“The Distinguished Assassin”, First Extract

1st April ‘49

First, they frisk him down, then they start to go through his apartment, this shoddy home of Aleksei Nikolayevich Klebnikov, with its cracked plaster, which criss-crosses the walls; its peeling wallpaper, which droops from the ceiling; its old pipes, which cough and splutter; its wood furniture, which barely holds together; its paintings, which hang from the walls breathing precious colour and life; and its books, these vital sources of knowledge and analysis, interpretation and imagination, piled high like great pillars from floor to ceiling. Watching them, these NKVD officers, these State Security operatives – though they were renamed MVD and MGB a few years ago they are the very same, are no less vicious – it is clear they are determined to know every last bit about him, their eyes and ears everywhere, full of hate, mistrust even madness. It makes him furious, this level of intrusion. Should he fight not to be treated like this, a common criminal? And yet every Russian citizen does not fight, but rather is acquiescent. For this is the Soviet way. Normalno. This is life. We breathe.

They want to know why he has a map of America on his wall. Has Aleksei been contaminated by the West? Is he a traitor? Should he be charged with VAD, Praise of American Democracy, or PZ, Toadyism Toward the West. His heart must reside solely with Mother Russia. Is this a sign of his allegiance to a foreign power? His copies of Kommunist are long gone. He needs to be purified, re-educated. Will he die for this now, this map? Suspicion and fear govern everything, and the people, devoid of choice, are made compliant, hopeless. Aleksei is tired of being constantly watched, monitored. His radio still plays in the background. A session of the Supreme Soviet Council is being broadcast. This appears to have been on for days. Perhaps this particular session will never end, he wonders.

One of the officers, short and handsome but a little overweight, goes into the bedroom. Aleksei listens to the harsh, officious tap of his jackboots on the wood floor. This is Vladimir Vladimirovich Primakov, he knows Aleksei well, has been following him for some time. It is Aleksei’s turn to follow him now, however. His wife’s knickers lie on the unmade bed. Vladimir Vladimirovich picks them up, brings them to his face, sniffs them greedily, and smiles. “Natasha… she smells good, huh.” He takes another deep breath, holds it, then exhales, uttering, “Aaaggghhh…” as if he feels perfectly satisfied at this moment. He does not then return them to the bed but holds onto them, clenching them in his fist like a prize token, something valuable he has gained and won, a dog with his bone. “How I’d love to fuck her!” he concludes.

Aleksei wants to hit him, cannot bear that he refers to her, his delicate and graceful wife, in this way. A big man, not that tall but with a broad chest and shoulders, and powerful arms, Aleksei could dispense with Vladimir Vladimirovich quite easily.

“Where is she?” he continues.

“At work,” Aleksei answers.

“And why aren’t you at work?”

“You know I was forced out, and that’s why you’re here, at this time of day.”

“Yes,” Vladimir Vladimirovich replies.

How Aleksei wishes he were still at the university, at Moscow State, with his beloved books, his beloved history, instead of here, forced to languish at home while Natasha works. It seems the state has even managed to rid him of his masculinity. Like other Russian men, he has too much pride. Mother Russia, we might refer to her as feminine, Aleksei thinks, yet under Koba she has become unreservedly masculine. In fact, she and her citizens have a propensity for violence that only men are capable of. Freud has had little impact in Russia, and this is not solely because his work is dismissed as the product of a bourgeois Jewish mind, but also because the Russian man simply possesses too much machismo and bravado to lose himself in endless self-reflection.

The country is full of apparatchik like these two men before Aleksei, millions in its service, unable to resist the lure of power. Once more, it seems, he is suspected of anti-Soviet activity, of working with a small group of dissident academics, artists and poets. Will they find his writings? He should not have kept any of them here, Aleksei rebukes himself.

Katya cries, and he hurries to his daughter’s room. “Where are you off to?” Vladimir Vladimirovich calls after him, stuffing Natasha’s knickers in his trouser pocket.

“You heard her!” Aleksei shouts back.

The other officer, tall, skinny and rather gawky, stands over Katya as she squats on the floor, looking petrified, half way through a painting. His beloved Katya, she loves to paint, like her mother.

“What are you doing in here?” Vladimir Vladimirovich asks his colleague.

“Seeing what’s in the kid’s room.”

Katya, she paints Pokrovsky Cathedral, St Basil’s. They probably suppose that Aleksei is pushing on his daughter not only anti-Soviet ideology but also religion. It is unclear which they consider the greater evil. The former, Aleksei suspects. For though they will not admit it, they have a penchant for the latter: Soviet ideology is their religion now. Katya’s mind, it is young enough not to be weighed down with the burden of dogma, ideology – for there is too much of it in Russia, it seems to dominate everything. How Aleksei hopes that her mind remains free: clear, light and lucid. And yet such a mind is very rare. People here are either fervently committed to the realisation of a Socialist utopia or wholly ambivalent about it. “You come with us,” the tall and skinny officer says to Katya, taking her arm and lifting her, forcibly, to her feet.

Aleksei lunges at him, shouting, “Let go of her! Let go!”

He is grabbed from behind by Vladimir Vladimirovich, who wrestles him to the floor, pulls his big arms behind his back and handcuffs him. Next, he grabs the back of Aleksei’s head, clutches a fistful of hair – this thick light brown wild mop which Natasha calls “the professor in him” on account of its unwieldy nature, defying his burly body that makes him look more like a prize fighter than an academic – and slams his forehead on the old wooden floor until it is bloody and throbbing. After this, he pulls Aleksei onto his knees.

And so here he kneels, as if genuflecting before Vladimir Vladimirovich, his head feeling heavy like his neck can no longer support its weight. His vision is blurred, everything hazy – if only this were because of drink, he thinks.

“You are under arrest,” Vladimir Vladimirovich says contemptuously, relishing these words.

Katya weeps at this moment; Aleksei hears her soft and frightened whimpers. He reaches out to hold her hand, to comfort her, but is pulled away, towards the door. Vladimir Vladimirovich will not allow him anything, not even a change of underwear or bar of soap. He needs to look at her, his little girl; he must, as this might be the last time.

Though Vladimir Vladimirovich still clutches a fistful of his hair, Aleksei forces his head round and blinks repeatedly, hoping that he might just see clearly, if only for an instant, her light brown hair, the hair of her mother’s, and her soft pale skin, her mother’s also.

He makes her out … yes, he can see her … however then she is gone, and Aleksei wonders whether he saw her at all. Perhaps he had simply imagined her.


He is taken to the Lubyanka: they obviously judge him to be a serious threat. The building’s front might be grand and stately, but its rear, with its grisly black iron gates, is certainly not. He is hauled inside, its interior also far from majestic, shabby and run-down. He is led down a long grimy corridor. He senses what his fate is: he is to be exiled. And for what? His frustration with Communism, his desire for something better than this. Aleksei should not be punished, rather commended.

He had imagined that after the war things would be different. For the Russian people had suffered terribly, and needed time to heal. They had fought against fascism, a cruel and malign system of governance. He had battled hard with his brothers, endured the hell of Stalingrad. And yet for what? The defence of a tyranny with another name – Soviet Communism. They have a new enemy already – democratic capitalism. It is now even illegal to marry a foreigner!

Natasha will be distraught, Aleksei thinks, as he is bundled into, what appears to be, a reception area populated by a number of moody, truculent guards. Staring at the dirty walls he recalls what she said to him when her father died, just one year after her mother. “Now they’ve both gone, Aleksei, you must promise that you’ll never go … never leave me … ever!”

He is registered, photographed and fingerprinted.

“Take off your clothes… all of them!” a young ginger-haired officer with a face thick with freckles barks indifferently.

Aleksei follows his instructions, his mind now turning to Katya. Where is she? he panics. When they return her to her mother, assuming they return her, she will wonder where poppa has gone. “Please let her not think that I’ve abandoned her,” Aleksei utters.

His trouser belt and bootlaces are confiscated, as are his underpants (they contain elastic) and the buttons on his shirt: they are obviously concerned that he might take his own life, and must control all of him, must even dictate how he dies.

Naked, Aleksei stands before them.

The search begins. It is not enough that they go through his clothes. No, they must also go through his body. They inspect every part of it. They begin with his head and upper body – his mouth, nostrils, eyes, ears, armpits. And after this they move to his feet and lower body – his toes, foreskin, penis, buttocks, anus. They prod, they pull, they poke, they squeeze. Pulling his finger sharply out of Aleksei’s anus, the young ginger-haired officer looks at him with a conceited smirk and asks, “How was that, professor?”

It is the ultimate humiliation, abasement, and he, this young State Security operative, relishes it.

Aleksei is dragged down the dank corridor and thrown into a holding cell. It is very small, about one and a half by two and a half metres. It contains a small wooden bench and a slop bucket. Now he must wait … to be questioned, or rather, interrogated. He stands at the back, leaning against the wall, and stares up at the cement ceiling. He tries to contain his thoughts, his emotions, yet cannot. He thinks of his father; he had to endure this as well.

Poppa, a professor of literature, was judged not to be enthusiastic enough about Koba, our Great Leader, in his lectures, and so in ‘37 was arrested in the middle of the night, pulled from his bed, as so many were, by the NKVD. Aleksei’s mother was sure that she would never see him again: for one of the arresting officers had insisted that her husband would “not need his coat as he will be back soon”, and this meant only one thing. But under heavy and intense interrogation – eighteen hours of it, in fact – he suffered a stroke. They had dealt with poppa brutally, sitting him on a chair, tying him to it, next beating him on his feet, back and face with wooden mallets. They subsequently hospitalized him. The stroke came at the right time. For it seemed certain that he would have been exiled to Siberia otherwise, or died under interrogation.

When did I become an enemy of the state? Aleksei wonders. It was a year ago, when he made reference to The Wizard of Oz in a lecture. Yes, another lecture! Like father like son. He described how in awe he was of the film’s Technicolor, and cited its success as a good illustration of American idealism and progress in the 20th century. If only he had not been so impressed by a musical fantasy! He was accused by his more conservative academic colleagues of not being sufficiently critical of American democratic capitalism, and thus in turn stirring up anti-Soviet feeling. Absurd, but then, he should have expected nothing less from Koba’s Russia, which had persecuted his mother’s friend, the violinist, for stringing his instruments with Austrian rather than Russian strings. For was this gesture not a deliberate attack on the Soviet system?! This was when Vladimir Vladimirovich had first entered his life. He came to the university, to Lomonosov, barged into Aleksei’s office, flashed his maroon-coloured identity card, threw his weight around. He demanded to see his identification, and Aleksei felt terribly nervous, blood rushing to his head. What is it about his damn uniform?! It symbolizes perfectly the power he has over me, Aleksei thought at that moment, which like the state is ruthless, intolerant, impersonal. He suddenly found it very difficult to breathe – his chest tightening like a rope had been wrapped around it and a man was tugging at either end. Aleksei needed to calm his mind, but perspective, then, was almost impossible, as it is now. An accused man, he feels utterly alone.

Why the suspicion, the fear, the anger? Must we, the Russians, really live like this? Aleksei wishes they would force him to emigrate. However, he senses they would rather keep him here, on home soil. For at least then they can send him to war again, if need be, despite his injury; he was shot in the leg by a German sniper. Who will he be made to fight next? He suspects the Americans. They were his allies just four years ago. Or maybe they will throw him on a train, on a cattle wagon, and pack him off to Siberia. It seems such repressive measures are back in vogue again. Yes, perhaps he is destined to join the many innocents who have already perished there, many of them no more than fictional counter-revolutionaries. He prays that his fate will not be katorga, exile with forced labour. Perhaps they will take him all the way to the Far East, to Magadan, this city on the edge of the union built by prisoners. Those who survived this labour, of constructing a city at the foot of the Kolymsky Mountains on the Sea of Okhotsk, were then forced to build the road inland to the mines, and along the way they perished. And those few who made it miraculously to the end then had to construct their own camps before finally dying in a mountain of gold and ice deep in Kolyma’s heart. “Aleksei… you must stop this, must calm down,” he appeals to himself.

It is not clear how long they have held him here in this cell. Though it feels like days, it might be just hours. His mind has lost touch with the outer world, consumed with panic, the dialogue of catastrophe.

They feed him, a small bowl of soup. It tastes foul, resembling pig slop, consisting of rotten beet tops, grain and animal entrails, which species it is not clear.

They start to deprive him of sleep, bashing the iron door to his cell at frequent intervals. This lasts for days. “You’re on the conveyor now, huh!” the ginger-haired young officer quips, shouting at Aleksei through the Judas hole. Not allowed to lie down he tries to sleep standing up. However, he cannot.

He is held like this for about a week before at last being questioned. His mind is exhausted, feels empty, like all his memories have vanished. It is unable to function on so little sleep.

The door opens and a guard he has not seen before stands in front of him. He looks at Aleksei as if he is not a man but rather an animal, or less than this, a mere object. He is quintessentially Soviet Russian, this guard in his thirties – big and fair, ambivalent and solemn – and without saying a word he takes Aleksei’s cuffed hands and leads him down the corridor towards, Aleksei presumes, an interrogation room.

They are met by Vladimir Vladimirovich, in gruff spirits today, who ushers Aleksei into a large grey room. The walls are bare, there are no windows, there is a large desk and a few metal chairs. The heavy door is slammed shut.

The guard steps forward and slaps Aleksei hard across the face. He stays on his feet. The guard then pushes him to the ground, into the dark corner of the room, and hits him in quick succession with his rubber truncheon. “Get up, undress, and go and sit on one of those chairs,” he says, pointing at them.

Aleksei does as he says.

Naked, he sits there, staring at the room’s bare walls, next at the large desk in front of him. His eyes finally settle on a portrait of Comrade Stalin. He is ubiquitous. A file is thrown into his lap. “Your file!” Vladimir Vladimirovich shouts.

Aleksei does not respond. For the best thing he can do, he senses, is act like him, an NKVD man – evasive, moody, monosyllabic.

“Anything more to tell us?” Vladimir Vladimirovich asks.

Aleksei is silent, struck by his voice, which like the state he serves possesses no humanity.


He continues to stare blankly at Koba’s portrait.

“You sure?” Vladimir Vladimirovich goes on, clearly frustrated by Aleksei’s reticence as his bottom lip curls.

Still, he says nothing.

“Says here that you’ve been saying anti-Soviet things again, talking of democracy and all that crap. Another fucking diversionist, another fucking counter-revolutionary, eh?”

“If that’s what you say,” Aleksei replies, eventually breaking his silence. “You should know. It’s all your work in there, your allegations.”

Vladimir Vladimirovich smiles at him, and Aleksei waits for him to speak again.

“You’re off to Sybir this time, off to hell, you know that!” he bellows. Siberia still precedes hell, well … just about. Aleksei had imagined the worst, and it seems they intend to deliver it.

This will mark his ultimate alienation from the state, Aleksei thinks, as he looks at Vladimir Vladimirovich, his nemesis. He has been pushed further and further to the margins of life, Soviet life, out of the university, from one job to the next, judged to be a security risk, and furthermore an unfit citizen. He might have been a good soldier yet he is not a good citizen. Perhaps he was destined to end up in Siberia.

“Don’t you have anything to say, now I’ve told you where you’re going? Don’t you want to try and defend yourself, stop me sending you there?!” Vladimir Vladimirovich asks smugly, a living embodiment of the state he serves, next lights a cigarette, inhales deeply and blows the smoke in Aleksei’s face.

“Well, it seems you’ve decided my fate already.”


“Is my arrest helping you meet your quota?” Aleksei asks.

“I’ve met my quota this month already. With you, I’m exceeding it. Perhaps I’ll get a bonus. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get to fuck Natasha once you’re out of the way? She’ll denounce you soon enough, they all do. Bitches, the lot of them!”


“You… what?”

Aleksei is silent again.

“You deserve to be punished.”

“For what?”

“For who you are.”

“And who’s that?”

“An agitator, a traitor, an enemy of the people,” Vladimir Vladimirovich answers. “Would you like to confess?” he asks, taking his burning cigarette from his mouth and holding it over Aleksei’s hand.

“No,” Aleksei replies.

“Throw him back in the fucking kennel then!” Vladimir Vladimirovich says contemptuously, extinguishing his cigarette on Aleksei’s skin.

The interrogation is all of a sudden over, almost as soon as it started, and Aleksei, reeling from the pain of the burning flesh on his hand, realises that even if he expresses a desire for something different, different from the way things currently are, that this is enough to be guilty.

It is at last clear to him what broke his father, why he was never quite the same after his time here, but was frailer, weaker. Like Aleksei, he too had a limp, his feet never fully recovering from the beating they gave him. The fire in poppa, which drove him to write not only some wonderful papers on Dostoevsky and Tolstoy but also his own poetry, had been extinguished.

Aleksei is returned to his cell, hurled inside it, and subjected to one final indignity: the guard empties the contents of his slop bucket over his head.

He spends the next three days crawling in his own shit. Thoughts of his beautiful Natasha sustain him: her blue-grey eyes, her high cheekbones, her long slender legs, her small yet exquisite lips. When he fell in love with her these physical attributes assumed an even greater beauty, if this were possible. For they complimented her spirit, which he discovered, the more time he spent with her, is so warm, alive, full of life and love.

On the fourth day, he is at last hosed down.

View the book The Distinguished Assassin

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