follow Andreyev up the stairs to his quarters and throw himself onto Andreyev’s divan.
“What are you doing?” Andreyev had asked, the first time this had occurred. “What, don’t you have a home?”
“Broke it off with the old woman,” Sergei said.
“Oh. Er, I’m sorry?”
“Oh, don't be, I dumped her.”
This was all very mysterious. “Well, I’m not looking for a roomer.”
“I’m not looking to stay. Would you rather I offed myself?” Sergei said this as he said everything: that is, affectlessly, and with a face devoid of any expression. Big round eyes staring.
“Are you threatening me?”
“No, I’m just asking your preference. Got anything to eat?”
Andreyev found his head spinning, as he often did in conversation with Sergei. Eventually Andreyev stopped asking questions, and Sergei became a fixture in his home. They’d listen together to the day’s recording or the next day’s setlist.
Andreyev tried to impart some culture to the boy. Eventually he was even persuaded to drag out his milkcrate of samizdat records. He admitted to a fondness for Satie and other such froggy parlor-room fluff. All of this Sergei accepted impassively, nodding, never speaking much. In the beginning he’d leave Andreyev after listening to only a movement or two of a concerto, and bumming a single hand-fruit from his host's kitchen. But his visits extended in length as weeks and then months passed. He began staying for dinner, and, sometimes, the night. Was this simply convenience for Sergei, to sleep rent-free above his place of employment? Andreyev wondered these things when he should have been sleeping. Was he an NKVD informant? Was he arranging himself on the couch increasingly seductively each night as part of an escalating, protracted campaign of psychological torture?
Sergei failed to materialize the night of the General Secretary’s call, probably spooked by the unarticulated but palpable promise of death that had been hung over Andreyev, should the record he’d prepared so much as skip. Alone in his apartment for the first time in months, Andreyev wondered whether his assistant might have, after all, been chopped into dogmeat, and worried that his last words to Sergei mightn’t have been a mite harsh. He was too proud to apologize, but he resolved to be kinder to Sergei if Sergei made it into the station the next day in one piece. He did want Sergei to think of him fondly. Christ, did he, indeed? Andreyev interrogated this desire in himself, to a soundtrack by Tchaikovsky. By the time he came to the confessory aria in the second act of The Queen of Spades, he’d had a revelation.
The next morning Sergei materialized, intact, and that evening Andreyev’s and his regular schedule of company-keeping resumed as if nothing at all had happened, unhindered by the death of the General Secretary. Two days into the regime of state mourning, while climbing the narrow stair to his rooms, Andreyev decided he’d worked up the nerve. After hanging his suit jacket on the coatrack, he took a long look at Sergei’s long shins where they hung off of the end of the couch. He steeled his will, walked to his record player, raised the needle and put on Liszt’s Liebestraum. Upon hearing the first strings Sergei sat up and looked at Andreyev, who seated himself in the armchair opposite.
“About time,” said Sergei. “I thought you’d never.”
Andreyev indicated his own lap. “Sit your arse down.”
Zhou Enlai woke to sunlight in his Metropol Hotel suite. He heard breathing, and lifted the white duvet to find a naked man beside him. Hanging on the knob of the headboard was an NKVD officer’s peaked cap. Zhou recalled the Sino-Soviet cooperation of the previous night, and smiled to himself. These were the fruits of diplomacy.
The morning of the funeral’s final day was sun-drenched and relatively warm; most all snow on the ground had melted. Svetlana hadn’t spoken to Beria since he’d informed her of Alexei Kapler’s death, that morning, but when they were all of them gathered in Lenin’s Tomb for the procession, she found herself approaching him.
“I’ve asked Mikoyan and Molotov about Alexei,” she announced, failing to keep a stiff pride out of her voice. “They deflected, of course, but I saw it in their faces. That they knew.”
“And now they know I told you, hm? You—that would explain the hostility,” he muttered. “Some of.”
“Yes, well, deserved, I’d point out.”
“My telling you that was a goodwill gesture, made in confidence, for the record.” He seemed about to continue, but reconsidered when he took in her defiant look. “You’d make a poor spy,” he said instead.
“Because you never learnt to stop asking that question. Everything that comes to you from above. And you’ve no guile in you, none whatever.”
“Thank you? Well, you ought to know I’m not trying to spy. I’m trying to drag things out into the open.”
He sighed, looking at her. “Your lapels are...here.” He fixed the collar of her coat, the beaded brocade of which had snagged on the wool.
Svetlana didn’t stop him, but she frowned down at his gloved hand to make her disapproval felt. “Don’t...mother me. Aren’t you angry?” She noticed that their black coats matched, aside from the brocade on hers, its one non-utilitarian detail.
“What, do you want me to be? Or were you expecting me to be proud of your sleuthing?” He sighed. “I am that, I suppose, a little.” Then the co-director of the funeral called the ministers to their places around the coffin, and Beria left her with those words and little else.
When they were six instead of seven—that is in the courtyard, following the execution—Kaganovich couldn’t bring himself to assist Khrushchev in reassuring Malenkov. So the weepy dumbfuck needed comforting, so what? Wasn’t Kaganovich’s job. He put his hands in his pockets and leaned back against the wall of the barn, drawing in a deep breath. These had been a long six days. Molotov, smiling broadly, walked over and joined him.
“Lazar,” said Molotov. “Fancy a drink? To celebrate the occasion?”
“Beria snuffing it?”
“Of course! And I feel it’s been so long since we’ve talked, the two of us.”
For a long time Kaganovich had seen Molotov vaguely as a rival for Stalin’s trust, moreso than the others because like Kaganovich, Molotov wanted it earnestly. But of course that didn’t matter anymore. “It has.”
Mikoyan had joined Khrushchev in patting Malenkov on the back—disturbingly low on the back, actually. Bulganin, meanwhile, had sidled up to the two seniorest statesmen. “Er, are we all for a drink, gentlemen?”
Molotov said “I don’t think so, Nikolai,” at the same time that Kaganovich said “Fuck off, you mincing bootlick.” They turned and looked at each other as if for the first time.
Maria was arrested at her piano during the reception, and brought to a cell in the Lubyanka, where she sat praying calmly. It would not be the worst thing that had happened to her. In the small hours of the morning she was seized, brought to a bedroom in what she imagined was Beria’s townhouse, and cuffed to the bed. Again she prayed, and God listened: the door was next opened, nearly twenty-four hours later in her estimation, by a Red Army soldier. He, too, refused to tell her where she was being taken, but as soon as the car turned down Granovsky Street she knew exactly what had happened. Khrushchev had won. Maria was shepherded into an elevator and brought to Khrushchev’s floor. The door to his flat stood open, and Khrushchev could be heard within, shouting conversationally. The soldier with Maria announced her arrival. When she stepped over the threshold she saw that the small apartment was packed with people: Khrushchev was in the kitchen, where his wife and Marshal Zhukov seemed to be taking turns smacking him with a dishrag. Two other government ministers occupied an armchair in the corner: Malenkov in it and Mikoyan sitting on one arm. And on the couch was Stalin’s son, looking disheveled.
“I am so sorry,” Khrushchev said, approaching. “They didn’t know who you were, so they just brought you back to me. I’ll arrange, Marshal Zhukov here will arrange an escort to your home just as soon as we—shit is crazy right now, Maria, pardon my language. In the meantime, why don’t you have something to eat? Here, sit down, I’ll bring it to you.”
Vasily was hunched over a coffee table furnished with vodka bottles and draughtglasses. “I thought you were sober,” she said, taking a seat beside him.
“Oh, look who it is! Marina! Wherever did you come from?”
“I thought you weren’t drinking.”
“Well, the thing is—there are special circumstances. Sweepstakes.” He belched.
“Comrade Khrushchev informed me that I’ve won a contest: lifetime supply of fine grain alcohol. I didn’t even know I was in the running.” He poured himself another dram and drank, tilting his face up to the heavens, and then sinking back into the cushions of the couch, his chin resting on his chest. “Great man, Khrushchev.”
“Evidently. Where’s your sister?”
“My sister? Ah, I...I haven’t seen her, but there’s no knowing...never any knowing where that one’s got to. Oh, ah, have you seen my friend Anatoly?”
“I can’t say I have.”
“He was just here.” He stared at her, his eyes cloudy. “You are sho beautiful, do you know that?”
“I’ve gathered,” she said coolly. “Colonel Dzhugashvili, I’m going to give you a piece of paper, and I want you to fold it up, put it in a pocket of yours, and look at it when you’re fully conscious.” She ripped the corner from a newspaper on the endtable, uncapped her pen with her teeth, and wrote down the address of her church. “Here.”
“Ah, I knew it, I knew it,” he said, taking it. “Now, just so we’re clear, my father’s title doesn’t inherit. Not that I think you’re trying to social-climb. Just want to be sure you want me for me.”
“As you are,” Maria confirmed.
“I’ll probably be calling from this apartment, the Khrushchevs have me for the weekend.”
“I think tomorrow might be a good time.” Tomorrow was a Sunday.
“My word is my bond,” he said, and kissed the back of her hand sloppily. But of course he didn’t make it to the service the next day.
A week later, Svetlana encountered her funeral coat in the cheap suitcase Khrushchev had given her when he’d sent her away, and which since then had sat, still packed, on her hotel bed. She ran her hand over it and noticed a tear in the arm, where the black-bordered red armband she’d worn had been safety-pinned. She’d torn it off, and a chunk of the sleeve with it, in the car. Her hand found the brocade: there was the bead that had been caught, hanging on a herniated suture. At that moment Beria was being removed from photographs in the basements of government buildings, and from household copies of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia in the parlors of civilian homes; newspapermen were working overtime to elide him from their publishers’ archives, lest a troika of censorers descend on their office. By this time tomorrow, Svetlana’s pulled thread might be all that remained of him. She lingered over it only a moment.
Svetlana existed, anyway, and would continue to for the foreseeable future. Maybe Khrushchev back in Moscow was unpersoning her, but she had her physical self, at least. She had thrilled, a week previous, to inventing a new identity for the benefit of that improbably ignorant pianist. Now she realized she was attached to Svetlana. To her first name, at least. A mope by nature and rather shattered by recent events, she’d spent the days since the funeral laying around the stuffy suite. Now she wrenched open the window and looked out into an unscenic, nondescript Viennese alley: Khrushchev, tacky to the last, hadn’t even bought her a room in a nice hotel. Svetlana resolved to find the nearest bank of pay phones and call Moscow that day. She’d beg readmission—not because of the alley. It was just she didn’t want a new narrative. Or she did, but she wanted it to flow from the old. Not Khrushchev’s story, nor Beria’s. Not her father’s. No story at all, but life itself. She pulled her coat on, hole and all.