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A priest visits the village once a month to perform the Sacred Mysteries. On the first Sunday in March he is very late for a baptism. It gets stuffy in the hall where the villagers are waiting. The women rock their unbaptised babies and the men lean outside to peer down Lenin Street. Smoky breath moistens their noses. Nests sway on the tips of bare trees against the white sky.
[private]The batushka arrives with moonshine on his breath. His cheeks are flushed with crimson stipples. He leads toasts after each christening and leaves the final baby in the baptismal font. Only the baby’s mother notices. She pulls her son out of the basin and looks reprovingly at her husband, who was preoccupied with the toast. The soaking wet baby is unperturbed; the priest is impressed. He announces that this baby is a warrior and names him ‘Boris.’
Even though she will have two more children, Borka remains extra special to his mother Klavdia. Sometimes she catches him observing her with an expression of real shrewdness on his face. He loves music. No one in the village owns a radio but their neighbour comes over with his fiddle specifically to play for Boris Nikolayevich, who waves his fists in the air and sways back and forth on his bandy baby legs.
The villagers work on the collective farm. There is a river, brown and stagnant in the summer and frozen for the rest of the year. At night, leashed dogs bark and beams of starlight oscillate, while the river and Butka’s wooden buildings are swallowed up by the darkness of the Siberian plain.
Borka is on the roof of a railway carriage, somewhere between Novgorod and Moscow. He has grown into a tall and handsome man, just as the women in the barak in Bereznicki said he would. He is self-conscious about his missing thumb and index finger, which he lost as a schoolboy when he pinched a grenade from an ammunition depot during the Great Patriotic War. It’s a story he tries to avoid telling. He is just thankful it was his left hand.
He is travelling across the country after his first year of engineering studies at the Ural State Technical University. His first year at the UPI was a success. He made lifelong friends and met his wife Anastasia, ‘Naina.’ His friends remember his fondness for drinking sugary condensed milk straight out of the blue cans.
Borka has passed hundreds of wheat fields, birch forests, lakeside settlements, and desolate wood churches. He has seen the Winter Palace and the Kremlin, and he has watched the setting sun turn the Neva River pink.
He sleeps on benches in train stations and parks. When police officers question him he says he’s on his way to visit his grandmother. When they ask for her address he says, ‘Lenin Street’ and makes up a number. He’s hungry, but Boris Nikolayevich is used to hunger and hardship. By his sixth year he was in charge of minding Mikhail and Valentina. In the summers he used to scythe grass with his mother.
He has grown accustomed to the rocking motion and enjoys waking up with the wind on his face. The train speeds past a white cathedral topped with gold onion domes. The sunset is blinding, nectarine with navy blue clouds.
Boris joined the Party when he turned thirty. He’d stayed in Sverdlovsk after university, where he was assigned a position as foreman. The biggest industry in town is the Ural Heavy Machine Building Plant. By the seventies, eighty-seven percent of Sverdlovsk’s production is military. The city is closed to foreigners. Boris loves it; the white skies and the trams sweeping down its broad streets; the Soviet constructivist architecture and turquoise baroque buildings from the old days. Members of the secret police live downtown in a ten-storey collective housing complex shaped like a hammer and sickle. There is a large military presence, a couple of bases. There’s a top-secret biological weapons facility at Military Compound 19.
The Bolsheviks brought the last Tsar and his family to Sverdlovsk, back when it was called Yekaterinburg. The elegant home of N. N. Ipatiev was appropriated for the prisoners. ‘Citizen Nicholas Romanov, you may enter.’ The Romanovs were held for seventy-eight days in the House of Special Purpose before they were executed in the cellar, the whole family. It’s not a pleasant story. The Ipatiev House was declared a national monument a few years ago, but now suddenly the Politburo wants it gone before the eightieth anniversary of the coronation.
The Chair of the Committee for State Security for the USSR ordered the first secretary of the Sverdlovsk District Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR to destroy the Ipatiev House.
‘It’s practically downtown,’ Boris Nikolayevich remarks when he reads Andropov’s memorandum. ‘Let’s do the job at night to avoid a fuss.’
The first secretary of the Sverdlovsk District Committee puts the matter out of his head. His new jurisdiction stretches across the entire district, 4.72 million people. His word is final. It’s like being a tsar. Boris Nikolayevich loves being first secretary. He gets migraines, though, ‘like the tortures of hell.’ He relaxes by hunting, fishing, and with periodic sprees in restaurants and private homes. He conducts balalaika orchestras and Georgian male choirs with his fork and keeps time with his spoon. Yuri Vizbor is a favourite. The Song of the Old Street Organ Player, those songs. He always joins in.
On the night of the demolition Boris is leading a sing-along with members of his apparat when he has an impulse to visit the site. It’s late September and chilly at night. The moon looks full.
Boris Nikolayevich arrives at the Ipatiev House wearing a pale grey kubanka. It matches his thick hair, which has turned silver. The workers snap to attention but the first secretary puts them at ease with his playful mood:
‘Hello there Comrades, are you looking for something to break? ’
Boris Nikolayevich crowns one of the bulldozer drivers with his kubanka. He is drinking from a flask and has the look of a man determined to enjoy himself.
It takes some doing to demolish the building. N.N. Ipatiev’s house was well-built. The wrecking ball smashes the thick stone walls of the dinning room. Neighbours watch from their windows. Boris Nikolayevich’s spirits plummet with every swing. He grows maudlin and depressed and cries out, ‘He was a husband and a father like any one of us!’ He does not stay to watch the boy in the grey kubanka drive the bulldozer through the corner room where the ex-Tsar, his wife and the ailing ex-Tsarevich Alexis slept.
It’s all been secretly arranged by their host. There are snacks, comfortable chairs, and a television in the adjacent room.
‘Look,’ he says, ‘I think it’s agreed that we warmly welcome the Belfast Agreement, acknowledge that it presents challenges to all parties, and hope that it will achieve the widest possible support.’
The host looks at his watch and closes his binder. He tells them it’s 4pm and his team Newcastle is playing Arsenal in the F.A. Cup final.
‘And you just gotta watch them play, that right Tony?’ Bill says. He’s beaming. He personally likes to keep everyone waiting while he greets the public, and appreciates a well-executed assertion of dominance.
Jacques is excited, ‘Arsenal has a French manager and there is also a French attacker, Nicolas Anelka, he is very strong. Who is in your Newcastle defence, do you find them strong?’
‘Well, we’ve got …’ Tony laces his fingers and shows Jacques his palms. He smiles with his lips pressed together. They all hear the second hand on the clock mark eight seconds. ‘Look. Let’s see … In the back we’ve got Stuart Pearce.’
Boris Nikolayevich’s hair has gone white. He’s a real Arctic fox now! He’s thinner and paler since his heart attacks and quintuple coronary bypass less than two years ago. In March he dismissed his entire cabinet and appointed a new prime minister who has just been confirmed by the Duma. It must be apparent to everyone that Boris Nikolayevich has not slowed down, not for one second!
Boris sits between Helmut and Ryutaro during the game. Jacques says ‘hop!’ every time Anelka gets the ball. Helmut explains the offside rule to Bill. Romano teases Tony about all the Italian players on the pitch. Ryutaro and Jean look bored and unimpressed. Ryutaro wants to smoke even though he’s wearing a nicotine patch. Jean remarks that the Newcastle strip, ‘is like the uniform of our hockey referees.’ Newcastle loses and Tony says, ‘I’m gutted.’ It is Russia’s second summit as a full member of this club, and Boris Nikolayevich enjoys every second.
There are heavily guarded villages of haciendas, Georgian fortresses and Prairie Style mega-mansions in the pine forests just outside of the capital. Hockey players and oligarchs shop in the new Barvikha Luxury Village. They buy knitwear at Loro Piana and silk V-neck sweaters at Ermenegildo Zegna. A billboard on Rublyovskoye Shosse says, ‘Any House. Helicopter as a bonus.’
Boris Nikolayevich is on the dacha. They have an apartment in the city but have spent most of their time since his retirement in Rublyovka at Gorki-9, where Mikhail Sergeyevich used to stay. Of all people.
Borka still gets up at 6am. He drinks tea and makes phone calls. He walks around the house jiggling the change in his pocket, looking for attention. He’s frail; his health is not good. He brings baskets of carrots and sliced apples to the stables. He feeds his pets, two mares and a stallion from the President of Kazakhstan. People were always giving him horses. He doesn’t ride but it soothes him to press his cheek against their muzzles and murmur in their velvety ears. He wants to create a world club of former leaders, elders who can exert a moral influence on the global stage of a multipolar world.
His bodyguard asks him about Vladimir Vladimirovich. Boris says, ‘No sane man weighs every word so carefully.’ He tells his guard he was intrigued by Vladimir Vladimirovich because he was so brusque and closed about his personal life. They take a tour of the grounds in a golf cart. Boris Nikolayevich drives. It gives him a thrill to drive very fast towards a tree and veer away at the last possible second. He’ll have some of Naina’s pierogies for lunch, and he’s going to watch the tennis this afternoon.[/private]
Louise Phillips lives in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared in Dream Catcher, 3AM Magazine, the The Copperfield Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Delinquent, and The Dirty Napkin.