by Mark Perakh



Our camp in the hamlet of Vikhorevka in Eastern Siberia held some fifteen hundred state criminals, which was the KGB's term for political prisoners. About one hundred fifty soldiers-guards, about forty barracks' warders, and about thirty officers took care of us, making sure that we followed the regulations, worked diligently in a rock quarry, and once in ten days washed our bodies and submitted our clothes for a treatment by intense heat. The purpose of the heat treatment was, of course, to kill possible lice or nits. The bath and the heat-treatment stove were both located in a timber-roofed dugout next to the barbed wire fence that ran around our zone.

The KGB man in the camp, referred to in the inmates' jargon as the Godfather, one captain Zikin, did not care about the rock quarry. The matters captain Zikin was concerned with were of much larger importance. Captain Zikin's main concern was his informers, and therefore captain Zikin was much interested in the bathing/heat treatment unit. The man in charge of the bath-and heat treatment unit happened to be an inmate by the name of Kurlov.

In captain Zikin's secret files Kurlov was listed as a Trusted Informant. The main source of information about inmates' planned escapes or about any wrong mood among the inmates that Kurlov conveyed to captain Zikin were the talks inmates conducted while using the bath unit.

Those who had access to Kurlov's personal file could find out that his height was about 5 feet 3 inches, that his hair was red, the color of his right eye was light-blue, while his left eye was missing, and that his left leg was shorter than the right one. He'd served previously terms for rape of an underage person and for burglaries, and was presently serving a 10-year term for murder. He was kept in a camp for political prisoners rather than in one for common criminals by virtue of a special determination, as a Trusted Informant.

The political prisoners in our camp had no access to Kurlov's file. They had been imprisoned for much more heinous crimes such as, for example, uttering a criminal statement that the system in the country was not 100% socialistic, or for the equally criminal opinion that a lathe manufactured by the Red Worker factory in Moscow under the name of Catch Up and Surpass was actually an exact replica of a lathe by a German company VDF . Using his informers, Captain Zikin had spread, as a protective cover for his informer, a rumor that Kurlov was sentenced for telling jokes about Lenin.

Limping Kurlov, whose sole eye was always directed to the ground, and whose mouth used to be permanently half-opened, displaying his serrated yellow teeth, looked as either an imbecile, or just a fool, and, having for several years diligently performed his informant's duties, had never been suspected by other inmates to be a stoolie.

This evening captain Zikin was drunk more than usual. In the morning hours of that day he received a long awaited letter advising him that finally, after many unsuccessful applications on his part, he was granted a transfer from the shabby, forlorn hamlet of Vikhorevka to a much larger and much livelier village of Chuna where there was a school and hence young female teachers, a new group of whom came every fall to Chuna being assigned to work there after graduating from a teachers' college, and who were anguishing from loneliness in that Siberian hole, far from their homes and families. Happy with the long awaited news, Zikin drank more than usual.

The soldier in the guard house opened, with a clang, the timber gate, and captain Zikin, buttoning his overcoat, stepped onto the ice-covered path.

Moving his eyes over the zone, where he had been the actual master for the last three years, knowing that his every order would be carried out without discussion by the formal camp's commander lieutenant-colonel Mirokhin, the Godfather walked unhurriedly along the zapretka - the forbidden strip of soil that ran along the barbed wire fence. This evening he wore the warm valenki - knee-high felt boots. Nobody in the camp would dare to reproach the Godfather for wearing a non-uniform item. Unlike the uniform leather boots which would screech at every footstep, his feet shod in valenki made no noise. As he walked leisurely on the path made in the hardened snow by the inmates' feet, captain Zikin, in his mind, saw himself as if from some observation stand. In this vision, his elegant greatcoat fitted his body without a single wrinkle, deftly concealing the drum of his belly filled with beer; on his shoulders sparkled large stars, on his feet the kid boots glistened and the silver spoors clanged gently, and his right hand in a suede glove held a stick with a carved handle, which this imaginary Zikin flung up and down, clapping on his boot.

Zikin approached the mess hall barracks which on evenings was used as a club. There, on a stage, a choir of state criminals was rehearsing the song titled 'Our Party leads us. '

For a while Zikin stayed next to the club, mentally singing with the choir and glancing toward the barracks where, as he knew, at that time the barracks' warders were driving out the inmates who tried to eschew the approaching obligatory political session.

Having concluded that there was nobody in the entire zone who could've seen him, the Godfather rushed to the bath-and heat treatment dugout.

* * *

Barefoot on the warm cement floor of the banya, the bathing facility, Kurlov held in one hand a birch besom, while his other hand was scratching his bare hairy chest. A length of a rope with shaggy ends, tied into a wet knot, held his standard cotton-padded inmate's pants under his bare belly.

'A treatment, citizen superior?' Kurlov said hoarsely, showing the besom to the captain and eagerly inhaling the smell of moonshine that wafted from the Godfather.

'Not today. Look, that's for you,' and the captain handed over to Kurlov a half empty 50-gram packet of cheap Krasnodar tea - a reward for the previous service. 'And look here.' Zikin pulled from his chest pocket a small pile of obviously very old picture cards and with a gesture of a seasoned card-player fanned them out before Kurlov's face.

'A-a! ' said Kurlov, grabbing the photos and, squinting his sole eye, peered, in the dull light of a single bulb, at the images of full-breasted women clad in underwear.

'Look, but don't grab,' Zikin said.

Kurlov moaned and reluctantly let go of the cards.

'Report now, will you?' Zikin said.

'Somebody thinks of digging under the fence,' Kurlov said.

'That's what we know without you, imbecile,' Zikin said. 'The spring time is coming, that's when all of them dream of digging under the fence... Who's planning to dig?'

'Don't know yet. They will not hide from me though. Somebody will blab,' Kurlov said with a smile that skewed the black patch over his missing eye, and made a gesture with his fingers as if squeezing an insect. 'Then we'll get them.'

'Look, Kurlov, your bath dugout is closer to the fence than any other barracks. It's the best place to start digging. So, maybe it's you who's planning, ah?'

'Citizen superior, it's painful for me to hear it. I've been serving you with all of my soul, and you...' Kurlov swept imaginary tears from his eyes.

'Well, I'm joking. What, do you've a soul really? Now, listen, Kurlov. Even if you'll find out who is planning it, you'll not report to me any longer. I'm leaving, for good, understand? Tomorrow morning. Adieu!'

'What you mean leaving?' Kurlov said, his face paling.

'Transferred! ' Zikin said triumphantly.

'Going to Chuna? What will happen to me, citizen superior? They will kill me with a stick, those political. I don't want tea, just take me with you, for Christ sake, citizen superior! '

'How the hell do you know it's Chuna?' Zikin said chuckling. 'If they make a stiff of you nobody will be grieving anyway. That's one. Two, don't you know I've plenty of men like you, reporting, among those political? Inmate Kurlov, you stay here. You'll report to my replacement, see? So, stay, obey, don't cry. And now rush to the political session, right away!'

* * *

The timber door banged, as the frost breathed in, driving aside the steam that hung above the cement floor. Kurlov stared dumbly at the closing door covered with drops of condensed water. The smell of moonshine left by the departed captain subsided gradually.

A sound of somebody coughing behind the wall of the dugout startled Kurlov. Somebody was there, outside the dugout, where he held the stacks of firewood. Somebody who could've overheard his talking with the Godfather.  

Draping his stitched cotton-padded coat over his naked shoulders, Kurlov, barefoot, sprinted out. Across the dark zone he saw Zikin walk into the brightly lit door of the guardhouse. Kurlov waved his arms, trying to attract the captain's attention, but Zikin was already stepping into the guardhouse and was not looking toward Kurlov. A soldier walked out from the guardhouse, lighting a home made cigarette - a pinch of makhorka, the crude byproduct of the cheapest tobacco wrapped in a piece of paper torn out of a newspaper. Kurlov dropped his arms. No inmate would wave to the Godfather unless having with him a special relationship. Making such relationship explicit would mean the first step toward a prompt even though not an easy demise.

Now, when the door of the guardhouse had irreversibly cut off the omnipotent Godfather from his informant, Kurlov, who'd never loved anybody else, but always, faithfully, devotedly and tenderly loved Kurlov, realized that there was nobody in the entire camp, and in the entire Gulag system, and in the entire world, who would stand up for him.

Limping and simultaneously jumping on the frozen path that was scorching his bare feet, Kurlov ran around the dugout.

* * *

The members of the choir descended from the stage. The inmates driven in by the warders were filing into the mess hall, for the sermon, the inmates slang word for the political session. The weekly political sessions had been conducted by the camp's deputy political officer, one junior lieutenant Marlen Botinnik. His first name, as everybody knew, was an abbreviation for Marx and Lenin, indicating that his Jewish parents had been devoted communists. As to his last name, everybody in the camp usually called him Botvinnik, as this was a more familiar name of the former world chess champion. Unlike the real Botvinnik, the junior lieutenant of the political division, who once took part in a checkers tournament conducted among camp officers, their wives, and their kids from seven years and up, took the last place in that tournament, having lost all the games.

As the inmates filled the room, steam rose from their mouths toward the low black rafters, while Botinnik shuffled the pages of the written text of his speech. It was obligatory for Botinnik to adhere to this text which was approved in the regional center, the city of Irkutsk.

Blowing at his red hands, Botinnik looked over the audience. In the far left corner, Lithuanians gathered, all serving twenty-five years sentences for Lithuanian nationalism, father Lodavichas, their spiritual leader, in their midst. The far right corner was occupied by Ukrainian nationalists, banderovites , all serving the same standard twenty-five years term. Closer to the stage sat believers, imprisoned for the devotion to their religious beliefs - witnesses of Jehovah, Baptists, Adventists. Even closer to the stage the blabbers took seats, people sentenced for telling anti-government jokes, or for having uttered opinions which, as the KGB had determined, were contrary to the Party line. Their sentences usually did not exceed ten years, so, as a camp saying held, their terms could be spent without getting up from a night pot.

In the second row, at the bench's edge, the orderly of the mess hall/club barracks sat, one Stalen Magazannik. Everybody understood that his first name was an abbreviation for Stalin and Lenin, thus indicating that this inmate's Jewish parents had been as much devoted to communism, as those of junior lieutenant Botinnik. As to his last name, everybody usually called him Magazinnik, which was a more common word meaning a grocery store attendant. The moniker Magazinnik had nothing to do with Magazannik's actual profession. In his before-the-arrest life Magazannik used to be Head of a Philosophy department at some university. Half-broken glasses, supported by lengths of twine which looped over his ears, sat on his red nose. Officially, Magazannik was assigned to the enviable position of a barracks orderly, rather than for work in a rock quarry, because of his extremely poor vision and a limp. Actually Magazannik earned the assignment to his position by making for several officers who took correspondent courses on a middle school level, all of their homework, from arithmetic to geography.

'It's cold though, ' junior lieutenant Botinnik said, blowing at his hands. 'I don't know to love cold. I know to hate cold.' He glanced sadly at Magazannik. Through the broken glasses, Magazannik returned the glance, his eyes also melancholy.

'My papa knew to hate cold. I and I'm all after my papa,' Botinnik said.

'Your papa must've been a savvy man,' Magazannik said sadly.

'Of course, what else?' Botinnik said. 'Listen, Magazinnik, you're an orderly here. Why won't you warm it up a little bit ? '

'But wood, citizen superior,' Magazannik said, getting up from the bench. 'The last of it went this morning. They did not allocate to me any more for today. '

'Yes, because of the weather,' Botinnik said. 'What, inmate Magazinnik, an orderly, does not know to get wood? I wish I had such problems! Inmate Magazannik, don't you realize the importance of the political session? Even more so as tonight we will discuss the religious superstitions. Go, and get wood!'

Having left the mess hall, Magazannik stood for a while, as his eyes gradually adopted to the darkness. Squinting his eyes, he looked around. Damned Botinnik! Get wood for him! Magazannik sighed and resignedly murmuring a long sentence in which Botinnik, and Botinnik's mother, and the mother of Botinnik's mother were mentioned in a non-flattering way, hobbled toward the bathing dugout. Doctor of Philosophy Magazannik decided to commit the crime of theft. At the current moment of time the ire of the bathing-heat treatment unit's supervisor Kurlov seemed to be only a potential hazard, while disobeying junior lieutenant would portend an immediate retribution, most probably depriving Magazannik of receiving a parcel from relatives.

The walk from the mess hall to the bathing dugout would normally take less than five minutes, but Magazannik limped slowly. He hated to hurry, and moreover his eyes could barely discern the path, and before making every next footstep he cautiously tried the tramped snow by the tips of his felt boots.

When he was close to the bathing dugout, he looked around to make sure that nobody, and first and most Kurlov, would see him. He saw nobody, and walked around the dugout. Kneeling next to the stack of firewood, he picked pieces of cut wood with his right hand, placing them upon his left arm. Unbending with an effort, Magazannik turned away from the stack and inhaled the cold air, enjoying the smell of the pine wood. Together with the air, he inhaled inadvertently a small sliver of wood. It tickled his throat. Magazannik coughed, trying to exhale the invisible wooden chip. Tears appeared in his eyes. Pressing the collected wood to his chest, he slowly walked around the dugout, back to the path.

'What is it? ' somebody said in a low voice. A dark figure emerged in front of Magazannik. Assuming, rather than really perceiving it, that it was Kurlov before him, Magazannik dropped the wood and covered his face with his hands, as if hoping that if he would not see Kurlov, the latter would disappear indeed, and at the same time protecting his face from the blows which, as he had no doubts about, would follow.

A second passed. Two seconds. Nothing hit him. Magazannik moved his hands slowly away from his face. Kurlov stood there, blocking the path.

'How long here? ' Kurlov said hoarsely. Astonished by the question, Magazannik mooed uncertainly. Why should Kurlov be curious about that? Had he been here just for one minute, or for a whole hour, he was anyway caught in the process of perpetrating the theft of the valuable firewood prepared for the banya.

'For how long? ' Magazannik said pensively. 'It has to do with the concept of time. It's a complex question. I'll try to explain it in layman's terms. I'll not delve into Physics where one of the theories, which actually was designed to circumvent the real problem, is that time is just another term for the unstoppable growth of entropy. From the viewpoint of the theory of cognizance, time is an attribute... '

'Bla-bla, ' Kurlov said in a tone which, contrary to Magazannik's expectations, instead of being one of rage, sounded almost benevolent.

'Ordered to get it,' Magazannik said, pointing to the wood on the ground.

'I see, ' Kurlov said. He bent, picked up the wood and, to Magazannik's utter bewilderment, handed it over to the apprehended thief.

'It's not enough for the club,' Kurlov said. 'Come over later, I'll give you more. Well, I'm going to the sermon anyway, so I'll carry it for you. Just give me a minute, to put my boots on.'

Now Magazannik realized that Kurlov was barefoot on the snow, and that through the half opened flaps of his coat his bare chest could be seen.

Baffled by Kurlov's unexpected generosity, which seemed to be so much contrary to Kurlov's reputation, Magazannik walked slowly back to the mess hall, and a few minutes later Kurlov followed him, already shod in his felt boots, with a cap on his head, and carrying one more pile of wood.

* * *

Not far from the bath-and-heat treatment dugout, there stood a barracks occupied by the camp's school. Its northern wall ran parallel to the forbidden strip that followed the line of the barbed wire fence. A small wooden annex to the school's barracks held, besides stacks of firewood, also the unpretentious implements of the school's orderly Romas Galdikas - a mop, a broom, and a canister containing diesel fuel which Galdikas was supplied with to rub on the unpainted wooden planks of the school's floors. A big rusty padlock hung on the annex's timber door.

Roman Galdikas, a one-legged Lithuanian peasant, once, in the forties, gave shelter, for a couple of hours, to three Lithuanian nationalist guerillas who were fleeing a KGB detail. The guerillas managed to escape from Galdikas home but a few hours later were killed by the KGB men, whereas peasant Galdikas was sentenced to the standard 25 years, despite his vain efforts to claim that his aiding the guerillas took place only because their submachine guns were trained at his wife and kids.

This evening Galdikas had purchased a few potatoes in the camp's store. Having flung open the cast iron door of a stove, Galdikas placed two potatoes between dark-scarlet half-burned logs still emanating warm streams. Galdikas had no watch but he could determine time by a variety of signs. He calculated that his potatoes would be ready by the time when Botinnik would announce a break in his sermon. During the break, he mused, he would be able to get to the school and remove potatoes from the stove.

In the far end of the classroom where Galdikas was busy with his potatoes, there was a door, now closed, and behind it a small cubicle where the school teacher Ivan Kortikov lived. There was a plank bed in that cubicle, a desk, and shelves that held some books. A window in the northern wall of the cubicle looked straight onto the forbidden path, toward the fence which ran only some ten meters from the teacher's window. Everybody in the camp knew that Kortikov, who was serving the standard 25 years term, used to be, during the WW2, an artillery colonel in the army of the renegade general Vlasov who betrayed the Motherland and joined the Germans.

The former traitor, and now an exemplary Soviet inmate, a faithful supporter of the camp's administration in all of its political-educational activities, Kortikov was sorting out the homework of his pupils, preparing to leave for the sermon.

The door that led from the classroom to Kortikov's cubicle, screeched on its hinges, reminding Kortikov that he should've told his orderly Galdikas to apply some of the diesel fuel to the hinges. He turned to the door. Four men stepped in, bringing with them the chill of the outside night.

The first to step in was Kortikov's former co-warrior, a scout in Vlasov's army, Sergey Strugov. He took position at a wall, letting another man to squeeze himself into the cubicle. The second man was an Ukrainian by the name of Grigory Stetsko, a wide-shouldered, six feet five inches tall, bear-like creature. There were no coats available in the camp fitting his size, and his gnarled and scar-speckled hands protruded from his sleeves. Following Stetsko, two more Ukrainians squeezed themselves in, both big, heavy men, only slightly shorter than Stetsko, one of them Petro Zaduyviter, and the other Vasil Korostiv. Their gray peasant faces bore telltale signs of many years in camps, of those thousands of hours they lived through either felling trees in the Siberian forests in winter time, or working the rock quarries - nets of crude wrinkles, deep colorless eyes and skewed scars.

'So, Kortikov, look,' Stetsko said, his speech a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian words. 'We are here with your former buddy, a Russian like you, this man Strugov, so you'll see we're on the level with you, as you know him and trust him. Right, Strugov?'

Strugov nodded solemnly.

Kortikov shifted his eyes, surveying all of his four visitors. His eyes stopped at a rusty iron pipe in Stetsko's hand. With his lengthy inmate's experience, he had no doubt about the significance of that pipe. Blood ebbed from his cheeks. He moved his eyes back and forth over the faces of the visitors.

'Fellows, ' Kortikov wheezed. 'In just one month I'm going to be recommended to the Irkutsk assizes, to be paroled. I can't go with you. But I'll never say a word about you, here I cross my heart. Look, the bath dugout is even closer to the fence, why won't you dig from there? '

'No way, ' Zaduyviter said gravely. 'One thing, there's a crew every day taking bath. Then, the floor there is cement right over the ground. Where to store the dirt? Here, in your place, the floor is planks, underneath it there's plenty of room to hide dirt. No, we've thought it over from all angles. Yours is the only place to dig. Everything will be clean. We'll remove a few planks every night, dig for a few hours, taking turns, and toward the morning hours nail the planks back. Three of us, and Strugov, and you. Nobody'll know. So, Kortikov, are you with us?'

'My lads, ' Kortikov said, trying to look into Stetsko's eyes. 'You know, they'll catch us anyway. Look, as of now, every two months the Irkutsk assizes are coming. They count now each workday as two term days, if you've no violations. Look how many have been paroled. '

'May be they parole them, but not us,' Stetsko said.

'Why not? Many banderovites have been paroled, just say you renounce your nationalism.'

'Those are nationalists, banderovites. I'm not a banderovite, Stetsko said. 'I served in the German police. I shot those Ukrainian nationalists. Besides, each of us has too many Yids.'

Stetsko pointed to Korostiv and Zaduyviter.

'Jews? Many? ' Kortikov said.

'Who counted them? ' Stetsko said. 'I'd maybe three or four hundred. Some of them we shot, some hanged. It's all in our files. '

'And what about you, Sergey?' Kortikov said, shifting his eyes to Strugov.

'Ivan, I am a scout. I'd rather take a risk. I don't expect a parole. I've an additional sentence, already in camps, for those disturbances in Kolyma camps. Decide, Ivan. As soon as we're out, they, ' he pointed at the three Ukrainians, ' go one way, we go another. And now we'll work together. '

Kortikov remained silent, staring at the floor. The four visitors waited silently.

Strugov sighed. 'I told you, no way he'll go.'

'Look, Kortikov, ' Korostiv said, who was silent until now. 'We must know now. Either you're with us, or you'll never walk out of this room. You know that, don't you?* * *

Even though the instruction in regard to the political-educational activities prescribed to unflinchingly follow the approved plan, junior lieutenant Botinnik, in fits of creativity, sometimes deviated from the officially predetermined path. Sitting behind a plank table, on the stage, he tried to catch the eyes of his listeners. But all the eyes in the audience were downcast. Only one listener, the club's orderly Magazannik looked at Botinnik with curiosity.

Glancing at Magazannik, Botinnik started his lecture.

'This is what I am saying to you,' Botinnik said. 'When you'll be released, either paroled, or by finishing your terms, even the kids in nurseries will laugh at you. You'll ask me why. I'll tell you. The kids in nurseries will laugh at you because some, not many of you, will go there and say they still believe in God.' Botinnik pointed a finger at the middle of the mess hall. Inmate Magazannik nodded approvingly. Encouraged, Botinnik went on. 'The camp administration takes care of you fully and very well. What, are they beating you three times a day? Ha-ha! They feed you three times a day! They provide water for you three times a day! The toiling masses in the capitalist countries can only dream of such care! And how do you pay back? Some of you insist that they believe in God!'

Inmate Magazannik nodded again.

'Tell me, ' Botinnik continued, ' How high are our pilots flying? Don't you know? I tell you, thirty kilometers high! What, did they see there a god or angels? How many angels did they see? I wish I had as many boils! And why? I tell you, because the Soviet scientists have proved that there is no God!'

Inmate Magazannik nodded.

'You see, while the entire Soviet people, including those temporarily deprived of freedom for various crimes, is unanimously building communism, some of you do not choose the path of reeducation and rehabilitation, and continue to believe in God! And that is even when Nikita Sergeevich Khrushchev has indicated that there are no more political prisoners in our country!'

The audience responded with a murmur.

'What's the matter?' Botinnik said. 'Any questions?'

'I've a question, citizen superior,' inmate Magazannik said.

'What is it? ' Botinnik said, squinting suspiciously at Magazannik.

'Who are we? '

Botinnik smiled with relief. This was an easy question. 'I'm explaining. You're not political prisoners. You're the temporarily deprived of freedom for state crimes. Clear?'

'Clear, ' inmate Magazannik said. Smiles appeared on the faces of some listeners.

'Now, I'm looking at those Jehovah witnesses,' Botinnik said, pointing to the middle of the mess hall. 'When will you come to your senses? I know to hate you especially, because the entire Soviet people wait impatiently for the arrival of communism. And you wait for Armageddon. What, will be bread for free at Armageddon? Ha! But with communism, it will. I'm telling you! '

Inmate Magazannik nodded approvingly.

@I wish you, believers, at least all believed same thing. Like we, the Soviet people, we all believe in the same thing. And among you, believers, everybody believes in something different. There some of you that even believe in a cow, and others believe in pigs, and some others in devil knows what. And the Jews believe in Jude. ' He stopped, as inmate Magazannik who until now seemed to fully support the lieutenant's arguments, suddenly covered his face with his palms, obviously unable to suppress chuckles. Somebody shouted from the audience, 'No, not in Jude.'

Botinnik hurriedly shuffled his notes. 'Right,' he admitted. 'Not Jude. They have a god by the name of Sabaoth. '

In that part of the audience where the blabbers sat, smiles appeared now on many faces. The sermon had unexpectedly turned into entertainment.

'So, in conclusion, you see that religion is a deceit and opium for the people. Besides, different faiths fight each other. '

'Citizen superior, can you give us an example?' inmate Magazannik said.

'Yes. For example, there are Christians on one hand, and Catholics, on the other.'

Now the blabbers in the audience laughed openly.

'Many thanks, ' inmate Magazannik said.

'What is it? ' Botinnik said angrily. 'What's the matter, inmate Magazinnik? What are the thanks for? '

'Well, we've just learned that Catholics are not Christians,' Magazannik said.

Botinnik stared at the orderly with suspicion. 'Inmate Magazinnik, what, are you boasting that you've higher education? What, you want to teach me? Do you know that I've a certificate that I completed an evening course in atheism in Irkutsk? '

'I didn't know until now. Now I'll know,' inmate Magazannik said.

After a short silence, Botinnik resumed his lecture. 'Rather than pray to God, better engage in something useful. For example, study Marxism. Or, for whom Marxism is yet difficult, study the languages of the countries of people's democracies. It's not forbidden.'

'Citizen superior, what languages do you know?' inmate Magazannik said. Botinnik stared at the orderly with suspicion. The inmate's face seemed to express a sincere interest.

'I know many, ' Botinnik said.

Magazannik nodded. 'Czechoslovakian language?' he said.

'I know it, ' Botinnik said.

'And Yugoslavian too?' Magazannik said.

'Yes. Too. Why? '

* * *

The mess hall emptied, only Botinnik remained on the stage, shuffling his notes.

Somebody coughed. Botinnik lifted his head. The inmate in charge of the bath-heat treatment facility stood next to the stage. Botinnik frowned. The junior lieutenant of the political-educational department happened to be one of four trusted, secretly co-opted officers of the camp administration whom the Godfather used for communications with his informants. For an inmate, to be noticed in a direct, even a very short and fleeting contact with the Godfather would be tantamount to explicitly applying to the inmate's face a sign of Cain. Therefore the informants usually sent their reports to the KGB man via one of the four co-opted officers. Junior lieutenant Botinnik happened to be such a liaison between Kurlov and Zikin.

'Let me have it, ' Botinnik said, first having glanced over the mess hall to be sure that there was nobody in the room except for himself and the informer. He extended his hand, expecting Kurlov to hand over a piece of paper with a report.

'Need to see the Godfather,' Kurlov said in a low voice.

'What? Let me have it, I'll forward it to him.'

'No, need to see him. Like that,' and Kurlov moved the edge of his palm across his neck.

Botinnik stared at the informant. Kurlov's eyes were downcast. 'Need. For God's sake, ' Kurlov said.

'It can wait until tomorrow,' Botinnik said. 'Write it down, I'll forward it.'

'Tomorrow will be late,' Kurlov said. 'Tomorrow the captain shall be in Chuna, for good.'

'What? How do you know?'

'He told me himself,' Kurlov said. 'Call him now, or something bad happens.'

'Chu-u-una! Some men have luck!' Botinnik said. 'If true, then tomorrow a replacement will be assigned. So, report tomorrow. '

'Don't you understand? I need him now! Like that,' and Kurlov again moved his hand across his neck.

'Leave me alone, Kurlov, for God's sake,' Botinnik said. 'Don't you see, I'm conducting this session. I'm not going to find him right away, and if something is really important, let me have it, I forward it in good time. Tell the men to come back in, we'll finish the session.'

'Just remember, I asked you,' Kurlov said gloomily.

'I will, and now get away from me for God's sake.'

'How so? You just said here is no God, didn't you?'

'What? Very smart you are, aren't you? Shut up, or blame yourself afterwards! '

Slowly, Kurlov hobbled toward the exit. Now, when he failed to get in touch with the Godfather and inform that Magazannik may have overheard his chat with Kurlov in the bath dugout, Kurlov had no other choice but to take care of the situation by himself. To take a risk hoping that Magazannik did not overhear anything, or that he heard but would remain silent about it, such a choice did not even occur to him. He had survived, serving for many years as an informer, surrounded by the hated political prisoners, because he'd never relied on a lucky chance.

The inmates filed back, filling the mess hall.

* * *

During the break, Romas Galdikas managed to get back to the school barracks. As he expected, the potatoes had just reached the desired state of being edible. While handling the potatoes, Galdikas noticed that the door to the teacher's cubicle was ajar. A triangle of light fell through that door on the rainbow film of diesel fuel that glistened on the classroom's floor. Apparently Kortikov did not attend the sermon, which in itself was odd, as the teacher was expecting a parole shortly and hardly was in a mood to transgress any rules. Moreover, he routinely held his door closed. However, even though the teacher's behavior seemed a little weird, it was not the orderly's business. The orderly's concern was only to stoke the stove in the school barracks, to sweep the floors in the classroom and to rub diesel fuel upon them. Wrapping potatoes in a piece of cloth, Romas stirred the ashes, and closed the stove's shutter. He walked out and approached the plank annex. To his surprise, there was no padlock on the annex' timber door. Somebody had forcibly pulled out the iron hasps, apparently using something like an iron pole. Romas knelt and moved his hand over the snow-clad ground. The padlock rested there, a half-step from the door. Galdikas lit up a match. The firewood he kept in the annex was still there, intact, as he had left it there. The canister with the diesel fuel sat where he placed it in the morning. He lifted the canister, its weight seemed to be exactly as in the morning, so it still was full as before. The broom and the mop did not seem to change their position either. He lit up another match. Now he noticed that next to the stack of wood there was a piece of an iron pipe he never saw before. Apparently it served as a tool to destroy the padlock's hasps. Why? What kind of a prank was it? Did somebody hope to find there something more valuable than a mop and a broom?

Galdikas hid his potatoes behind the firewood. He had no time to fix the padlock. To prevent the door from banging under the wind, he leaned the iron pipe against the closed door, the pipe's lower end buried in snow, and hurried back to the sermon.

* * *

The inmates scattered hurriedly to the living barracks - after the political education session, the time remaining until sleep all belonged finally to them. The club's orderly Magazannik started moving benches and plank tables, converting the club back into the mess hall.

'Hey, Magazinnik, ' said Kurlov. Now only two of them remained in the dark room. 'Hey, let's go to my place, pick up some wood there, will you?'

'I don't know, ' Magazannik said, hesitating. 'They should provide the wood tomorrow, I guess. '

'What if not? Let's go, I've plenty of it, why not to share it?'

'That which inside is dryer,' Kurlov said. 'In, in, Magazinnik. What, are you afraid of me, or what?'

'Why should I be afraid?' Magazannik said, his hands shaking.

'No reason, ' Kurlov said with a chuckle. 'I'll not eat you. Here is the firewood, dry and good. '

Magazannik stepped inside, and Kurlov closed the door. Magazannik bent toward the small stack of firewood that sat on the cement floor next to the heat-treatment stove. Kurlov picked up a thick twig and inserted it into the hasp on the door, so that nobody would open it from outside.

Magazannik swung his body away from Kurlov, closer to the stove.

'Now tell me, Magazinnik what have you overheard through the wall?' Kurlov said.

Magazannik leaned against the hot stove, his eyes at the door.

'Not telling? Then blame yourself, Magazinnik,' Kurlov said.

The last thing Doctor of Philosophy Magazannik perceived was a thick piece of a pine log that was approaching slowly his eyes. This log was almost perfectly circular in cross-section, just on its one side a golden bark half-peeled off, hanging in a double-spiraled shape. Intricate pattern on the wood was telling something very important, much more important than all the philosophy he had studied for so many years, and he attempted to decode this language of the pattern, but he had so little time, so awfully little time. The time had disappeared. The time ran backwards, contrary to the law of entropy increase. The time unrolled backwards, and images of the past dashed by. Flickered the face of the woman whom he loved and who renounced him as soon as he was arrested. Flickered the warm hands of his mother. The time stopped, and all what used to be Stalen Magazannik became a cloud of entropy which dissolved at once in the shoreless ocean of entropy of the universe, because after all the entropy always takes over.

* * *

The wind rocked the klieg lights that hung above the forbidden strip, and the barbed wire hurled a swinging pattern of shadows over the strip which lay bare, all snow removed from the surface of the loosened dirt. The rest of the zone hid in darkness. Drawing tighter the flaps of his stitched cotton-padded coat, Kurlov hobbled, having abandoned the path, right across the snow clad waste ground that separated his dugout from the school's barracks. He was in a hurry. The effort necessary to get rid of the evidence was all still ahead.

The cold wind whistled, and at each step the snow screeched. This screeching sound surely must've been heard all over the camp. Kurlov tried to speed up, but somebody who was catching up with him, was obviously faster. This somebody swung something heavy over Kurlov's head. Kurlov turned abruptly, investing all of his power in the forward thrust of his fist. The fist hit emptiness. There was nobody behind him. Kurlov ran, limping, his feet sliding on the snow, and heard, again, heavy footsteps behind himself. His enemies were catching up with him. His feet slid sideways and he fell to the snow clad ground, extending his arms forward.

Resigning to his fate, he waited for the blow. There was no blow. He turned his head. Nobody stood next to him. The camp still lay in darkness, the lights still swinging over the barbed wire of the fence.

'Weapon. I need weapon,' Kurlov muttered. 'I'll show you, snakes. '

The enemies remained silent, hidden in the dark, invisible, persistent.

'I've done everything right,' Kurlov said, trying to convince himself.  

* * *

The officers' wives all worked in the camp, some of them in the accounting office, some other as secretaries or clerks in storerooms. Therefore, in their line of duty, they all had to communicate with the inmates, and therefore they all belonged to the oversight category of the camp's Godfather. Seven of those wives, one for every weekday, had been co-opted by captain Zikin as informants. As the co-opted collaborators, these seven wives had to attend, one by one, the weekly instruction sessions with captain Zikin.

The instruction sessions had always been conducted according to a standard scenario. First, the co-opted wife would undress slowly, adopting various poses as per her imagination. Sometimes a co-opted wife would dress - undress two or three times in a row, while Zikin would watch her, sipping the muddy moonshine that had been supplied routinely to him by some free inhabitants of Vikhorevka, those who had finished their terms a while ago. This way they showed to Zikin their appreciation of the captain's friendly care.

If the actions of the co-opted wife did finally have the desired effect, captain Zikin would undress as well, pulling down his drawers to his knees and, exhaling a moonshine vapor, push the co-opted collaborator toward a pallet. If though the captain happened to be in a wrong mood, he could kick out the unsuccessful actress, cursing and swearing, hurling out her clothes in her wake. Even if the husbands - the officers of the camp administration - could guess as to what occurred in the course of the instruction sessions, their deep respect of the omnipotent organization represented by Zikin had safely protected the captain and the wives from an undesirable loss of self control on the part of the husbands. On the other hand, those husband had been given a free hand to display their courage and integrity by pushing around the inmates with gusto.

This night captain Zikin was in euphoria, foretasting his move to Chuna and the establishment there of a new detachment of co-opted wives.

'Masha, ' captain Zikin said, 'you know it yourself that I love only you, don't you?'

'Uhu, ' Masha said, unclasping a stoking on her fat thigh.

'If they blabber that I'm involved in a hanky-panky with any of them, you know it's a lie.'

'Uhu, ' Masha said, unclasping the other stocking and rolling it down over her convex calf.

'By God, I'll request a transfer, and shall we go away, together, will you? '

'Uhu, ' Masha said gloomily, rolling the stocking back upward.

Somebody knocked at the door. Masha's hands stopped, the stocking at a middle point between the foot and the knee.

Captain Zikin swore. 'Who the devil can it be? They don't allow me a single quiet minute. Masha, don't move, I'll look.'

Grabbing her skirt from the floor, Masha hurriedly pulled it over her head. Wrapping his naked torso with his uniform jacket, Zikin walked into the anteroom. Masha tried to listen as somebody's mutter came from the outside. The outside door banged. Zikin reappeared in the doorway.

'Couldn't that idiot find some other time to croak?' Zikin said, obviously annoyed.

'Who has kicked the bucket?' Masha said.

'The teacher, Kortikov. Somebody has smashed his head. He's there in the school barracks. The school orderly found him, so they rushed to summon me at once, damned snakes. '

'Big deal, one less,' the co-opted Masha said, again removing her skirt.

'For you it's nothing, but I've to investigate now. Until tomorrow I'm still in charge here in Vikhorevka. So far about Chuna.'

'Chuna? ' Masha said, her skirt stopping halfway to the floor. 'What is it for you in Chuna?'

Having realized that he gave away prematurely, in a fit of anger, his secret, Zikin said, 'Just a short trip. In the course of my job.'

'Lie! ' Masha said with satisfaction. 'It's for good! '

'Shut up. I'm going now to see if I could frame that Lithuanian orderly for murder. Would be nice, one-two and the job's done.* * *

Next to the school's barracks, soldiers were already holding vigil, driving away curious inmates. A beam of a klieg light tore a circle of light out of the surrounding darkness. A group of officers gathered there, the camp commander lieutenant colonel Mirokhin in the center of the group, and the school's orderly Romas Galdikas before him. As he saw approaching Zikin, the camp's commander said, >It's all yours now, captain. An activist is killed who firmly chose the path of rehabilitation. Hence, this was an act of a politically motivated terrorism. For whoever took part in it, the ultimate measure of social defense is assured. ' The commander's expression was the official term for the death penalty. He continued, 'Here is inmate Galdikas, he'll tell you how he'd discovered the murdered activist. Galdikas, repeat for the captain your story. '

Illuminated by the beam, Galdikas' face seemed deathly pale. His hands shook. 'I saw light,' the orderly said. 'Always the door closed. Was open. Went to see. See the wall. Lot of blood. White. Brains? The teacher on the floor. Hands akimbo. He promised he would write for me a petition for the reconsideration of my sentence. Tomorrow. Very literate he, the teacher. Well can write petitions in Russian. Visogiaru, teacher.(Please use the BACK button on your browser to go back to the "contents" page).