My wife always thought that someday I’d be a big success.
I taught literature and linguistics at Alecu Russo State University of Beltsy, a mid-size city located in the northern part of Moldova, within the historical region of Bessarabia with which the city’s own history is closely intertwined, and held seminars on weekends to make some extra money. Then came the Seventies, Brezhnev’s time, deadly like a marsh, when everybody had to make a choice, and mine wasn’t the wisest one.
Despite my reputation as a recluse, I still held regular gatherings in my apartment to entertain close friends and colleagues. They enjoyed wine and food and didn’t notice that I, who was usually in the center of every discussion, was not talking much. They still had a good time.
Only my wife seemed unhappy. “You used to be witty and cheerful, my love,” she said once. “Now you don’t say a word, as though you’re afraid of your plain language.” I didn’t deny it. Of course I could make an effort to be smart and funny; it’s just I had the feeling I had said it all before and the things I really wanted to discuss were dangerous and forbidden.
I was in my late twenties then, healthy and still ambitious.
Time kept going. I kept teaching Soviet literature in the spirit of socialistic realism, even though I hated the subject more than I could tell. Every day I met plenty of people, killers and those who ordered the killings; all sorts of things happened around me, colleagues taken away in the middle of a lecture, neighbors disappearing, but as soon as I stepped onto the porch of my apartment I didn’t feel like talking about it.
More than once I thanked God for television.
In August of 1984, I flew to Moscow and met with a few of my colleagues from the state university. The meeting took place in a dacha some twenty miles from Russia’s capital. We talked about dead friends and the ones who will die in the nearest future; about the need for a printing shop somewhere in Moldavia or Ukraine, preferably in Moldavia. That was dangerous, could’ve cost me more than a job or advancement opportunities, but everything went fine.
When a month later I was invited by the local KGB office for a chat, it was a shock: KGB?
I didn’t know what to think, but this wasn’t an institution I could ignore. A man who soon walked in was at least six feet tall, nicely built; he introduced himself as Major Anatoly Orlov. His smile disarmed me.
He turned out to be a well-spoken, educated man in his early thirties, polite and a good listener. By the end of our meeting, it became obvious that he knew quite a bit about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Everything seemed normal, somewhat uneventful. Then he suggested lunch at the nearby café, and I couldn’t refuse: after all, lunch is lunch, a harmless thing. I ordered a beef-stroganoff, and for the next forty minutes there was just a casual chat about nothing. Then we shook hands.
Sunny day, everybody in white shirts.
Anatoly called again a week later to request another meeting, this time outside of his chatting room. “A park perhaps?” I suggested. “There is one right next to the university…”
“I have a better idea: the residential complex on Garden Street, right behind the bookstore, apartment 603, at ten o’clock next Tuesday. And I’ve taken the liberty to check your schedule: your first class doesn’t start until 11:45 a.m.”
… It was a nine-story apartment complex about halfway between the City Court and the KGB building; it had two elevators, but I took the stairs, as though afraid of meeting a familiar face. I reached the sixth floor and stopped at the door with a number 603 in the middle. Remembered suddenly a quick exchange of words I had with Anatoly before he disconnected the line.
“The mill-stones of history never stop,” he said. “That’s why it is very important not to get between them.”
“So, don’t push me.”
“In your case it’s a bit too late, my friend: your hands were already caught when I got you.”
And I understood: that’s all they needed, a hand, even a finger, then it was only a matter of time to get my body and mind squeezed between the mill-stones to transform me into a flat, blind, obedient human being. Just one fucking finger! Well, I thought, what’s meant to happen – can’t be escaped.
I pushed the red button.
“Come in!” resounded from behind the door. “It’s open.”
Anatoly stood next to wall-to-wall bookshelves with an unlit cigar in one hand and an open book in the other. “Sit down,” said pointing at the chair. “A cigar?”
I looked at him: he was just a few months older than I, with a typical – milky-buttery – Russian face. A graduate from Leningrad State University, where he studied literature and Russian language, he was recruited by the KGB as soon as he completed his first two years of education. He possessed a practical mind, good memory and loved to talk about modern poetry and prose as long as the conversation didn’t veer toward forbidden themes.
“I actually quit,” I said hurriedly. “About a year ago…”
“I’ll take it as a no, but don’t ever lie to me again,” interrupted Anatoly in a slightly raised voice, pulled a tiny tape recorder out of his back pocket, and for half an hour I listened to my own seminars in secret basements and the conversations with my colleagues in a dacha near Moscow. Then he turned the recorder off and said as if nothing happened:
“The purpose of today’s meeting is to offer you a job, to point out the advantages and explain the privileges…”
“Simply say: you’re offering me to betray my own people?” I dared to interrupt.
“Would you like to listen to some more of your weekend activities?”
And I ran out of words suddenly.
“You’re not betraying anybody, not necessarily,” Anatoly continued. “To defend the interests of your country was never considered a betrayal. I’m not asking you to kill people…”
“Don’t see any difference…”
“…to poison them, to knock out their teeth. Your name will never appear in any documents, will never be pronounced in the interrogation room. If it makes you feel better, you’ll never know what happened to them, how they were punished or were they punished at all. As far as I see it, you’re a ghost, Lazarus, an invisible man. Our organization is interested in people of certain qualities, and you possess those qualities. We’re also very interested in a certain circle of people with whom you had established a lasting relationship. The information about their plans, thoughts, future moves, and the contents of letters that might be channeled to them from around the world, especially from United States and Israel, are just a few examples of what can be used…”
“A risk-free job, isn’t it?”
“Nothing is completely risk-free, professor…”
“I’m actually a college lecturer…”
“Not for long… Any interest in advantages and privileges?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“To avoid punishment? Not even a slim one, but that would be something to talk about in details at our next meeting on Monday. The assignment is simple if you follow instructions. Take your time please. For now I just want to remind you that everything I’ve said is strictly confidential and not for public discussion.”
“My family?” I had to ask.
“It’s for your own good, believe me,” said Anatoly following me to the front door. “I can do a few things for you and your family if you decide to consider our offer. If not…well, let’s just say that your life and the lives of your close ones will change forever…and not for the better.”
I kept quiet.
“Until next Monday then?” he said shaking my hand.
“A very productive conversation, wasn’t it?” I tried to joke.
“Is it Monday or Tuesday?”
Out of the building, I went to the nearby park and played a couple of timed chess games before my first class of the week.
… Next Monday I awoke early and took a long shower. I heard my wife talking to my daughters, their usual morning wrangle. To go or not to go? A door slammed, then another: my wife and kids were gone.
I had some two hours to make a decision, hopefully the right one. I dried myself, brushed my teeth. Am I really good enough for the assignment?
Carefully as never before I shaved my face, combed my hair. At 8:45 a.m. I was ready. I stood in front of a mirror trying to find any doubts in my tired blue eyes and couldn’t.
It was my opportunity, I told myself, to make something out of my miserable life. In a few years no one will remember. Anatoly was right: if it’s not I – then it’s someone else, younger, more decisive, more ambitious and braver. Survival is the name of the game.
I finally left the apartment.
Cloudy sky as usual, freshness in the air, magic of chlorophyll.
I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore. Once inside, I asked for a telephone.
“Please be quick,” warned the young freckled clerk.
“I will,” I assured her and dialed the number.
“I’m listening,” Anatoly answered after a few rings.
“This is Lazarus Trubman, I’m not coming.”
“You shouldn’t be calling from a bookstore.”
“I know, sorry.”
“It’s very understandable.”
The freckled clerk began showing obvious signs of impatience.
“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday,” I said: I really didn’t know how to end this conversation.
“I doubt it,” said Anatoly and disconnected the line.
I thanked the freckled clerk and left the bookstore. A huge cloud above the nearby park finally gave birth to a light cool rain. I inhaled deeply and began walking down the boulevard, an unknown creature in a gray raincoat whose life had just changed forever.
… Another month passed. On Monday, as soon as we finished watching the late night movie, my wife was ready to go to bed, and I promised to join her after a quick cigarette.
“Are you alright, honey?” she asked.
“As alright as I can be.”
“I can change that for the better in a heartbeat,” she said touching my hand.
“I’ve no doubts, my love,” I said. “How about a rain-check?”
I really needed to be alone.
“A rain-check it is,” she began walking away, then turned around and said, “Don’t take too many though.”
On the balcony, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of young Feteasca Neagra in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the food. What then?
I glanced at my wristwatch: almost midnight.
A black “Volga” attracted my attention because it appeared suddenly and stopped under a streetlight. Three men in shiny leather raincoats got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building.
I finished my wine and put out the cigarette. A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.
They came for me.
It’s all in the past now, but not forgotten: arrest, interrogations, beatings; my survival. On December 4th of, 1990 we boarded the shiny Boeing-747 bound for New York.
… And today, 28 years later, my dreams and hopes are fulfilled, I am surrounded by a bunch of children and grandchildren, I’m breathing the clear air of freedom.
My torturers? I forgave them. God won’t.