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Ranging between lively readings in the homes of Moscow’s literary elite to the Siberian Gulag, Julie Lekstrom Himes’ Mikhail and Margarita (Europa editions) recounts a passionate love triangle while painting a portrait of a country whose towering literary tradition is at odds with a dictatorship that does not tolerate dissent.
The following excerpt portrays a meeting between Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Stalin following the imprisonment and exile of Bulgakov’s mentor, the poet Osip Mandelstam.
In the spring of 1934 the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested for writing a poem about Stalin. The evening had been sultry and he would later remember the smell of ozone from earlier thunderstorms and the mustiness of mold blooms. He would be distressed that he was unable to recall the dress his wife had been wearing. The poem had protested the silencing of literary voices. It hadn’t been a flattering portrayal and Mandelstam was imprisoned in Lubyanka, tortured, tried and exiled to Cherdyn in the Northern Urals. Shortly after arriving in Cherdyn, he attempted suicide by jumping from a window. During interrogations, he had provided many names. Amongst those he’d given, a few had actually read the poem. One of them was his friend, the playwright Mikhail Bulgakov.
That same spring, Bulgakov posted a letter to Soviet government, petitioning for permission to travel abroad. Bulgakov described himself as a satirist in a country that no longer tolerated satire. He expressed confidence that should he even attempt to write a communist play he would fail, and that he’d been driven to burn all of his existing manuscripts including a novel about the devil. His final question carried a sense of desperation—Am I unthinkable in the USSR?
Stalin received that letter.
One agent drove. The other sat in the back beside Bulgakov; this one stared out the side window as if bored. Flattened cigarette butts littered the floor around his feet; the agent shifted occasionally in the cramped space. The air had a dusty odor. Neither gave any indication of their destination. The car seemed to be of its own mind as they negotiated the grid of streets. With each turn Bulgakov hoped to detect some reaction from the agents. By all appearances, for all their concern, they could have been transporting livestock or corn.
He looked out the side window. A horizontal crack extended through it, transecting trees and buildings and pedestrians. They passed a woman with a perambulator; a lone man in a suit sitting on a bench, his arms crossed over his chest. They disappeared beyond the edge of his window with their smallish worries. He did not figure among them. On the seat in front of him there was a smear of something—possibly blood. They did not care.
The car slowed. They drove through the gates of the Kremlin. His escorts straightened, then; they faced ahead, alert, as if aware of the possibilities.
They drove past the Cathedral of the Annunciation and the Cathedral of the Assumption to a small, more modern building. They parked and entered. His papers were reviewed and he was searched, thoroughly though not impolitely, then conducted on foot to an annex of the Armory. From within, the low long building appeared to be a motor pool, with twenty or more sedans parked at a slant along the interior perimeter, a variety of models, all modern and expensive. In the center of the garage stood a particularly beautiful vehicle, a convertible; it crouched, golden brown, on low haunches. Bulgakov did not know its maker. Its hood was propped open and a mechanic was bent over it. His escorts stopped inside the door; they gave no further instruction. One remained expressionless. The other, the driver, regarded Bulgakov with what seemed respectful curiosity. Across the room, the would-be mechanic straightened and called to him, and the driver looked ahead.
“Bulgakov—lend a hand, man. What? Afraid of a bit of grease?”
It was Josef Vissarionovich Stalin, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, and the People’s Commissar for the Defense of the Soviet Union; he was also known as the “Coryphaeus of Science,” the “Father of Nations,” the “Brilliant Genius of Humanity,” the “Great Architect of Communism,” and the “Gardener of Human Happiness.”
The Great Man laughed and waved him closer.
Bulgakov recognized him, of course, then thought—absurdly, really—he was thinner than his pictures portrayed. A measurable breadth of time seemed to pass before he understood that he needed to approach. Stalin waited, motionless, and—it appeared to Bulgakov—with a manner of tolerance that the powerful will extend toward their supplicants. A sympathy toward those more fragile beings.
Of course he was nervous; even Stalin could understand this.
His sleeves were rolled past his elbows like a workman’s. His hands were streaked in grease. Bulgakov stopped beside the car; its open body lay between them like a bathtub.
Stalin leaned towards him. “Do you know anything about cars, Playwright?”
He shook his head.
Stalin lowered his chin. “Neither do I.” He smiled. “Much to the sorrow of my chief mechanic.”
He wiped his hands with a cloth and closed the hood. He opened the driver-side door and extended his hand to Bulgakov to join him. Bulgakov got in. Stalin took the place behind the wheel.
“Perhaps we’ll tinker another day,” he said. He no longer smiled, only started the engine. His words seemed to mean something else.
A strip of light appeared down the center of the far wall; the large garage doors moved apart as if compelled by his fancy, and they drove into the sunny midday. The brightness was momentarily dazzling. They went past palaces and gold-domed cathedrals. Stalin was talking about the car.
It used the Hotchkiss drive, unlike the Phantom I that used the torque tube. He held the steering wheel firmly as he drove. It was a matter of how to propel the car forward. The torque tube carried the force from the traction of the rear wheels turning against the road, to the transmission, and then through the engine mounts to the frame of the car. The Hotchkiss drive transmitted the force directly to the car frame through leaf springs. The Hotchkiss also used two universal joints instead of the one, providing a smoother drive. “You getting this, Playwright? It’s a matter of how we push the earth away.” He nodded. It was he who moved the world; he liked that idea. “You know nothing of cars, do you? You’ve heard of Piaquin? The painter? No? Well you won’t now, either, I suppose. Piaquin was like you.”
Bulgakov had heard of Piaquin.
Stalin turned from the wide boulevard onto a smaller road, tree-lined, driving away from the buildings. Loose rocks from the roadway twanged against the mounts of the body work. The engine droned in a continuous metallic yawn. The road was empty of pedestrians and other vehicles, and the car accelerated; the wind roared in their ears. Stalin raised his voice to be heard.
“Had him under the hood. God knows what the fool thought he was doing.” Stalin released the wheel and held up his hands to Bulgakov, knuckles forward, his fingers folded into his palms. “Chopped off his own fingers in the fan blade.” Stalin laughed, incredulous. He dropped his hands back down to the wheel. “Every single one. Blood everywhere. A damned mess. And the sobs. I told him he could hold the damned brush between his teeth.” He fingered the leather for a moment. “Hold the brush in your teeth, I told him. Should’ve worked. I think it should’ve worked. Sound advice. It would’ve worked.” He glanced at his side mirror. “He managed to tie a noose with his teeth.”
A bird flew low across the road in front of them. There was a muffled slap as it hit the grill. Bulgakov scanned the passing trees; there was no one else around.
“Why does my favorite playwright wish to leave his homeland?” Stalin looked ahead as if the question was for the road. Or the world beyond it. He seemed to wait for the world to answer.
He’d read the letter.
Stalin went on. “‘If a writer cannot publish, perhaps he should go somewhere his work will be accepted.’ Or some such nonsense.” Rather melodramatic, didn’t he think? Self-indulgent as well. This was not a time for self-indulgence.
Bulgakov waited until he was finished. Later, he’d consider that he should have simply agreed with whatever Stalin had said. He’d wonder why he thought he could converse with the Man. By all appearances they were two men. Did they not ride in a car together as two men would? He would wonder if somehow he’d been deceived; that the human-like appearance of Stalin had duped him.
Instead, he tried to explain. “My work does not pass the censors.”
“Then write what can.” Stalin’s words were stiff. Bulgakov sensed disappointment rather than displeasure.
“I am a satirist,” he said. Strangely, he very nearly added, “Father.”
“I have no use for satirists.”
If Stalin had affection for him, he sensed it in that moment, in those words. There was no apology in them, yet they were more than simply matter-of-fact. They were words of caution from a man who provided no warnings.
Stalin slowed the car and pulled to the side of the road. The sound of the wind stopped.
“Get out,” Stalin said, then cheerfully, and he motioned for Bulgakov to go around to the other side. “Do you know how to drive? I will teach you.” He maneuvered into the passenger seat. Bulgakov hesitated at the door’s lever, but could think of nothing to say and got in.
The steering wheel extended towards him, over his lap, yet seemed uncertain of this arrangement as well.
The road ahead glowed. Trees rose up on both sides. The sky paved blue overhead.
“Are you nervous, Playwright?” said Stalin.
The world stood with mute alertness; it was nervous for him.
He instructed Bulgakov on the placement of his feet. The engine roared momentarily, then stalled. He went through the pedals once more, and again, started the engine. This time the car lurched forward.
“Easy, easy, there you go.” The engine purred. Bulgakov looked up at a sizeable tree as Stalin grabbed the wheel sharply. “You have to steer as well,” he said. Bulgakov took his foot off the accelerator and the engine stalled. Stalin restarted it.
After several tries, they were driving along the straight away in second gear. Bulgakov rehearsed the rhythm of the pedals in his head as they drove. Before them, the road turned abruptly to the right; the wall of the fortress lay in their path. Stalin was talking; Bulgakov wasn’t listening; he was anxious to slow the car without inadvertently heading into the stone.
“You should seek work as a librettist and a translator,” said Stalin. He seemed unconcerned about the barrier in their path. He said he would make the arrangements.
“Should I—” Bulgakov’s feet wobbled over the pedals; the car groaned.
“Well, of course. I imagine the Theatre Director will wish to meet with you. I can’t comment on the specifics of how these arrangements come about. I imagine you will need to ring them up.” He sounded annoyed.
Bulgakov’s world was losing air. The wall ahead grew in size; seeming to taunt. Would he try to run through it? Did he think he could? He’d better stop short, play it safe, live a bit longer. Go home and write a catchy score.
Though, if he wanted to; go ahead—try to break through.
He touched the accelerator and the engine squealed in protest.
“Damn it, man. The brake—”
Bulgakov stamped down. The car shuddered—with uncertainty or relief—and the engine died. Bulgakov stared at the wall.
Stalin gestured towards the door. “Lesson’s over,” he said. Bulgakov went around to the other side as he slid into the driver’s seat. He drove them back toward the garage. The breeze hummed over their heads. He rested one hand on the steering wheel; the other on the open window.
“I like you, Bulgakov. Do you know why?” He looked directly at him, smiling, waiting for an answer. The foliage rushed past behind him. Bulgakov found himself staring at his mouth. He could not dream of a reply.
“You make me feel smart.” He seemed triumphant in this pronouncement, as if providing the solution to a troublesome puzzle. His smile turned slightly. “You may be the most brilliant writer alive today. Some say that. Some say I should trust none of you. Yet somehow you make me feel smarter.” Stalin’s gaze moved past him, into the woods alongside them. He grew more serious. “Perhaps that’s why you’re still here.” He glanced back at Bulgakov—and with the writer’s expression, he laughed aloud. The road opened into the larger Ivanovskaya Square. Pedestrians raised their heads as though they’d heard his laughter too.
“You are like the rabbit,” said Stalin. “Happy in your burrow, fearful of the sky with its owl.” He seemed pleased with himself for conceiving of this. He looked at Bulgakov again as if to verify his hypothesis, then nodded. Yes, the rabbit.
The car approached the low building; the doors opened. Stalin stopped outside and turned off the engine. “You have a wife?” Bulgakov shook his head. Stalin smiled. “But there is a woman,” he said. He tapped his finger on the side of his brow. “That is all a Bolshevik needs. A good woman. Good purpose. This you have.” He stopped smiling. Again he stared off to the side, beyond Bulgakov. “Perhaps if you got smarter, things would change.” He turned to the writer directly. His eyes trembled slightly beneath the thick brows. “Don’t try to be smarter than me.” Then, the skin around the eyes broke into scores of tiny lines. He smiled again and leaned toward him slightly. “I might miss you.”
Bulgakov felt flattered and alarmed; beloved and yet perfectly disposable. How did one measure that kind of standing? Was Piaquin beloved? Were similar endearments bestowed on Mayakowsky and Gorky before they disappeared? How did he rank among his peers in this?
“What about Mandelstam?”
The sound of his voice first startled, then frightened him. It sounded a thin bravado; an outlay of currency he could ill afford. There was no other sound, no bird, no passing motorcar. Nothing else in the world dared to speak or offer a needed distraction.
Stalin got out. He moved slowly, as if he’d aged. A driver appeared, but Stalin waved him back. He turned and leaned on the door. He stared at the floorboards near Bulgakov’s feet.
“What about him?” said Stalin.
“Will you miss him?” Again, his words were wildly disengaged from his better sense. They seemed determined to sound out the space of that affection, as though by such he could measure his own worthiness.
Stalin shook his head. “No. I won’t.” He studied Bulgakov.
His was an honest answer. Mandelstam did not make him feel smart.
“Truth is,” he confessed. “I don’t understand most poetry.”
First the thought came, Mandelstam is lost. Then, with growing despair, we are lost. The value of each of them, their loves and desires, their efforts and failures, would be measured by this one. The one with the cockroach on his lip.
“Will you miss him?” Stalin asked.
Here was his opportunity.
From above came the rhythmic chirping of a bird; a single note, a relentless pinging against his brain like the rapping of his door. They were here for him. Just on the other side. They waited for his reply. He needed to answer.
Stalin seemed curious now, his eyes bright.
What was there to say? Of course! Yes! Such words should be shouted. Osip was his friend—his mentor—his champion. He loved him. Of course he would miss him. He would miss all of the particulars about him. The world would miss him too, though that would be a vaguer thing, distant and sadly diplomatic.
He imagined speaking the words aloud. How that face before him would change—the eyes would cloud. Earlier declarations would be reconsidered; affection that had been professed would be reassigned to another. Something within him quietly reasoned—Osip had created his own future. He didn’t share his beliefs. He didn’t care to share his fate.
Would he miss him? A small place in the world would be vacant; a beautiful and loving mind blotted out. Every day, such things go unnoticed.
If he said it—he imagined the scene—agents would come in the night, deliver him to a prison. There would be a fabricated charge. Torture and a mock trial. Then eight years in a penal colony. Sentences were often doubled for inscrutable reasons. Hard labor underground scraping nickel from the earth; his skin turning white like paper. There would be no pen, no ink. Only chalk-like flesh.
Arrests were made for far lesser things.
The breeze lifted for only a moment. The day was absurdly beautiful.
If he answered—what difference would it make? It wasn’t by his word that locks would be undone. That Stalin would exclaim I’m sorry—I didn’t know. You’ll miss him? Then of course I shall free him. Immediately—come—we’ll make the call together.
And if he was silent. The sounds of the world would continue. The bird. The car. They would fill the stillness. It would go unnoticed.
He remembered their last meal together. He remembered coming back to Osip’s apartment building, to Osip’s lonely ascent to those rooms, where the agents waited for him. Could he leave him again—here—when his voice might actually matter? His shoulders drew in. They were his words to say.
“Will you?” Stalin repeated. His voice seemed to fill his military tunic. The very flesh of his face, his cheeks, seemed to grow. Every whisker became defined. Every pore to be counted. There was room for only him.
Would he miss him? Oh God. Oh God. He could have spoken those words.
Instead, irrevocably, he pressed his lips shut.
Stalin smiled; but before this, there was a flicker of something akin to sympathy. A knowing. For a moment they were not ruler and ruled. For the first and last time that afternoon—perhaps for a lifetime—they were two men understanding one another.
His cowardice, the most horrible of vices. For this, Stalin forgave him.
As if Stalin knew fear as well as any man and he could forgive Bulgakov for it.
For this Bulgakov’s mortal life was made safe.
Again, Stalin tapped his finger against the side of his head. “Marry your woman and live quietly,” he commanded. He pushed back from the car. Once again he was the smart one. He glanced at Bulgakov as though he’d spoken. Or perhaps, to make certain he hadn’t.
You can’t hear our words.
Bulgakov saw it in his face; it was barely perceptible. This was what Stalin feared. This was what would have him eliminated.
Faced with this, Piaquin had cut off his own fingers.
Stalin then smiled; whatever Bulgakov had thought he’d seen was gone.
“I like you, Bulgakov,” he repeated. His gaze wandered past him. It seemed his declaration had surprised even him a little. He gave a small shrug as if to say, so be it.
Stalin left him in the car and went into the building. The two escorts returned and walked him to the sedan. They drove just beyond the Kremlin’s gates and left him there. Storm clouds seemed to appear from nowhere and it began to rain. The wind intensified; falling drops sped toward him with certain intent. His clothes became weighted by them; his skin cooled then chilled. His head bowed; his apparent path was paved of wet and variously broken cement walkways.
Somehow he was expected to find his way from there.
Julie Lekstrom Himes’ short fiction has been published in Shenandoah, The Florida Review (Editor’s Choice Award 2008), Fourteen Hills (nominated for Best American Mysteries 2011), The Massachusetts Review, Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. MIKHAIL AND MARGARITA is her debut novel. She is a physician and a researcher and lives with her family in Marblehead, Massachusetts.