Making Enemies, page 1
18 February 1947
18 February 1947
The first impression is of a strange percussion, of instruments playing different rhythms interrupted by a discordance of human voices. And then the music is all too quickly recognizable: the steel ring of boots clattering on stone stairs, rifle butts hammering on locked doors, shouted orders, cries. Old people, their coats over their nightclothes, are forced out of their apartments at gunpoint, bewildered, sleep-ridden, terrified but strangely obedient as the soldiers drive them down the stairs and out into the night.
Some of the women are crying, clutching at their husbands. One white-haired woman drops her false teeth and screams at a young soldier who is behind her on the stairs. She is brutally beaten, with a rifle butt to the groin. She lies crumpled against the wall, groaning. Two soldiers pick her up and carry her into the hall of the apartment building.
Four lorries wait around the corner, their engines running. The old people, shivering, their light clothing no defence against the extreme cold of the winter night, are lifted into the backs of the lorries. A canvas flap is lowered to conceal the human cargo, the tailgate is bolted into place and the lorries drive away.
The soldiers regroup. One of them, a young man, leans against the wall of the building and vomits before he takes his place. The men are led away. As they go, a sergeant turns to one of his corporals.
‘Like Jews,’ he says. ‘They went like Jews.’
The apartment block is deserted. The wind whistles in the stairwell. Lights burn in windows; the building looks like a ship steaming through the night. The noise of percussion has passed, leaving silence.
Suddenly there is an enormous explosion. A sheet of flame bursts out and sweeps up the side of the building. Glass shatters and rains down in a lethal storm, doors are blown in, the earth shakes and moves. Black smoke and dust rise upon the echoes of the blast.
Fire streaks hungrily along the paint on doors and window frames; curtains and fabrics catch alight. The wind blows through broken windows, the doorways of empty apartments, down the stairwell and out into the hall. The flames quickly become an inferno. The building blackens.
Despite the night cold there is a feeling of dampness in the air, moisture exuded by the dark overhanging branches of fir trees. In a small clearing in the forest, prisoners dig a long trench, their exertions illuminated by the headlights of lorries manoeuvred into position. The earth has frozen hard in the winter cold; they have to break the surface with mechanical drills and pickaxes before they can clear the lumps of earth with shovels. It is slow, terrible work, exhausting their already weakened bodies.
Their guards drive them on, urging more work, faster, striking at those who show any sign of weakness. The pit must be dug quickly and properly. There are measurements for its width, its length, its depth. All are checked at regular intervals. There is also a deadline for completion.
Shortly after three o’clock it is finished. The prisoners are taken back to the lorry which brought them here, to the middle of nowhere. They are driven away and the pit is left, a gaping hole beneath the swaying trees, waiting to be filled.
The old people arrive soon after. They are lifted off the lorries by the soldiers who are waiting for them and told to line up. Cowed and shivering, their bodies racked with fear, they cling desperately to one another. As a last gesture of cruelty, the men are separated from the women. This is the unmistakable sign of their fate. A wail begins, a scream like the howling wind, echoing among the trees and deep into the night.
The cry goes unheard. The trees bend away from them as if repelled by their entreaty. The forest and the fields are barren of any living thing.
A car is driven fast across the field, its headlights describing its bumpy journey. It disappears behind the plumes of smoke from the exhausts of the lorries, and then pulls to a halt beside them. The door opens and an officer from Military Intelligence runs across the field. He is waving something in his hand, a handkerchief or a scarf. He distracts the commander of the soldiers who turns towards him. The two men engage in animated conversation for a minute or two. The intelligence officer takes hold of the commander’s arm, but he shakes the man off and pushes him away. The two men shout at each other, their words lost in the dull roar of the diesel engines. For a moment fists are raised. The commander draws a gun. Then the intelligence officer turns away and walks slowly back to his car.
The old people are pushed at gunpoint to the edge of the pit where they stand, outlined against the lights of the lorries, staring down into the blackness below. On the command, the soldiers raise their rifles. At a signal from the officer in charge, they fire. The old people fall into the cold pit. The smell of cordite lies briefly on the night air. The crying has ceased. The only sound is the wind in the trees.
The soldiers exchange their rifles for spades and the earth is shovelled back. Dead branches are drawn over the grave. It is not a token of last respect to the victims. It is a gesture of concealment, meaningless because there is no one who will search the forest for this grave except the few wild boar that remain.
The colonel from Military Intelligence has turned away from the execution, but he has heard everything, the screams of those about to die and the reports of the rifles. Now all he hears is the silence of the night. His face is young and unlined; his eyes, visible briefly by the light of his torch, are pale. He stops by his car and takes off his rimless tinted glasses. He wipes his eye with a handkerchief.
‘You could say,’ the captain of the execution squad remarks to the intelligence officer, ‘they have died for their country.’
His words are the only memorial to the lives that have been lost, and they are soon forgotten in the cold night air.
‘Begin again,’ he says.
‘What time is it?’ she asks.
‘There’s plenty of time.’
How long since they’d arrived? One hour? Two? It seems like a few minutes and so far she has achieved nothing. Broken sentences. Broken thoughts. This is not how she imagined it would be. She wants to cry with frustration and anger.
‘Come outside. You’ll feel better.’
The sun, yellow-orang
One short night with no cover of darkness. That is all she has. A few precious hours. And what is she doing? She is wasting them in silence.
‘No one knows where we are,’ he says. There is no insistence in his voice, only encouragement. ‘We can stay here as long as we choose. Tell me as much as you want to.’
She has never talked to anyone about these events, not her son, certainly not her mother, not even Miskin. For so long she has concealed her true self in a secret hiding place where her memories are buried so deeply that any coherent explanation is a struggle.
Now, slowly, the calm of this isolated place works on her as he has known it would. Her mind relaxes, the tensions that made expression so difficult begin to ease, her confusion settles into some kind of logical purpose. She must tell him the truth, as much of it as she knows, and she must do so now. Her life depends upon it.
So she begins again.
‘I knew something was wrong the moment I turned into Glinka Street. You can see the apartment window from the corner where I cross the road on my way back from the Institute. In the winter, the light is always on as I come home, shining behind green curtains. It reassures me in a way my mother knows nothing about. It is a sign that she has survived another day.’
(‘When did all this happen?’ he asks.
‘December last year,’ she says. ‘Six months ago.’)
‘That night the window was dark. No light, and the curtains not pulled. I knew she wouldn’t sit there like that, nor could she leave the flat on her own. I was very frightened. I remember thinking, Is it my turn now? Are they there in the dark, waiting for me? What has happened to my mother? My son? Tears came into my eyes, not for myself but for them, for their lives without my protection. But I never once asked myself if my mother was dead.
‘My fear gave way to a sense of violation that someone should dare to force their way into my home. It was strong enough to make me enter the building, but it didn’t last. I am not a brave woman.
‘The babushka didn’t look at me as I walked to the elevator. She may never have smiled at me in the past, but at least she had registered my presence with a glance. Now her eyes avoided me; it was as if I was not there. That was a signal too, like the unlit window.’
(I am learning to speak again, she tells herself. I am using words I have not dared to use for years. The experience is exhilarating. She wonders what impression she is giving. She knows she is not presenting herself as she wants to, but by now it is too late, there is nothing she can do about it.)
‘How many times had I worked out exactly what I would do in such a circumstance? Get out of the elevator one floor up and wait. Listen. Creep down the stairs. Look for signs of forced entry, splintered wood on the door frame, scratched metal on the lock. Push the front door. Does it yield? If so, then run. Run as fast and as far as you can.
‘But rehearsal is no preparation for reality. I leaned against the wall at the top of the stairs, dizzy with apprehension. I forgot all the rules I had so carefully set myself. It took me some moments to pull myself together. Then I opened my bag, found my keys and crept downstairs. There was no one in the corridor, though it was hard to be sure, it’s always dimly lit. I gave the door to our flat a light push and it moved under the pressure of my hand.
‘I knew they were there before I saw them. The bitter smell of Russian cheroots always makes my eyes burn. There were two of them, both dressed in overcoats and still wearing their hats.
‘I asked where my mother was. They didn’t answer. I remember repeating: “What have you done with her? Why have you come?” But they said nothing because all they had were their orders. Explanations are a rare commodity in our society.
‘They stood up and said: “You will come with us.” Nothing more. No explanation of whose orders they were following, nor where we were going, just a simple instruction. I complied as they knew I would. I followed them obediently out of the apartment and down the stairs.
‘Why did I assist in my own arrest?’ she says defensively. ‘Why didn’t I make them drag me out into the street, screaming and shouting?’
The aggression in her voice challenges him to answer. He says nothing. He is smoking and listening to her intently. He will not interrupt her now she has started.
‘Resistance demands will. We are a people crushed by the system we helped to create. The currency of our lives is fear, we are afraid of each other, we are afraid of the air we breathe. To find the strength to resist demands a courage that few possess. We submit because we have lost our will. That night I let them lead me away because, with those two men beside me, I, Ruth Marchenko, had become invisible. That was when I began to feel afraid. When you become invisible, you no longer exist.’
I remember thinking as I was bundled into the back of a black Zil: Why had they removed my mother? What possible use could they have for a crippled woman of eighty? As we drove through the city, I was not aware of crying but I remember my cheeks felt wet. But slowly my anger and resentment gave me strength. I had always wondered how I would cope when it happened to me. Now I was learning first-hand.
They drove me to the Lubyanka, where else? The building seemed to stink of fear and corruption, the stench of evil. A smell, no more than that, but nowhere I went in that endless other world was I free of it.
I was taken to a room and told to wait. A man in uniform came in. He sat down at a desk, opened a file (my file, how could my file be as thick as that?) and began to question me, writing my answers on a form in front of him.
Was I Ruth Marya Marchenko?
When was I born?
My father’s name.
My mother’s name.
Where were they born?
‘Why are you asking me this? You brought me here. You must know who I am. Where is my mother? What have you done with her? She is an old woman. Where have you taken her?’
‘Your mother is safe.’ The lenses of his rimless glasses caught the light from his desk lamp as he looked up at me.
‘I want to see her.’
‘That will be arranged in due course.’
‘I want to see her now.’
‘There are formalities to be completed first.’
‘Why did you take her from our flat?’
He refused to answer the question, so I repeated it again and again, louder each time. Finally, he said: ‘I have asked you here to see your husband, Ivan Mihailovitch Marchenko.’
Ivan? He wants me to see Ivan?
‘We have been divorced for over ten years.’
‘He has asked to see you.’
I had not seen him nor thought of him for years. I had tried to remove all traces of his presence from my life. Why now should this stranger have the right to bring him back into my life?
‘I must inform you that Ivan Marchenko has been found guilty of embezzlement against the state.’
‘Is he here? In this place?’
‘Is this a place of execution?’
‘No.’ I knew he was lying. The smell of death permeated the air. That was the poison I was breathing.
‘But he will be executed?’
You can never prepare for death. However one may accept it intellectually, its reality is always unexpected, so much more shocking than one imagines. The man whose life I had shared for a time was about to die. Whatever I may have felt, I had never wished him dead.
‘I don’t want to see him.’
‘He has asked to see you. In the circumstances, it is difficult to refuse such a request.’
To my horror I found that I was crying again; tears we
I followed him down into a basement, left and right, through steel gates and long passages. I was in a dream, floating among lights and sounds and shapes and smells that made no sense to me. Then a door was unlocked and I was in the arms of a man I had not seen for years. His body was shaking but his cheeks were dry. There were no tears in his eyes. By now he was empty of tears.
‘Save me, Ruth,’ he was saying. ‘You must save me. I cannot die now. I have years to live. You must do something.’
Had this thin, shrivelled creature once been my husband? He was not the man I remembered, he was bent and old and deathly pale. He had withdrawn from the world into the prison of his own mind, and there his life had ended when he gave up hope.
We talked. Not of the past, nor of anything important. What can you say when there is no future to talk about, nothing to hope for? How much of our lives is about our unquestioned belief in tomorrow and the day after! Once he mentioned our son. It was the only time he smiled.
‘What will you tell him?’ he asked. My son never asked about his father but I could not say that to him.
I tried to smile and said: ‘He will never know the truth, or certainly not from me.’
‘Thank you.’ He touched my hand in gratitude. I remember, it was like ice being laid across me.
What did I feel then? Not love rekindled, nor pity but hopelessness. Emptiness. Powerlessness. Dread and disbelief that this small, crumpled man, his drawn face lined with fear, would in a few hours be led out to his death, that the nerves and muscles in his body, the life-giving patterns of the particles that made him whole and distinct, at someone’s command would suddenly and brutally be shattered and then as quickly would begin the reverse process of disintegration and decomposition. In those microseconds between the entry of the bullet into the brain and the destruction of the nervous system, can the mind register what is happening? Do you know that you are being killed? I prayed that in that awful moment of obliteration he would have no awareness and feel no pain.
‘It’s time I left.’