Книга: Life And Fate



Life And Fate
Life And Fate

Vasily Grossman


Life And Fate

Translated from the Russian by Robert Chandler

Life And Fate

Жизнь и судьба

Life And Fate

TRANSLATOR'S INTRODUCTION

VASILY GROSSMAN

Vasily Grossman was born on iz December 1905 in the Ukrainian town of Berdichev, the home of one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. After studying chemistry at Moscow University, Grossman worked in a mine in the Donbass as an engineer and expert on safety precautions. In 1933 he moved to Moscow, where he was 'discovered' by Maxim Gorky; with the latter's support, he published his first novel, Glüchkauf. It was followed by a long novel, Stepan Kolchagin, and several volumes of short stories, mostly evocations of the Civil War and the life of the workers. Despite an occasional vivid detail or slightly risky piece of philosophizing, these works are typical of the official Soviet literature of the time.

During World War II Grossman worked for Red Star, the leading army newspaper. Grossman personally witnessed the disastrous retreats of the first year, the defence of Stalingrad and the capture of Berlin. As a war correspondent, he was second in popularity only to Ilya Ehrenburg.

He was also one of the first witnesses of the consequences of the Holocaust. His articles on this theme were mostly published in Unity, a newspaper produced for international distribution by the Jewish anti-Fascist committee. In the Russian journal Znamya he published 'The Hell of Treblinka', the first journalistic account of a German death-camp in any language. Together with Ilya Ehrenburg, Grossman was on the editorial committee of the Black Book, a massive anthology – yet to be printed in the Soviet Union – of documents relating to the Holocaust.

It was this collective tragedy – together with the death, at the hands of the Germans, of his own mother – that led Grossman to become conscious of his Jewish roots. His mother, a schoolteacher, had stayed behind in Berdichev in order to look after a sick niece. She apparently continued working even after the Jews had been confined to the ghetto. Her fate is evoked with extraordinary eloquence and power in one of the most moving passages of Life and Fate.

As the Cold War began in the autumn of 1946, Grossman was viciously attacked by several of the most authoritative Soviet literary critics. The occasion was the publication of his play, If You Believe the Pythagoreans. Ideologically unorthodox views put in the mouth of an extremely negative character were taken as an expression of Grossman's own beliefs. However orthodox these were at that time, his naturally philosophical cast of mind was a danger to him; it was hazardous to present unorthodox views in any guise – even if one then went on to refute them.

In 1943 Grossman had begun work on an epic novel about Stalingrad. In 1952 it was published in instalments in Novy Mir under the title For a Just Cause. Grossman enjoyed the full support of both Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, and Fadeev, the General Secretary of the Writers' Union. The initial reviews were highly favourable.

In February 1953, however, as a new series of purges, directed particularly at Jews, gathered momentum, Grossman was again attacked, possibly at the instigation of Stalin himself. During the following months he was repeatedly and hysterically denounced as a Jewish nationalist, a reactionary idealist alienated from Soviet society; Fadeev himself took part in these attacks. Grossman was saved from almost certain arrest not by his own 'letter of repentance', but by the change in the political climate following Stalin's death in March 1953. In 1954 For a Just Cause was republished in book form, once again with Fadeev's seal of approval.

The remaining years of the fifties were a time of public success for Grossman. For a Just Cause, acclaimed as a Soviet War and Peace, was republished several times, together with collections of his stories and articles written during the thirties and forties. In 1955 Grossman was awarded the important decoration 'The Banner of Labour'. Meanwhile he was writing his two great works, Life and Fate and Everything Flows.


Grossman completed Life and Fate in 1960. Originally intended as a sequel to For a Just Cause, in the event it was written in an entirely different spirit and can best be seen as a separate novel that happens to portray many of the same characters. For a Just Cause has pretensions towards the epic quality of Tolstoy, but is deadened by its ideological conformity; Life and Fate is the true War and Peace of this century, the most complete portrait of Stalinist Russia we have or are ever likely to have. The power of the other great dissident writers – Pasternak, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Solzhenitsyn – derives from their position as outsiders in Soviet society; Grossman's power derives from his extraordinarily intimate knowledge of every level of Soviet society.

Grossman delivered the manuscript to the editors of the journal Znamya. One can speculate on his reasons for doing this; it is possible that he seriously imagined the novel to be publishable – this was, after all, the height of Khruschev's 'thaw'. In any case, the editors wasted no time in handing over the manuscript to the Cultural Section of the Central Committee. A year later it was returned to Grossman with a brief note to the effect that the novel was anti-Soviet. In February 1961 two KGB officers came to his home with orders to confiscate the manuscript. They took away every scrap of paper they could lay their hands on, even sheets of used carbon paper and typewriter ribbons; Grossman told them the whereabouts of any remaining copies or fragments.

It is worth noting that the only other book to have merited such serious attention from the Soviet authorities is The Gulag Archipelago, a work of history rather than imaginative literature. Pasternak, for example, made no attempt to conceal the existence of Doctor Zhivago. He gave copies to friends and editors and even trusted the manuscript to the Soviet postal service. The attacks on Pasternak were unleashed not by the discovery of the novel's existence, but by its eventual publication abroad.

Grossman wrote to the Politburo to request the return of his manuscript. In response, Suslov, the principal Party ideologist, told him that there could be no question of Life and Fate being published for another two hundred years. Many people have commented on the extraordinary presumption of this remark; the emigre writer Vladimir Voinovich, on the other hand, has said that what he finds most striking is Suslov's unquestioning recognition of the novel's lasting importance.

The fate of the manuscript during the next twenty years is uncertain. There are reports that Grossman wanted to do further work on the novel, and that he complained bitterly to a friend that the absence of even a rough version was unbearable. It appears that the KGB did indeed confiscate every copy of the manuscript. Nevertheless, as Simon Markish has said in Le Cas Grossman (Julliard/L'Age d'Homme, 1983): 'We know now from a reliable source that one of the principal dissidents of the mid-seventies – who wishes not to divulge his name in view of possible harmful repercussions on other people – somehow obtained a copy of the manuscript, copied it and had the microfilm smuggled abroad.'

And, in a speech made at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1984, Vladimir Voinovich admitted that it was he who had brought the microfilm to the West.

Little is known about Grossman's last years. He died of cancer on 14 September 1964. It appears he was deeply depressed, that he suffered great physical pain, and that he lived in a state of poverty and isolation. Worst of all, he had no assurance that his masterpiece would ever see the light of day. One of his few friends of the time reports him lamenting the confiscation of the manuscript and saying: 'They strangled me in a doorway.'

He did, however, continue writing until the end of his life. In the first place he completed the short novel Everything Flows which he had begun in 1955. [1] This part novel, part meditation on the fate of Russia contains a brief study of the camps (a Gulag Archipelago in miniature), some of the most eloquent and moving pages ever written on the fate of the Russian peasantry, and Grossman's reflections on Lenin and Russian history. Grossman was the first Soviet writer to argue Lenin's responsibility for the evils of Soviet society; other writers had laid the blame only on Stalin.

During his last years Grossman also wrote several short stories that have yet to be published either in the Soviet Union or in the West, and 'Peace Be with You', an account of a journey to Armenia. This fine essay, Grossman's literary testament, has been published in the Soviet Union, though only in a censored version.

There are a large number of important 'Soviet' writers who were brought up as members of the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia: Pasternak, Bulgakov, Mandelstam, Akhmatova… Grossman, however, is a Soviet writer in a deeper sense; he will be remembered as both the first and the greatest of the dissidents of the post-Stalin era, the generation of dissidents who emerged from within Soviet Russia and who are themselves products of Soviet Russia.

LIFE AND FATE

The structure of Life and Fate is similar to that of War and Peace: the life of a whole society is evoked by means of a large number of different sub-plots centred around one family. Alexandra Vladimirovna is an old woman whose spiritual roots are in the Populist traditions of the pre-Revolutionary intelligentsia; it is her children, together with their own families, who are the central figures in the novel. Two sub-plots, set in a Russian labour-camp and a Physics Institute, revolve around the former and present husbands of Lyudmila Nikolaevna, Alexandra Vladimirovna's elder daughter. Two more sub-plots trace the careers of Commissar Krymov and Colonel Novikov, the ex-husband and the present fiancé of Lyudmila's sister Yevgenia: Krymov, an Old Bolshevik, ends up in the Lubyanka; Novikov, after commanding a tank corps that plays a crucial role at Stalingrad, also falls foul of the authorities. Other sub-plots concern friends and relatives of the family working at the Stalingrad power station, serving at the Front, attempting to organize rebellions in a German concentration camp, and being transported by cattle-truck to the gas chambers…

Like War and Peace, Life and Fate contains many of the author's own reflections on history and philosophy. It is perhaps these reflections, even more than the devastatingly accurate portrayal of Stalinist Russia, that appalled the authorities. No other writer has so convincingly established the identity of Nazism and Soviet Communism. The parallels between the two systems are drawn repeatedly: between the career of a typical German Party functionary and that of a typical Russian Party functionary, between the thoughts of a German dissident and those of a Russian dissident, between a German concentration camp and a Russian concentration camp.

The real battle portrayed in the novel is not the clash between the Third Reich and Stalin's Russia, but the clash between Freedom and Totalitarianism. At Stalingrad the Russian people believed they were fighting against Totalitarianism in the name of Freedom; the freedom they won, however, lasted only as long as the final outcome of the war remained undecided. Grossman movingly describes the development of a genuine spirit of camaraderie and egalitarianism among the defenders of Stalingrad; he also shows how this spirit was stamped out by Party functionaries who saw it as a greater danger than the Germans themselves.

'The clash between Freedom and Totalitarianism', however, is too grand and abstract a phrase. Grossman sees no value in fighting for freedom unless one can do so in a spirit of humility, a spirit of love and kindness. The battle Grossman portrays is the battle we must fight each day in order to preserve our humanity, the battle against the power of ideology, against the power of the State, against all the forces that combine to destroy the possibility of kindness and compassion between individuals.

The victors in this battle are not the Soviet military commanders, not General Chuykov who finally crosses to the East bank, after his heroic defence of Stalingrad has culminated in the German surrender, only in order to attend a banquet celebrating the 25 th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Secret Police. The true victors are the Russian peasant woman who takes pity on a wounded German soldier while his comrades are shooting her friends and relatives, the woman who sacrifices her own career and happiness in order to send a food-parcel to the Lubyanka – everyone whose actions, however historically insignificant, are motivated by the spirit of senseless, irrational kindness. It is these spontaneous, dangerous acts of kindness that Grossman sees as the truest expression of human freedom.

In Le Cas Grossman, Simon Markish quotes an anonymous Russian friend's opinion of Life and Fate: 'Yes, all this is noble, elevated, morally irreproachable, but I don't need a follower of Leo Tolstoy.' The novel is indeed a remarkably old-fashioned one. It could, paradoxically, be described as the greatest work of fiction to have been written according to the Soviet doctrine of Socialist Realism. Even its faults are typical of Socialist Realism: an occasional tendency towards sententious philosophizing, a certain long-windedness and lack of sparkle.

Grossman has succeeded in achieving what every other Socialist Realist has merely pretended to do: he has portrayed the life, not of a few individuals, but of an entire age. All the characters endure fates that are typical of their generation. Each character, however vividly realized, is somehow typical of a particular group or class: Krymov and Mostovskoy the Old Bolsheviks, Getmanov the successful Stalinist functionary, Novikov the honourable and talented officer whose talents were never acknowledged before the war, Shtrum the Jewish intellectual. There is nothing eccentric about the novel, either stylistically or in the action and characterization. Probably no great novel of the last sixty years is so untouched by the influence of Modernism.

Grossman reached adolescence only after the Revolution and he had little contact, even through reading, with the West. Unlike Solzhenit-syn with his idealization of nineteenth-century Russia, he never tried to break free of his age. His power as a writer is that of an insider, that of a man who speaks from within Soviet society and in its own language. It is perhaps only through writing in its own style that one can portray an entire age; it would surely be impossible to portray the world of Jane Austen in the language of Joyce, or the world of Beowulf in the language of Jane Austen. It is interesting to note that Ilya Ehrenburg, many of whose books are modernist in technique, chose to write his novel about Stalinism, The Thaw, in the same slightly ponderous style, the style that is so characteristic of Socialist Realism.

THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

From January 1941 Stalin had received repeated warnings of Hitler's intentions, both through his own intelligence network and through those of Britain and the United States. He chose to ignore these warnings, to do everything in his power to appease Hitler, to avoid scrupulously any action that might be construed as provocation.

Possibly he was playing for time, aware that the Soviet Union was unprepared for war, both militarily and industrially; more likely he was simply burying his head in the sand, expecting his own wishes automatically to take on the status of objective reality. In any case, he clung desperately to the Nazi-Soviet pact. As a result the Soviet armed forces were taken largely unawares by the German offensive of 22 June 1941.

During the ensuing months the Soviet forces were thrown into headlong retreat. Armies that attempted to hold their ground were for the most part encircled. By late October the Germans had taken nearly three million prisoners, had isolated Leningrad, and had breached the outer defence line of Moscow itself. Meanwhile more than 1500 factories, not to mention entire universities and scientific institutes, had been evacuated by rail to the Urals, Siberia, the Volga and Central Asia.

The first important Soviet success was Zhukov's defence of Moscow in December 1941. This gave an important boost to national morale, destroying the myth of German invincibility. The Soviet counter-offensive of early 1942, however, was largely unsuccessful; throughout the rest of 1942 the Germans continued to hold their ground in the north and centre, while sweeping through the Ukraine towards the Volga and the oil-fields of the Caucasus. By September 1942 they were laying siege to Stalingrad, the key industrial and communications centre on the Volga. It is at this point that For a Just Cause ends, and Life and Fate begins.

From an historical point of view, Life and Fate is on the whole accurate; Grossman's observations as a journalist have clearly been supplemented by a vast amount of detailed historical research. Like Tolstoy, he includes in the novel a number of historical figures: Hitler and Stalin make brief appearances – as do Paulus, Eichmann, several important German officers, and most of the senior Russian officers at Stalingrad. Several of the minor characters are also based on real figures: Naum Rosenberg, for example, the Jewish accountant, was derived by Grossman from his researches for the Black Book.

The Jewish nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum, perhaps the most important character in the novel, is a portrait of the author himself: his mother's death, his growing consciousness of his Jewish roots, his increasingly hostile attitude to Stalin, his agony over whether to write a letter of repentance – all these reflect the various stages of Grossman's own development. In other, more superficial respects, Shtrum is based on Lev Davidovich Landau, a brilliant physicist, not a Party member, who was dismissed from his work during the anti-Jewish campaigns of the early fifties, only to be reinstated by P. L. Kapitsa, an ex-student of Rutherford's and one of the most important Soviet physicists of the time. Kapitsa himself, at least in his eventual refusal to work on the development of the atom bomb, is clearly a model for Chepyzhin in Life and Fate.

The novel does contain one important departure from historical truth, though only in regard to chronology: Grossman considerably telescopes the rise of official anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. Symbolically, Grossman is justified in linking the Stalingrad victory to the rise of Russian chauvinism; in reality it developed more slowly, reaching its peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The campaign against Einstein, for example, began only in the late forties, not – as in the novel-in 1942…

THE TEXT AND THE TRANSLATION

The Russian text of Life and Fate, first published in Lausanne in 1980, is based on the collation of two incomplete microfilms. For the main part, the two microfilms complemented one another; gaps and obscurities in one could be filled in from the other. Nevertheless, there are still passages where the published text breaks off in mid-chapter or mid-sentence. No attempt has been made to conceal these hiatuses; they are indicated in this translation by a bracketed ellipsis: […]

I have also chosen to omit or abridge some of the more sententious philosophical passages. Grossman's style is occasionally repetitive; I hope that my abridgments allow the power of his thought to stand out with greater clarity. In justification of such high-handedness, I can only plead that the manuscript was never finally prepared for publication by Grossman himself, and there is evidence he himself wished to carry out further revision. The omissions amount to approximately six pages in the Russian text.


A translation of this length must always, to some degree, be a collective task. I offer my sincere thanks to the large number of people who have helped in their various ways: Igor Golomstok for first bringing the novel to my attention and suggesting I attempt a translation; George Theiner and Hugh Lunghi for publishing extracts from my translation in their admirable magazine Index on Censorship; Mark Bonham Carter, Carol O'Brien and Dan Franklin for their patience, understanding and extraordinarily conscientious editing; James Greene, David Black, Barbara Hart and Dinny Thorold for their criticisms of sections of the manuscript; Robin Leanse for his versions of the poems in Chapters 70 and 72 of Part I, which I have adopted with only slight alterations; Christine and Benito Difazio for providing me with a home while I completed the translation; Elizabeth Grimwade for retyping a number of chapters; Christopher Donnelly of the Soviet Studies Unit at Sandhurst, and Brigadier B. C. Elgood for their help with military terminology. Above all, I must thank Harry Willetts of St Antony's, Oxford, for checking the entire manuscript against the Russian; with his encyclopedic knowledge of both Soviet history and contemporary Russian idiom he has saved me from more blunders than I care to admit.

I wish to dedicate this translation to the memory of four people I would very much like to have read this book: my father Colonel R. E. Chandler; my ex-wife's father, the Russian-Jewish theoretical physicist Grigory Lazarev; Colonel G. H. Nash, a friend and expert on Soviet military history; and my former teacher, Gordon Pirie, who disapproved of dedications.

Robert Chandler March 1985



PART ONE

1

There was a low mist. You could see the glare of headlamps reflected on the high-voltage cables beside the road.

It hadn't rained, but the ground was still wet with dew; the traffic-lights cast blurred red spots on the asphalt. You could sense the breath of the camp from miles away. Roads, railway tracks and cables all gradually converged on it. This was a world of straight lines: a grid of rectangles and parallelograms imposed on the autumn sky, on the mist and on the earth itself.

Distant sirens gave faint, long-drawn-out wails.

The road drew alongside the railway line. For a while the column of trucks carrying paper sacks of cement moved at the same speed as an endless train of freight wagons. The truck-drivers in their military greatcoats never once looked at the wagons or at the pale blurred faces inside them.

Then the fence of the camp appeared out of the mist: endless lines of wire strung between reinforced-concrete posts. The wooden barrack-huts stretched out in long broad streets. Their very uniformity was an expression of the inhuman character of this vast camp.

Among a million Russian huts you will never find even two that are exactly the same. Everything that lives is unique. It is unimaginable that two people, or two briar-roses, should be identical… If you attempt to erase the peculiarities and individuality of life by violence, then life itself must suffocate.

The grey-haired engine-driver watched casually yet attentively. Concrete posts, revolving searchlights on high masts, and glass-domed towers flashed by. In the domes stood guards with mounted machine-guns. The driver winked at his mate and the locomotive gave a warning hoot. A brilliantly lit cabin passed by, then a queue of cars beside a striped level-crossing barrier and a red traffic signal.

From the distance came the hoot of an approaching train. The driver turned to his mate. 'That's Zucker. I can tell by the whistle. He's already unloaded. Now he's taking the empty wagons back to Munich.'

There was a deafening roar as the two trains met. The air was torn apart, patches of grey flashed past between the wagons – and then the torn shreds of space and grey autumn light were woven together into a seamless cloth.

The driver's mate took out a pocket-mirror and looked at his smudged cheek. With a gesture, the driver asked if he could borrow it himself.

'Honestly, comrade Apfel,' said the mate excitedly, 'if it wasn't for all this disinfecting the wagons, we'd be back home by supper-time. As it is, we'll be out till four in the morning. As though they couldn't be disinfected back at the junction!'

The old driver had heard this complaint many times before. 'Give a good long hoot,' he said. 'We're to be put straight through to the main unloading area.'

2

In the German camp, for the first time since the Second Congress of the Comintern, Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy had the chance to make use of his knowledge of foreign languages. Before the war, in Leningrad, there had been few opportunities to speak to foreigners. Now he remembered his years of exile in London and Switzerland, years when he and his fellow-revolutionaries had talked, quarrelled and sung in nearly all the languages of Europe.

Gardi, the Italian priest who was Mostovskoy's neighbour on the bedboards, had said that there were fifty-six different nationalities in the camp. The tens of thousands of prisoners shared the same fate, the same pallor, the same clothes, the same shuffling gait, and the same soup made from swedes mixed with the ersatz sago known by the Russians as 'fish-eyes'.

The camp authorities distinguished the prisoners by number and by the colour of the stripe sewn onto their jackets: red for politicals, black for saboteurs, green for thieves and murderers.

People unable to understand one another in the confusion of tongues were bound by a shared fate. Specialists in molecular physics or ancient manuscripts lay on the bedboards beside Italian peasants and Croat shepherds who were unable to sign their names. A man who used to order breakfast from his cook, worrying his housekeeper with his bad appetite, walked to work beside a man who had lived all his life on a diet of salt-cod. Their wooden soles made the same clatter on the ground, and they looked round with the same anxiety to see if the Kossträger were coming round with their rations.

The very differences in the lives of these prisoners gave rise to a certain similarity. Whether their vision of the past was a small garden beside a dusty Italian road, the sullen boom of the North Sea, or an orange paper lantern in a house for senior personnel on the outskirts of Bobruysk – all these prisoners, without exception, had enjoyed a wonderful past.

The more difficult a man's life had been before the camp, the more furiously he lied. This lie had no practical purpose; it served simply to glorify freedom. How could a man be unhappy outside the camp?

Before the war this camp had been known as a camp for political criminals. National Socialism had created a new type of political criminal: criminals who had not committed a crime. Many of the prisoners had been sent here merely for telling political anecdotes or for criticizing the Hitler regime in conversation with friends. The charge against them was not that they actually had distributed political leaflets or joined underground parties, but that one day they might.

The detainment of prisoners-of-war in a concentration camp for political prisoners was another innovation of Fascism. Here, as well as English and American pilots shot down over Germany, were officers and commissars of the Red Army. The latter were of especial interest to the Gestapo and were constantly being pressured to give information, to collaborate, to sign every conceivable sort of document.

There were 'saboteurs' in the camp: men who had left their work at military factories or construction sites without permission. Sending idle workers to concentration camps was another innovation of National Socialism.

There were people with lilac stripes on their jackets: émigrés from Fascist Germany. This too was an innovation of National Socialism: anyone who had left Germany, however patriotically he had behaved abroad, was a political enemy.

The people with green stripes on their jackets, the thieves and burglars, were a privileged caste: the authorities relied on them to supervise the politicals. Giving common criminals power over political prisoners was yet another innovation of National Socialism.

There were people whose past history was so peculiar that no appropriate colour of stripe had been found for them. But the Italian snake-charmer, the Persian who had come from Tehran to study German painting and the Chinese student of physics all found National Socialism ready to offer them a board to lie on, a bowl of watery soup and twelve hours a day of work on the marshland.

Day and night trainloads of men continued to arrive at the death camps and concentration camps. The air was full of the rumble of wheels, the whistling of locomotives and the thud of hundreds of thousands of prisoners marching to work, each with a five-figure number sewn onto his clothes. These camps – with their streets and squares, their hospitals and flea markets, their crematoria and their stadiums – were the expanding cities of a new Europe.

How naïve, how kindly and patriarchal the old prisons huddled on the outskirts of towns now appeared – beside these camp-cities, beside the awful crimson-black glow that hung over the gas ovens!

You might well think that the management of such a vast number of prisoners would have required an equally vast army of guards and supervisors. In fact, whole weeks would pass by without anyone in an SS uniform so much as appearing inside the barrack-huts. It was the prisoners themselves who policed the camp-cities. It was the prisoners themselves who supervised the internal routine, who made sure that the rotten, half-frozen potatoes ended up in their own saucepans while the good-quality ones were set aside for army supply-bases.

The prisoners themselves were the doctors and bacteriologists in the camp hospitals and laboratories, the caretakers who swept the camp pavements. They were even the engineers responsible for providing the camp with light and heat, for maintaining the motorized transport.

The 'kapos' – the fierce and vigilant camp police – wore a thick yellow band on their left sleeve. Together with the camp orderlies, block orderlies and hut orderlies, they controlled the hierarchy of camp life – from matters that concerned the camp as a whole to the personal affairs that were carried on at night on the bedboards. The prisoners played their part in the most confidential work of the camp: even the selection of prisoners to be sent to the death camps, even the interrogation of prisoners in the concrete boxes known as the 'darkrooms'. It seemed as though the German authorities could disappear altogether – the prisoners would maintain the high-voltage current in the wires and go on with their work.

The kapos and block orderlies simply carried out the tasks assigned to them. Sometimes they gave a sigh of regret, sometimes they shed a few tears for the people they sent to the gas ovens. What they did not do, however, was include their own names on these lists.

What Mostovskoy found most sinister of all was that National Socialism seemed so at home in the camp: rather than peering haughtily at the common people through a monocle, it talked and joked in their own language. It was down-to-earth and plebeian. And it had an excellent knowledge of the mind, language and soul of those it deprived of freedom.

3

Mikhail Mostovskoy, Agrippina Petrovna, Sofya Levinton, and Semyonov had been captured by the Germans on the outskirts of Stalingrad one night in August. They had been taken straight to the headquarters of an infantry division.

Agrippina Petrovna had been released after interrogation. On the instructions of a military-police officer, the translator had provided her with a loaf of pea-flour bread and two thirty-rouble coins. Semyonov, an army driver, had been sent to join a column of prisoners being marched to a camp near the village of Vertyachiy. Mostovskoy and Sofya Levinton, an army doctor, had been driven to Army Group Headquarters.

That was the last time Mostovskoy had seen Sofya Levinton. She had been standing in the middle of a dusty yard; she had no forage cap and the insignia of rank had been ripped from her uniform. The look of sullen hatred on her face had filled Mostovskoy with admiration.

Mostovskoy had been interrogated three times. He had then been marched to the railway station where a train carrying supplies of corn was about to depart. Ten coaches had been set aside for young men and women being sent as forced labourers to Germany; Mostovskoy could hear the women screaming as the train moved off. He himself had been locked into a small service compartment. His guard was quite polite, but whenever Mostovskoy asked a question, his face took on the expression of a deaf-mute. At the same time, it was clear that all his attention was focused on Mostovskoy. He was like an experienced zoo-keeper watching a box that housed a wild animal being transported by rail.

When the train entered Poland, Mostovskoy had been joined by a Polish bishop – a tall handsome man with grey hair and full, boyish lips. Immediately, with a marked accent, he had started telling Mostovskoy about the current executions of the Polish clergy. Mostovskoy had begun to abuse Catholicism and the Pope, and the bishop had fallen silent. From then on he had answered Mostovskoy's questions brusquely and in Polish. A few hours later, at Poznan, he had been taken off the train.

Mostovskoy had been taken directly to the camp, without visiting Berlin… Now it seemed that he'd been here for years, in this block for prisoners of special interest to the Gestapo. They were better-fed here, but their good life was that of guinea-pigs in a laboratory.

The orderly would call a man to the door; a friend would offer him some tobacco in exchange for a ration of bread and the man would return to his place on the bedboards, grinning with satisfaction. The orderly would then call another man who was telling a story – and the friend he'd been talking to would never hear how the story ended. The following day a kapo would walk up to his place on the boards and tell the orderly to collect his belongings. Someone else would then beg Keyze, the hut orderly, for permission to occupy the now-empty place.

Mostovskoy had even got used to the conversation here – a terrible mixture of the lists for the death camps, the gas ovens and the camp football teams: 'The Marsh team's the best – the bog soldiers. And Sick-bay's not bad. The Kitchen team's got some fast forwards. The Poles have got no defence at all…' He had grown equally accustomed to the countless rumours that spread through the camp: either about the invention of some new weapon or about rifts between the National Socialist leaders. These rumours were invariably both comforting and false – the opium of the camps.

4

Snow fell early in the morning and lay there till noon. The Russians felt a joy that was steeped in sorrow. Russia herself was breathing over them, spreading a mother's shawl beneath their poor exhausted feet. The barracks, with their white roofs, looked like the huts in a Russian village.

The orderly, a Spanish soldier called Andrea, came up to Mostovskoy and addressed him in broken French. He said that a clerk he knew had seen Mostovskoy's name on a paper, but his boss had taken the paper away before he'd had time to read it.

'My fate hangs on that bit of paper,' thought Mostovskoy. He was glad to find this thought left him so calm.

'But it doesn't matter,' murmured Andrea. 'We'll still be able to find out.'

'From the commandant?' asked Gardi, his huge black eyes shining in the half-light. 'Or from SS officer Liss?'

Mostovskoy was amazed at the difference between Gardi by day and Gardi by night. During the day he talked about the soup and the new arrivals, drove bargains with his neighbours and recalled the piquant, garlic-flavoured dishes of his homeland. The Russian soldiers all knew his favourite saying: 'Tutti kaputt', and would shout it out to him across the camp square, smiling as though they were saying something reassuring. They called him 'Papa padre', thinking that 'padre' was his first name.

One evening the Soviet officers and commissars in the special block had been laughing at Gardi, joking about whether or not he had observed his vow of chastity. Gardi had listened unsmilingly to the jumbled fragments of French, German and Russian. Then he had begun to speak himself, and Mostovskoy had translated. In the name of their ideals the Russian revolutionaries had gone to penal servitude and the scaffold; why then should they doubt that for a religious ideal a man might renounce intimacy with women? After all, it was hardly comparable to sacrificing one's life.

'Tell us another,' Brigade Commissar Osipov had muttered.

At night, while everyone was asleep, Gardi became another man. He would sit there and pray. It would seem then that all the suffering in this penal city could dissolve in the black velvet of his ecstatic, bulging eyes. The veins would stand out on his brown neck and his long, apathetic face would take on an expression of obstinate and sombre happiness. He would go on praying for a long time and Mostovskoy would fall asleep to the sound of his quick, low whispering. After an hour or two Mostovskoy usually woke up. By then Gardi would be sleeping his usual turbulent sleep. It was as though he were trying to reconcile his two different selves: he would snore, smack his lips, gnash his teeth, let out thunderous farts and then suddenly begin a wonderful prayer about the mercy of God the Father and the Virgin Mary.

Gardi often questioned Mostovskoy about Soviet Russia, never once reproaching him for his atheism. He would nod his head as he listened to the Old Bolshevik, as though approving the closing down of churches and monasteries and the nationalization of the huge estates that had belonged to the Synod. Finally Mostovskoy would ask irritably: 'Vous me comprenez?'

With his usual smile, as though he were talking about ragout or tomato sauce, Gardi would say: 'Je comprends tout ce que vous dites, je ne comprends pas seulement pourquoi vous dites cela.'

The other Russian prisoners-of-war in the special block were not exempt from work. It was only late in the evening or during the night that Mostovskoy was able to talk to them. The sole exceptions were Brigade Commissar Osipov and General Gudz.

Someone Mostovskoy did often talk to was Ikonnikov-Morzh, a strange man who could have been any age at all. He slept in the worst place in the whole hut: by the main door, where there was a freezing draught and where the huge latrine-pail or parasha had once stood. The other Russians referred to him as 'the old parachutist'. They looked on him as a holy fool and treated him with a mixture of disgust and pity.


He was endowed with the extraordinary powers of endurance characteristic of madmen and simpletons. He never once caught cold, even though he would go to bed without taking off his rain-soaked clothes. And surely only the voice of a madman could be so clear and ringing.

He had first introduced himself by walking up to Mostovskoy and staring silently into his face. 'What's the good news then?' Mostovskoy had asked. Then he had smiled mockingly as Ikonnikov said in his sing-song voice: 'Good? But what is good?'

These words took Mostovskoy back to his childhood, to the days when his elder brother would come home from the seminary and discuss questions of theology with their father. 'That really is a hoary old question,' he said. 'People have been puzzling over it ever since the Buddhists and the early Christians. And we Marxists have pondered it too.'

'And have you found any answer?' asked Ikonnikov in a voice that made Mostovskoy laugh.

'The Red Army are finding an answer right now,' said Mostovskoy. 'But there's something rather unctuous, if I may say so, in your tone of voice. You sound like a priest or a Tolstoyan.'

'That's hardly surprising,' said Ikonnikov. 'I used to be a Tolstoyan.'

'You don't say!' exclaimed Mostovskoy. The strange man had begun to interest him.

'Do you know something?' said Ikonnikov. 'I'm certain that the persecution of the Church by the Bolsheviks was beneficial to the Christian ideal. The Church was in a pitiful state before the Revolution.'

'You're a true dialectician!' said Mostovskoy. 'I too in my old age have been allowed to witness the miracle of the Gospel!'

'No,' replied Ikonnikov with a frown. 'For you, the end justifies the means – and the means you employ are inhuman. I'm no dialectician and you're not witnessing a miracle.'

'So what can I do for you?' snapped Mostovskoy.

'Don't make fun of me.' Ikonnikov was standing to attention and his mournful voice now sounded tragic. 'I didn't come over here just to make you laugh. On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed – women, children and old men.


That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist. In the darkness of the present day I can see your power and the terrible evil it's fighting…'

'All right then,' said Mostovskoy, 'let's talk!'

Ikonnikov worked in the marshland not far from the camp. Huge concrete pipes were being laid – to channel the river and its streams, and so drain the low ground. The men sent to work here – for the most part those who had incurred the disapproval of the authorities – were called 'the bog soldiers'.

Ikonnikov had small hands with fine fingers and the fingernails of a child. He would return from work, soaked to the bone and smeared with clay, walk up to Mostovskoy's place on the boards and say: 'Can I sit with you for a moment?'

Without looking at Mostovskoy, he would sit down, smile and draw his hand across his forehead. He had a very strange forehead: it was quite small, bulging, and so bright that it seemed to exist independently of his dirty ears, his dark brown neck and his hands with their broken nails.

The other Soviet prisoners-of-war, men with straightforward personal histories, considered him dubious and untrustworthy.

Since the days of Peter the Great, generation after generation of his ancestors had been priests. It was only the last generation that had followed a different path: at their father's wish, Ikonnikov and his brothers had received a lay education. He had been a student at the Petersburg Institute of Technology. During the final year, however, he had been converted to the teachings of Tolstoy; he had left the Institute and become a people's teacher in a village to the north of Perm. After eight years he had gone to Odessa. There he had been taken on as an engine-room mechanic in a merchant ship and had travelled to India and Japan. He had lived for a while in Sydney. After the Revolution he had returned to Russia and joined a peasant commune. This was a long-cherished dream: he had believed that communist agricultural labour would bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

During the period of all-out collectivization he had seen special trains packed with the families of kulaks. He had seen exhausted men and women collapse in the snow, never to rise again. He had seen 'closed' villages where there wasn't a living soul in sight and where every door and window had been boarded up. He remembered one ragged peasant woman with an emaciated neck and swarthy hands. Her guards had been staring at her in horror: mad with hunger, she had just eaten her two children.

Without leaving the commune, he had begun preaching the Gospel and praying to God to take pity on the dying. In the end he was sent to prison. The horrors of these years had affected his reason; after a year's internment in the prison psychiatric hospital he had been released. He had then gone to Byelorussia to live with his elder brother, a professor of biology who had managed to find him a job in a technical library.

Then the war had begun and Byelorussia had been invaded. Ikonnikov had witnessed the torments undergone by the prisoners-of-war and the executions of Jews in the towns and shtetls. [2] He began to approach people, in a state of near-hysteria, begging them to give sanctuary to the Jews. He even tried to save the lives of Jewish women and children himself. Escaping the gallows by a miracle, he had ended up in the camp.

The ideas of this dirty, ragged old man were a strange hotchpotch. He professed a belief in an absurd theory of morality that – in his own words – 'transcended class'.

'Where acts of violence are committed,' he explained to Mostov-skoy, 'sorrow reigns and blood must flow. I saw the sufferings of the peasantry with my own eyes – and yet collectivization was carried out in the name of Good. I don't believe in your "Good". I believe in human kindness.'

'So you want us to be horrified when Hitler and Himmler are strung up on the gallows in the name of Good? You can count me out!'

'You ask Hitler,' said Ikonnikov, 'and he'll tell you that even this camp was set up in the name of Good.'

During these arguments Mostovskoy felt like a man fighting off a jellyfish with a knife. The thrusts of his logic were powerless.

'The world has progressed no further,' repeated Ikonnikov, 'than the truth spoken by a sixth-century Christian: "Condemn the sin and forgive the sinner." '

There was another old Russian in the hut, a one-eyed man called Chernetsov. One of the guards had smashed his glass eye and the gaping red socket stood out against his pale face. When he was talking to someone, he covered it over with the palm of his hand.

A former Menshevik, he had escaped from Soviet Russia in 1921. For twenty years he had worked as a bank clerk in Paris. He had been sent to the camp after calling upon his fellow employees to disobey the orders of the new German administration.

Mostovskoy had as little to do with Chernetsov as possible. Chernetsov, for his part, was clearly deeply upset by the popularity of the Old Bolshevik. Somehow everyone in the hut was drawn to him; the Spanish soldier, the Belgian lawyer, the Norwegian owner of a stationery shop would all come to him with their questions.

One day, Major Yershov, who was something of a hero to the Russian prisoners-of-war, had been sitting beside Mostovskoy. He was leaning towards him, one hand on his shoulder, speaking quickly and excitedly. Mostovskoy had suddenly looked round and seen Chernetsov staring at them from his place in the far corner. The anguish in his seeing eye had seemed more terrible than the gaping bloodshot socket. 'Yes, I'm glad I'm not in your shoes,' Mostovskoy had said to himself.

It certainly wasn't mere chance that everyone was constantly asking after Major Yershov. 'Where's Yershov? You haven't seen Yershov, have you? Comrade Yershov! Major Yershov! Yershov said… Ask Yershov…' People from the other huts would come to see him; there was always a constant bustle around his place on the boards.

Mostovskoy had christened him 'The Master of Men's Minds'. The 1860s and 1880s had both had their 'masters of men's minds'. First there had been the Populists; then Mikhailovsky had come and gone. Now this Nazi concentration camp had its own 'master of men's minds'.

Whole decades had gone by since Mostovskoy had first been imprisoned in a Tsarist jail. That had been in another century.

There had been occasions in the last few years when Mostovskoy had taken offence at the lack of confidence in his practical abilities shown by some of the Party leaders. Now he again felt conscious of his own power; every day he saw how much weight his words carried with General Gudz, with Brigade Commissar Osipov, with the sad and depressed Major Kirillov.

Before the war, he had consoled himself with the thought that his removal from posts of responsibility at least meant that he was less involved with matters that aroused his misgivings: Stalin's autocratic rule, the bloody trials of the Opposition, the lack of respect shown towards the Old Bolsheviks. The execution of Bukharin, whom he had known and loved, had upset him deeply. He had known, however, that if he opposed the Party in any one of these matters, he would turn out, against his will, to have opposed the very cause to which he had devoted his life: the cause of Lenin. At times he had been tormented by doubt. Was it just cowardice that stopped him from speaking out? There had been many terrible things at that time. Yes, he would have given anything to talk once again to his friend Lunacharsky – they had always understood one another so quickly, so easily.

In this terrible camp he had recovered his self-confidence, but there was one uneasy feeling that never left him. He was unable to recover his former sense of clarity and completeness, of being a friend among friends and a stranger among strangers.

An English officer had once suggested that in Russia the censorship of anti-Marxist views might stand in the way of his philosophical work. But this wasn't what troubled him.

'It might inconvenience other people,' he had replied. 'But it doesn't inconvenience a Marxist like myself.'

'It's precisely because you're an old Marxist that I asked the question,' the Englishman had retorted.

He had winced with pain, but had been able to come out with an answer.

Nor was it that he sometimes felt irritated with people as close to him as Osipov, Gudz and Yershov… No, what troubled Mostovskoy was that many things in his own soul were now foreign to him.

He could remember times when he had felt overjoyed at meeting an old friend – only to find that he was now a stranger. But what could he do now it was a part of himself that had become alien, that was out of place in the present day? He could hardly break with himself…

He often got annoyed with Ikonnikov. He would be rude and sarcastic. He would call him feeble-minded, a wet rag, a half-wit. But if they didn't meet for some time, he missed him.


Yes, this was the main difference between the present and the years he had spent in prison as a young man: in those days he had been able to understand and love everything about his friends and comrades, while the least word or thought of his enemies had seemed alien and monstrous; now, however, he would sometimes glimpse in the thoughts of an enemy what he had once found important himself, and discover something strangely alien in the thoughts of his friends.

'I must just be getting old!' he said to himself.

5

The American colonel had an individual cell in the special block. He was allowed to leave the hut during the evening and was given special meals. Rumour had it that the King of Sweden had intervened on his behalf, at the request of President Roosevelt himself.

This colonel had once given Major Nikonov a bar of chocolate when he was ill. He was very interested in the Russian prisoners-of-war and was always trying to start up conversations with them about German tactics and the causes of the disasters of 1941.

He would often talk to Yershov. Sometimes he looked into his bright, thoughtful eyes and forgot that he couldn't speak English. He found it hard to believe that a man with such an intelligent face could fail to understand him – especially when what they were saying was of such consuming interest.

'I can't believe it!' he would say. 'You really don't understand?'

And Yershov would answer in Russian: 'The old sergeant had a fine command of every kind of language – except foreign ones.'

Nevertheless, in a language composed of smiles, glances, slaps on the back and ten or fifteen words of atrociously mangled Russian, French, German and English, the Russians were able to discuss comradeship, solidarity, fellow-feeling, love of one's home, love of one's wife and children, with people from dozens of different countries.



Kamerad, gut, brot, suppe, kinder, Zigarette, arbeit and another dozen words that had originated in the camps themselves, Revier, Blockälteste, Kapo, Vernichtungslager, Appell, Appellplatz, Waschraum, Flugpunkt, Lagerschütze, [3] were enough to express everything of real importance in the simple yet bewildering life of the prisoners.

There were also several Russian words – rebyata, tabachok, tovarisch [4] – that were also used by other nationalities. As for the word dokhodyaga - meaning a prisoner who was on his last legs – this had been accepted by all fifty-six nationalities.

[…] [5]+

The Soviet prisoners-of-war were unable even to agree among themselves: some were ready to die rather than betray their country, while others considered joining up with Vlasov. [6] The more they talked and argued, the less they understood each other. In the end they fell silent, full of mutual contempt and hatred.

And in this silence of the dumb and these speeches of the blind, in this medley of people bound together by the same grief, terror and hope, in this hatred and lack of understanding between men who spoke the same tongue, you could see much of the tragedy of the twentieth century.

6

The conversations of the Russian prisoners-of-war were particularly sad on the evening after the first snowfall. Even men as energetic and self-disciplined as Colonel Zlatokrylets and Brigade Commissar Osipov had fallen into a gloomy silence. Major Kirillov was sitting beside Mostovskoy; his shoulders were drooping and his head was nodding slowly up and down. The whole of his vast body seemed filled with melancholy. As for his dark eyes, they were like the eyes of someone with terminal cancer. Looking into such eyes, even a man's nearest and dearest would hope that his sufferings would soon be over.

Pointing at Kirillov, the ubiquitous Kotikov whispered to Osipov: 'Either he's about to hang himself or he's going to join up with Vlasov.'

Mostovskoy rubbed the grey stubble on his cheeks and said: 'Listen, cossacks! Everything's fine! Can'tyou see that? Every day that the State created by Lenin continues to exist is a death-blow to Fascism. Fascism has no choice: it must either destroy us or perish. The hatred Fascism bears us is yet another proof- a far-reaching proof-of the justice of Lenin's cause. The more the Fascists hate us, the more certain we can be of our own Tightness… And in the end we will defeat them.'

He turned to Kirillov.

'What's the matter with you? Don't you remember that story of Gorky 's? How he was walking up and down the prison courtyard and a Georgian shouted out: "Hold your head up! You look like a bedraggled chicken!" '

Everyone burst out laughing.

'And he was quite right! We must hold our heads high! Just think -the Soviet State is defending the ideals of Communism! Do you think Hitler can get the better of that…? Stalingrad is still holding out. It may have seemed before the war that we were going too far, that we had really tightened the screws… But now even a blind man can see that the end justifies the means.'

'We certainly did tighten the screws,' said Yershov. 'That's for sure.'

'We didn't tighten them enough,' said General Gudz. 'We should have gone further still. Then Hitler wouldn't have reached the Volga.'

'It's not for us to give lessons to Stalin,' said Osipov.

'True enough,' said Mostovskoy. 'And if we perish in prisons or damp mines, then that's that. We must just think of something else.'

'Such as?' asked Yershov loudly.

Everyone exchanged glances, looked away again and fell silent.

'Oh Kirillov! Kirillov!' said Yershov abruptly. 'The old man's quite right. We should rejoice that the Fascists hate us. We hate them and they hate us. Right? But just imagine being sent to a Russian camp! That really would be hard. But as for this…! We're stout-hearted lads! We'll give the Germans a run for their money!'

7

General Chuykov, the commander of the 62nd Army, [7] had lost all contact with his troops. Most of the wireless sets had gone dead and the telephone cables had all been severed.

Sometimes it seemed as though the gently rippling Volga was something fixed and stable, and that the quaking earth was huddling against its still margins. From the left bank, hundreds of pieces of Soviet heavy artillery kept up a constant barrage. Round the German positions on the southern slopes of Mamayev Kurgan, the earth whirled into the air like smoke. These clouds of earth then passed through the sieve of gravity, the heavier lumps falling straight to the ground, the dust rising into the sky.

Several times during the day the soldiers had fought off attacks by German tanks and infantry. Their eyes were bloodshot and their ears deafened.

To the senior officers cut off from their troops the day seemed interminable. Chuykov, Krylov and Gurov had tried everything under the sun to fill in the time: they had invented work for themselves, written letters, argued about what the enemy might do next, drunk vodka with and without something to eat, and had listened in silence to the roar of the guns. An iron whirlwind howled over the bunker, slicing through anything living that raised its head above the earth's surface. The Army Headquarters was paralysed.

'Let's have a game of fool!' said Chuykov, pushing aside a large ashtray full of cigarette-ends.

Even Krylov, the chief of staff, had lost his composure. Drumming his fingers on the table, he said: 'I can't imagine anything worse. We're just sitting here – waiting to be eaten!'

Chuykov dealt, announced, 'Hearts are trumps,' and then suddenly scattered the cards. 'I can't bear it!' he exclaimed. 'We're just sitting in our holes like rabbits.' He sat there in silence. His face was agonized and full of hatred.

As though predicting his own end, Gurov murmured thoughtfully: 'Another day like this and I'll have a heart attack!'

He suddenly burst out laughing and said: 'At the divisional command-post it's impossible even to go to the bog during the day. I heard that Lyudnikov's chief of staff once jumped down into the bunker and shouted out: "Hurrah! I've been for a shi…!" He looked round and there was the lady-doctor he was in love with.'

The German air-raids stopped at dusk. A man arriving in Stalingrad at night, deafened by the guns, might well imagine that some cruel fate had brought him there just as a major offensive was being launched. For the veterans, however, this was the time to shave, to wash clothes and write letters; for the turners, mechanics, solderers and watchmakers this was the time to repair clocks, cigarette-lighters, cigarette-holders, and the oil-lamps made from old shellcases with strips of greatcoat as wicks.

In the flickering light from the shell-bursts you could see the banks of the river, the oil-tanks and factory-chimneys, the ruins of the city itself. The view was sullen and sinister.

In the dark the signals centre came to life again. Typewriters clattered away as they copied dispatches, motors hummed, orders were tapped out in Morse code, telephonists exchanged messages as the command-posts of divisions, regiments, batteries and companies were once again connected up… Signals officers who had just arrived gave measured coughs as they waited to give their reports to the duty-officer.

Pozharsky, the elderly artillery commander; General Tkachenko, the sapper in charge of the dangerous river-crossing; Guryev, the newly-arrived commander of the Siberian division; and Lieutenant-Colonel Batyuk, the Stalingrad veteran whose division was disposed below Mamayev Kurgan, all hurried to report to Chuykov and Krylov. At the front line itself, letters folded into triangles were handed to postmen… And the dead were buried – to spend the first night of their eternal rest beside the dug-outs and trenches where their comrades were writing letters, shaving, eating bread, drinking tea and washing in improvised baths.

8

This was the beginning of the most difficult period for the defenders of Stalingrad. In the confusion of the street-fighting, of the different attacks and counter-attacks, of the struggle for the 'House of Specialists', for the mill, for the State Bank – and for each square, courtyard and cellar – the superiority of the German forces was indisputable.

The wedge the Germans had driven into the southern part of Stalingrad was widening every day. From positions beside the water, German machine-gunners were able to cover the left bank to the south of Krasnaya Sloboda. The staff officers responsible for plotting the position of the front line on the map saw how inexorably the blue markers moved forward from day to day, how the band separating the red line of the Soviet defences from the light blue of the Volga grew steadily thinner.

The initiative at this time belonged to the Germans. For all their fury, the Russian counter-attacks could do nothing to halt their remorseless advance. From dawn to dusk the sky was filled with the whine of German dive-bombers, pounding the earth with their high-explosive bombs. And hundreds of men lived day after day with the same terrible question: what will happen tomorrow – or next week -when the thin band of the Soviet defences is reduced to a thread, when this thread is snapped by the iron teeth of the German offensive?

9

Late that night, General Krylov lay down to sleep in the bunker. His temples throbbed and his throat burned: he had smoked dozens of cigarettes that day. He licked his dry palate and turned over to face the wall. As he lay there, half-asleep, he remembered the fighting in Odessa and Sebastopol: the shouts of the Rumanian infantry as they attacked; Sebastopol and its naval splendour; Odessa and its cobble-paved courtyards cloaked in ivy.

Once again he was back at the command-post in Sebastopol. General Petrov's pince-nez was gleaming through the mist. The gleam broke into a thousand splinters and he saw the sea. A grey cloud, the dust raised by shell-bursts on the cliffs, floated above the heads of the soldiers and sailors and stood over Sapun Mountain.

He could hear the waves lapping unconcernedly against the launch. Then a gruff voice from below: 'Jump!' He leaped into the deep – and landed on the hull of the submarine… He took his last look at Sebastopol, at the stars, at the fires on the shore.

The war kept its hold on him even while he was asleep… The submarine was taking him to Novorossiysk. His legs were numb, his chest and back were damp with sweat, the noise of the engines was beating against his temples. Then the engines cut out and the submarine settled quietly onto the sea-bed. The closeness inside was unbearable; the ceiling, criss-crossed by dotted lines of riveting, was crushing him…

Then he heard a roar and a splash. A depth-charge had exploded. The submarine lurched and he was thrown out of his bunk. He opened his eyes and found everything in flames. There was a stream of fire running towards the Volga past the open door of the bunker. He could hear shouting and the rattle of tommy-guns.

Tut this over your head! Quick!' shouted a soldier he had never seen before. He was thrusting an overcoat towards him.

Krylov pushed him aside. 'Where's Chuykov?' he shouted.

Suddenly he realized what had happened: the oil-tanks were on fire. Flaming oil was streaming past towards the Volga.

It seemed impossible to escape from the liquid fire. It leaped up, humming and crackling, from the streams of oil that were filling the hollows and craters and rushing down the communication trenches. Saturated with oil, even the clay and stone were beginning to smoke. The oil itself was gushing out in black glossy streams from tanks that had been riddled by incendiary bullets; it was as though sheets of flame and smoke had been sealed inside these tanks and were now slowly unrolling.

The life that had reigned hundreds of millions of years before, the terrible life of the primeval monsters, had broken out of its deep tombs; howling and roaring, stamping its huge feet, it was devouring everything round about. The fire rose thousands of feet, carrying with it clouds of vaporized oil that exploded into flame only high in the sky. The mass of flame was so vast that the surrounding whirlwind was unable to bring enough oxygen to the burning molecules of hydrocarbon; a black, swaying vault separated the starry sky of autumn from the burning earth. It was terrible to look up and see a black firmament streaming with oil.

The columns of flame and smoke looked at one moment like living beings seized by horror and fury, at another moment like quivering poplars and aspens. Like women with long, streaming hair, the black clouds and red flames joined together in a wild dance.

The blazing oil formed a thin film over the water, hissing, smoking and twisting as it was caught by the current.

It was surprising how quickly the soldiers managed to find a path to the bank. Some of them then made two or three journeys back to the flaming bunkers, helping the staff officers to the promontory where, between two streams of fire flowing into the Volga, a small group of men were standing in safety. They had already rescued Chuykov himself. They had carried Krylov – who had been considered lost – out of the flames. Blinking their scorched eyelashes, they forced their way back to the bunkers through the thickets of red dog-rose.

The staff officers of the 62nd Army stood until morning on this small promontory. Between shielding their faces from the scorching air and brushing off the sparks that fell on their clothes, they kept looking round at Chuykov. He had a soldier's greatcoat thrown over his shoulders and locks of hair were sticking out under his service cap. He looked calm and thoughtful.

Gurov looked round and said: 'It seems that even fire can't burn us.' He began fingering the hot buttons on his greatcoat.

'Hey! You there with a spade!' shouted the chief sapper, General Tkachenko. 'Dig a channel through here! Otherwise we'll have flames coming down on us from that mound!'

He turned to Krylov.

'Everything's back to front, comrade General. Fire flows like water and the Volga 's burning. Thank God there's no wind to speak of. Otherwise we'd be roasted alive!'

Now and then a breeze did blow from the Volga and the great tent of flame swayed towards them.

A few men went right down to the river and splashed water over their boots; it evaporated immediately off the hot leather. Some men stared silently down at the ground. Some were continually looking over their shoulders. Some tried to crack jokes: 'You don't even need matches – you can just light up from the wind or the Volga.' Others kept feeling themselves, shaking their heads as they touched the hot metal clasps on their belts.

A few hand-grenades exploded inside the dug-outs of the headquarters battalion. Then there was a rattle of machine-gun fire. A German mortar bomb whistled through the flames to explode in the Volga. Through the smoke they glimpsed distant figures; they were probably trying to divert the flames. But everything vanished again in flames and smoke.

Peering into the flames, Krylov had room in his head for only one thought: whether or not the Germans would exploit the fire and launch an attack. The Germans didn't know the location of the Army command-post – a prisoner they'd taken yesterday had refused to believe it was still on the right bank… And this seemed to be merely a local operation… Yes, there was a chance of surviving till morning. As long as the wind didn't get up!

He looked at Chuykov who was standing beside him, gazing into the fire. His soot-covered face seemed to be made of incandescent copper. When he took off his cap and drew his hand through his hair, he looked like a village blacksmith; he was covered in sweat, and sparks were leaping over his head. He gazed up at the cupola of fire and then down at the Volga. The few spaces of darkness over the river were clearly outlined against the twisting and coiling flames. Krylov imagined that Chuykov was fretting over the same questions as he was: would the Germans launch a major offensive at night…? Where should they relocate the command-post if they survived till morning…?

Chuykov sensed Krylov's gaze and smiled. Tracing a wide circle in the air with one hand, he said: 'Quite a spectacle, isn't it? Damn it!'

The fire was clearly visible from the Headquarters of the Stalingrad Front on the left bank. The chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Zakharov, went straight to Yeremenko after receiving the first report. Yeremenko ordered him to go to the signals centre in person and get through to Chuykov. Breathing heavily, Zakharov hurried along. An orderly was lighting the way with a flashlight; now and then he would say, 'Careful, comrade General!' as he pushed aside the branches of apple trees that were hanging over the path. The distant glow lit up the tree-trunks and lay in rose-coloured stains over the earth. The surrounding silence, broken only by the low calls of the sentries, made this pale, mute fire seem still more threatening.

The duty-signaller, a young girl, told Zakharov that they had lost all contact with Chuykov – telephone, telegraph and radio…

'And with the divisions?' asked Zakharov quickly.

'We were in touch with Batyuk only a moment ago, comrade Lieutenant-General.'

'Get him for me at once!'

Zakharov was notorious for his quick temper; the girl was afraid even to look at him again. Then she suddenly handed him the receiver and said joyfully: 'Here, comrade General!'

On the other end of the line was Batyuk's chief of staff. Like the girl, he grew increasingly nervous as he heard Zakharov's heavy breathing and imperious voice.

'What's going on over there? Give me a report! Are you in contact with Chuykov?'

The chief of staff told Zakharov about the burning oil-tanks and the wave of flame that had swept down on the Army command-post. They had been unable to make contact with Chuykov, but it did seem that not everyone there had perished. Through the fire and smoke they could make out a group of people standing on the bank, but the river itself was on fire and there was no way of reaching them. Batyuk had set out with the headquarters company to draw off the fire and rescue the survivors.

When he finished his report, Zakharov said: 'Tell Chuykov… If he's alive, tell Chuykov…'

Surprised by the long pause, the young girl glanced timidly at Zakharov. He was wiping the tears from his eyes with a handkerchief.

That night, forty officers from Army HQ were burned to death in collapsed bunkers.

10

Krymov arrived in Stalingrad soon after the burning of the oil-tanks.

Chuykov had located his new command-post on the sloping banks of the river, in the area where one of Batyuk's infantry regiments was disposed. He visited the officer in command, Captain Mikhailov, and nodded with satisfaction as he inspected his spacious bunker with its many layers of beams. Seeing the dismay on the captain's freckled face, Chuykov said brightly: 'You've built yourself a bunker above your station, comrade Captain.'

The regimental staff collected their impedimenta, moved thirty or forty yards downstream and evicted the battalion commander from his quarters. The now homeless battalion commander decided to leave his company commanders in peace – their quarters were in any case extremely cramped – and ordered a new bunker to be constructed on the high plateau.

Engineering works were already in full swing when Krymov arrived at the command-post. The sappers were digging a whole network of communication trenches between the different sections -Political, Operations and Artillery. His conversation with Chuykov was twice interrupted as the latter went out to inspect the progress of this work.

There was probably nowhere in the world where the construction of living-quarters was taken more seriously than in Stalingrad. These bunkers were built neither for warmth, nor in order to impress posterity. It was the likelihood of greeting the next dawn and eating the next meal that depended on the solidity of the beams, the depth of the communication trenches, the nearness of the latrine and the effectiveness of the camouflage.

When you were talking about someone, you always mentioned the quality of his bunker: 'Batyuk's done some fine work on Mamayev Kurgan with his mortars. He's got a fine bunker by the way. A huge oak door just like the Senate. Yes, he's certainly got a head on his shoulders.' While of another man it might be said: 'Well, what do you know, he was forced to retreat during the night. He had no liaison with his units and he lost a key position… As for his command-post, it was visible from the air. And he had a cape by way of a door – to keep out the flies, I suppose. An empty-headed fellow – I heard his wife left him before the war.'

There were any number of stories in circulation that had to do with dug-outs and bunkers… The story of the conduit that housed Rodimtsev's command-post: water had suddenly gushed through and swept away all his files; wits had subsequently marked the confluence of Rodimtsev and the Volga on maps. The story of the destruction of Batyuk's famous door. And the story of how Zholudyev and his staff had been buried alive in their bunker at the Tractor Factory.

The river bank, packed tightly with bunkers, reminded Krymov of a vast warship. To port lay the Volga, to starboard a wall of enemy fire.

Krymov had been instructed by the Political Administration to sort out a quarrel between the commanding officer and the commissar [8] of an infantry regiment in Rodimtsev's division. He intended first to give a short lecture to the staff officers and then to sort out the quarrel.

An orderly from the Army Political Section led him to the mouth of the vast conduit that housed Rodimtsev's command-post. A sentry announced his arrival, and a gruff voice replied: 'Bring him in! The poor man's probably shitting in his pants by now.'

Krymov walked in under the low ceiling. Conscious that everyone was watching, he introduced himself to Vavilov, the divisional commissar. He was a stout man in a soldier's jacket, sitting on top of an empty crate.

'Splendid!' said Vavilov. 'A lecture's just what we need. People have heard that Manuilsky and a few others have arrived on the left bank and aren't even coming over to Stalingrad.'

'I've also been instructed to sort out a quarrel between the commander of one of your infantry regiments and his commissar.'

'Yes, we did have some difficulties there,' said Vavilov. 'But yesterday they were settled: a one-ton bomb fell on the command-post. Eighteen men were killed, the commander and his commissar among them.

'They couldn't have been more different,' he went on confidingly, 'even in appearance. They were like chalk and cheese. The commander was a straightforward man, the son of a peasant, while the commissar had a ring on one finger and always wore gloves. And now they are lying side by side.'

In the manner of someone used to being in control, both of his own feelings and of other people's, he suddenly added in a quite different tone of voice:

'Once, when we were based near Kotluban, I had to drive a lecturer from Moscow to the front-Pavel Fyodorovich Yudin. [9] The Member of the Military Soviet had said it would be the end of me if he lost so much as a hair off his head. Now that really was hard work. We had to dive straight into the ditch if a plane came anywhere near. But comrade Yudin certainly knew how to take care of himself – I'll say that for him! He showed true initiative.'

The other listeners laughed. Krymov knew it was him they were making fun of.

As a rule, he was able to establish good relations with officers in the field, tolerable relations with staff officers, and only awkward, rather insincere relations with his fellow political-workers. It was the same now: he was irritated by this commissar. He'd only just been sent to the front and he put on the airs of a veteran. He probably hadn't even joined the Party till just before the war.

On the other hand, there was obviously something about Krymov that got under Vavilov's skin.

After the lecture, people began asking questions. Belsky, Rodimtsev's chief of staff, who was sitting beside the general, asked: 'When are the Allies going to open a second front, comrade lecturer?'

Vavilov, who had been stretched out on a narrow bunk fixed to the stone facing of the conduit, sat up, raked aside some straw with his fingers and said: 'Who cares about that? What I want to know is when our own Command intends to act.'

Krymov glanced at him in irritation. 'Since the commissar puts the question in that form, it seems more appropriate that the general should answer it.'

Everyone turned to Rodimtsev.

'A tall man can't even stand up in here,' he began. 'This is a dead end if ever there was one. You can't launch an offensive from out of a pipe. I'd be only too glad – but how can you effect a concentration of troops in a pipe?'

The telephone rang. Rodimtsev picked up the receiver.

Everyone's eyes were on him.

He put down the receiver, leant over towards Belsky and whispered a few words in his ear. The latter reached out for the receiver himself. Rodimtsev put his hand over it and said: 'Why bother? Can't you hear?'

Up above they could hear frequent bursts of machine-gun fire and the explosions of hand-grenades. The conduit amplified every sound. The gunfire was like the clatter of carts going over a bridge.

Rodimtsev said a few words to various staff officers and again picked up the impatient telephone-receiver. He caught Krymov's eye for a moment, smiled calmly and said: 'The weather's turned fine here on the Volga.'

The telephone was now ringing incessantly. Krymov had gathered what was happening from the conversations he had overheard. Colonel Borisov, the second-in-command, went up to the general and leaned over the crate where the plan of Stalingrad was spread out. With a sudden, dramatic gesture he drew a blue perpendicular through the red dots of the Soviet front line right up to the Volga, then looked pointedly at Rodimtsev. A man in a cape came in out of the darkness and Rodimtsev got up to meet him.

It was obvious enough where he had come from. He was shrouded in an incandescent cloud and his cape seemed to be crackling with electricity.

'Comrade General,' he said plaintively, 'the swine have forced me back. They've reached the ravine and they're almost at the Volga. I need reinforcements!'

'You must stop the enemy yourselves, at whatever cost,' said Rodimtsev. 'There are no reserves.'

'At whatever cost,' repeated the man in the cape. He clearly understood what this meant.

'Just here?' asked Krymov, pointing to a spot on the map.

Rodimtsev didn't get a chance to answer. From the mouth of the conduit came the sound of pistol-shots and the flashes of hand-grenades.

Rodimtsev blew a piercing blast on his whistle. Belsky ran towards him, shouting: 'Comrade General, the enemy have broken through to the command-post!'

Suddenly the respected general, the man who had coloured in troop dispositions on a map with almost theatrical calm, was no longer there. And the war in these overgrown ravines and ruined buildings was no longer a matter of chromium-plated steel, cathode lamps and radio sets. There was just a man with thin lips, shouting excitedly: 'Divisional staff! Check your personal weapons, take some grenades and follow me!'

Both his voice and eyes had the burning cold of alcohol. His strength no longer lay in his military experience or his knowledge of the map, but in his harsh, wild, impetuous soul.

A few minutes later, staff officers, clerks, signallers and telephonists were pushing and shoving each other as they streamed out of the conduit. Following the light-footed Rodimtsev, they ran towards the ravine. It was full of the sound of shots and explosions, of shouting and cursing.

Krymov was one of the first to reach the ravine. As he looked down, breathing heavily, his heart gave a shudder of mingled disgust, fear and hatred. Dim figures appeared out of the darkness, rifles flashed, red and green eyes gleamed momentarily, and the air was full of the whistle of iron. He seemed to be looking into a vast pit full of hundreds of poisonous snakes that were slithering about in confusion, hissing and rustling through the dry grass.

With a feeling of revulsion and fury, Krymov began firing at the flashes below and the quick shadows creeping their way up the slope.

Thirty or forty yards away a group of Germans appeared on the crest. They were making for the mouth of the conduit. The rumble of exploding grenades shook both the air and the earth.

It was as though a huge black cauldron were boiling and Krymov were immersed, body and soul, in its gurgling, bubbling waters. He could no longer think or feel as he had ever thought or felt before. For a moment he seemed to be in control of the whirlpool that had seized hold of him; then a thick black pitch seemed to pour into his eyes and nostrils – there was no air left to breathe, no stars over his head, nothing but this darkness, this ravine and these strange creatures rustling through the dry grass.

And yet, in spite of the confusion around him, he retained a clear sense both of his own strength and of the strength of the men beside him; he felt an almost palpable sense of solidarity with them, and a sense of joy that Rodimtsev was somewhere nearby.

This strange clarity, which arose at a moment when it was impossible to tell whether a man three yards away was a friend or an enemy, was linked to an equally clear and inexplicable sense of the general course of the fighting, the sense that allows a soldier to judge the true correlation of forces in a battle and to predict its outcome.

11

The intuition of a deafened and isolated soldier often turns out to be nearer the truth than judgements delivered by staff officers as they study the map.

An extraordinary change takes place at the turning-point in a battle: a soldier looks round, after apparently gaining his objective, and suddenly finds he has lost sight of his comrades; while the enemy, who had seemed so weak, scattered and stupid, is now united and therefore invincible. A deep change in perception takes place at this mysterious turning-point: a gallant, intelligent 'We' becomes a frail, timid 'I', while the enemy changes from a hunted, isolated prey to a terrible, threatening 'Them'.

As he overcame the enemy resistance, the advancing soldier had perceived everything separately: a shell-burst here, a rattle of machine-gun fire there, an enemy soldier there, hiding behind that shelter and about to run…He can't not run – he's cut off from that isolated piece of artillery, that isolated machine-gun, that isolated soldier blazing away beside him. But I – I am we, I am the mass of infantry going into the attack, I am the supporting tanks and artillery, I am the flare lighting up our common cause. And then suddenly I am alone – and everything that was isolated and weak has fused into a solid roar of enemy rifle-fire, machine-gun fire and artillery fire. This united enemy is now invincible; the only safety lies in my flight, in hiding my head, in covering my shoulders, my forehead, my jaw…

Often, it is the understanding of this transition that gives warfare the right to be called an art. This alternating sense of singularity and plurality is a key not only to the success of night-attacks by companies and battalions, but to the military success and failure of entire armies and peoples.

One sense almost entirely lost during combat is that of time.

After dancing all night at a New Year's ball, a girl will be unable to say whether the time passed quickly or slowly. Similarly, a man who has done twenty-five years in the Schlüsselburg Prison will say: 'I seem to have been a whole eternity in this fortress, and at the same time I only seem to have been here a few weeks.'

The night at the ball is full of looks, smiles, caresses, snatches of music, each of which takes place so swiftly as to leave no sense of duration in the girl's consciousness. Taken together, however, these moments engender the sense of a long interval of time that contains all the joys of human existence.

For the prisoner it is the exact opposite: his twenty-five years are composed of discrete intervals of time – from morning roll-call to evening roll-call, from breakfast to lunchtime – each of which seems unbearably long. But the twilight monotony of the months and years engenders a sense that time itself has contracted, has shrunk. And all this gives rise to the same sense of simultaneous quickness and endlessness felt by the girl at the ball.

The distortion of the sense of time during combat is something still more complex. Here there is a distortion even in the individual, primary sensations. One second can stretch out for eternity, and long hours can crumple together.

The sense of duration is linked to such fleeting events as the whistle of shells and bombs, the flashes of shots and explosions. The sense of quickness, on the other hand, is linked to protracted events: crossing a ploughed field under fire, crawling from one shelter to another. And as for hand-to-hand fighting – that takes place quite outside time.

In this chaos of blinding light and blinding darkness, of shots, explosions and machine-gun fire, in this chaos that tore into shreds any sense of the passing of time, Krymov could see with absolute clarity that the German storming-party had been routed.

12

It was morning. The bodies of the dead were lying in the burnt grass. The river lapped heavily and joylessly against its banks. Looking at the ploughed-up earth and the empty shells of buildings, one wanted to weep.

A new day was beginning and the war was about to fill it to the brim with smoke, rubble, iron and bloodstained bandages. Every day was the same. There was nothing left in the world but this battered earth and this blazing sky.

Krymov, perched on a crate, his head propped against the stone facing of the conduit, was dozing. He could hear voices and the clinking of cups; the commissar and the chief of staff were exchanging a few sleepy words as they drank their tea. Apparently yesterday's prisoner was a sapper; his battalion had been flown in from Magdeburg only a few days ago. Krymov suddenly remembered a picture from a school textbook: two vast cart-horses, whipped on by drivers in pointed caps, were trying to separate two empty hemispheres containing a vacuum. This image made him feel as bored now as it had when he was a child.

'That's a good sign,' said Belsky. 'They're bringing up their reserves.'

'A very good sign,' said the commissar, 'especially with the divisional staff having to take part in a counter-attack.' Then Krymov heard Rodimtsev's low voice:

'There'll be flowers, there'll be flowers, There'll be berries in the factories.'

The night attack had exhausted Krymov. He would have to turn his head to look at Rodimtsev – and he was too tired. 'This is what a well must feel like after being drained,' he thought to himself. He dozed off again; the low voices fused with the sounds of explosions and gunfire into a monotone hum.

Then something new entered Krymov's consciousness: he dreamed he was lying in a room with closed blinds, watching a patch of morning sunlight on the wallpaper. This patch crept to the edge of the mirror and then expanded into a rainbow. The boy's heart trembled; the man with greying temples, the man with a heavy pistol hanging at his waist, opened his eyes and looked round.

Someone was standing in the middle of the conduit, wearing an old tunic and a forage cap with the green star of the Front. His head cocked to one side, he was playing a fiddle.

Noticing that Krymov had just woken up, the commissar leant over towards him and said: 'That's our barber, Rubinchik – a re-eal expert!'

Now and then someone would interrupt the music with a jocular curse. People would shout, 'Beg leave to report!' – and speak to the chief of staff. A spoon would clink against a tin mug. Or someone would give a long yawn and begin to shake up his straw bedding.

The barber was anxious not to disturb the officers; he was ready to break off at any moment.

Krymov thought of Jan Kubelik with his silver hair and his black dinner-jacket. But how was it that the famous violinist now seemed overshadowed by a mere barber? Why should this simple tune played on a cheap fiddle seem to express the depths of the human soul more truly than Bach or Mozart?

For the thousandth time Krymov felt the pain of loneliness. Zhenya had left him…

Once again he thought how Zhenya's departure expressed the whole dynamic of his life. He remained, but there was nothing left of him; and she had gone. There were many harsh truths he had to admit to himself. Yes, he had been closing his eyes for too long…

Somehow the music seemed to have helped him to understand time. Time is a transparent medium. People and cities arise out of it, move through it and disappear back into it. It is time that brings them and time that takes them away.

But the understanding that had just come to Krymov was a very different one: the understanding that says, 'This is my time,' or, 'No, this is no longer our time.' Time flows into a man or State, makes its home there and then flows away; the man and the State remain, but their time has passed. Where has their time gone? The man still thinks, breathes and cries, but his time, the time that belonged to him and to him alone, has disappeared.

There is nothing more difficult than to be a stepson of the time; there is no heavier fate than to live in an age that is not your own. Stepsons of the time are easily recognized: in personnel departments, Party district committees, army political sections, editorial offices, on the street… Time loves only those it has given birth to itself: its own children, its own heroes, its own labourers. Never can it come to love the children of a past age, any more than a woman can love the heroes of a past age, or a stepmother love the children of another woman.

Such is time: everything passes, it alone remains; everything remains, it alone passes. And how swiftly and noiselessly it passes. Only yesterday you were sure of yourself, strong and cheerful, a son of the time. But now another time has come – and you don't even know it.

In yesterday's fighting, time had been torn to shreds; now it emerged again from the plywood fiddle belonging to Rubinchik the barber. This fiddle told some that their time had come and others that their time had passed.

'I'm finished,' Krymov said to himself. 'Finished!'

He looked at Commissar Vavilov's calm, good-natured face. He was sipping tea from a mug and very slowly chewing some bread and a piece of sausage. His inscrutable eyes were fixed on the patch of light at the mouth of the conduit.

Rodimtsev, his face clear and peaceful and his shoulders hunched against the cold, was gazing at the musician. A grey-haired, pockmarked colonel, the commander of the divisional artillery, seemed to be looking at a map spread out in front of him; there was a harsh frown on his face, and it was only his kind sad eyes that showed he was listening to the music, not studying the map at all. Belsky was hurriedly drawing up a report for Army Headquarters; he seemed quite absorbed in this, but he had his head bent to one side so as to hear better. Further away sat the signallers, telephonists and clerks; you could see the same expression of seriousness on their exhausted faces as on the face of a peasant chewing a piece of bread.

Suddenly Krymov remembered one summer night: the large, dark eyes of a Cossack girl and her hot whisper… Yes, in spite of everything, life was good.

The fiddler stopped and a quiet murmur became audible: the sound of the water flowing by under the wooden duckboards. It seemed to Krymov that his soul was indeed a well that had been dry and empty; but now it was gently filling with water.

Half an hour later the fiddler was shaving Krymov. With the exaggerated seriousness that often makes a customer laugh, he was asking whether the razor was too harsh and then stroking Krymov's cheekbones to See if they were cleanly shaven. The smell of eau-de-cologne and powder seemed heart-rendingly out of place in this sullen kingdom of earth and iron.

Narrowing his eyes, Rodimtsev looked Krymov over – he had by now been thoroughly sprinkled with powder and eau-de-cologne -and nodded with satisfaction. 'Well, you've certainly done a good job on our guest. Now you can give me the once-over.'

The fiddler's dark eyes filled with happiness. He inspected Rodimtsev's head, shook out his white napkin and said: 'Maybe we should just tidy up your sideburns a little, comrade General?'

13

After the fire, Lieutenant-General Yeremenko decided to cross to the right bank and visit Chuykov. This dangerous journey served no practical purpose, but there was a very real human and moral necessity for it; Yeremenko wasted three days waiting to cross the river.

The bright walls of his bunker in Krasniy Sad seemed very peaceful, the shade of the apple trees very pleasant. But the distant rumble of Stalingrad merged with the sound of the leaves and the sighing of the rushes and felt somehow strangely oppressive; Yeremenko always cursed and swore as he went for his morning walk.

Yeremenko informed Zakharov of his decision to visit Stalingrad and ordered him to take command during his absence. He joked with the waitress laying the table for breakfast, gave permission to his deputy chief of staff to fly to Saratov for two days, and acceded to a request from General Trufanov – the commander of one of the armies in the steppe – that he should bomb a powerful Rumanian artillery position: 'All right, all right, you can have your long-range bombers!'

Yeremenko's aides tried to guess the reason for his good mood. Good news from Chuykov? A telephone conversation with Moscow? A letter from home? But such matters seldom escaped their notice; in any case the news from Chuykov had been bad and there had been no call from Moscow.

After breakfast, Yeremenko put on a jacket and went out for a walk. Parkhomenko, one of the aides, followed ten yards behind. Yeremenko walked with his usual unhurried stride, stopping now and then to scratch his thigh and glance towards the Volga.

Yeremenko stopped by a group of middle-aged labourers digging a pit. The napes of their necks were tanned dark brown and their faces were sullen and gloomy. They worked on in silence, glancing irritably at the stout man in a green cap who was standing idly by the edge of the pit.

'Tell me now,' said Yeremenko. 'Which of you is the worst worker?'

This question seemed very opportune; the men were tired of wielding their spades. They all looked round at a man who was busy emptying his pocket, pouring out breadcrumbs and tobacco-dust into the palm of one hand.

'Maybe him,' said two of them, looking round at the others for their agreement.

The man in question gave a dignified sigh and looked meekly up at Yeremenko. Realizing that Yeremenko was asking questions purely for the sake of it, he didn't say anything.

'And which of you is the best worker?'

They all pointed at a man with grey, thinning hair.

Troshnikov,' said one of them. 'He really does put his heart into it.'

'He's used to hard work – he just can't help it,' said some of the others. It was almost as though they were apologizing on his behalf.

Yeremenko fumbled in his trouser-pocket and took out a gold watch that gleamed in the sun. Bending down with considerable awkwardness, he held it out to Troshnikov. Troshnikov looked at him blankly.

'Go on!' said Yeremenko. 'That's your reward.' Still looking at Troshnikov, he said: 'Parkhomenko, write out a certificate for him!'

He walked on, leaving a buzz of excitement behind him. Everyone was laughing, gasping with amazement at the hard-working Troshnikov's amazing stroke of luck.

Yeremenko waited three days to cross the river. Communications with the right bank had almost been severed. Those launches that did get through to Chuykov were holed fifty to seventy times in only a few minutes. They arrived at the right bank with their decks covered in blood.

Yeremenko was irritable and quarrelsome. The officers in charge of the crossing came to be more afraid of his anger than of the German bombs and grenades. He seemed to think it was negligent majors and idle captains who were to blame for the excesses of the German mortars, cannons and aircraft.

One night Yeremenko left his bunker and stood on a sand-dune beside the water. What had once been a map spread flat on a table was now suddenly alive – thundering, smoking, and breathing out death.

He seemed to recognize the red dots of the front line, the thick arrows of Paulus's thrusts towards the Volga, the key defences, the concentrations of artillery that he himself had circled in coloured pencil. But looking at the map, he had felt he had the power to bend and shift the line of the front. He had been the master; the power to order the heavy artillery to open fire from the left bank was his… His feelings now were very different indeed. The glow of the fire, the slow thunder in the sky were awesome. And their power had nothing to do with him, in no way depended on him.

He heard a faint cry from the area of the factories, a cry that was almost drowned by the shell-bursts and gunfire: 'A-a-a-a-a-h!' There was something terrible, but also something sad and melancholy in this long cry uttered by the Russian infantry as they staged an attack. As it crossed the cold water, it lost its fervour. Instead of valour or gallantry, you could hear the sadness of a soul parting with everything that it loved, calling on its nearest and dearest to wake up, to lift their heads from their pillows and hear for the last time the voice of a father, a husband, a son or a brother…

Yeremenko felt the same sadness in his own heart. Suddenly he had been sucked in by the war he was used to directing from outside. There he was – a solitary soldier on the shifting sands, stunned by the fire and thunder, standing on the bank like tens of thousands of other soldiers. He knew now that this people's war was beyond his understanding and outside his power… This was perhaps the highest understanding of the war he was ever to reach.

Just before morning Yeremenko crossed to the right bank. Chuykov had been notified by telephone; he walked down to the water and watched the armoured launch as it sped across.

The gangplank bent under Yeremenko's weight as he got out. He stepped clumsily over the pebbles and went up to Chuykov.

'Greetings, comrade Chuykov!'

'Greetings, comrade Lieutenant-General!'

'I wanted to see how you're getting on over here. Well, you certainly don't seem to have got yourself burnt! You're still as shaggy as ever… And you haven't even grown thin – we must be feeding you all right after all!'

'Do you expect me to grow thin from sitting all day and night in a bunker?' asked Chuykov. Still offended at Yeremenko's greeting, he went on: 'But what am I doing – receiving a guest out here on the bank?'

Now it was Yeremenko's turn to feel angry. It was very galling indeed to be referred to as a guest in Stalingrad. When Chuykov invited him in, he said: 'It's all right. I'll stay out here in the fresh air.'

The right bank, lit up by flares, shell-bursts and burning buildings, seemed quite deserted. The light brightened and faded, flaring up for a few seconds at a time with blinding intensity. Yeremenko gazed at the slopes pitted with bunkers and communication trenches, at the heaps of stone by the water – massive shapes that loomed out of the darkness and quickly slipped back into it.

Just then a loudspeaker struck up from across the river. An immense voice began to sing:

May noble fury boil up like waves! This is the people's war, a sacred war.

Since there were no human beings in sight, and since everything round about – the earth, the sky and the Volga – was lit up by flame, it seemed as though the war itself were singing this ponderous song.

Yeremenko was embarrassed by the interest he felt in the picture before him; it really was as though he was a guest come to see the master of Stalingrad. It angered him that Chuykov appeared to understand the anxiety that had led him to cross the Volga, to know how tormented he had felt as he paced about Krasniy Sad listening to the rustle of dry leaves.

He began questioning the master of this fiery hell about the disposition of his reserves, the co-ordination between the infantry and the artillery, and the build-up of German forces around the factories. Chuykov answered in the customary tone of an officer being questioned by a superior.

They fell silent for a moment. Chuykov wanted to say: 'This has been the greatest defensive action in history. But still, what about a counter-offensive?' But he didn't dare. Yeremenko would think that the defenders of Stalingrad lacked endurance, that they were begging for a burden to be lifted from their shoulders.

Suddenly Yeremenko asked: 'Your mother and father are from the country, aren't they? Somewhere round Tula?'

'That's right, comrade General.'

'Does the old man write to you?'

'Yes, he does. He's still working.'

They looked at one another. The lenses of Yeremenko's spectacles were pink from the glow of the fire.

Another moment and it seemed they might begin the one conversation that really mattered – about the meaning of Stalingrad. But Yeremenko just said: 'You probably want to ask the usual question an officer puts to his superior – about reinforcements and supplies of ammunition.'

The one conversation that could have had meaning failed to take place.

A sentry on the crest of the slope glanced down at them. Hearing the whistle of a shell, Chuykov looked up and said: 'I bet that sentry's wondering who on earth the two eccentrics by the river can be.'

Yeremenko sniffed and started to scratch his nose. The moment had come for him to leave. It was an unwritten law that a superior officer standing under enemy fire should only leave when his subordinate asked him to. But Yeremenko's indifference to danger was so complete and so unfeigned that this rule seemed irrelevant.

A mortar-bomb whistled past. He turned his head quickly and unthinkingly to follow its trajectory.

'Well, Chuykov, it's time I was off!'

Chuykov stood for a while on the bank and watched the launch disappear. The foam of the wake reminded him of a white handkerchief-as though a woman were waving goodbye to him.

For his part, Yeremenko stood on the deck and gazed at the left bank. It was undulating gently in the dim glow from Stalingrad, while the river itself was as still as stone. He paced irritably about; once again his mind was full of dozens of familiar thoughts and anxieties. There were new tasks before him. What mattered now were his instructions from the Stavka: to build up a concentration of armour in readiness for an attack on the enemy's left flank. [10] This was something he hadn't so much as mentioned to Chuykov.

Chuykov himself returned to his bunker. The soldier on sentry-duty, the duty-officer inside, Guryev 's chief of staff-like everyone else who jumped up at the sound of Chuykov's heavy footsteps – could see that their commander was upset.

He was indeed – and not without reason. His troops were slowly melting away. In the alternation of attack and counter-attack, the Germans were slowly gaining precious metres of ground. And two full-strength infantry divisions had been brought up from the rear and disposed opposite the Tractor Factory; there they remained ominously inactive.

No, he certainly had not expressed all his fears and anxieties to Yeremenko… But neither of the two men quite understood why their meeting had been so unsatisfactory; that the main thing about it was not the practical part, but what they had both been unable to say.

14

One cold October morning, Major Byerozkin woke up, thought about his wife and daughter, about heavy machine-guns, and listened to the now familiar rumble of gunfire. Then he called his orderly, Glushkov, and told him to fetch some water.

'It's nice and cold, just as you like it,' said Glushkov, smiling at the thought of the pleasure Byerozkin always took in his morning wash.

'It's probably already been snowing in the Urals,' said Byerozkin. 'That's where my wife and daughter are. Do you know, I still haven't heard from them.'

'You will, comrade Major,' said Glushkov.

While Byerozkin was drying himself and putting on his shirt, Glushkov told him about the events of the small hours.

'A shell fell on the kitchen block and killed the storeman. The chief of staff of the second battalion went out to relieve himself and was caught in the shoulder by a splinter. And some sappers caught a five-kilo pike-perch that had been stunned by a bomb. I've seen it myself – they gave it as a present to Captain Movshovich. And the commissar's been round – he wants you to phone him when you wake up.'

'Very well,' said Byerozkin. He drank a cup of tea, ate some calf 's-foot jelly, rang the chief of staff and the commissar to say he was going out to inspect his battalions, put on his jacket and walked to the door.

Glushkov shook out the towel and hung it up on a nail, felt the hand-grenade hanging from his belt, slapped his pocket to check his tobacco-pouch was in place, took a tommy-gun from the corner and followed the regimental commander outside.

Byerozkin screwed up his eyes as he came out into the light. He had been in Stalingrad for a month and the picture before him was by now familiar: clay scree and a brown slope dotted with the tarpaulin roofs of soldiers' dug-outs and the smoking chimneys of improvised stoves. Higher up he could see the dark silhouettes of factories whose roofs had fallen in.

On the left, towards the Volga, were the tall chimneys of the 'Red October' factory and some goods wagons that looked like a herd of animals huddled around the body of their dead leader – a locomotive that was lying on its side. Still further away one could see the skeletons of ruined buildings, with thousands of patches of open sky appearing through what had once been windows. Smoke was rising from the factory workshops, there were glimpses of flame, and the air was filled with a staccato banging. It was almost as though these factories were still working.

Byerozkin carefully looked over the 300 metre-wide sector – most of it the small houses of a workers' settlement – where his regiment was disposed. Some sixth sense enabled him to tell apart, in the chaos of ruined buildings and alleyways, the houses where his own soldiers were cooking their buckwheat kasha and those where the Germans were eating fatback bacon and drinking schnapps.

A mortar-bomb whistled through the air; Byerozkin bowed his head and cursed. There was the crash of an explosion and a cloud of smoke covered the entrance to a bunker on the opposite slope of the gully. Still in his braces, the chief signaller of the neighbouring division emerged from the bunker. He'd barely taken a step, however, when there was another whistle; he ducked back and closed the door as another mortar-bomb burst only ten metres away.

Lieutenant-Colonel Batyuk had been watching this episode from the doorway of his own bunker at the top of the gully. As the signaller had taken his first step, Batyuk had shouted out in his Ukrainian accent: 'Fire!' It was, in fact, just then that the obedient German had fired his mortar. Batyuk caught sight of Byerozkin and called out: 'Greetings, neighbour!'

This little walk of Byerozkin's was mortally dangerous. After they'd had a good sleep and some breakfast, the Germans kept an especially close eye on this path. Not sparing their ammunition, they took potshots at everyone who passed by. At a corner, Byerozkin stood for a while by a heap of rubble; looking across a deceptively silent empty space, he said: 'You go first, Glushkov.'

'What do you mean? There's sure to be a sniper.'

It was a superior's privilege to be the first to cross a dangerous spot; usually the Germans were too slow to open fire straight away.

Byerozkin glanced round at the houses occupied by the Germans, winked at Glushkov and ran. As he reached the embankment, there was a sharp crack just behind him; a German had fired an explosive bullet. Byerozkin stood there and lit up a cigarette… Then Glushkov ran across, taking long, quick strides. A burst of machine-gun fire kicked up the dirt under his feet; it was almost as though a flock of sparrows had suddenly shot up from the ground. Glushkov swayed, stumbled, fell, jumped up again and finally reached Byerozkin.

'He almost got me – the bastard!'

After he'd got his breath back, Glushkov explained: 'I thought he'd be annoyed at letting you through and that he'd break off for a cigarette. But he obviously doesn't smoke – the swine!' He fingered the torn flap of his jacket and began cursing again.

When they reached the command-post, Byerozkin asked: 'Are you wounded, comrade Glushkov?'

'It's all right. The bastard just chewed the heel off my boot, that's all.'

The cellar of a large grocery store housed the command-posts of both an infantry and a sapper battalion. On the table stood two tall lamps made from empty shellcases. The damp air was full of the smell of sauerkraut and apples. A placard nailed to the door read: 'Customer and shop-assistant, be polite to one another!'

The two battalion commanders, Podchufarov and Movshovich, were sitting at the table and eating breakfast. As he opened the door, Byerozkin heard Podchufarov's excited voice.

'If there's one thing I can't stand, it's watered-down booze. I'd rather do without altogether.'

Seeing Byerozkin, they both got up and stood to attention. At the same time, the chief of staff buried a quarter-litre bottle of vodka under some hand-grenades and the cook moved sideways to hide the famous pike-perch. Podchufarov's orderly jumped to his feet; he had been squatting down, about to put on the record 'Chinese Serenade'. He just had time to take off the record, but he left the gramophone humming idly away. He stood there, looking straight ahead with an open, soldierly gaze; when the accursed machine hummed particularly loudly, he caught an angry glance from Podchufarov out of the corner of his eye.

They were all well aware of the strange quirks of superior officers: how they seem to expect everyone in a battalion always to be fighting, peering at the enemy through binoculars, or puzzling over a map. But a man can't be shooting or on the phone to his superiors and subordinates twenty-four hours a day; he has to eat sometime.

Byerozkin looked askance at the murmuring gramophone and grinned.

'All right!' he said. 'Sit down, comrades, carry on!'

It was unclear whether these words were to be taken at their face value. Podchufarov looked both sad and repentant, while Movshovich – the commander of an independent sapper battalion and thus not directly subordinate to Byerozkin – merely looked sad.

In what struck them as a particularly unpleasant tone, Byerozkin said: 'So where's this five-kilo pike-perch, comrade Movshovich? The whole division's talking of nothing else.'

With the same sad look, Movshovich ordered: 'Cook, show him the fish please.'

The cook, the only man present to have been carrying out his duties, explained: 'The comrade captain wanted it stuffed in the Jewish manner. I've got some pepper and bay-leaves, but I haven't any white bread or horse-radish…'

'I see,' said Byerozkin. 'I once had one done like that in Bobruysk, at the house of one Sara Aronovna – though, to be quite frank, I didn't think much of it.'

Suddenly they all realized that it hadn't even occurred to Byerozkin to get angry. It was as though he knew that Podchufarov had fought off a German attack during the night; that he had been half-buried under falling earth during the small hours; that his orderly, the man responsible for the 'Chinese Serenade', had had to dig him out, shouting: 'Don't worry, comrade Captain, I'll get you out of there.' It was as though he knew that Movshovich and his sappers had crept along one particularly vulnerable street, scattering earth and crushed brick over a chessboard pattern of anti-tank mines.

They were all young and they were glad to be alive one more morning, to be able to lift up a tin mug and say, 'Your good health!', to be able to eat cabbage and smoke cigarettes… In any case, nothing had really happened – they had just stood up for a moment before a superior and then invited him to eat, watching with pleasure how he enjoyed his cabbage.

Byerozkin often compared the battle for Stalingrad with what he had been through during the previous year of the war. He knew it was only the peace and silence within him that enabled him to endure this stress. As for the soldiers, they were able to eat soup, repair their boots, carve spoons and discuss their wives and commanding officers at a time when it might well seem impossible to feel anything except fury, horror and exhaustion. Byerozkin knew very well that the man with no quiet at the bottom of his soul was unable to endure for long, however courageous he might be in combat. He thought of fear or cowardice, on the other hand, as something temporary, something that could be cured as easily as a cold.

But what cowardice and bravery really were, he was by no means certain. Once, at the beginning of the war, he had been reprimanded by a superior for his timidity: without authorization, he had withdrawn his regiment from under enemy fire. And not long before Stalingrad, he had once ordered a battalion commander to withdraw over the brow of a hill, so as not to expose his men unnecessarily to the fire of the German mortars.

'What's all this, comrade Byerozkin?' the divisional commander had reproached him. 'People always told me you were calm and courageous, not someone to lose his nerve easily.'

By way of answer, Byerozkin had merely let out a sigh; people must have been mistaken.

Podchufarov had red hair and clear blue eyes. It was only with difficulty that he could restrain his sudden, unexpected fits of anger that were usually followed by equally sudden bursts of laughter. Movshovich was very thin; he had a long, freckled face and streaks of grey in his dark hair. He answered Byerozkin's questions in a hoarse voice and then sketched out a new scheme for mining the areas most vulnerable to tank attacks.

'You can give me that sketch as a souvenir,' said Byerozkin, leaning over the table. 'I was sent for just now by the divisional commander,' he went on very quietly. 'According to our scouts, the Germans are withdrawing forces from the town itself and concentrating them against you. And there are a lot of tanks. Do you understand?'

He listened to a nearby explosion that shook the walls of the cellar and smiled.

'Things are very quiet here. In my own gully at least three people will have been round from Army HQ while I've been out. There are different inspection teams coming and going all day long.'

The building was shaken by yet another blow. Lumps of plaster rained down from the ceiling.

'Yes, that's true enough,' said Podchufarov. 'No one really bothers us here.'

'Right. And you don't know how lucky you are,' said Byerozkin.

He went on confidingly, genuinely forgetting – perhaps because he was so used to being a subordinate – that he himself was now the officer in command:

'You know what the brass hats are like? "Why don't you advance? Why didn't you take that height? Why so many losses? Why no losses? Why haven't you reported back yet? Why are you sleeping now? Why, why, why…?"'

Byerozkin stood up. 'Let's go, comrade Podchufarov. I'd like to inspect your sector.'

There was something heart-rending about this little street in a workers' settlement, about the exposed inner walls hung with brightly-coloured wallpaper, about the flower and vegetable gardens that had been ploughed up by tanks, about the solitary dahlias that were still flowering.

'Do you know, comrade Podchufarov,' said Byerozkin suddenly, 'I still haven't heard from my wife. I only found out where she was on my way here – and now it's weeks since I heard from her. All I know is that she and our daughter were going to the Urals.'

'You'll hear from them soon, comrade Major.'

The wounded were lying in the basement of a two-storey house, waiting to be evacuated during the night. The windows had been blocked up with bricks. On the floor stood a mug and a bucket of water. A postcard of a nineteenth-century painting, 'The Major's Courtship', had been stuck up on the wall.

'This is the rear,' said Podchufarov. 'The front line's further on.'

'Let's have a look at it then,' said Byerozkin.

They walked through a lobby and into a room where the ceiling had fallen in. It was like walking out of a factory office straight onto the shop-floor. Empty cartridge-cases creaked underfoot and the air was full of the peppery smell of gunpowder. Some anti-tank mines had been stacked on top of a cream-coloured pram.

'The Germans captured that ruin over there last night,' said Podchufarov. 'It's a real shame. It's a splendid building with windows facing south-west. Now the whole of my left flank's exposed to enemy fire.'

A heavy machine-gun was installed in the narrow aperture of another bricked-up window. The gunner, a dusty, smoke-blackened bandage round his head, was inserting a new cartridge-belt. His number one, baring his white teeth, was chewing a piece of sausage, ready to return to work in half a minute's time.

The company commander came up, a lieutenant. He had a white aster poking out of the pocket of his tunic.

'A real young eagle!' said Byerozkin with a smile.

'It's lucky you've come round, comrade Major,' said the lieutenant to Podchufarov. 'It happened just like I said it would. Last night they made another attack on house 6/1. They began bang on nine o'clock.'

'The CO's present. Make your report to him.'

'I'm sorry, I didn't see you,' said the lieutenant, saluting quickly.

Six days before, the Germans had isolated several buildings in the sector and begun chewing them up with Teutonic thoroughness. The Soviet resistance had been snuffed out – together with the lives of the defenders. But there was one factory building with particularly deep cellars where the Russians were still holding out. Its strong walls stood up to direct hits, even though holes had been blasted in them by grenades and mortar-bombs. The Germans had tried to destroy the building from the air and torpedo-bombs had been dropped on it three times. One whole corner had collapsed. But beneath the ruins the cellar remained intact; the defenders had cleared away the debris, mounted machine-guns, mortars and a light cannon, and were still keeping the Germans at bay. The building was fortunately situated, with no hidden approaches.

The lieutenant made his report and said: 'We tried to get through at night, but it was no good. We had one man killed and two who returned wounded.'

'Get down!' screamed the soldier on watch. Several men dropped flat on the ground; the lieutenant, unable to finish what he was saying, threw up his arms as though he were about to make a dive, and flopped down.

The whine rose to a piercing howl and was followed by a series of thunderous explosions that shook the earth and filled the air with a suffocating stench. Something big and black crashed onto the floor, bounced, and rolled between Byerozkin's legs. At first he thought it was a log that had been thrown there by the force of the explosion; then he realized it was a live grenade. The tension of the next second was unbearable.

The grenade failed to explode. The shadow that had swallowed up the earth and sky, that had blotted out the past and cut short the future, faded away.

The lieutenant got back to his feet.

'Nasty little thing!' said a voice.

'Well, I really did think I'd bought it then!' said someone else with a laugh.

Byerozkin wiped the sweat off his brow, picked up the white aster, shook off the dust and stuck it back in the lieutenant's tunic. 'I suppose someone gave it to you as a present.' He then turned to Podchufarov and went on: 'So why do I say things are nice and quiet here? Because there are no senior officers coming and going. Senior officers always want something from you… You've got a good cook – you can hand him over to me! You've got a splendid barber, a splendid tailor – let me have them!… Yes, they're a bunch of extortioners… That's a fine dug-out – you can climb out of it right now! That is good sauerkraut – have it sent to me straight away!'

Then he suddenly asked the lieutenant: 'Why did you say two men returned without reaching the surrounded house?'

'They were wounded.'

'I see.'

'You were born lucky,' said Podchufarov as they left the building and made their way through the vegetable gardens. Yellow potato-tops stuck up between the trenches and dug-outs belonging to No. 2 Company.

'Who knows?' said Byerozkin, jumping down into a trench.

'The earth's better adapted to war than any of us,' said Podchufarov. 'She must be used to it.' Then, going back to the conversation begun by Byerozkin, he added: 'That's nothing! I've even heard of women being requisitioned by a senior officer.'

The trench resounded with noise: people shouting, the crackle of rifle-shots and short bursts from machine-guns and tommy-guns.

'The company commander's been killed. Political Officer Soshkin's taken command. This is his bunker right here.'

T see,' said Byerozkin, glancing in through the half-open door.

Soshkin, a man with thick, black eyebrows and a red face, caught up with them by the machine-guns. Shouting out each word, he reported that his company was keeping the Germans under fire with the aim of hindering their preparations for an attack on house 6/1.

Byerozkin borrowed his binoculars and began scrutinizing the quick flashes of rifle-fire and the flames that flickered like tongues from the mouths of mortars.

'There's a sniper right there, third floor, second window along.'

He'd hardly finished his sentence when there was a flash from that very window. A bullet whistled past, embedding itself in the wall of the trench half-way between Byerozkin's head and Soshkin's.

'You were born lucky!' said Podchufarov.

'Who knows?' replied Byerozkin.

They walked up the trench till they came to a device the company had invented themselves: an anti-tank rifle fixed to a cart-wheel.

'Our very own ack-ack gun,' said a sergeant with anxious eyes and a face covered in dust and stubble.

'One tank, a hundred metres distant, by the house with the green roof,' shouted Byerozkin, imitating the voice of a gunnery instructor.

The sergeant turned the wheel and quickly lowered the anti-tank rifle's long muzzle towards the earth.

'One of Dyrkin's soldiers,' said Byerozkin, 'fitted a sniper's sights to an anti-tank rifle and knocked out three machine-guns in one day.'

The sergeant shrugged his shoulders. 'It's all right for Dyrkin. He's behind walls.'

They walked further along the trench. Byerozkin went back to the conversation he had started at the very beginning of their tour of inspection. 'I sent them a food parcel – a very good one. And, do you realize? My wife still hasn't written. I don't know if the parcel even reached them. Maybe they've fallen ill. Anything can happen when you're evacuated.'

Podchufarov suddenly remembered how, in the past, carpenters who'd gone to work for a while in Moscow would return home laden with presents for their women, old people and children. The warmth and security of life at home had always meant more to them than the bright lights and noisy crowds of the capital.

Half an hour later they were back at the battalion command-post. Instead of going down into the cellar, Byerozkin began to take his leave in the courtyard.

'Provide every possible support for house 6/1,' he said. 'But don't try to break through to them yourselves. We'll do that by night – at regimental strength.'

'And now…,' he went on. 'First – I don't like the way you treat your wounded. You've got divans at the command-post and your wounded are just lying on the floor. Second – you haven't sent for fresh bread and your men are eating dry rusks. Third – your political instructor Soshkin was roaring drunk. And now…'

Podchufarov listened, astonished at how much his commanding officer had noticed. The second-in-command of a platoon had been wearing German trousers… the officer in command of No. 1 Company had been wearing two watches…

Byerozkin ended with a warning.

'The Germans are going to attack. Is that clear?'

He set off towards the factory. Glushkov, who had managed to nail his heel back on and stitch up the tear in his jacket, asked: 'Are we going home now?'

Instead of answering directly, Byerozkin turned to Podchufarov.

'Phone the regimental commissar. Tell him I'm on my way to Dyrkin's – in the factory, the third shop.'

He winked and added: 'And I want you to send me some sauerkraut. After all, I am a senior officer myself.'

15

Again there was no letter from Tolya… In the morning Lyudmila Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova would see her mother and husband off to work, and her daughter Nadya off to school. Her mother, Alexandra Vladimirovna, worked as a laboratory chemist in the famous Kazan soap factory; she was always the first to leave. As she passed her son-in-law's room, she would repeat a joke she had heard from the workers at the factory: 'We, the owners, must be at work by six, our employees by nine.'

Next, Nadya would go to school – or rather, gallop to school. It was impossible to get her out of bed in time; she always jumped out of bed at the last minute, grabbed her stockings, jacket, textbooks and exercise-books, gulped down her tea, and rushed down the staircase, flinging on her coat and scarf as she went.

By the time her husband, Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, sat down to breakfast, the teapot would already be quite cold; Lyudmila would have to heat it up again.

Alexandra Vladimirovna would get quite angry when Nadya said: 'If only we could escape from this terrible hole!' Nadya didn't know that Derzhavin had lived in Kazan, that Aksakov, Tolstoy, Lenin, Zinin and Lobachevsky had all lived here, that Maxim Gorky had once worked in a Kazan baker's.

'What terrible senile indifference!' Alexandra Vladimirovna would say. It was strange to hear such a reproach levelled by an old woman at an adolescent girl.

Lyudmila could see that her mother remained interested both in the people she met and in her work. As well as awe at her mother's strength of character, she felt almost shocked: how could she, at such a terrible time, be interested in the hydrogenization of fats, in the streets and museums of Kazan?

Once, when Viktor said something about Alexandra Vladimirovna's youthfulness, Lyudmila, unable to restrain herself, had replied: 'It's not youthfulness. It's just senile egoism.'

'Grandmother's not an egoist, she's a populist,' said Nadya, and added, 'Populists are good people, but not very intelligent.'

Nadya always expressed her opinions both categorically and -perhaps because she was always in such a hurry – extremely abruptly. 'Rubbish!' she would say, rolling the V. She followed the reports of the Soviet Information Bureau, kept up with the course of the war, and butted in on conversations about politics. After her spell on a kolkhoz [11] during the summer, Nadya had begun enlightening her mother as to the reasons for the low productivity of Soviet agriculture. Although she usually never mentioned her school marks to her mother, she did once blurt out: 'Just imagine – they only gave me four out of five for good conduct! The maths mistress sent me out of the class. As I left I shouted, "Goodbye!" in English. Everyone just collapsed!'

Like many children from well-off families that had not needed to think about food or money before the war, Nadya, after their evacuation to Kazan, was constantly discussing rations and weighing up the good and bad points of the various ration-centres. She knew the pros and cons of each kind of buckwheat, the advantages of oil over butter and of lump sugar over granulated.

'Do you know what,' she would say to her mother. 'From today I want you to give me tea with honey instead of with condensed milk. It's all the same to you and it will be more nutritious for me.'

Sometimes Nadya would grow sullen and gloomy. Then she would smile contemptuously and be extraordinarily rude. Once, in Lyudmila's presence, she called her father an idiot. She pronounced the word with such venom that Viktor was too taken aback to reply.

Sometimes her mother saw Nadya crying over a book: the girl considered herself an unfortunate, backward creature who was doomed to live a difficult, colourless life.

'No one wants to be friends with me, I'm too stupid and boring,' she once said when they were at table. 'No one will want to marry me. I'll study to be a pharmacist and then go and live in a village.'

'They don't have pharmacies in remote villages,' said Alexandra Vladimirovna.

'And you're being much too pessimistic about your marriage prospects,' said Shtrum. 'You've grown prettier during the last few months.'

'Shut up!' said Nadya, glaring at her father.

That night Lyudmila saw Nadya reading a book of poetry, her thin bare arm sticking out from under the bedclothes.

On another occasion Nadya came back from the university ration-centre and announced: 'People, myself included, are vile swine to take advantage of all this. And Papa's a swine to sell his talents for butter. Why should weak children and sick men and women have to starve just because they don't understand physics and can't fulfil work-plans three times over…? Only the chosen can stuff themselves with butter.'

That evening she said defiantly: 'Mama, I want double helpings of honey and butter. I didn't have time to eat this morning.'

In many ways Nadya was just like her father. Lyudmila noticed that the traits in Nadya which Viktor found most irritating were those that he shared with her.

On one occasion, Nadya, imitating her father's way of speaking, said of Postoev: 'He's a rogue, a nonentity, a careerist!'

Viktor was indignant. 'How dare you, a half-educated schoolgirl, speak like that about an Academician?'

But Lyudmila could remember very well how when Viktor was a student, he had abused the various academic celebrities in almost the same words. As for Nadya, Lyudmila could see that she was far from happy; she was difficult to get on with and extremely lonely.

After Nadya's departure, it was Viktor's turn to have breakfast. He would squint at his book, swallow his food without chewing, make stupid, surprised faces, grope for his cup without taking his eyes off the book, and say: 'Can I have some more tea? And make it a bit hotter, if you can.' She knew all his gestures: how he would scratch his head, pout his lips, then make a wry face and start picking his teeth. At this point she would say: 'Vitya, for the love of God, when are you going to get your teeth seen to?' She knew very well that if he scratched his nose, pouted his lips and so on, it was not because his nose or lips were hurting, but because he was thinking about his work. She knew that if she were to say, 'Vitya, you're not even listening!', he would reply, still squinting at his book, 'I heard every word. I can even repeat what you said: "For the love of God, when are you going to get your teeth seen to?"' Then he would gulp down another mouthful of tea, look surprised and begin to frown; this meant that he agreed with what his colleague had written on some points, but not on others. After that he would sit quite still for a long time, nodding his head sadly and submissively, with the same look in his eyes as an old man suffering from a brain tumour. This meant that he was thinking about his dead mother.

And as he drank his tea, thought about his work, or gave a despairing sigh, Lyudmila would look at the eyes she had so often kissed, at the curly hair she had so often rumpled, at the lips that had kissed her, at the hands with small, delicate fingers whose nails she had so often cut, and say to herself: 'Goodness me! What a sloven you are!'

She knew everything about him: how he liked to read children's books in bed; his face when he went out to clean his teeth; his clear, almost tremulous voice, when, dressed in his best suit, he had read his paper on neutron radiation. She knew that he liked Ukrainian borsch with haricot beans; she knew how he gave a quiet groan as he turned over in his sleep. She knew how quickly he always wore out the heel of his left shoe and dirtied the sleeves of his shirt; she knew that he liked two pillows in bed; she knew his secret dread of walking across large squares; she knew the smell of his skin, the shape of the holes in his socks. She knew the tune he hummed when he was waiting for lunch; the shape of the nails on his big toes; the names his mother had called him by when he was two; his slow, shuffling gait; the names of the boys he'd had fights with in his last year at school. She knew how he loved teasing his family and friends. Even now, for all his depression, he kept making fun of the way her closest friend, Marya Ivanovna Sokolova, had once confused Balzac and Flaubert.

He was expert at baiting Lyudmila and always succeeded in making her angry. That time she had leapt earnestly to her friend's defence.

'You always make fun of the people I love. Masha doesn't need to read a lot. She has impeccable taste and a real feeling for a book.'

'Certainly,' he had replied. 'And she knows that Max and Maurice was written by Anatole France.'

She knew his love of music and his political opinions. She had seen him cry. She had once seen him so enraged that he had torn his shirt and then got his legs tangled up in his trousers; he had hopped towards her with his fists clenched. She had seen his uncompromising fearlessness; she had seen him inspired; she had seen him reciting poetry; she had seen him taking a laxative.

Outwardly nothing had changed, but she knew he was angry with her at present. She could tell this from the fact that he no longer talked to her about his work. He talked to her about their rations and the letters he got from friends. He talked about the Institute: about events in the laboratory; about the discussion of their work schedule. He would tell her stories about his colleagues: how Savostyanov had fallen asleep at work after a drinking-bout the previous night; how the laboratory assistants had been cooking potatoes in the boiler; how Markov was preparing a new series of experiments. But he no longer spoke to her about his real work, the work that went on in his head. Previously she had been his only confidant.

Once he had told her that if he read out his notes or talked about half-formed hypotheses to his friends – even his closest friends – he would feel bad about it the next day; his work would seem dead, and he would find it hard to return to it. She had been the only person to whom he had been able to reveal his doubts, to whom he had been able to read both his fragmentary jottings and his boldest, most fantastic theories. But now he no longer so much as mentioned his work to her.

Now he found relief from his depressions in making accusations against Lyudmila. He thought incessantly about his mother. And he thought about something he would never have thought about but for Fascism: the fact that he and his mother were Jews.

In his heart he reproached Lyudmila for her coldness towards his mother. Once he had even said: 'If you hadn't got on so badly with my mother, she'd have been living with us when we were in Moscow.'

She, for her part, kept going over Viktor's many acts of injustice towards her son Tolya. She resented the way he had always been conscious only of Tolya's faults. He had never let him get away with anything – though he had always been only too willing to pardon Nadya her rudeness, her laziness, her slovenliness and unwillingness to help in the house.

Viktor's mother, Anna Semyonovna, had indeed suffered a terrible fate. But how could he have expected her to get on with Anna Semyonovna when Anna Semyonovna didn't like Tolya? That had been enough to make her letters and her visits to Moscow quite unbearable. It had always been Nadya, Nadya, Nadya… Nadya's got Viktor's eyes… Nadya's absent-minded, Nadya's quick-witted, Nadya's very thoughtful. Anna Semyonovna's tenderness and love for her son had extended into a tenderness and love for her granddaughter. But as for Tolya – he didn't even hold his fork in the same way Viktor had done.

She had also begun to think more and more often of Tolya's father, her first husband. She wanted to look up his relatives and his elder sister. Yes, they would immediately recognize Tolya's eyes, Tolya's wide nose, Tolya's slightly deformed thumb as the very eyes, nose and thumb of Abarchuk.

She now no longer remembered any of Viktor's kindness towards Tolya. In the same way she no longer remembered any of Abarchuk's cruelty towards herself – even the fact that he had left her when Tolya was a new-born baby, forbidding her to give him his surname.

In the morning Lyudmila would be left alone in the house. She looked forward to that; her family only got in her way. Everything in the world, the war, the fate of her sisters, Viktor's work, Nadya's unhappiness, her mother's health, her own compassion for the wounded, her grief over the men who had died in German camps -everything sprang from the pain and anxiety she felt for her son.

The feelings of her mother, the feelings of Viktor and Nadya, seemed to her to have been smelted from a quite different ore. Their devotion to Tolya, their love for him, seemed shallow. For her, the whole world was contained in Tolya; for them, Tolya was just a part of the world.

The weeks passed and still there was no letter from Tolya.

Every day Soviet Information Bureau bulletins were broadcast over the radio; every day the newspapers were full of the war. The Soviet forces were in retreat. The artillery was often mentioned in these bulletins and reports. Tolya served in the artillery. There was still no letter from Tolya.

She felt there was only one person in the world who could understand her anguish: Marya Ivanovna Sokolova.

Usually Lyudmila didn't get on with the wives of the other academics; their endless talk about clothes, domestic servants and their husbands' successes made her feel bored and irritated. But she had grown very attached to Marya Ivanovna – partly because her shy, gentle character was so unlike her own, partly because she was moved by her concern over Tolya.

Lyudmila felt she could speak more freely about Tolya to her than to her own husband and mother; and she always felt calmer for these conversations. Even though Marya Ivanovna came round almost every day, Lyudmila would still wait for her impatiently, watching through the window for her slim figure and kind face.

There was still no letter from Tolya.

16

Lyudmila, Nadya and Alexandra Vladimirovna were sitting in the kitchen. Now and then Nadya crumpled up pages of her exercise-book and threw them into the stove; for a moment the stove would be filled with flames. Alexandra Vladimirovna glanced at Lyudmila out of the corner of her eye and said: 'One of the laboratory assistants invited me home yesterday. They certainly do live in cramped conditions. And the hunger! The poverty! We live like Tsars in comparison…! Some neighbours came round and we started to talk about what we'd loved most before the war. Someone said "veal". Someone else said "pickled cucumber soup". And then my friend's little girl said: "What I liked most of all was 'lights out' in the pioneer camp." '

Lyudmila looked at her in silence.

'Grandmama, you've already got millions of friends here!' said Nadya.

'And you haven't got any.'

'And what's wrong with that?' asked Lyudmila. 'It's better than Viktor. These days he spends all his time at Sokolov's. You should just see the rabble that gather there. I really don't understand how Viktor and Sokolov can sit there for hours on end. Don't they get tired of chewing the fat all night? And why don't they give a thought to Marya Ivanovna? She needs a bit of peace. With all of them around the poor woman can't even sit down for a minute. And they smoke like chimneys!'

'I like that Tartar, Karimov,' said Alexandra Vladimirovna.

'A nasty piece of work.'

'Mama's just like me,' said Nadya. 'She doesn't like anyone apart from Marya Ivanovna.'

'You are a strange lot,' said Alexandra Vladimirovna. 'You've got your own little circle of fellow evacuees from Moscow. And everyone else, everyone you happen to meet in a train or in the theatre, is just a nobody. Your friends are the people who've built themselves dachas in the same place as you have… Your sister Zhenya's just the same. The signs by which you recognize one another are almost invisible: "She's a real nonentity. Do you know, she doesn't even like Blok! He doesn't like Picasso! She gave him a present of a vase made from cut glass. What taste!" But Viktor's a democrat. He doesn't care tuppence for such airs and graces.'

'You're talking nonsense,' said Lyudmila. 'Dachas have nothing to do with it. There are bourgeois philistines with or without dachas, and I prefer to avoid them.'

Lyudmila seemed to be getting annoyed with her mother more and more frequently these days.

She would give Viktor advice, tick Nadya off for something she had done wrong or let it pass, spoil her or refuse to spoil her – and be conscious throughout that her mother had her own opinions about everything that she did. She never expressed these opinions, but they made themselves felt. Sometimes Viktor would catch his mother-in-law's eye and they would exchange mocking looks – as though they'd already discussed all Lyudmila's strange quirks. And it didn't matter whether or not they really had; what mattered was that a new force had appeared in the family, a force whose mere presence was enough to change all the existing relationships.

Viktor had once said that if he were in Lyudmila's shoes, he'd let Alexandra Vladimirovna take charge of the house; then she wouldn't be conscious all the time that she was a guest. Lyudmila had thought this hypocritical. It even crossed her mind that by emphasizing the warmth of his feelings for her mother, he was trying to remind her of her own coldness towards Anna Semyonovna.

She would never have admitted it, but there had been times when she had even been jealous of his love for Nadya. Now, though, it was no longer just jealousy. How could she admit, even to herself, that her own homeless mother had become a burden and an irritation to her? And yet, at the same time, she was ready to give her last dress away to Alexandra Vladimirovna, to share her last crust of bread with her.

For her part, Alexandra Vladimirovna sometimes felt like bursting into tears for no reason. Or she wanted to die; or to spend the night on a colleague's floor; or to pack her bags and set out to find Vera, Seryozha and Stepan Fyodorovich in Stalingrad.

Alexandra Vladimirovna usually agreed with what Viktor did or said, while Lyudmila usually disagreed. Nadya had noticed this and would say to her father: 'Go and tell Grandmama that Mama's been nasty to you!'

! Now Alexandra Vladimirovna said: 'You two are as gloomy as owls. But Viktor's normal.'

'Words, words…,' said Lyudmila wrily. 'You and Viktor will be as glad as any of us when the time comes to go back to Moscow.'

'When you do go back, dearest,' said Alexandra Vladimirovna abruptly, 'I think it would be best if I don't come with you. There isn't really enough room for me in your Moscow flat. Is that all right? Either I'll get Zhenya to come and live here, or else I'll go and live with her in Kuibyshev.'

It was a difficult moment. Everything that had troubled both mother and daughter was now out in the open. Lyudmila, however, took offence – as though she herself were in no way to blame. Alexandra Vladimirovna saw the expression of hurt on her face and felt guilty.

Usually both mother and daughter were cruelly forthright. Now, though, they felt frightened and tried to draw back.

"Truth is good, but love is better" – the title of a new play by Ostrovsky,' remarked Nadya.

Alexandra Vladimirovna looked with some hostility, even fear, at this schoolgirl who could work out things she hadn't yet worked out for herself.

Soon after this Viktor came back from work. He let himself in and appeared suddenly in the kitchen.

'What a pleasant surprise!' said Nadya. 'We thought you'd be all night at the Sokolovs'.'

'How really splendid to find you all sitting at home by the stove!' said Viktor.

'Wipe your nose!' said Lyudmila. 'And I don't understand. What's so splendid about it?'

Nadya giggled. Imitating her mother's tone of voice, she said: 'Go on then! Wipe your nose! Don't you understand plain Russian?'

'Nadya, Nadya!' cautioned her mother. The right to try and educate Viktor was something she reserved for herself.

'Yes, yes, there's a cold wind outside,' said Viktor.

He went through to his room. He left the door open and they could see him sitting there at his desk.

'Guess what Papa's doing?' said Nadya. 'He's writing on the cover of a book again.'

'Well, that's none of your business,' said Lyudmila. She turned to her mother. 'Why do you think he's so pleased to find us all sitting here? He's quite obsessive – if any of us aren't at home, he gets worried. Right now he's working out some problem and he's glad there won't be anything to distract him.'

'Sh!' said Alexandra Vladimirovna. 'We probably really do distract him.'

'On the contrary,' said Nadya. 'If you speak loudly, he doesn't pay any attention. But the minute you start whispering, he rushes in and says: "So what's all this whispering about then?" '

'Nadya, you sound like a guide at the zoo talking about the instincts of the different animals,' said Lyudmila.

They all looked at each other and began to laugh.

'Mama, how could you be so unkind to me?' said Lyudmila.

Alexandra Vladimirovna patted her on the head without saying a word.

Then they all had supper together. That evening the warm kitchen seemed to Viktor to be endowed with a peculiar charm.

Viktor's life still rested on the same foundation. Recently he had been constantly preoccupied by a possible explanation of the contradictory results of the experiments carried out in the laboratory; he was itching to pick up his pencil and return to work.

'What splendid buckwheat stew!' he said, tapping his spoon against his empty bowl.

'Is that a hint?' asked Lyudmila.

He passed his bowl to her. 'Lyuda, you remember Prout's hypothesis?'

Taken aback, Lyudmila paused, her spoon in the air.

'The one about the origin of the elements,' said Alexandra Vladimirovna.

'Ah yes,' said Lyudmila. 'Everything deriving from hydrogen. But what's that got to do with the stew?'

'The stew?' repeated Viktor in astonishment. 'Listen now: what happened with Prout is that he arrived at a correct hypothesis largely because of the gross errors that were current in the determination of the atomic weights. If the atomic weights had already been determined with the accuracy later achieved by Dumas and Stas, he'd never have dared hypothesize that they were multiples of hydrogen. What led him to the correct answer was his mistakes.'

'But what's all that got to do with the stew?' asked Nadya.

'The stew?' Finally he understood and said: 'It hasn't got anything to do with the stew. But it's hard to make sense of anything in the stew I'm in.'

'Is that from today's lecture?' asked Alexandra Vladimirovna.

'No, no, it's just something… It's neither here nor there… I don't give lectures anyway.'

He caught Lyudmila's eye and knew that she understood: once again he felt inspired by his work.

'So how are things?' he asked. 'Did Marya Ivanovna come round? Did she read you any of Madame Bovary, the famous novel by Balzac?'

'That's enough from you!' said Lyudmila.

That night she expected him to talk to her again about his work. But he didn't say anything, and she didn't ask.

17

How naive Viktor found the ideas of the mid-nineteenth-century physicists, the opinions of Helmholtz who had reduced all the problems of physics to the study of the forces of attraction and repulsion -themselves dependent only on distance.

The soul of matter is a field of energy! A unity, both a wave of energy and a material particle… The particle nature of light… Is it a shower of bright drops or a wave that moves with the speed of lightning?

Quantum theory had replaced the laws governing individual physical entities with new laws: the laws of probability, the laws of a special statistics that rejected the concept of an individual entity and acknowledged only aggregates. The physicists of the preceding century reminded Viktor of men in suits, with starched collars and cuffs and dyed moustaches, crowded around a billiard table. Deep-thinking, serious men, armed with rulers and chronometers, knitting their thick brows as they measured speeds and accelerations and determined the masses of the resilient spheres which filled a universe of green cloth.

But space – measured by metal rods and rulers – and time – measured by the most accurate of watches – had suddenly begun to bend, to stretch and flatten. Their stability had turned out not to be the foundation-stone of science, but the walls and bars of its prison. The Day of Judgement had come; thousand-year-old truths had been declared errors. Truth had been sleeping for centuries, as though in a cocoon, inside ancient prejudices, errors and inaccuracies.

The world was no longer Euclidian, its geometrical nature no longer composed of masses and their speeds.

Science was progressing with ever increasing impetuousness in a world liberated by Einstein from the fetters of absolute time and space.

Two currents, one moving outwards together with whole universes, the other seeking to penetrate the nucleus of the atom, flowed in different directions but never lost sight of each other – though one moved in a world of parsecs while the other was measured in millimicrons. The more deeply physicists penetrated the heart of the atom, the more clearly they were able to understand the laws governing the luminescence of stars. The red shift in the spectrums visible from distant galaxies gave birth to the notion of universes receding into infinite space. But if one preferred a finite, convex space, distorted by speeds and masses, then one could suppose that space itself was expanding, dragging the galaxies after it.

Viktor never doubted it: no one in the world could be happier than the scientist… There were times – on his way to the Institute in the morning, during his evening stroll, this very night – when he thought about his work and was seized by a feeling of compounded happiness, humility and ecstasy.

The energies that filled the universe with the quiet light of the stars were being released by the transformation of hydrogen into helium…

Two years before the outbreak of war two young Germans had split the nuclei of heavy atoms by bombarding them with neutrons; Soviet scientists, reaching similar conclusions by different paths in their own researches, suddenly experienced what the cavemen had felt, thousands of years before, as they lit the first bonfire…

Of course, physics was determining the course of the twentieth century… Just as Stalingrad was now determining the course of events on every front of the World War.

But immediately behind Viktor, right at his heels, followed doubt, suffering, lack of belief.

18

Vitya, I'm certain this letter will reach you, even though I'm now behind the German front line, behind the barbed wire of the Jewish ghetto. I won't receive your answer, though; I won't be here to receive it. I want you to know about my last days. Like that, it will be easier for me to die.

It's difficult, Vitya, ever really to understand people… The Germans entered the town on July 7th. The latest news was being broadcast on the radio in the park. I was on my way back from the surgery and I stopped to listen. It was a war-bulletin in Ukrainian. Then I heard distant shooting. Some people ran across the park. I set off home, all the time feeling surprised that I'd missed the air-raid warning. Suddenly I saw a tank and someone shouted: 'It's the Germans.'

'Don't spread panic!' I warned. I'd been the day before to ask the secretary of the town soviet when we'd be evacuated. 'There'll be time enough to talk about that,' he'd answered angrily. 'We haven't even drawn up the lists of evacuees yet.'

Well, it was indeed the Germans. All that night the neighbours were rushing round to each other's rooms – the only people who stayed calm were myself and the little children. I'd just accepted that the same would happen to me as to everyone else. To begin with I felt utter horror. I realized that I'd never see you again. I wanted desperately to look at you once more. I wanted to kiss your forehead and your eyes. Then I understood how fortunate I was that you were safe.

When it was nearly morning, I fell asleep. I woke up and felt a terrible sadness. I was in my own room and my own bed, but I felt as though I were in a foreign country, alone and lost.

That morning I was reminded of what I'd forgotten during the years of the Soviet regime – that I was a Jew. Some Germans drove past on a lorry, shouting out: 'Juden kaput!'

I got a further reminder from some of my own neighbours. The caretaker's wife was standing beneath my window and saying to the woman next door: 'Well, that's the end of the Jews. Thank God for that!' What can have made her say that? Her son's married to a Jew. She used to go and visit him and then come back and tell me all about her grandchildren.

The woman next door, a widow with a six-year-old daughter – a girl called Alyonushka with wonderful blue eyes, I wrote to you about her once – came round and said to me: 'Anna Semyonovna, I'm moving into your room. Can you clear your things out by this evening?' 'Very well, I'll move into your room then.' 'No, you're moving into the little room behind the kitchen.'

I refused. There isn't even a stove there, or a window.

I went to the surgery. When I came back, I found the door of my room had been smashed in and all my things piled in the little room. My neighbour just said: 'I've kept the settee for myself. There's no room for it where you are now.'

It's extraordinary – she's been to technical school and her late husband was a wonderful man, very quiet, an accountant at Ukopspilk. 'You're outside the law!' she said, as though that were something very profitable for her. And then her little Alyonushka sat with me all evening while I told her fairy-tales. That was my house-warming party – the girl didn't want to go to bed and her mother had to carry her away in her arms. Then, Vityenka, they opened the surgery again. I and another Jewish doctor were both dismissed. I asked for the previous month's pay but the new director said: 'Stalin can pay you whatever you earned under the Soviet regime. Write to him in Moscow.' The assistant, Marusya, embraced me and keened quietly, 'Lord God, Lord God, what will become of you, what will become of you all?' And Doctor Tkachev shook me by the hand. I really don't know which is worse – gloating spite, or these pitying glances like people cast at a mangy, half-dead cat. No, I never thought I'd have to live through anything like this.

Many people have surprised me. And not only those who are poor, uneducated, embittered. There's one old man, a retired teacher, seventy-five years old, who always used to ask after you and send you his greetings and say, 'He's the pride of our town.' During these accursed days he's just passed me by without a word, looking in the other direction. And I've heard that at a meeting called by the commandant, he said: 'Now the air feels clean at last. It no longer smells of garlic. ' Why, why? -words like that are a stain on him. Yes, and how terribly the Jews were slandered at that meeting… But then of course, Vityenka, not everyone attended. Many people refused. And one thing – ever since the time of the Tsars I've associated anti-Semitism with the jingoism of people from the Union of Michael the Archangel. But now I've seen that the people who shout most loudly about delivering Russia from the Jews are the very ones who cringe like lackeys before the Germans, ready to betray their country for thirty pieces of German silver. And strange people from the outskirts of town seize our rooms, our blankets, our clothes. It must have been people like them who killed doctors at the time of the cholera riots. And then there are people whose souls have just withered, people who are ready to go along with anything evil – anything so as not to be suspected of disagreeing with whoever's in power.

People I know are constantly coming round with bits of news. Their eyes are mad and they seem quite delirious. A strange expression has come into vogue: 'hiding away one another's things.' People somehow think a neighbour's house is going to be safer. The whole thing is like a children's game.

An announcement was soon made about the resettlement of the Jews. We were each to be permitted to take 15 kilograms of belongings. Little yellow notices were hung up on the walls of houses: 'All occupants are required to move to the area of the Old Town by not later than 6.00 p.m. on 15 July, 1941. Anyone remaining will be shot.'

And so, Vityenka, I got ready. I took a pillow, some bedclothes, the cup you once gave me, a spoon, a knife and two forks. Do we really need so very much? I took a few medical instruments. I took your letters; the photographs of my late mother and Uncle David, and the one of you with your father; a volume of Pushkin; Lettres de mon moulin; the volume of Maupassant with Une vie; a small dictionary… I took some Chekhov – the volume with 'A Boring Story' and 'The Bishop' – and that was that, I'd filled my basket. How many letters I must have written to you under that roof, how many hours I must have cried at night – yes, now I can tell you just how lonely I've been.

I said goodbye to the house and garden. I sat for a few minutes under the tree. I said goodbye to the neighbours. Some people are very strange. Two women began arguing in front of me about which of them would have my chairs, and which my writing-desk. I said goodbye and they both began to cry. I asked the Basankos to tell you everything in more detail if you ever come and ask about me after the war. They promised. I was very moved by the mongrel, Tobik – she was particularly affectionate towards me that last evening.

If you do come, feed her in return for her kindness towards an old Yid.

When I'd got everything ready and was wondering how I'd be able to carry my basket to the Old Town, a patient of mine suddenly appeared, a gloomy and – so I had always thought – rather callous man called Shchukin. He picked up my belongings, gave me 300 roubles and said he'd come once a week to the fence and give me some bread. He works at the printing-house – they didn't want him at the front because of his eye trouble. He was a patient of mine before the war. If I'd been asked to list all the people I knew with pure, sensitive souls, I might have given dozens of names – but certainly not his. Do you know, Vityenka, after he came, I began to feel once more that I was a human being – it wasn't only the yard-dog that still treated me as though I were.

He told me that a new decree was being printed: Jews are to be forbidden to walk on the pavements; they are required to wear a yellow patch, a Star of David, on the chest; they no longer have the right to use public transport, baths, parks, or cinemas; they are forbidden to buy butter, eggs, milk, berries, white bread, meat, or any vegetable other than potatoes; they are only allowed to make purchases in the market after six o'clock, when the peasants are already on their way home. The Old Town will be fenced off with barbed wire and people will only be allowed out under escort – to carry out forced labour. If a Jew is discovered in a Russian home, the owner will be shot – just as if he were harbouring a partisan.

Shchukin's father-in-law, an old peasant, had travelled in from the nearby village of Chudnov. He had seen with his own eyes how all the Jews there were herded into the forest with their parcels and suitcases. All day long he heard shots and terrible screams; not one Jew returned. As for the Germans who'd commandeered his rooms, they didn't come back till late at night. They were quite drunk and they carried on drinking and singing till dawn, sharing out brooches, rings and bracelets right under the old man's nose. I don't know whether the soldiers just got out of hand or whether that's a foretaste of our common fate.

What a sad journey it was, my son, to the medieval ghetto. I was walking through the town where I have worked for the last twenty years. First we went down Svechnaya Street, which was quite deserted. Then we came out onto Nikolskaya Street and I caught sight of hundreds of people all on their way to this same accursed ghetto. The street was white with little parcels and pillows. There were invalids being led by the hand. Doctor Margulis's paralysed father was being carried on a blanket. One young man was carrying an old woman in his arms while his wife and children followed behind, loaded with parcels. Gordon, a fat breathless man who manages a grocery shop, was wearing a winter coat with a fur collar; sweat was pouring down his face. I was struck by one young man; he had no belongings and he was walking with his head high, a book held open before him, and a calm, proud face. But how crazy and horror-struck most of the people beside him looked!

We all walked down the roadway while everyone else stood on the pavement and watched.

At one moment I was walking beside the Margulises and I could hear sighs of compassion from the women on the pavement. But everyone just laughed at Gordon's winter coat – though, believe me, he looked more terrible than absurd. I saw many faces I knew. Some nodded goodbye, others looked away. I don't think any eyes in that crowd were indifferent; some were pitiless, some were inquisitive, and some were filled with tears.

I realized there were two different crowds: there were the Jews – the men in winter coats and hats, the women wearing thick dresses – and there were the people in summer clothes on the pavement. There you could see bright dresses, men in shirt-sleeves, embroidered Ukrainian blouses. It was as though even the sun no longer shone for the Jews on the street, as though they were walking through the cold frost of a December night.

We came to the gateway into the ghetto and I said goodbye to my companion. He pointed out where we were to meet at the fence.

Can you guess what I felt, Vityenka, once I was behind the barbed wire? I'd expected to feel horror. But just imagine – I actually felt relieved to be inside this cattle-pen. Don't think it's because I'm a born slave. No. No. It's because everyone around me shares my fate: now I no longer have to walk on the roadway like a horse, there are no more spiteful looks, and the people I know look me straight in the eye instead of trying to avoid me. Everyone in this cattle-pen bears the stamp branded on us by the Fascists and it no longer burns my soul so fiercely. Now I'm no longer a beast deprived of rights – simply an unfortunate human being. And that's easier to bear.

I've settled down, together with a colleague of mine, Doctor Sperling, in a small two-roomed house. The Sperlings have got two grown-up daughters and a twelve-year-old son, Yura. I gaze for hours at his thin little face and his big, sad eyes; twice I've called him Vitya by mistake and he's corrected me: 'I'm Yura, not Vitya.'

How different people are! Sperling, at fifty-eight years of age, is full of energy. He's already managed to get hold of mattresses, kerosene and a cart for carrying firewood. Last night he had a sack of flour and half a sack of haricot beans brought to the house. He's as pleased as punch at each little success of his. Yesterday he was hanging out the rugs. 'Don't worry, don't worry, we'll survive,' he repeated. 'The main thing is to get stocked up with food and firewood.'

He said we ought to start up a school in the ghetto. He even suggested I gave Yura French lessons in exchange for a bowl of soup. I agreed.

Sperling's fat wife, Fanny Borisovna, just sighs, 'Everything's ruined, we're all ruined.' At the same time she keeps a careful watch on her elder daughter, Lyuba – a kind, good-natured girl – in case she gives anyone a handful of beans or a slice of bread. The mother's favourite is the younger daughter, Alya. She's the devil incarnate – mean, domineering and suspicious – and she's always shouting at her father and sister. She came on a visit from Moscow before the war and got stuck here.

God, what poverty there is everywhere! If only the people who are always talking about how rich the Jews are, how they've always got something put by for hard times, could have a look at the Old Town now. Hard times have come indeed – there can be no harder. But the people who've been resettled with fifteen kilograms of baggage aren't the only inhabitants of the Old Town: there have always been craftsmen living here -together with old men, workers, hospital orderlies… What terrible crowded conditions they live in! And what food they eat! If you could only see these half-ruined shacks that have almost become part of the earth.

Vityenka, I've seen many bad people here, people who are greedy, dishonest, capable even of betrayal. We've got one terrible man, Epstein, who came here from some little town in Poland – he wears a band round his sleeve and helps the Germans with their interrogations and searches; he gets drunk with the Ukrainian policemen and they send him round to people's homes to extort vodka, money and food. I've seen him twice, a tall handsome man in a smart cream-coloured suit – even the yellow star sewn on his jacket looks like a chrysanthemum.

But what I really want to talk to you about is something quite different. I never used to feel I was a Jew: as a child my circle of friends were all Russian; my favourite poets were Pushkin and Nekrasov; the one play which reduced me to tears, together with the whole audience – a congress of village doctors – was Stanislavsky's production of Uncle Vanya. And once, Vityenka, when I was fourteen, our family was about to emigrate to South America and I said to my father: 'I'll never leave Russia – I'd rather drown myself.' And I didn't go.

But now, during these terrible days, my heart has become filled with a maternal tenderness towards the Jewish people. I never knew this love before. It reminds me of my love for you, my dearest son.

I visit the sick in their houses. Dozens of people are crowded into minute little rooms – half-blind old men, un-weaned babies, pregnant women. I'm used to looking into people's eyes for symptoms of diseases – glaucoma, cataract. Now I can no longer look at people's eyes like that; what I see now is the reflection of the soul. A good soul, Vityenka! A sad, good-natured soul, defeated by violence, but at the same time triumphant over violence. A strong soul, Vitya!

If you could only see with what concern the old men and women keep asking after you. How sincerely people try to console me, people I've never complained to and whose situation is far more terrible than my own.

Sometimes I think that it's not so much me visiting the sick, as the other way round – that the people are a kind doctor who is healing my soul. And how touching it is when people hand me an onion, a slice of bread, or a handful of beans.

And believe me, Vityenka, that's not a matter of payment for my visit. Tears come to my eyes when some middle-aged workman shakes me by the hand, puts two or three potatoes in a little bag and says, 'There, Doctor, I beg you.' There's something about it which is pure, kind, fatherly – but I can't find the right words.

I don't want to console you by saying that things have been easy for me – no, it's surprising that my heart hasn't broken from grief. But please don't worry that I'm going hungry – I haven't once felt hungry. Nor have I felt lonely.

What can I say about people? They amaze me as much by their good qualities as by their bad qualities. They are all so different, even though they must undergo the same fate. But then if there's a downpour and most people try to hide, that doesn't mean that they're all the same. People even have their own particular ways of sheltering from rain.

Doctor Sperling is certain that the persecution of the Jews will only last as long as the war. There aren't many people like him, and I've noticed that the more optimistic people are, the more petty and egotistic they tend to be. If someone comes in when we're eating, Alya and Fanny Borisovna hide away the food as quick as they can.

The Sperlings treat me well – especially as I eat little and provide more than I consume. But I've decided to leave. I don't like them. I'm trying to find some little corner for myself. The more sorrow there is in a man, the less hope he has of survival – the better, the kinder, the more generous he becomes.

The poorest people, the tailors and tinsmiths, the ones without hope, are so much nobler, more generous and more intelligent than the people who've somehow managed to lay by a few provisions. The young schoolmistresses; Spilberg, the eccentric old teacher and chess-player; the timid women who work in the library; Reyvich, the engineer, who's more helpless than a child, yet dreams of arming the ghetto with hand-made grenades – what wonderful, impractical, dear, sad, good people they all are!

I've realized now that hope almost never goes together with reason. It's something quite irrational and instinctive.

People carry on, Vitya, as though their whole life lies ahead of them. It's impossible to say whether that's wise or foolish – it's just the way people are. I do the same myself. There are two women here from a shtetl and they tell the same story as my friend did. The Germans are killing all the Jews in the district, children and old men included. The Germans and Ukrainian police drive up and recruit a few dozen men for field-work. These men are set to dig ditches and two or three days later the Jewish population is marched to these ditches and shot. Jewish burial mounds are rising up in all the villages round about.

There's a girl from Poland next door. She says that there the killing goes on continually. The Jews are being massacred; there are only a few ghettoes – Warsaw, Lodz and Radom – where there are any left alive. When I thought about all this it seemed quite clear that we've been gathered here not to be preserved – like the bison in the Bialowiezska forest-but to be slaughtered. Our turn will come in a week or two, according to plan. But just imagine – I still go on seeing patients and saying, 'Now bathe your eye regularly with the lotion and it will be better in two or three weeks.' I'm taking care of one old man whose cataract it will be possible to remove in six months or a year.

I give Yura French lessons and get quite upset at his bad pronunciation.

Meanwhile the Germans burst into people's houses and steal; sentries amuse themselves by shooting children from behind the barbed wire; and more and more people confirm that any day now our fate will be decided.

That's how it is – life goes on. Not long ago we even had a wedding… And there are always dozens of rumours. First a neighbour declares that our troops have taken the offensive and the Germans are fleeing. Then there is a rumour that the Soviet government and Churchill have presented the Germans with an ultimatum – and that Hitler's ordered that no more Jews are to be killed. Then we are informed that Jews are to be exchanged for German prisoners-of-war.

It seems that nowhere is there so much hope as in the ghetto. The world is full of events and all these events have the same meaning and the same purpose – the salvation of the Jews. What a wealth of hope!

And the source of all these hopes is one and the same – the life-instinct itself, blindly rebelling against the terrible fact that we must all perish without trace. I look round myself and simply can't believe it: can we really, all of us, already be condemned, about to be executed? The hairdressers, the cobblers, the tailors, the doctors, the stove-repairers are still working. A little maternity home has even been opened – or rather, the semblance of one. People do their washing, linen dries on the line, meals are prepared, the children have been going to school since the first of September, the mothers question the teachers about their children's marks.

Old Spilberg is having some books bound. Alya Sperling does physical training every morning, puts her hair in paper-curlers every evening and quarrels with her father about two lengths of material that she wants for summer dresses.

And I'm busy myself from morning till night – visiting my patients, giving lessons, darning my clothes, doing my washing, preparing for winter, sewing a lining into my winter coat. I hear stories about the terrible punishments Jews have suffered: one woman I know, a lawyer's wife, bought a duck egg for her child and was beaten till she lost consciousness; a boy, the son of Sirota the chemist, was shot in the shoulder for crawling beneath the wire after a ball that had rolled away. And then rumours, rumours, rumours…

What I say now isn't a rumour, however. Today the Germans came and took eighty young men to work in the fields, supposedly to dig potatoes. Some people were glad, imagining the men would be able to bring a few potatoes home for their relatives. But I knew all too well what the Germans meant by potatoes.

Night is a special time in the ghetto, Vitya. You know, my dearest, how I always taught you to tell the truth – a son must always tell the truth to his mother. But then so must a mother tell the truth to her son. Don't imagine, Vityenka, that your mother's a strong woman. I'm weak. I'm afraid of pain and I'm terrified to sit down in the dentist's chair. As a child I was afraid of darkness and thunder. As an old woman I've been afraid of illness and loneliness; I've been afraid that if I fall ill, I won't be able to go back to work again; that I'll become a burden to you and that you'll make me feel it. I've been afraid of the war. Now, Vitya, I'm seized at night by a horror that makes my heart grow numb. I'm about to die. I want to call out to you for help.

When you were a child, you used to run to me for protection. Now, in moments of weakness, I want to hide my head on your knees; I want you to be strong and wise; I want you to protect and defend me. I'm not always strong in spirit, Vitya – I can be weak too. I often think about suicide, but something holds me back – some weakness, or strength, or irrational hope.

But enough of that. I have dreams every night. I often see my mother and talk to her. Last night I dreamed of Sasha Shaposhnikov during our years in Paris. But I haven't once dreamed of you – though I think of you often, even at moments of the most terrible distress. In the morning I wake up and look at the ceiling, then I remember that the Germans are on our land and that I'm a leper – and it's as though I haven't woken up at all, but have just fallen asleep and begun to dream.

A few minutes go by and I hear Alya quarrelling with Lyuba over whose turn it is to go to the well. Then I hear people talking about how, during the night, the Germans smashed in the skull of some old man on the next street.

A girl I knew came round, a student at the teachers' training college for technical subjects, and called me out on a visit. She turned out to be hiding a lieutenant who'd been wounded in the shoulder and burnt in one eye. A sweet, haggard, young man with a thick Volga accent. He'd slipped through the wire at night and found shelter in the ghetto. His eye wasn't seriously injured at all and I was able to check the suppuration. He talked a lot about different battles and how our army had been put to flight. He quite depressed me. He wants to recuperate and then slip through the German front line. Several young men intend to go with him, one of them an ex-student of mine. Oh Vityenka, if only I could go with them too. It was such a joy to me to be able to help that young man – I felt as though I too were taking part in the war against Fascism.

People had brought him some bread, beans and potatoes, and one old woman had knitted him a pair of woollen socks.

The whole day has been full of drama. Yesterday Alya managed, through a Russian friend of hers, to get hold of the passport of a young Russian girl who'd died in hospital. Tonight she's going to leave. And we heard today, from a peasant we know who was driving past the ghetto fence, that the Jews who were sent to dig potatoes are digging deep ditches four versts from the town, near the airfield, on the road to Romanovka. Remember that name, Vitya – that's where you'll find the mass grave where your mother is buried.

Even Sperling understood. He's been pale all day, his lips are trembling and he keeps asking confusedly: 'Is there any hope that specialists will be spared?' In fact I have heard that in some places the best tailors, cobblers and doctors have been left alive.

All the same, this very evening, Sperling summoned the old man who repairs stoves and had a secret cupboard built into the wall for flour and salt. And Yura and I have been reading Lettres de mon moulin. Do you remember how we used to read out loud my favourite story, 'Les Vieux', how we'd look at each other and burst out laughing, how each of us would have tears in our eyes? And after that I set Yura his lessons for the day after tomorrow. But what an ache I felt as I looked at my student's sad little face, as I watched his fingers note down in his exercise-book the numbers of the paragraphs of grammar I had just set.

And what a lot of children like that there are! Children with wonderful eyes and dark curly hair – probably future scientists, physicists, professors of medicine, musicians, even poets…

I watch them running to school in the morning, with a quite unchildlike seriousness, and wide, tragic eyes. Though sometimes they do begin laughing and fighting and romping about; then, rather than feeling happier, I am seized with horror.

They say that children are our own future, but how can one say that of these children? They aren't going to become musicians, cobblers or tailors. Last night I saw very clearly how this whole noisy world of bearded, anxious fathers and querulous grandmothers who bake honey-cakes and goosenecks – this whole world of marriage customs, proverbial sayings and Sabbaths will disappear for ever under the earth. After the war life will begin to stir once again, but we won't be here, we will have vanished – just as the Aztecs once vanished.

The peasant who brought us the news about the mass graves said that his wife had been crying at night. She'd been lamenting: 'They sew, and they make shoes, and they curry leather, and they mend watches, and they sell medicines in the chemist's. What will we do when they've all been killed?'

And how clearly I saw someone walk past our ruined houses and say: 'Once some Jews used to live here. Do you remember? An old stove-repairer called Borukh. On Saturday evenings his old wife sat on the bench and the children played round about.' And someone else said: 'And there was a doctor who used to sit there, beneath that old pear-tree – I can't remember her surname but I once went to her to have my eyes treated. After she'd finished work she used to bring out a wickerwork chair and sit there with a book.' Yes, Vitya, that's how it will be.

As though some terrible breath has passed over people's faces and everyone knows that the end is approaching.

Vityenka, I want to tell you… no, it's not that.

Vityenka, I'm finishing this letter and taking it to the ghetto fence to hand to my friend. It's not easy to break off. It's my last conversation with you. Once I send it off, I will have left you for ever and you will never know of my last hours. This is our final parting. What can I say to you in farewell, in eternal farewell? These last days, as during my whole life, you have been my joy. I've remembered you at night, the clothes you wore as a boy, your first books. I've remembered your first letter, your first day at school. I've remembered everything, everything from the first days of your life to the last news that I heard from you, the telegram I received on the 30th of June. I've closed my eyes and imagined that you were shielding me, my dearest, from the horror that is approaching. And then I've remembered what is happening here and felt glad that you were apart from me – and that this terrible fate will pass you by!

Vitya, I've always been lonely. I've wept in anguish through lonely nights. My consolation was the thought of how I would tell you one day about my life. Tell you why your father and I separated, why I have lived on my own for so many years. And I've often thought how surprised my Vitya would be to learn how his mother made mistakes, raved, grew jealous, made others jealous, was just what young people always are. But my fate is to end my life alone, never having shared it with you. Sometimes I've thought that I ought not to live far away from you, that I love you too much, that love gives me the right to be with you in my old age. And at other times I've thought that I ought not to live together with you, that I love you too much.

Well, enfin… Always be happy with those you love, those around you, those who have become closer to you than your mother. Forgive me.

I can hear women weeping on the street, and policemen swearing; as I look at these pages, they seem to protect me from a terrible world that is filled with suffering.

How can I finish this letter? Where can I find the strength, my son? Are there words capable of expressing my love for you? I kiss you, your eyes, your forehead, your hair.

Remember that your mother's love is always with you, in grief and in happiness, no one has the strength to destroy it.

Vityenka… This is the last line of your mother's last letter to you. Live, live, live for ever… Mama.

19

Never, before the war, had Viktor thought about the fact that he was a Jew, that his mother was a Jew. Never had his mother spoken to him about it – neither during his childhood, nor during his years as a student. Never while he was at Moscow University had one student, professor or seminar-leader ever mentioned it.

Never before the war, either at the Institute or at the Academy of Sciences had he ever heard conversations about it.

Never had he felt a desire to speak about it to Nadya, to explain to her that her mother was Russian and her father Jewish.

The century of Einstein and Planck was also the century of Hitler. The Gestapo and the scientific renaissance were children of the same age. How humane the nineteenth century seemed, that century of naive physics, when compared with the twentieth century, the century that had killed his mother. There is a terrible similarity between the principles of Fascism and those of contemporary physics.

Fascism has rejected the concept of a separate individuality, the concept of 'a man', and operates only with vast aggregates. Contemporary physics speaks of the greater or lesser probability of occurrences within this or that aggregate of individual particles. And are not the terrible mechanics of Fascism founded on the principle of quantum politics, of political probability?

Fascism arrived at the idea of the liquidation of entire strata of the population, of entire nations and races, on the grounds that there was a greater probability of overt or covert opposition among these groupings than among others: the mechanics of probabilities and of human aggregates.

But no! No! And again no! Fascism will perish for the very reason that it has applied to man the laws applicable to atoms and cobblestones!

Man and Fascism cannot co-exist. If Fascism conquers, man will cease to exist and there will remain only man-like creatures that have undergone an internal transformation. But if man, man who is endowed with reason and kindness, should conquer, then Fascism must perish, and those who have submitted to it will once again become people.

Was not this an admission on his part of the truth of what Chepyzhin had once said? That discussion now seemed infinitely far away, as though decades had passed since that summer evening in Moscow.

It seemed to have been another man – not Viktor at all – who had walked through Trubnaya Square, arguing heatedly and self-confidently.

Mother… Marusya… Tolya…

There were moments when science seemed like a delusion that prevented one from seeing the madness and cruelty of life. It might be that science was not a chance companion, but an ally of this terrible century. How lonely he felt. There was no one he could share his thoughts with. Chepyzhin was far away. Postoev found all this strange and uninteresting. Sokolov had a tendency towards mysticism, towards some strange religious submissiveness before the injustice and cruelty of Caesar.

There were two outstanding scientists who worked in his laboratory – Markov, who carried out the experiments, and the brilliant, debauched Savostyanov. But they'd think he was a psychopath if he started talking like this.

Sometimes he took his mother's letter out of his desk and read it through again.

'Vitya, I'm certain this letter will reach you, even though I'm now behind the German front line, behind the barbed wire of the Jewish ghetto… Where can I find the strength, my son…?'

And once more he felt a cold blade against his throat.

20

Lyudmila Nikolaevna took an official envelope out of the letter-box.

She rushed into her room; holding the envelope up to the light, she tore off one corner of the coarse paper.

For a moment she thought that photographs of Tolya would come pouring out of the envelope – of Tolya when he was tiny, still unable to hold up his head, lying naked on a pillow, pouting his lips and waving his little legs in the air like a bear-cub.

In some incomprehensible manner, hardly reading the words, but somehow absorbing, almost breathing in, line after line of the red handwriting of some uneducated clerk, she understood: he's alive, he's alive!

She read that Tolya was seriously wounded in the chest and in his side, that he had lost a lot of blood and was too weak to write to her himself, that he had had a fever for four weeks… But her eyes were clouded by tears of happiness – so great was the despair she had felt a moment before.

She went out onto the staircase, read the first lines of the letter and, her mind at rest, walked down to the woodshed. There, in the cold twilight, she read the middle and end of the letter and thought that this was Tolya's final farewell to her.

She began filling a sack with firewood. And – although the doctor in Moscow, at the University Clinic in Gagarin Alley, had ordered her not to lift more than three kilograms and to make only slow, smooth movements – Lyudmila Nikolaevna, grunting like a peasant and without a moment's hesitation, hoisted a sack of wet logs onto her shoulders and climbed straight to the third floor. The plates on the table clattered as she threw down the sack.

Lyudmila put on her coat, threw a scarf over her head and walked downstairs to the street.

People passing by turned round to look at her. She crossed the street; there was the harsh sound of a bell and the tram-driver shook her fist.

If she turned right, there was an alley which would take her to the factory where her mother worked.

If Tolya were to die, no one would ever tell his father… How would they know what camp to look for him in? Maybe he was already dead…

Lyudmila set off to the Institute to see Viktor. As she passed by the Sokolovs', she walked into the yard and knocked at the window. The curtain remained drawn. Marya Ivanovna was out.

'Viktor Pavlovich has just gone to his office,' said a voice. Lydumila said thank you without knowing who had just spoken to her – whether it was a man or a woman, whether it was someone she knew or someone she didn't know – and walked through to the laboratory hall. As usual, hardly anyone was actually working. The men always seemed to be chatting or reading and smoking, while the women were always knitting, boiling tea in chemical retorts, or removing their nail-varnish.

She was aware of everything, all kinds of trivia, even the paper with which an assistant was rolling himself a cigarette.

In Viktor's office she was given a noisy welcome. Sokolov rushed up to her, waving a large white envelope, and said: 'There's a ray of hope. We may be re-evacuated to Moscow, together with our families and all our gear and apparatus. Not bad, eh? Admittedly, the dates haven't been fixed yet. But still!'

His animated face and eyes were quite hateful. Surely Marya Ivanovna wouldn't have come running up to her like that? No, no. Marya Ivanovna would have understood straight away – she would have been able to read Lyudmila's face.

If she'd known she'd see so many happy faces, she'd never have come to see Viktor. He too would be bubbling with joy, and in the evening he would share this joy of his with Nadya – yes, now at last they would be leaving this hateful Kazan!

Would all the people in the world be worth the young blood that was the price of this joy?

She looked reproachfully at her husband. And Viktor's eyes looked with anxiety and understanding into hers, which were full of gloom.

When they were finally alone, he said he'd realized at once that something terrible had happened. He read through the letter and said: 'What can we do? Dear God, what can we do?'

Then he put on his coat and they walked out towards the exit.

'I won't be back today,' he said to Sokolov.

Sokolov was standing next to Dubyonkov, the recently appointed director of the personnel department, a tall round-headed man in a fashionable, broad-fitting jacket that was still too narrow for his wide shoulders.

Letting go of Lyudmila's hand for a moment, Viktor said to Dubyonkov in an undertone: 'We were going to start on the Moscow re-evacuation lists, but it will have to wait. I'll explain why afterwards.'

'Don't worry, Viktor Pavlovich,' said Dubyonkov in his bass voice. 'There's no hurry. They're just plans for the future. Anyway I can do all the basic work by myself.'

Sokolov waved and nodded his head. Viktor knew he had already guessed that another tragedy had befallen him.

There was a cold wind out on the street. It picked up the dust, whirled it about and suddenly scattered it, flinging it down like black chaff. There was an implacable severity in the frost, in the branches that tapped together like bones, in the icy blue of the tram-lines.

Viktor's wife turned her thin, cold face towards him. It had grown younger from suffering. She looked at him fixedly, entreatingly.

Once they had had a young cat. As she was giving birth to her first litter, there had been one kitten she hadn't been able to get out. As she was dying, she had crawled up to Viktor and cried, staring at him with wide, bright eyes. But who was there in this vast empty sky, on this pitiless, dusty earth – who was there to beg or entreat?

'There's the hospital where I used to work,' said Lyudmila.

'Lyuda,' said Viktor suddenly, 'Why don't you go in? They'll be able to locate the field hospital for you. Why didn't I think of that before?'

He watched Lyudmila climb up the steps and explain herself to the janitor.

Viktor walked round the corner and then paced back to the main entrance. People were rushing along with their string bags; inside them were glass jars full of grey potatoes or bits of macaroni in a grey soup.

'Vitya,' his wife called out. He could tell from her voice that she had regained her self-possession.

'So,' she said, 'he's in Saratov. The assistant medical director happens to have been there not long ago. He's written down the address for me.'

At once there was a mass of things to do and problems to sort out. She needed to know when the steamer left and how she could get a ticket; she'd need to pack some food and borrow some money; and somehow she'd have to get an official authorization…

Lyudmila Nikolaevna left with no food, none of her things, and almost no money; in the general confusion and bustle of embarkation she made her way onto the deck without a ticket.

All she took with her was the memory of parting with her husband, her mother and Nadya on a dark autumn evening. Black waves lapped noisily against the sides of the boat. A fierce wind blew from downstream, howling and flinging up spray from the river.

21

Dementiy Trifonovich Getmanov, the secretary of the obkom [12] of one of the German-occupied areas of the Ukraine, had been appointed commissar of a tank corps now being formed in the Urals.

Before setting out to join the corps, Getmanov flew in a Douglas to Ufa where his family had been evacuated.

His comrades in Ufa had looked after his family well; their living conditions turned out to be not bad at all. Getmanov's wife, Galina Terentyevna, had a poor metabolism and had always been remarkably stout; rather than growing thinner since being evacuated, she had put on still more weight. His two daughters and his youngest son, who had not yet begun school, all seemed in good health.

Getmanov was in Ufa for five days. Before his departure several of his closest friends came round to say goodbye: his wife's younger brother, Nikolay Terentyevich, who was the deputy office-manager of the Ukrainian Council of People's Commissars; one of his old comrades, Mashuk from Kiev, an official in the State security organs; and his sister-in-law's husband, Sagaydak, an executive in the propaganda department of the Ukrainian Central Committee.

Sagaydak arrived after ten o'clock, when the children had already gone to bed and people were talking in undertones.

'How about a quick drink, comrades?' asked Getmanov. 'A drop of vodka from Moscow?'

Taken separately, each one of Getmanov's features was large: his shaggy, greying head, his broad forehead, his fleshy nose, the palms of his hands, his fingers, his shoulders, his thick powerful neck… But he himself, the combination of these parts, was quite small. Strangely, it was his small eyes that were the most attractive and memorable feature of his large face. They were narrow, almost invisible beneath his swollen eyelids. Even their colour was somehow uncertain – neither grey nor blue. But there was something very alive about them, something penetrating and shrewd.

Galina Terentyevna, rising effortlessly despite her corpulent body, left the room. The men fell silent, as often happens – both in a village hut and in the city – when vodka is about to appear. Soon Galina Terentyevna returned with a tray. It seemed surprising that her large hands should have been able, in such a short time, to set out so many plates and open so many tins of food.

Mashuk glanced round at the wide ottoman, the Ukrainian embroidery hanging on the walls, the hospitable array of tins and bottles.

'I can remember that ottoman from your flat, Galina Terentyevna,' he said. 'Let me congratulate you on getting it out. You've got a real talent for organization.'

'Hear, hear!' said Getmanov. 'And I wasn't even at home when we were evacuated. She did it all by herself!'

'I couldn't just give it away to the Germans,' said Galina. 'Anyway Dima's used to it. When he comes home, he sits straight down on it and starts going over his work.'

'You mean he comes home and goes straight to sleep on it,' said Sagaydak.

She went out to the kitchen again. Mashuk gave Getmanov a broad wink. 'I can see the woman already!' he said under his breath. 'Our Dementiy Trifonovich isn't one to waste time. He'll soon be friends with some pretty young medical officer.'

'Yes, he's a passionate man,' agreed Sagaydak.

Getmanov brushed this aside. 'Come off it now. I'm an invalid.'

'Oh yes,' said Mashuk. 'And who used to come back to his tent at three in the morning in Kislovodsk?'

The guests all burst out laughing. Getmanov glanced quickly but intently at his wife's brother. Galina came back into the room. Seeing everyone in fits of laughter, she said: 'I only have to be out of the room for half a minute and you're all talking nonsense to my poor Dima!'

Getmanov filled the glasses with vodka. With great deliberation, the guests began choosing something to eat. Looking at the portrait of Stalin on the wall, Getmanov raised his glass and said: 'Well, comrades, let's drink first of all to our father. May he always remain in good health!'

He pronounced these words in a rather bluff, free-and-easy tone of voice. The implication was that they all understood Stalin's greatness very well, but were drinking to him now as a human being, someone they loved for his straightforwardness, modesty and sensitivity. And Stalin himself, looking up and down the table and then at the ample breasts of Galina Terentyevna, appeared to say: 'Very well, fellows, I'll just get my pipe going. Then I'll bring my chair up a bit closer.'

'That's right, may our father live for a long time! Where would we be without him?' said Nikolay Terentyevich.

Holding his glass to his lips, Getmanov looked round at Sagaydak, as though expecting him to say something. Sagaydak just looked at the portrait as if to say, 'What more needs to be said, Father? You already know everything.' He downed his vodka and the others followed suit.

Dementiy Trifonovich Getmanov had been born in Liven in the province of Voronezh, but had worked many years in the Ukraine and had long-standing ties with his Ukrainian comrades. His links with Kiev had been further consolidated by his marriage to Galina Terentyevna: her many relatives occupied conspicuous positions in the Party and Soviet apparatus in the Ukraine.

Getmanov's life had been relatively uneventful. He had not taken part in the Civil War. He had not been hunted by the police and had never been exiled to Siberia at the decree of a Tsarist court. At conferences and congresses he usually read his reports from a written text. Even though he had not written them himself, he read these reports well, expressively and without hesitation. Admittedly, they were by no means difficult to read – they were printed in large type, double-spaced, and with the name of Stalin always in red. As a young man, Getmanov had been intelligent and disciplined; he had intended to study at the Mechanical Institute but had been recruited for work in the security organs. Soon he had become the bodyguard of the secretary of the kraykom, the area Party committee. He was taken notice of and sent on courses for Party workers. Then he was accepted for work in the Party apparatus – first in the organizational and educational department of the kraykom, then in the personnel department of the Central Committee. After a year he became an assistant in the Senior Appointments Department. And in 1937 he became secretary of the obkom, the oblast Party committee – 'master of the oblasf, as people said.

His word could decide the fate of a head of a university department, an engineer, a bank manager, a chairman of a trade union, a collective farm or a theatrical production.

The confidence of the Party! Getmanov knew the immense meaning of these words. His whole life – which contained no great books, famous discoveries or military victories – was one sustained, intense, unsleeping labour. The supreme meaning of this labour lay in the fact that it was done at the demand of the Party and for the sake of the Party. The supreme reward for this labour was to be granted the confidence of the Party.

Every decision he made had to be infused with the spirit of the Party and be conducive to its interests, whether the issue in question was the fate of a child being sent to a home, the reorganization of a university biology department, or the eviction from premises belonging to a library of a workers' co-operative producing articles made from plastic. The attitude of a Party leader to any matter, to any film, to any book, had to be infused with the spirit of the Party; however difficult it might be, he had to immediately renounce a favourite book or a customary way of behaviour if the interests of the Party should conflict with his personal sympathies. But Getmanov knew that there was a still higher form of Party spirit: a true Party leader simply didn't have personal likings or inclinations; he loved something only because, and only in so far as, it expressed the spirit of the Party.

The sacrifices made by Getmanov in the name of Party loyalty were sometimes cruel. In this world neighbours from the same village or teachers to whom one had been indebted since youth no longer existed; love or sympathy were no longer to be reckoned with. Nor could one be disturbed by such words as 'turned away from', 'failed to support', 'ruined', 'betrayed'… But true Party spirit showed itself when a sacrifice was not even necessary, when no personal feeling could survive for even a moment if it happened to clash with the spirit of the Party.

The labour of those who enjoy the confidence of the Party is imperceptible. But it is a vast labour – one must expend one's mind and soul generously, keeping nothing back. The power of a Party leader does not require the talent of a scientist or the gift of a writer. It is something higher than any talent or gift. Getmanov's guiding word was anxiously awaited by hundreds of singers, writers and scientific researchers – though Getmanov himself was not only unable to sing, play the piano or direct a theatrical production, but incapable even of truly understanding a work of science, poetry, music or painting… The power of his word lay in the fact that the Party had entrusted him with its own interests in the area of art and culture.

No thinker, no people's tribune could enjoy as much power as Getmanov – the secretary of the Party organization of an entire oblast.

Getmanov felt that the deepest meaning of the words 'the confidence of the Party' was expressed in the opinions, thoughts and feelings of Stalin. The essence of the Party line lay in Stalin's confidence in his comrades-in-arms, his marshals and people's commissars.

The guests talked mainly of Getmanov's new posting. They understood that Getmanov had expected something more important -people in his position would usually be appointed Members of the Military Soviet of an Army or Front.

Getmanov had indeed felt upset and alarmed at being appointed to a mere corps. He had made enquiries through one of his friends, a member of the organizational bureau of the Central Committee, as to whether there was any dissatisfaction with him in higher circles. It seemed there was nothing to worry about.

Getmanov had then begun to console himself by seeing the good sides of his appointment. Not everyone would be sent to a tank corps: it was, after all, the tank corps that were going to determine the outcome of the war, to play the crucial role in the decisive battles. Yes, they'd sooner appoint someone as a Member of the Military Soviet of some second-rate army in an area of secondary importance than as commissar to a tank corps. It was through this that the Party had expressed its confidence in him. Nevertheless he was upset – he would have liked very much, after putting on his uniform and looking in the mirror, to pronounce the words: 'Member of the Army Military Soviet, Brigade Commissar Getmanov.'

For some reason his most extreme irritation was aroused by the commanding officer of the corps, Colonel Novikov. He had yet to meet this colonel, but everything that he had found out so far was profoundly displeasing.

Getmanov's friends understood his mood; all their remarks about his new posting were very reassuring.

Sagaydak said that the corps would most likely be sent to Stalingrad; that comrade Stalin had known General Yeremenko, the commanding officer of the Stalingrad Front, since the Civil War, even before the First Cavalry Army; that Stalin often talked to him on the telephone and received him in his own house when he came to Moscow… Not long ago Yeremenko had been at comrade Stalin's dacha outside Moscow and Stalin's conversation with him had lasted for two hours. It would be good to fight under the command of a man who enjoyed the confidence of comrade Stalin to such a degree.

After that someone said that Nikita Khrushchev remembered Getmanov's work in the Ukraine, and that if he were lucky he might be sent to the Front where Nikita Khrushchev was on the Military Soviet.

'It's not just coincidence,' said Nikolay Terentyevich, 'that comrade Stalin should have sent Nikita Khrushchev to Stalingrad. It's the key Front – who else could he have sent?'

'And is it just chance that comrade Stalin should post my Dementiy Trifonovich to a tank corps?' Galina Terentyevna asked provocatively.

'Now come on!' said Getmanov. 'For me to be posted to a corps is like becoming secretary of a raykom. After being first secretary of an obkom, it's nothing to write home about.'

'Far from it!' said Sagaydak very seriously. 'Your appointment is an expression of the confidence of the Party. It's not just some out-of-the-way raykom, but the raykom of an industrial centre like Magnitogorsk or Dneproderzhinsk. It's not just any old corps, but a tank corps.'

According to Mashuk, the commanding officer of this corps had only recently been appointed – he had never before commanded such a large unit. He had been told this by an official from the Special Section of the Front, who had been in Ufa not long before.

'There's one other thing he told me,' said Mashuk. He paused. '… But there's no need for me to tell you, Dementiy Trifonovich. You probably already know more about him than he does himself.'

Getmanov screwed up his narrow, shrewd, eyes. 'A lot more.'

Mashuk gave an almost imperceptible smile that was nevertheless noticed by everyone at the table. Although he was related twice over to the Getmanovs, although at family gatherings he always seemed a kind, modest fellow who was fond of a good joke, the Getmanovs always felt a certain tension as they listened to Mashuk's soft, insinuating voice and watched his calm eyes and long, pale face. Getmanov himself did not find this in the least surprising. He was well aware of the power behind Mashuk; he understood how much more Mashuk often knew about things than he did himself.

'Tell us about him,' said Sagaydak.

'He's just someone who's jumped up during the war,' Getmanov explained condescendingly. 'He didn't do anything much before.'

'He wasn't in the nomenklatura?' [13] asked Galina's brother with a smile.

'The nomenklatura!' Getmanov gave a disparaging wave of the hand. 'But he's a useful fellow. I've heard he's a good soldier. And his chief of staff is General Nyeudobnov. I met him at the eighteenth Party Congress. He's very competent.'

'Nyeudobnov, Illarion Innokyentyevich?' exclaimed Mashuk. "Well, well. He was the first man I worked under. Then we went our different ways. And before the war I once met him in Lavrentiy Beria's reception room.'

'Different ways,' repeated Sagaydak with a smile. 'You should approach the matter dialectically – look for the identity and unity, not just the contrast.'

'Everything goes crazy during the war,' said Mashuk. 'Some colonel or other is the commanding officer of a corps and General Nyeudobnov is made his subordinate!'

'He's got no wartime experience,' said Getmanov. 'That does have to be taken into account.'

'I don't believe it! Nyeudobnov! Why, there was a time when one word from him could decide anything. A Party member since before the Revolution, with a vast experience of both public and military service! He was expected to go right to the top.'

The other guests all agreed with Mashuk. Condoling with Nyeudobnov was the easiest way for them to express their sympathy for Getmanov.

'Yes, the war's turned everything upside down,' said Galina's brother. 'I hope it comes to an end soon.'

Getmanov pointed towards Sagaydak. 'Did you ever meet Krymov, a Muscovite? He once gave a talk about international affairs to the lecture group of the Kiev Central Committee.'

'A few years before the war? A deviationist? Used to work in the Comintern?'

'Yes, that's right. Well, this corps-commander of mine intends to marry his ex-wife.'

For some reason this piece of news made everyone laugh, although no one present had met either Krymov's ex-wife or the corps-commander who intended to marry her.

'Yes, it wasn't for nothing that our friend received his first training in the security organs,' said Mashuk. 'Is there anything he doesn't know?'

'There are no flies on him,' said Galina's brother. 'That's for sure.'

'Of course. The High Command's got no time for scatterbrains.'

'Yes, our Getmanov's certainly no scatterbrain,' said Sagaydak.

In a serious, matter-of-fact tone, as though he were back in his office, Mashuk said: 'Yes, that Krymov… I remember him from his visit to Kiev – a dubious character. He's been mixed up for years with all kinds of Trotskyists and Bukharinites.'

He spoke straightforwardly and openly, seemingly as straightforwardly as the manager of a knitwear factory or a teacher at a technical institute might talk about their work. But they all understood that this openness and freedom were only apparent – he knew better than any of them what could, and what could not, be talked about. Getmanov, who also loved to shock people by his boldness and candour, was well aware of the depths concealed beneath the surface of this animated and spontaneous conversation.

Although normally very thoughtful and serious, Sagaydak now tried to restore to the conversation its earlier note of lightness. Turning to Getmanov he said: 'That's why his wife's left him – she thinks he's an unreliable element.'

'I hope you're right,' said Getmanov. 'But it seems to me that this corps-commander of mine is marrying an alien and unreliable element himself.'

'Well, let him!' said Galina Terentyevna. 'What strange things you worry about. What matters is whether or not they love each other.'

'Love, of course, is fundamental,' agreed Getmanov. 'Everyone knows that. But there are other matters that certain Soviet citizens tend to forget about.'

'Absolutely,' said Mashuk, 'and we should be aware of everything.'

'Right. And then people wonder why the Central Committee hasn't ratified a new appointment, why this and why that… But what have they done to deserve the confidence of the Party?'

'You are a strange lot!' interrupted Galina Terentyevna in a sing-song voice. 'Anyone would think you'd quite forgotten about the war. All you seem to worry about is the ex-husband of the future wife of some corps-commander. Who are you fighting against, Dima?'

She looked mockingly at the men. Her beautiful brown eyes were somehow similar to the narrow eyes of her husband- perhaps because they were equally penetrating.

'What are you saying?' Sagaydak replied mournfully. 'Our sons and brothers are setting out to the war from every corner of the country, from the last hut in a kolkhoz to the Kremlin itself. This war is a war for the Fatherland, a great war. Comrade Stalin's son, Vasiliy, is a fighter-pilot. Comrade Mikoyan's son's in the Air Force too. I've heard that Lavrentiy Beria has got a son at the front, but I'm not sure which service. I think Timur Frunze is a lieutenant in the infantry… And then what's her name – Dolores Ibarruri – her son was killed outside Stalingrad.'

'Comrade Stalin had two sons at the front,' said Nikolay Terentyevich. 'The younger one, Yakov, was in command of an artillery battery… No, Yakov's the elder brother. Poor man – he's been taken prisoner.'

He stopped short, sensing that he'd touched on a matter his senior comrades preferred not to talk about. To break the awkward silence, he announced in a carefree tone: 'By the way, I've heard the Germans have been dropping ridiculous propaganda leaflets. They're making out that Yakov Stalin has given them information of his own free will.'

The void surrounding Nikolay Terentyevich grew still more unpleasant. He had spoken about something that should never be mentioned, even in jest. To express indignation at lying rumours about Iosif Vissarionovich's relationship with his wife would be as serious a blunder as to spread the same rumours – any word at all about such matters was inadmissible.

Turning suddenly to his wife, Getmanov said: 'My heart lies where comrade Stalin has taken the battle into his own hands, and with such a firm grip that he really has put the wind up the Germans!'

Guiltily and apologetically, Galina's brother caught Getmanov's eye. But these people hadn't met together just to pounce on some conversational gaffe. They weren't petty-minded.

In a good-natured, comradely tone of voice, as though defending Nikolay Terentyevich from Getmanov, Sagaydak said: 'That's all very well, but we must all take care not to slip up in our own work.'

'And not to speak without thinking,' added Getmanov.

The explicitness of Getmanov's reproach was a sign that he would think no more of Nikolay Terentyevich's blunder. Sagaydak and Mashuk nodded approvingly.

Galina's brother understood that this stupid, trivial incident would be forgotten; he also understood that it would not be forgotten entirely. One day, during a meeting to discuss a nomination for some particularly responsible post, Getmanov, Sagaydak and Mashuk would all nod their heads at mention of Nikolay Terentyevich; at the same time, however, they would give the merest hint of a smile. In reply to a question posed by an observant comrade, they would say, 'Perhaps just a trifle indiscreet,' measuring this trifle on the tip of their little finger.

Deep down they all understood that the Germans were probably not lying so very blatantly. That was why Yakov was best not discussed.

Sagaydak had a particularly fine grasp of such matters. He had worked on a newspaper for a long time; first he had been responsible for the news pages, then for the agricultural section. After that he had worked for about two years as editor of one of the Kiev papers. He considered that the aim of his newspaper was to educate the reader – not indiscriminately to disseminate chaotic information about all kinds of probably fortuitous events. In his role as editor Sagaydak might consider it appropriate to pass over some event: a very bad harvest, an ideologically inconsistent poem, a formalist painting, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, an earthquake, or the destruction of a battleship. He might prefer to close his eyes to a terrible fire in a mine or a tidal wave that had swept thousands of people off the face of the earth. In his view these events had no meaning and he saw no reason why he should bring them to the notice of readers, journalists and writers. Sometimes he would have to give his own explanation of an event; this was often boldly original and entirely contradictory to ordinary ways of thought. He himself felt that his power, his skill and experience as an editor were revealed by his ability to bring to the consciousness of his readers only those ideas that were necessary and of true educational benefit.

When flagrant excesses occurred during the period of out-and-out collectivization, Sagaydak – before the publication of Stalin's article 'Dizziness from Success' [14] – wrote that the reason for the famine of this period was that the kulaks were burying their grain and refusing to eat, that whole villages – little children, old people and all – were dying, simply to spite the State.

At the same time he included material about how the children in kolkhoz crèches were fed chicken broth, pirozhki and rissoles made from rice. In reality they were withering away, their bellies distended.

Then came the war, one of the most cruel and terrible wars that had befallen Russia during the thousand years of her history. The ordeals of the first weeks and months brought the true course of events into the open; the war was now the arbiter of all fates, even that of the Party. But, as soon as this terrible period came to an end, Korneychuk explained the reason for the military disasters in his play The Front: incompetent generals had failed to carry out the orders of the infallible High Command…

Nikolay Terentyevich was not the only one to experience some unpleasant moments that evening. Mashuk had been leafing through the thick pages of a large leather-bound photograph album. He suddenly raised his eyebrows so expressively that everyone craned over to look. It was a photograph of Getmanov in the office he had before the war as secretary of the obkom; he was wearing a semi-military Party tunic and sitting at a writing-desk as vast as the steppes; above him hung a portrait of Stalin of such huge dimensions as could be found only in the office of the secretary of an obkom. Stalin's face in the portrait had been scrawled over in coloured pencil; a blue pointed beard had been added to his chin and light-blue ear-rings hung from his ears.

'What has the boy gone and done now!' exclaimed Getmanov, wringing his hands womanishly.

Galina Terentyevna fell into utter confusion; she kept looking round and repeating: 'But before he went to sleep last night, he said, "I love Uncle Stalin as much as my own papa." '

'It's just a child's prank,' said Sagaydak.

'It's not just a prank, it's malicious hooliganism,' said Getmanov with an angry sigh.

He looked searchingly at Mashuk. They were both thinking of an incident that had occurred before the war: a polytechnic student, the nephew of someone they knew from Kiev, had fired an air-rifle at Stalin's portrait in the student hostel.

They knew that this halfwit of a student had been playing the fool, that there was no political or terrorist motive behind his act. Their friend from Kiev, a splendid fellow, the director of the Machine and Tractor Station, had asked Getmanov to intervene on behalf of his nephew.

After a committee meeting Getmanov had mentioned this affair to Mashuk. Mashuk had replied: 'We're not children, Dementiy Trifonovich. Whether or not he's guilty is hardly the point. If I do get this case dropped, someone will inform Moscow – they might even tell Lavrentiy Beria himself- that Mashuk took a liberal attitude towards someone shooting at a portrait of the great Stalin. Today I'm here in this office – tomorrow I'll be dust in a labour-camp. Will you take the responsibility? They'll say the same thing: today the student's shooting at portraits, tomorrow he'll be shooting at Stalin himself; and as for Getmanov – either he likes the boy for some reason, or else there's something about the act that appeals to him. So? Is that what you want?'

A month or two later Getmanov had asked Mashuk: 'Tell me, what happened to that student with the air-rifle?'

Mashuk, looking at him very calmly, had replied: 'Don't trouble yourself about him. He turned out to be a scoundrel, the son of some kulak whore. He confessed everything during the investigation.'

Now, Getmanov stared at Mashuk and repeated: 'No, it's not just a prank.'

'Come on!' said Mashuk. 'The boy's only four. You have to make allowance for his age.'

With a warmth and sincerity that everyone could feel, Sagaydak said: 'Let me say it straight out: I just don't have the strength to be strict with children. I ought to, but I haven't the heart. All I care about is that they should be in good health…'

They all looked at Sagaydak with compassion. He was not a happy father. His eldest son, Vitaliy, had been a troublemaker even while he was in the ninth class. He had once been picked up by the police during some brawl in a restaurant. His father had had to phone the Deputy People's Commissar for Internal Affairs in order to hush up a scandal that turned out to involve the children of several prominent people – the daughter of a writer, the daughter of the People's Commissar for Agriculture and the sons of various generals and Academicians. During the war young Sagaydak had decided he wanted to join the army as a volunteer; his father had managed to fix a place for him on a two-year course in an artillery school. He had been expelled for indiscipline and sent straight to the front.

Now, for the past month, young Sagaydak had been doing a mortar course; to the joy of his parents, no awkward incidents had yet occurred; they hoped for the best, but remained anxious.

Sagaydak's second son, Igor, had caught polio when he was two and the after-effects of the illness had turned him into a cripple – his withered legs had no strength in them and he walked about on crutches. Poor Igor was unable to go to school and the teachers had to come to his home. He was a keen and hard-working pupil.

There wasn't a famous neuropathologist in the Ukraine, or even in Moscow, Leningrad or Tomsk, whom the Sagaydaks hadn't consulted about Igor. There was no new foreign medicine Sagaydak hadn't managed to procure through either an embassy or a trade delegation. He knew that he could be reproved for his excessive love, but he also knew that this was not a mortal sin. He himself, coming up against very strong paternal feelings in several oblast officials, had made allowances for the fact that people of the new type had a particularly deep love for their children. He knew that he too would be forgiven the folk-healer he had brought from Odessa by plane and the herbs from some Far-Eastern holy man that had been delivered to Kiev by special courier.

'Our leaders are very special people,' said Sagaydak. 'I'm not talking about comrade Stalin – that goes without saying – but about his close aides. They even place the Party above their feelings as parents.'

'Yes, but they know one can't expect that from everyone,' said Getmanov. He went on to talk about the severity one of the Secretaries of the Central Committee had shown to a son of his who had been fined.

The conversation about children continued in a different tone, intimately and without pretension. One might have thought that all the strength of these people, all their joy in life, depended on whether their Tanechkas and Vitaliks had good colour in their cheeks, whether their Vladimirs and Lyudmilas were getting good marks at school and successfully moving up from class to class.

Galina Terentyevna began talking about her daughters. 'Svetlana was very poorly until she was four. She had colitis the whole time – the poor girl was quite worn out. And do you know what cured it in the end – grated apple!'

Then Getmanov joined in. 'This morning before school she said to me, "In class they call me and Zoya the general's daughters." And then Zoya, the cheeky little thing, started laughing and said: "General's daughter – that's no great honour. We've got one girl in our class who's a marshal's daughter – that really is something!" '

'I know,' said Sagaydak gaily. 'One can't satisfy them. Igor said to me the other day, "Third secretary – that's no big deal." '

There were many amusing little stories Nikolay Terentyevich could have recounted, but it wasn't for him to bring up the intelligence of his own children when the conversation was about the intelligence of Igor Sagaydak and the Getmanovs' daughters.

'Our fathers were much rougher with their children,' Mashuk said thoughtfully.

'But they still loved them,' said Galina's brother.

'Yes, of course they did. But they beat them too. At least they did me.'

'I've just remembered how my father went off to the war in 1915,' said Getmanov. 'No joking – he became a non-commissioned officer and was twice awarded the Cross of St George. It was early in the morning and my mother got everything ready for him: she put a sweater, some foot-cloths, some hard-boiled eggs and some bread in a bag while my sister and I lay there in bed, watching him sitting at table for the last time. He filled the water bucket that stood by the door and chopped lots of wood. My mother remembered every moment.'

Then, glancing at his watch, he said: 'Oho!'

'So, tomorrow's the day,' said Sagaydak as he got up.

'The plane leaves at seven.'

'From the civil airport?' asked Mashuk.

Getmanov nodded.

'So much the better,' said Nikolay Terentyevich as he too stood up. 'It's fifteen kilometres to the military airport.'

'What can that matter to a soldier?' said Getmanov.

They began saying goodbye, laughing again, embracing and generally making a stir. When they all had their hats and coats on and were standing out in the corridor, Getmanov remarked: 'A soldier can harden himself to anything. He can warm himself with smoke and shave with an awl. But what a soldier can never get used to is living apart from his children.'

And it was clear from his expression and tone of voice, from the way his guests looked at him as they went out, that he meant this.

22

It was night. Getmanov was in uniform, sitting at his desk and writing. His wife was sitting beside him in her dressing-gown and watching. He folded up a letter and said: 'That's to the director of the regional health authority in case you need special treatment or you have to travel somewhere for a consultation. He'll make out a certificate and then your brother can fix you up with a travel permit.'

'Have you made out the warrant for obtaining rations?'

'There's no need to. Just ring the person responsible at the obkom. Or even better, ring Puzichenko himself – he'll make one out for you.'

He went through the little pile of letters, notes and warrants. 'Well, that seems like everything.'

They fell silent.

'I'm afraid for you, my love,' said Galina. 'You're going to the war.'

'You just take care of yourself and look after the children,' he replied, getting to his feet. 'Did you remember to put some cognac in my suitcase?'

'Yes, yes. Do you remember – two years ago, when you were about to fly to Kislovodsk? Early in the morning you were writing out warrants – just like today.'

'Now the Germans are in Kislovodsk,' said Getmanov.

He walked up and down the room and then stopped for a moment to listen. 'Are they asleep?'

'Of course.'

They went through to the children's room. It was strange how silently these huge figures moved in the semi-darkness. The heads of the sleeping children showed up dark against the white of the pillowcases. Getmanov listened attentively to their breathing.

He held his hand to his chest, afraid that his booming heart-beats would disturb the children. He felt a piercing ache of tenderness, anxiety and pity for them. He desperately wanted to embrace his son and daughters and kiss their sleeping faces. He was overwhelmed by a helpless tenderness, an unreasoning love; he felt lost, weak and confused.

He wasn't in the least worried or frightened at the thought of the new job he was about to begin. He had taken on many new jobs, and had never had difficulty in finding the correct line to follow. He knew it would be the same in the tank corps.

But how could he reconcile his unshakeable, iron severity with this limitless tenderness and love?

He looked round at his wife. She was standing beside him, resting her cheek on her hand like a peasant. In the half-light her face seemed younger and thinner – just as it had been when they had gone to the sea on their honeymoon and stayed in a hostel right on the cliffs.

There was a discreet hoot beneath the window – the car from the obkom. Getmanov turned once more towards his children and spread out his hands – expressing through this gesture his impotence before a feeling he was unable to control.

In the corridor he said goodbye, kissed his wife for the last time and put on his fur coat and cap. Then he stood and waited while the driver carried out his cases.

'Well then,' he said – and suddenly stepped up to his wife, removed his cap and embraced her once more. And this second farewell – with the cold damp air off the streets slipping in through the half-open door and blending with the warmth of the house, with the rough, tanned hide of his coat touching the sweet-scented silk of her dressing-gown – this final farewell made them feel that their life, which had seemed one, had suddenly split apart. They felt desolate.

23

Yevgenia Nikolaevna Shaposhnikova, Lyudmila's younger sister, had moved to Kuibyshev. She was living with an old German woman, Jenny Genrikhovna, who years before had worked for the Shaposh-nikov family as a governess.

Yevgenia found it strange, after Stalingrad, to be sharing a small, quiet room with an old woman who never ceased marvelling at how a little girl with plaits could have turned into a grown woman.

Jenny Genrikhovna's gloomy little cubby-hole had once been part of the servants' quarters of a spacious merchant's flat. Now each room was inhabited by a whole family and was divided up by screens, curtains, rugs and the backs of sofas into little nooks and corners – one for eating, one for sleeping, one for receiving guests, another for the nurse to give injections to a paralysed old man…

In the evening the kitchen fairly hummed with the voices of all the inmates.

Yevgenia Nikolaevna liked this kitchen with its sooty ceiling and the dark red flames of the oil-stoves. People in dressing-gowns, padded jackets and soldiers' tunics bustled about below clothes that had been hung up to dry. Knives gleamed. Clouds of steam rose from tubs and bowls full of washing. The ample stove was no longer in use; the Dutch tiles lining its sides seemed cold and white – like the snow-covered slopes of some long-extinct volcano.

The tenants of the flat included the family of a docker who was now at the front, a gynaecologist, an engineer from an armaments factory, a single mother who worked as a cashier in a store, the widow of a hairdresser who had been killed at the front, the manager of a post-office, and – in what had once been the large dining-room – the director of a surgery.

The flat was as extensive as a town; it even had room in it for its own madman, a quiet little old man with the eyes of a sweet, good-natured puppy.

They were all crowded together and at the same time very isolated. They were always taking offence at one another and then making peace, one moment concealing every detail of their lives, and the next generously and excitedly sharing everything that happened to them.

Yevgenia would have liked to draw this flat – not so much the objects and people themselves as the feelings they aroused in her.

There were many facets to these feelings. It seemed unlikely that even a great artist could give expression to them. They arose from the strange incongruity between the tremendous military strength of the Soviet State and this dark kitchen with its poverty, gossip and general pettiness; the incongruity between cold, hard steel and kitchen pots and pans full of potato peelings.

The expression of these feelings would break up every line, distort figures and take the form of some apparently meaningless coupling of fragmented images and patches of light.

Old Jenny Genrikhovna was a meek, timid, obliging creature. She wore a black dress with a white collar and, in spite of her constant hunger, her cheeks were always rosy.

Her head was full of memories of Lyudmila's pranks when she was still in the first form, of amusing phrases little Marusya had once come out with, of how two-year-old Dmitry had once come into the dining-room in his pinafore and shouted out: 'Munch-time, munch-time!'

Now Jenny Genrikhovna worked as a daily help in the home of a dentist, looking after her sick mother. Sometimes the dentist would travel round the region for five or six days. Then Jenny would spend the night in her house to look after the old woman; she had recently had a stroke and was barely able to walk.

Jenny lacked any sense of property – she was constantly apologizing to Yevgenia and asking her permission to open the small upper window in order to let in her elderly tabby cat. Her main interests and worries were centred around this cat and how to protect it from her neighbours.

One of these neighbours, an engineer called Dragin, who was in charge of a workshop at his factory, looked with cruel mockery at her wrinkled face, her girlishly slim, emaciated waist and her pince-nez. His plebeian soul was indignant that the old woman should remain devoted to her memories of the past; indignant that she should continue, an idiotically blissful smile on her face, to tell stories about taking her pre-revolutionary charges out in the pram, or accompanying 'Madame' to Venice, Paris or Vienna. Many of the 'little ones' she had cared for had fought with Denikin or Wrangel during the Civil War and had been killed by the Red Army. The old woman, however, remained interested only in how they had once languished in bed with scarlet fever, diphtheria or colitis.

'I've never met anyone so gentle and so forgiving,' Yevgenia told Dragin. 'Believe me, she's a better person than any of the rest of us here in the flat.'

'Sweet little dicky bird!' said Dragin with a laugh. He looked her brazenly in the eye. 'You've sold yourself to the Germans, comrade Shaposhnikova – just for somewhere to live.'

Jenny Genrikhovna was evidently less fond of healthy children. She talked most often of all about the very sickliest of her charges, the son of a Jewish factory-owner. She still kept his exercise-books and drawings and would burst into tears each time she reached the point of describing the death of this quiet little boy.

It was many years since she had lived with the Shaposhnikovs, but she still remembered the names and nicknames of all the children. When she heard of Marusya's death she cried. She was always scrawling a letter to Alexandra Vladimirovna, but could never finish it.

She referred to caviare by its French rather than its Russian name and she told Yevgenia how her pre-revolutionary charges had breakfasted on a cup of strong broth and a slice of venison.

She fed her own rations to the cat, whom she called 'my dear, silver child.' The cat adored her; he was a rough and sullen beast, but would become suddenly animated and affectionate when he saw her.

Dragin kept asking her what she thought of Hitler. 'You must be happy now,' he would say. But the old woman shrewdly declared herself an anti-Fascist and called the Fuhrer a cannibal.

She was utterly impractical; she was unable to cook or wash and when she went to the shop for some matches, the assistant always hurriedly tore off the coupon for her monthly allowance of sugar or meat.

Children nowadays were quite unlike her charges of that earlier period which she referred to as 'peacetime'. Everything was different, even the games. The 'peacetime' children had played with hoops; they had played diabolo with varnished sticks, and catch with a painted ball kept in a white string-bag; whereas today's children played volleyball, swam the crawl, and played ice-hockey during the winter in skiing trousers, shouting and whistling all the time.

These children knew more than Jenny Genrikhovna about alimony, abortions and dishonestly acquired ration-cards; about senior lieutenants and lieutenant-colonels who had presented other people's wives with the butter, lard and tinned foods they had brought back from the front.

Yevgenia liked to hear the old woman reminisce about the years of her childhood, about her father, and about her brother Dmitry whom Jenny Genrikhovna remembered particularly well; he had had both diphtheria and whooping cough.

Once Jenny Genrikhovna said: 'I can remember the last family I worked for in 1917. Monsieur was Deputy Minister of Finance. He walked up and down the dining-room saying, "Everything's ruined, estates are being burnt, factories have ground to a halt, the currency's collapsed, safes are being robbed." And then the whole family split up – the same as you. Monsieur, Madame and Mademoiselle went to Sweden; my own pupil joined up with General Kornilov as a volunteer; Madame wept and kept saying, "We spend day after day saying goodbye, the end is near." '

Yevgenia smiled sadly and didn't respond.

One evening a police inspector called and handed Jenny Genrikhovna a note. The old woman put on a hat with a white flower and asked Yevgenia to feed the cat; she said she was going first to the police station and then to work and that she'd be back the next day. When Yevgenia came back from work, she found the room in chaos. Her neighbours told her that Jenny Genrikhovna had been arrested.

Yevgenia set off to make inquiries. At the police station she was told that the old woman was being taken to the Far North with a trainload of Germans.

The next day the inspector and the house-manager came round to collect a sealed basket of old clothes and yellowed letters and photographs.

Yevgenia went to the NKVD to find out how to send the old woman a fur coat. The man behind the window asked: 'Are you a German yourself?'

'No, I'm Russian.'

'Go home then. Don't waste people's time by asking unnecessary questions.'

'I was just asking about winter clothes.'

'Don't you understand?' said the man in a terrifyingly quiet voice.

That evening she overheard people talking about her in the kitchen.

'All the same, I don't like the way she's behaved,' said one voice.

'I think she did well,' answered a second voice. 'First she got one foot in the door; then she informed the appropriate authorities and had the old woman taken away; and now she's got the room for herself.'

'It's more a cubby-hole than a room,' said a man's voice.

'She's no fool,' said a fourth voice. 'A man would do all right with her around.'

The cat came to a sad end. First people argued about what to do with him while he sat sleepily and dispiritedly in the kitchen. 'To hell with the damned German,' said the women. Dragin, of all people, said he was willing to provide a share of the cat's food. But without Jenny Genrikhovna the creature wasn't to survive long; he died after being scalded with boiling water by one of the women, perhaps accidentally, perhaps not.

24

Yevgenia enjoyed her solitary life in Kuibyshev.

Never had she felt such a sense of lightness and freedom – even though she still had no residence permit or ration-card and could only eat one meal a day with her coupons for the canteen. She would think all morning about the moment she would enter the canteen and be given her plate of soup.

She seldom thought of Novikov during this period. She thought more often of Krymov, almost constantly in fact – but with no real warmth.

Her memories of Novikov did not torment her; they just flared up and faded away. Once, though, far away down the street, she saw a tall soldier in a long greatcoat and thought it was Novikov. Her knees went weak and she found it hard to breathe; she felt quite disorientated by her sudden feeling of happiness. A moment later she realized her mistake and at once forgot her excitement. And then during the night she suddenly woke up and thought: 'But why doesn't he write? He knows the address.'

She lived alone, without Krymov or Novikov or any of her relatives. She sometimes thought – mistakenly – that this freedom and loneliness of hers was happiness.

Kuibyshev at this time was the location of many of the Moscow People's Commissariats, newspaper offices and other establishments. It was the temporary capital, and here had come much of the life of Moscow -diplomats, the Bolshoy ballet, famous writers, impresarios and foreign journalists.

All these thousands of people lived in cramped little rooms and hotels, and yet carried on with their usual activities. People's commissars and the heads of important enterprises planned the economy and gave orders to their subordinates; extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassadors drove in luxurious cars to receptions with the architects of Soviet foreign policy; Ulanova, Lemeshev and Mikhailov delighted the audiences at the ballet and the opera; Mr Shapiro, the representative of the United Press Agency, asked the head of the Soviet Information Bureau, Solomon Abramovich Lozovsky, awkward questions at press conferences; writers wrote radio broadcasts or articles for national and foreign newspapers; journalists wrote up material gathered from hospitals into articles on the war.

But the everyday life of these people from Moscow was quite transformed. Lady Cripps, the wife of the extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador of Great Britain, ate supper in a hotel restaurant in exchange for a meal-coupon, wrapped up the left-over bread and sugar-lumps in newspaper and carried them up to her room; representatives of international news agencies pushed their way through the crowds of wounded at the market, discussed the quality of home-grown tobacco and rolled sample cigarettes – or else stood and waited, shifting their weight from foot to foot, in the long queue for the baths; writers famous for their hospitality discussed world politics and the fate of literature over a glass of home-distilled vodka and a ration of black bread.

Huge institutions were squeezed into cramped little buildings; the editors of the most important Soviet newspapers received visitors at tables where, after office hours, children prepared their lessons and women did their sewing. There was something strangely attractive in this coming together of the weighty apparatus of State with the bohemianism of the evacuation.

Yevgenia Nikolaevna had considerable difficulties over her residence permit. The head of the design office where she had got a job, Lieutenant-Colonel Rizin, a tall man with a soft voice, began complaining from the very first day about the responsibility he was assuming in taking on someone still without a permit. He gave Yevgenia a statement confirming her new post and sent her to the police station.

There a police officer took Yevgenia's passport and documents and told her to come back in three days' time.

When the day came, Yevgenia walked along the half-dark corridor. Everyone waiting their turn had that look on their faces peculiar to people who have come to a police station to enquire about passports and residence permits. She went up to the window. A woman's hand with dark red fingernails held out her passport and a calm voice announced: 'Your application has been refused.'

She took her place in the queue waiting to speak to the head of the passport section. The people in this queue talked in whispers; now and then they looked round as the secretaries with their thick lipstick, boots, and quilted jackets walked up and down the corridor. A man in a light overcoat and a cloth cap, the collar of his soldier's tunic just showing beneath his scarf, strolled down the corridor. His boots squeaked. He got out his key and opened the door – it was Grishin, the head of the passport section. Yevgenia soon noticed that, as they finally approached Grishin's door, people always looked round behind them, as though about to run away at the last moment.

While she waited in the queue, Yevgenia heard her fill of stories about people who had been refused residence permits: daughters who had wanted to live with their mothers, a paralysed woman who had wanted to live with her brother, another woman who had come to Kuibyshev to look after a war-invalid…

Yevgenia entered Grishin's office. Grishin motioned her to a chair, glanced at her papers and said: 'Your application has been refused. What can I do for you?'

'Comrade Grishin,' she said, her voice trembling, 'please understand: all this time I've been without a ration-card.'

He looked at her unblinkingly, an expression of absent-minded indifference on his broad young face.

'Just think, comrade Grishin,' she continued. 'There's a Shaposh-nikov Street in Kuibyshev. It was named after my own father – he was one of the founders of the revolutionary movement in Samara. How can you refuse his daughter a residence permit?'

His calm eyes were watching her; he was listening.

'You need an official request on your behalf,' he said. 'Without that I can do nothing.'

'But I work in a military establishment,' said Yevgenia.

'That's not clear from your documents.'

'Does that help, then?'

'Possibly,' admitted Grishin reluctantly.

When she went in to work next morning, Yevgenia told Rizin that she had been refused a residence permit. Rizin shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

'How idiotic,' he murmured. 'Don't they realize that you are doing war-work? And that you've been an indispensable member of staff since the very beginning?'

'Exactly,' said Yevgenia. 'He said that I need an official document certifying that this office comes under the People's Commissariat for Defence Industry. Please write one out for me. I'll take it to the police station this evening.'

Later that morning Rizin came up to Yevgenia and explained apologetically: 'The police must first send a request. Without that I can't write such a document.'

She went to the police station in the evening and waited her turn in the queue. Hating herself for her ingratiating smile, she asked Grishin to send an official request to Rizin.

'I have no intention of sending any such request,' Grishin replied.

When Yevgenia told Rizin about Grishin's refusal, he sighed and said thoughtfully: 'I know, get him to ask me by telephone.'

The following evening, Yevgenia had arranged to meet Limonov, a man of letters from Moscow who had once known her father. She went to the police station straight after work and asked the people in the queue to let her see the head of the passport department 'just for a minute, to ask one question'. They all just shrugged their shoulders and looked in the other direction. Finally Yevgenia gave up and said angrily: 'Very well then, who's last?'

That day the police station was particularly depressing. A woman with varicose veins shouted, 'I beg you, I beg you!' and then fainted in Grishin's office. A man with only one arm swore obscenely at Grishin, and the next man also made a commotion; the people in the queue could hear him shouting: 'I won't leave this spot!' In fact he left very quickly. While all this noise was going on, Grishin himself couldn't be heard at all. He didn't once raise his voice; it was as though his visitors were shouting and making threats in an empty office.

She sat in the queue for an hour and a half. Grishin nodded to her to sit down. Once again hating herself for her ingratiating smile and hurried 'Thank you very much', Yevgenia asked him to telephone her boss. She said that Rizin had been uncertain whether he was permitted to give her the necessary document without first receiving a written request, but had finally agreed to write one out with the heading: 'In answer to your telephone inquiry of such and such a day of such and such a month.'

Yevgenia handed Grishin the note she had prepared in advance: in large, clear handwriting she had written Rizin's name, patronymic, telephone number, rank and office; in small handwriting, in brackets, she had written, 'Lunch-break: from 1 until 2.' Grishin, however, didn't so much as glance at this note.

'I have no intention of making any requests.'

'But why not?'

'It's not my responsibility.'

'Lieutenant-Colonel Rizin says that unless he receives a request, even an oral one, he is not permitted to make out the necessary document.'

'In that case he ought not to write one.'

'But what can I do then?'

'How do I know?'

It was his absolute calm that was so bewildering. If he had got angry, if he had shown irritation at her muddle-headedness, Yevgenia felt it would have been easier. But he just sat there in half-profile, unhurried, not batting an eyelid.

When men talked to Yevgenia, they usually noticed how beautiful she was – and she knew it. But Grishin looked at her just as he might look at a cripple or an old woman with watering eyes; once inside his office, she was no longer a human being, no longer an attractive young woman, but simply another petitioner.

Yevgenia was conscious of her own weakness and the sheer massiveness of Grishin's strength. She hurried down the street, nearly an hour late for her meeting with Limonov but not in the least looking forward to it. She could still smell the corridor of the police station; she could still see the faces of the people in the queue, the portrait of Stalin lit by a dim electric lamp, and Grishin beside it.

Limonov, a tall stout man with a large head and a ring of youthful curls surrounding his bald patch, greeted her joyfully.

'I was afraid you weren't going to come,' he said as he helped her off with her coat.

He began asking her about Alexandra Vladimirovna.

'To me, ever since I was a student, your mother has been the image of the courageous soul of Russian womanhood. I write about her in all my books – that is, not literally, but you know what I mean…'

Lowering his voice and looking round at the door, he asked: 'Have you heard anything about your brother Dmitry?'

Then their talk turned to painting, and they attacked Repin. Limonov began making an omelette on the electric cooker, saying he was the finest omelette-maker in the country and that the chef at the National restaurant in Moscow had been his pupil.

'How is it?' he asked anxiously as he served Yevgenia, and then added with a sigh: 'I can't deny it. I do like eating.'

How oppressed she was by her memories of the police station! In this room full of books and periodicals – where they were soon joined by two witty middle-aged men who were also both lovers of art – she could not get Grishin out of her mind.

But the word, the free, intelligent word has great power. There were moments when Yevgenia quite forgot about Grishin and the depressed-looking faces in the queue. Then there seemed to be nothing else in life but conversations about Rublev and Picasso, about the poetry of Akhmatova and Pasternak, about the plays of Bulgakov…

But when she walked out onto the street she at once forgot these intelligent conversations. Grishin… Grishin… No one in the flat had asked whether or not she had a residence permit; no one had demanded to see her passport and its registration stamp. But she had felt for several days that she was being watched by Glafira Dmitrievna, the senior tenant, a brisk, over-friendly woman with a long nose and an unbelievably insincere voice. Every time she met her and looked at her dark sullen eyes, Yevgenia felt frightened. She thought that in her absence Glafira Dmitrievna was stealing into her room with a duplicate key, searching through her papers, reading her letters and taking copies of her applications for registration.

In the corridor Yevgenia walked on tiptoe, and she always tried to open the door without making a noise. Any moment Glafira Dmitrievna might say: 'What do you think you're doing? Infringing the law! And I'm the one who'll have to answer for it!'

The next morning Yevgenia went into Rizin's office and told him about her latest failure at the passport bureau.

'Help me get a ticket for the steamer to Kazan. Otherwise I'll probably be sent to a peat-bog for infringement of passport regulations.'

She spoke angrily, sarcastically, not mentioning the necessary official document.

The tall handsome man with the quiet voice looked at her, ashamed of his timidity. She was aware of his tender, longing gaze, his insistent admiration of her shoulders, the nape of her neck, her legs. But the law governing the movements of incoming and outgoing papers was evidently something not to be trifled with.

That afternoon Rizin came up to Yevgenia and silently placed the longed-for document on her drawing paper. Equally silently, Yevgenia looked up at him, tears in her eyes.

'I made a request through the secret section,' said Rizin. 'I didn't think anything would come of it and then I suddenly received the director's approval.'

Her fellow-workers congratulated her, saying, 'Now at last your torments are over.' She went to the police station. People in the queue nodded at her – she'd already got to know some of them – and asked: 'How's it going?' Several voices said: 'Go to the front of the queue. You'll only be a minute – why should you have to wait two hours again?'

The office desk and safe, painted brown in a crude imitation wood design, no longer seemed quite so gloomy and official. Grishin watched as Yevgenia's quick fingers placed the necessary paper before him; he gave a barely perceptible, satisfied nod.

'Very well, leave your passport and papers and in three days you can collect the documents from the registry.'

His voice sounded the same as ever, but there seemed to be a friendly smile in his bright eyes.

As she walked home she thought that Grishin was a human being like anyone else – able to do something helpful, he had smiled. He wasn't really heartless at all. She felt quite uncomfortable at all the harsh things she had thought about him.

Three days later she went up to the window. A woman's hand with dark red fingernails handed back her passport with her papers folded carefully inside. Yevgenia read the neatly written statement: 'Residence permit refused on grounds of having no connection with the living space in question.'

'Son of a bitch!' said Yevgenia loudly. Unable to restrain herself, she continued: 'You've just been making fun of me, you bastard!' She was shouting, waving her unstamped passport in the air, turning to the people sitting in the queue, wanting their support but seeing them turn away from her. For a moment the spirit of insurrection, the spirit of fury and despair, flared up in her. Women had screamed like this in 1937 – as they waited for information about husbands, sons and brothers who had been sentenced, 'without right of correspondence', [15] to the dark halls of the Butyrka, to Matrosskaya Tishina, to Sokolniki.

A policeman standing in the corridor took Yevgenia by the elbow and pushed her towards the door.

'Let go! Leave me alone!' She pulled her arm free and pushed the policeman away.

'Cut it out, citizen!' he said warningly. 'You'll get ten years.' For a moment there seemed to be compassion and pity in the policeman's eyes.

Yevgenia walked quickly towards the exit. Out on the street, people jostled her – all of them registered, all of them with their ration-cards…

That night she dreamed of a fire: she was bending over a wounded man lying face down on the ground; she tried to drag him away and understood without seeing his face that it was Krymov. She woke up feeling exhausted and depressed.

'If only he'd come soon,' she thought, and then muttered: 'Help me, help me.'

It wasn't Krymov she wanted to see so desperately, but Novikov – the Novikov she had met that summer in Stalingrad.

This life without rights, without a residence permit, without a ration-card, this continual fear of the janitor, the house-manager and Glafira Dmitrievna, had become quite unbearable. In the morning Yevgenia would steal into the kitchen when everyone was asleep and try to get washed before they woke up. When the other tenants did speak to her, her voice would become horribly ingratiating.

That afternoon Yevgenia wrote out a letter of resignation.

She had heard that after an application for residence had been refused, an inspector of police came round to collect a signed statement of one's undertaking to leave Kuibyshev within three days. In the text of this statement were the words: 'Those guilty of infringement of passport regulations are liable…' Yevgenia didn't want to be 'liable'. Now at last she was reconciled to leaving Kuibyshev. She felt calmer; she was no longer exhausted and frightened by the thought of Grishin, by the thought of Glafira Dmitrievna with her eyes like rotten olives. She had renounced lawlessness; she had submitted.

She had written out her resignation and was about to take it to Rizin, when she was called to the telephone. It was Limonov.

He asked her whether she was free the next evening: someone had arrived from Tashkent; he told very amusing stories about how things were there and had brought Limonov greetings from Aleksey Tolstoy. Once again Yevgenia felt the breath of another life.

Although she hadn't intended to, Yevgenia told Limonov about her attempts to obtain a residence permit.

He listened to her without interrupting and then said: 'What a story. It's really quite amusing. A father has a street named after him in Kuibyshev and his daughter is expelled, refused a residence permit. Very curious.'

He thought for a moment.

'Don't hand in your notice today, Yevgenia Nikolaevna. Tonight I'm going to a conference arranged by the secretary of the obkom. I'll talk to him about you.'

Yevgenia thanked him, thinking he would forget about her as soon as he put down the telephone. Still, she didn't hand in her notice and merely asked Rizin whether he would be able to get her a ticket, through the Military District HQ, for the steamer to Kazan.

'That's no problem,' said Rizin, spreading his hands helplessly. 'The police are impossible. But what can one do? Kuibyshev comes under special regulations – they have their instructions.'

Then he asked: 'Are you free this evening?'

'No,' answered Yevgenia angrily.

On the way home she thought that very soon she would see Viktor, Nadya and her mother and sister. Yes, life in Kazan would be easier than in Kuibyshev. She wondered why she had got so upset, shrinking with fear as she walked into the police station. They had rejected her application and to hell with it! And if Novikov wrote, she could ask her neighbours to forward the letter to Kazan.

The following morning she was called to the telephone as soon as she arrived at work. An obliging voice asked her to call at the passport bureau in order to collect her residence permit.

25

Yevgenia got to know one of the other tenants, Shargorodsky.

If Shargorodsky turned round abruptly, it looked as though his big, grey, alabaster head would come off his fine neck and fall to the ground with a crash. Yevgenia noticed that the pale skin on the old man's face was faintly tinged with blue. The combination of his blue skin and the light blue of his cool eyes intrigued her; the old man came from the highest ranks of the nobility and Yevgenia was amused at the thought that he would have to be drawn in blue.

Vladimir Andreyevich Shargorodsky's life had been still more difficult before the war. Now at least he had some kind of work. The Soviet Information Bureau had asked him to supply them with notes on Dmitry Donskoy, Suvorov and Ushakov, [16] on the traditions of the Russian officer class, on various nineteenth-century poets…

He informed Yevgenia that on his mother's side he was related to a very ancient princely house, one even older than the Romanovs. As a young man he had served in the provincial zemstvo [17] and had preached Voltaire and Chaadayev to the sons of landlords, to young priests and village schoolteachers.

He told Yevgenia about a remark made to him forty-four years before by the provincial marshal of the nobility: 'You, a descendant of one of the oldest families of Russia, have set out to prove to the peasants that you are descended from a monkey. The peasants will just ask: "What about the Grand Dukes? The Tsarevich? The Tsaritsa? What about the Tsar himself…?"'

Shargorodsky continued his subversive teaching and was finally exiled to Tashkent. A year later he was pardoned; he emigrated to Switzerland. There he met many of the revolutionary activists; Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, SRs and anarchists all knew the eccentric prince. He attended various gatherings and debates, was friendly with some of the revolutionaries but agreed with none of them. At that time he was a friend of the black-bearded Lipets, a student who was a member of the Jewish Bund.

Shortly before the First World War he returned to Russia and settled down on his estate, now and again publishing articles on historical and literary themes in the Nizhnii Novgorod Listok. He didn't concern himself with the actual management of the estate, leaving that entirely to his mother.

In the end he was the only landlord whose estate was left untouched by the peasants. The Committee of Poor Peasants even allocated him a cartload of firewood and forty cabbages. He sat in the one room of the house that was still heated and had its windows intact, reading and writing poetry. He read one of his poems to Yevgenia. It was entitled ' Russia ':

Insane carefreeness Wherever one looks. The plain. Infinity. The cawing of rooks.

Riots. Fires. Secrecy. Obtuse indifference. A unique eccentricity. A terrible indifference.

He pronounced each word carefully, pausing for each punctuation mark and raising his long eyebrows – somehow without making his large forehead appear any smaller.

In 1926 Shargorodsky took it into his head to give lectures on the history of Russian literature; he attacked Demyan Byedniy [18] and praised Fet; [19] he took part in the then fashionable discussions about the beauty and truth of life; he declared himself an opponent of every State, declared Marxism a narrow creed, and spoke of the tragic fate of the Russian soul. In the end he talked and argued himself into another journey at government expense to Tashkent. There he stayed, marvelling at the power of geographical arguments in a theoretical discussion, until in late 1933 he received permission to move to Samara to live with his elder sister, Elena Andreevna. She died shortly before the war.

Shargorodsky never invited anyone into his room. Once, however, Yevgenia glanced into the Prince's chambers: piles of books and old newspapers towered up in the corners; ancient armchairs were heaped on top of each other almost to the ceiling; portraits in gilt frames covered the floor. A rumpled quilt whose stuffing was falling out lay on a sofa covered in red velvet.

Shargorodsky was a very gentle man, and quite helpless in any practical matter. He was the sort of man about whom people say, 'He's got the soul of a child,' or 'He's as kind as an angel.' And yet he could walk straight past a hungry child or a ragged old woman begging for crusts, feeling quite indifferent, still muttering his favourite lines of poetry.

As she listened to Shargorodsky, Yevgenia often thought of her ex-husband. There really was very little in common between this old admirer of Fet and Vladimir Solovyov, and Krymov the Comintern official.

She found it surprising that Krymov, who was just as much a Russian as old Shargorodsky, could be so indifferent to the charm of the Russian landscape and Russian folk-tale, to the poetry of Fet and Tyutchev. And everything in Russian life that Krymov had held dear since his youth, the names without which he could not even conceive of Russia, were a matter of indifference to Shargorodsky – or even aroused his antagonism.

To Shargorodsky Fet was a god. Above all he was a Russian god. Glinka's Doubts and the folk-tales about Finist the Bright Falcon were equally divine. Whereas Dante, much though he admired him, quite lacked the divine quality of Russian music and Russian poetry.

Krymov, on the other hand, made no distinction between Dobrolyubov and Lassalle, between Chernyshevsky and Engels. [20] For him Marx stood above all Russian geniuses and Beethoven's Eroica triumphed indisputably over all Russian music. Nekrasov, to him the world's supreme poet, was perhaps the only exception… Sometimes Yevgenia thought that Shargorodsky helped her to understand not only Krymov himself but also what had happened to their relationship.

Yevgenia liked talking to Shargorodsky. Their conversations usually began after some alarming news bulletin. Shargorodsky would then launch into a speech about the fate of Russia.

'The Russian aristocracy,' he would say, 'may stand guilty before Russia, Yevgenia Nikolaevna, but they did at least love her. We were pardoned nothing at the time of that first War: our fools, our blockheads, our sleepy gluttons, Rasputin, our irresponsibility and our avenues of lime-trees, the peasants' huts without chimneys and their bast shoes – everything was held against us. But my sister lost six sons in Galicia. My brother, a sick old man, was killed in battle in East Prussia. History hasn't taken that into account… It should.'

Often Yevgenia listened to his judgements on literature, judgements that were quite at odds with those of the present day. He ranked Fet above Pushkin and Tyutchev. No one in Russia can have known Fet like he did. Fet himself, by the end of his life, probably no longer remembered all that Shargorodsky knew about him.

Shargorodsky considered Lev Tolstoy to be too realistic. Though recognizing that there was poetry in his work, he didn't value him. He valued Turgenev but considered his talent too superficial. The Russian prose he loved most was that of Gogol and Leskov.

He considered Belinsky and Chernyshevsky to be the murderers of Russian poetry.

He once said to Yevgenia that, apart from Russian poetry, there were three things in the world that he loved, all of them beginning with the letter  – sugar, sun and sleep.

'Will I really die without ever seeing even one of my poems in print?' he sometimes asked.

Once Yevgenia met Limonov on her way back from work. He was walking along the street in an unbuttoned winter overcoat. A bright checked scarf was dangling round his neck and he was leaning on a rather knotted stick. This massive man in an aristocratic beaver-fur hat stood out strangely in the Kuibyshev crowd.

Limonov walked Yevgenia home. She invited him in for some tea. He looked at her thoughtfully. 'Well yes, thank you. I suppose really you owe me some vodka for your residence permit.'

Breathing heavily, he began to climb the stairs. Then, as he walked into Yevgenia's little room he said: 'Hm, there isn't much space for my body. Perhaps there'll be lots of space for my thoughts.'

Suddenly, in a somewhat unnatural tone of voice, he began explaining to her his theory of love and sexual relationships.

'It's a vitamin deficiency,' he said, 'a spiritual vitamin deficiency! You know, the same terrible hunger that drives cows, bulls and deer when they need salt. What I myself lack, what those close to me lack, what my wife lacks, I search for in the object of my love. A man's wife is the cause of his vitamin deficiency! And a man craves in his beloved what for years, for decades, he has been unable to find in his wife. Do you understand?'

He took her by the hand and started to caress her palm. He moved on to her shoulders, her neck, and the back of her head.

'Do you understand?' he asked ingratiatingly. 'It's really very simple. A spiritual vitamin deficiency!'

Yevgenia watched with laughing, embarrassed eyes as a large white hand with polished fingernails moved from her shoulders down to her breast.

'Vitamin deficiencies can evidently be physical as well as spiritual,' said Yevgenia. 'No, you mustn't paw me, really you mustn't,' she scolded him, sounding like a primary school teacher.

He stared at her, dumbfounded. Instead of looking embarrassed, he began to laugh. Yevgenia laughed too.

They were drinking tea and talking about the artist Saryan when old Shargorodsky knocked at the door.

Limonov turned out to know Shargorodsky's name from someone's manuscript notes and from some letters in an archive. Shargor-odsky had not read Limonov's books but likewise he had heard his name – it was mentioned in newspapers in lists of those writing on military-historical themes.

They began to talk, growing happy and excited as they discovered they shared a common language. Their conversation was full of names: Solovyov, Mereshkovsky, Rozanov, Hippius, Byeliy, Byerdyaev, Ustryalov, Balmont, Milyukov, Yevreinov, Remizov, Vyacheslav Ivanov.

It seemed to Yevgenia as though these two men had raised from the ocean-bed a whole sunken world of books, pictures, philosophical systems, theatrical productions…

Limonov suddenly gave voice to her thought.

'It's as though the two of us have raised Atlantis from under the sea.'

Shargorodsky nodded sadly. 'Yes, yes, but you're only an explorer of the Russian Atlantis; I'm one of its inhabitants, someone who sank with it to the bed of the ocean.'

'Well,' said Limonov. 'And now the war's raised you up.'

'Yes,' agreed Shargorodsky. 'The founders of the Comintern proved unable to think of anything better in the hour of war than the old phrase about "the sacred earth of Russia ".' He smiled. 'Just wait. The war will end in victory and then the Internationalists will declare: "Mother Russia's equal to anyone in the world!" '

Yevgenia sensed that if these two were talking so animatedly and wittily, it was not only because they were glad to have met one another and to have found a topic so close to both their hearts. She realized that both these men – one of them very old and the other middle-aged -were conscious of her listening to them and that they were attracted to her. How strange it was. She was quite indifferent to all this, she even found it rather absurd – and yet it was very pleasing, not in the least a matter of indifference.

As she looked at them she thought: 'How can one ever understand oneself? Why does the past make me so sad? Why do I feel so sorry for Krymov? Why can't I stop thinking about him?'

Once she had felt alienated by Krymov's English and German comrades; but now, when Shargorodsky mocked the Comintern, she felt sad and angry… She couldn't make head or tail of it. Not even Limonov's theory of vitamin deficiencies was any help now. Nor was any other theory.

Then she had the idea that she must be worrying so much about Krymov only because she was longing for someone else – a man she hardly ever seemed to think about.

'Do I really love him?' she wondered, surprised.

26

During the night the sky over the Volga cleared. The hills floated slowly past beneath the stars, separated one from another by the pitch dark of the ravines.

Now and again a shooting-star flashed by and Lyudmila Nikolaevna silently prayed: 'Don't let Tolya die!'

That was her only wish: she asked Heaven for nothing else.

Once, when she was still a student in the Maths and Physics Faculty, she had been employed to do calculations at the Astronomical Institute. She had learned then that meteors came in showers, each meeting the earth in a different month. There were the Perseids, the Orionids, probably the Geminids, the Leonids. She no longer remembered which meteors reached the earth in October and November… But don't let Tolya die!

Viktor had reproached her for her unwillingness to help people and for her unkindness to his relatives. He believed that if Lyudmila had wanted it, his mother would have come to live with them instead of remaining in the Ukraine.

When Viktor's cousin had been released from camp and sent into exile, she hadn't wanted to let him stay the night, afraid that the house management committee would find out. She knew that her mother still remembered how Lyudmila had been staying at the seaside when her father died; instead of cutting short her holiday, she had arrived back in Moscow two days after the funeral.

Her mother sometimes talked to her about Dmitry, horrified at what had happened to him.

'He was honest as a boy and he remained honest all his life. And then suddenly – "espionage, plotting to murder Kaganovich and Voroshilov"… A wild, terrible lie. What's the point of it? Why should anyone want to destroy people who are sincere and honourable?' Once Lyudmila had told her: 'You can't vouch for Mitya entirely. Innocent people don't get arrested.'

She could still remember the look her mother had given her.

Another time she had said to her mother about Dmitry's wife: 'I never could stand the woman and I'm not going to change my mind now.'

'But just imagine!' her mother had protested. 'Being given a ten-year sentence for not denouncing your husband!'

And once she had brought home a stray puppy she'd found on the street. Viktor hadn't wanted to take it in and she'd shouted: 'You're a cruel man!'

'Lyuda,' he had answered, 'I don't want you to be young and beautiful. I only want one thing. I want you to be kind-hearted – and not just towards cats and dogs.'

She sat there on the deck, for once disliking herself instead of blaming everyone else, remembering all the harsh things that had ever been said to her… Once, when he was on the telephone, she'd heard her husband laugh and say: 'Now that we've got a kitten, I sometimes hear my wife sounding affectionate.'

Then there was the time when her mother had said to her: 'Lyuda, how can you refuse beggars? Just think: you've got enough to eat while someone else is hungry and begging…'

It wasn't that she was miserly: she loved having guests, and her dinners were famous amongst her friends.

No one saw her crying there in the darkness. Yes, yes, she was callous; she had forgotten everything she had ever learnt; she was useless; no one would ever find her attractive again; she had grown fat; she had grey hair and high blood pressure; her husband no longer loved her and thought she was heartless. But if only Tolya were still alive! She was ready to admit everything, to confess to all the faults her family accused her of – if only he were still alive!

Why did she keep remembering her first husband? Where was he? How could she find him? Why hadn't she written to his sister in Rostov? She couldn't write now because of the Germans. She would have told him about Tolya.

The sound of the engine, the vibrating deck, the splash of water, the twinkling of the stars, all merged into one; Lyudmila dozed off.

It was nearly dawn. A thick mist swayed over the Volga and everything living seemed to have drowned.

Suddenly the sun rose – like a burst of hope. The dark autumn water mirrored the sky; it began to breathe and the sun seemed to cry out in the waves. The steep banks had been salted by the night's frost and the red-brown trees looked very gay. The wind rose, the mist vanished and the world grew cool and glass-like, piercingly transparent. There was no warmth in the sun, nor in the blue sky and water.

The earth was vast: even the vast forest had both a beginning and an end, but the earth just stretched on for ever… And grief was something equally vast, equally eternal.

On the boat were a number of passengers going to Kuibyshev. In the first-class cabins were important officials from the People's Commissariats, wearing long khaki overcoats and colonels' grey Astrakhan hats. The second-class cabins housed important wives and important mothers-in-law, also wearing uniforms appropriate to their rank – as though there were one for wives and another for mothers and mothers-in-law. The wives wore fur coats and white fur stoles; the mothers and mothers-in-law wore blue cloth coats with black Astrakhan collars and brown scarves. The children who were with them had bored, dissatisfied eyes.

Through the cabin-windows one could see their food-supplies. Lyudmila's experienced eye could easily distinguish the contents of the different bags: clarified butter and honey were sailing down the Volga in string-bags, in soldered tins and in big dark bottles with sealed necks. Now and then she overheard snatches of conversation between the passengers on the deck; she gathered that their main concern was the train leaving Kuibyshev for Moscow.

It seemed to Lyudmila that these women looked quite indifferently at the soldiers and subalterns sitting in the corridors – as though they themselves had no sons or brothers at the front. Instead of standing by the loudspeaker to listen to the morning news bulletin with the soldiers and crew, these women just screwed up their sleepy eyes and carried on with their own affairs.

Lyudmila heard from the sailors that the whole steamer had originally been assigned to the families of the officials returning via Kuibyshev to Moscow. Then the military authorities in Kazan had ordered an additional embarkation of both soldiers and civilians. The legitimate passengers had made a scene, refusing to let the soldiers on board and making telephone calls to a representative of the State Defence Committee.

It was very strange indeed to see these soldiers – bound for Stalingrad – looking awkward and uncomfortable because they had crowded the legitimate passengers.

Lyudmila found the calm eyes of these women unbearable. Grandmothers beckoned their grandchildren to them and, without even breaking off their conversation, stuffed biscuits into their mouths with practised movements. A squat old woman in a Siberian polecat coat emerged from a cabin in the bows to take two boys for a walk on the deck; the women all greeted her hurriedly and smiled, while an anxious, ingratiating expression appeared on the faces of their husbands.

If the radio were to announce the opening of a second front or the breaking of the blockade of Leningrad, not one of them would bat an eyelid. But if someone were to say that the first-class coach had been taken off the Moscow train, the events of the war would pale before the terrible passions aroused by the allocation of seats for the 'soft' and 'hard' coaches.

How extraordinary it all was! And yet Lyudmila herself, in her own fur stole and grey Astrakhan coat, was wearing the same uniform as these first- and second-class passengers. And she too, not long before, had been furiously indignant that Viktor had not been given a ticket for a 'soft' coach.

She told an artillery lieutenant that her son, a gunner lieutenant himself, was in the hospital at Saratov with severe wounds. She talked to a sick old woman about Marusya and Vera, and about her mother-in-law who had died in occupied territory. Her grief was the same grief that breathed on this deck, a grief that had always known the way from the military hospitals and graves of the front back to the huts of peasants, huts without numbers standing on patches of waste ground without a name.

She hadn't brought a mug or even any bread; she had thought she wouldn't want to eat or drink during the journey. On the steamer, however, she had felt desperately hungry all day and had realized that things were going to be difficult. And then, on the second day, the soldiers came to an arrangement with the stokers and cooked some millet soup in the engine-room; they called Lyudmila and poured some into a mess-tin for her.

She sat on an empty box, eating burning-hot soup from somebody else's tin and with somebody else's spoon.

'It's fine soup!' said one of the cooks. When Lyudmila didn't answer, he asked sharply: 'It is, isn't it? Isn't it good and rich?' There was an openness and simplicity of heart in this demand for praise, addressed to someone the man had himself just fed.

She helped another soldier to repair a spring in a defective rifle -something not even a sergeant-major with the Order of the Red Star had succeeded in doing.

Listening to an argument between some artillery lieutenants, Lyudmila took a pencil and helped them to work out a trigonometric formula. After that, a lieutenant who had previously addressed her as 'Citizen' suddenly asked her name and patronymic.

During the night Lyudmila walked up and down the deck. The river looked icy cold and there was a pitiless wind blowing from downstream out of the darkness. Up above shone the stars; there was neither comfort nor peace in the cruel sky, the sky of ice and fire, that arched over her unhappy head.

27

Before the steamer reached Kuibyshev, the captain received orders to continue to Saratov and take on board wounded from the hospitals there.

The cabin passengers got ready to disembark, carrying out their suitcases and packages and piling them on the deck.

The silhouettes of factories began to appear, together with small huts and houses with corrugated iron roofs. The sound of the steamer's wash seemed different. Even the hammering of the engine sounded somehow more anxious.

The vast bulk of the suburb of Samara rose up, grey, brown and black, with its gleaming panes of glass and wisps of smoke from factories and locomotives.

The passengers disembarking at Kuibyshev were waiting on one side of the deck. They didn't say goodbye or even give a nod to the people still on board. No friendships had been struck up on the journey.

A black limousine, a Zis-101, was waiting to pick up the old woman in the Siberian polecat coat and her two grandsons. A man with a yellow face, wearing a long general's overcoat, saluted the old woman and shook hands with the boys.

In the course of only a few minutes the passengers had vanished, together with their children, suitcases and packages. Only soldiers' greatcoats and padded jackets were left on the steamer. The passengers might never have existed.

Lyudmila imagined that she would now be able to breathe more freely, more easily, among people bound together by the same grief and the same labour.

28

Saratov greeted Lyudmila rudely and cruelly.

Right on the landing-stage she encountered a drunk in a soldier's greatcoat. He stumbled into her and began cursing.

Lyudmila started to climb the steep, cobbled slope and then stopped, breathing heavily, to look round. Down below, between the grey warehouses on the quay, she could see the white steamer. As though reading her mind, it gave a soft hoot: 'Go on then, go on!' She went on.

At the tram-stop some young women quietly shoved past anyone who happened to be old or weak. A blind man in a Red Army hat, obviously only recently released from hospital and still unable to cope alone, moved anxiously from one foot to the other, tapping his stick rapidly in front of him. With childish eagerness he grabbed at the sleeve of a middle-aged woman. She pulled her arm away from him and stepped aside, her hob-nailed boots ringing on the cobbles. Still clutching her sleeve, the blind man hurriedly explained: 'I'm just out of hospital. Will you help me on to the tram?'

The woman swore at him and pushed him away. He lost his balance and sat down on the pavement.

Lyudmila looked at the woman's face.

Where did this inhuman behaviour come from? What could have engendered it? The famine of 1921 that she had lived through as a child? The man-made famine of 1930? A life full to the brim with need?

The blind man froze for a moment and then jumped up, crying out in a bird-like voice. Probably he had just caught a glimpse of himself waving his stick senselessly in the air, his hat on one side. He beat the air with his stick, expressing through these circular movements his hatred for the merciless world of the sighted. People were jostling each other as they climbed into the tram-car – while he stood there, weeping and shouting. It was as though everyone Lyudmila had gathered together, with hope and love, into one great family of labour, need, grief and kindness, had conspired to behave inhumanly. It was as though they had made an agreement to refute the view that one can always be sure of finding kindness in the hearts of people with dirty clothes and grimy hands.

Something dark and agonizing touched Lyudmila, filling her with the cold and darkness of thousands of miles of desolate Russian steppe, with a feeling of helplessness amidst life's frozen wastes.

For a second time she asked the conductor where she should get off.

'I've already announced it,' the woman replied matter-of-factly. 'Have you gone deaf?'

The passengers standing in the aisle didn't respond when Lyudmila asked whether or not they were getting out. They just stood there as though turned to stone, reluctant to make any movement at all.

When she was a child, Lyudmila had gone to the preparatory, 'alphabet' class of the Saratov girls' high school. On winter mornings she had sat at table, her legs dangling, drinking her tea while her father spread some butter on a piece of warm, white bread… The lamp had been mirrored in the samovar's fat cheek and she hadn't wanted to leave her father's warm hand, the warm bread, the warmth of the samovar.

It seemed as though there had been no November wind in this city then – no hunger, no suicides, no children dying in hospital, only warmth, warmth, warmth.

Her elder sister Sonya, who had died of croup, was buried in the cemetery here. Alexandra Vladimirovna had named her Sonya in memory of Sofya Lvovna Pyerovskaya. She thought her grandfather was buried here too.

She walked up to a three-storey school-building. This was the hospital where Tolya was.

There was no sentry at the door, which seemed a good omen. She found herself in the stifling hospital atmosphere. It was so sticky and viscous that however chilled you were by the frost, you wanted to go back outside rather than stay and enjoy its warmth.

She went past the washrooms which still had notices saying 'Boys' and 'Girls'. She went down the corridor, past the smell of the kitchens, and came to a steamed-up window through which she could see a stack of rectangular coffins in the inner yard. Once again, as in her own entrance-hall with the still unopened letter, she thought: 'Oh God, what if I drop dead this moment!' But she strode on, along a strip of grey carpet, past some bedside tables with familiar house-plants -asparagus and philodendrons – till she came to a door where a hand-written sign saying 'Registry' hung next to the board saying 'Fourth Form'.

Lyudmila pulled open the door just as the sun broke through the clouds and struck the window-panes. Everything in the room began to shine.

A few minutes later a talkative clerk was looking through a long drawer of filing cards caught in the sunlight.

'So, so, Shaposhnikov A. Ah… Anatoly V… So… You're lucky you didn't meet the commandant still in your outdoor coat. He really would have given you what for…! Now then… Shaposhnikov… Yes, that's him, that's right, Lieutenant.'

Lyudmila watched his fingers taking the card out of the long plywood drawer. It was as though she were standing before God; it was in his power to pronounce life or death, and he had paused for a moment to decide.

29

Lyudmila had arrived in Saratov a week after Tolya had been operated on for the third time. The operation had been performed by Dr Mayzel, an army surgeon. It had been protracted and complicated: Tolya had been under general anaesthetic for more than five hours and had had two intravenous injections of hexonal. This operation had never been carried out before in Saratov, neither by the doctors at the hospital nor the surgeons at the University clinic. It was known only from the literature: the Americans had included a detailed account of it in a 1941 army medical journal.

In view of the especial complexity of the operation Dr Mayzel had a long and frank discussion with the lieutenant after his routine X-ray examination. He explained the nature of the pathological processes that had been provoked by his grave wounds. At the same time he spoke very openly about the risks attendant upon the operation. The doctors he had consulted had not been unanimous in their decision: the old clinical physician Dr Rodionov had argued against it. Lieutenant Shaposhnikov asked Dr Mayzel two or three questions, thought about it for a moment and then gave his consent. Five days were then taken up with preparations for the operation.

The operation began at eleven o'clock in the morning and was not completed until nearly four in the afternoon. Dr Dimitruk, the director of the hospital, was present. According to the doctors who observed the operation, it was carried out brilliantly.

Without leaving the operating table, Mayzel solved several unexpected problems that were not envisaged in the published description.

The condition of the patient during the operation was satisfactory. His pulse was normal, with no prolapsus.

At about two o'clock, Dr Mayzel, who was overweight and far from young, felt ill and was forced to break off for several minutes. The therapist, Dr Klestova, gave him validol, after which he took no more breaks. Soon after the completion of the operation, however, when Lieutenant Shaposhnikov had been taken to intensive care, Dr Mayzel had a serious heart attack. Several injections of camphor and a dose of liquid nitro-glycerine were needed to bring to an end the spasms in the coronary arteries. The attack was obviously the result of the nervous excitement that had placed an excessive burden on an already weak heart.

Sister Terentyevna, who was on duty at Shaposhnikov's bedside, watched over his condition as instructed. Dr Klestova came into the intensive care unit and took his pulse. He was only semi-conscious, but his condition was satisfactory.

'Mayzel's given the lieutenant a new start in life and almost died himself,' said Dr Klestova to Sister Terentyevna, who answered: 'Oh,. if only Lieutenant Tolya recovers!'

Shaposhnikov's breathing was almost inaudible. His face was still and his thin arms and neck were like those of a child. There was a barely perceptible shadow on his pale skin – a tan that still remained from exercises in the field and forced marches across the steppe. His condition was half-way between unconsciousness and sleep, a deep stupefaction caused by the remaining effects of the anaesthetic and his general exhaustion, both mental and physical.

The patient spoke occasionally, mumbling separate words and sometimes whole phrases. Once, Sister Terentyevna thought he said: 'It's a good thing you didn't see me like that.' After that he lay quite still, the corners of his mouth drooping. Unconscious as he was, it looked as though he was crying.

About eight o'clock in the evening the patient opened his eyes, and asked quite distinctly – Sister Terentyevna was astonished and delighted – for something to drink. She told him he was not allowed to drink and added that the operation had been a great success and that he would soon recover. She asked how he felt. He replied that his side and back hurt, but only a little.

She checked his pulse again and wiped his lips and forehead with a damp towel.

Just then an orderly, Medvedev, came into the ward and told Sister Terentyevna that the chief surgeon, Dr Platonov, wanted her on the telephone. She went to the room of the ward sister, picked up the receiver and informed Dr Platonov that the patient had woken up and that his condition was normal for someone who had undergone a serious operation.

Sister Terentyevna asked to be relieved: she had to go to the City War Commissariat to sort out a muddle that had arisen over the forwarding of an allowance made out to her by her husband. Dr Platonov promised to let her go, but told her to watch over Shaposhnikov until he himself came to examine him.

Sister Terentyevna went back to the ward. The patient was lying in the same position as when she had left, but his face no longer wore such a harsh expression of suffering. The corners of his mouth no longer hung down and his face seemed calm and smiling. Suffering had evidently made him appear older. Now that he was smiling, his face startled Sister Terentyevna; his thin cheeks, his pale, swollen lips, his high unwrinkled forehead seemed not those of an adult, or even an adolescent, but those of a child. Sister Terentyevna asked the patient how he was feeling. He didn't answer; he must have fallen asleep.

The expression on his face made Sister Terentyevna a little wary. She took Lieutenant Shaposhnikov by the hand. There was no pulse and his hand was barely warm. Its warmth was the lifeless, almost imperceptible warmth of a stove that had been lit on the previous day and had long since gone out.

Although Sister Terentyevna had lived all her life in the city, she fell to her knees and quietly, so as not to disturb the living, began to keen like a peasant.

'Our loved one, our flower, where have you gone to, where have you gone now you have left us?'

30

News of the arrival of Lieutenant Shaposhnikov's mother spread through the hospital. The hospital commissar, Battalion Commissar Shimansky, arranged to receive Lyudmila.

Shimansky, a handsome man with an accent that bore witness to his Polish origins, frowned and licked his moustache as he waited. He felt sad about the dead lieutenant and sorry for his mother; for that very reason, he felt angry with both of them. What would happen to his nerves if he had to give interviews to every dead lieutenant's mama?

Shimansky sat Lyudmila down and placed a carafe of water in front of her.

'No thank you,' she said. 'Not now.'

Lyudmila then listened to Shimansky's account of the consultation prior to the operation – the commissar didn't think it necessary to mention the one doctor who had spoken against it – of the difficulties of the operation itself, and its successful outcome. Shimansky added that the surgeons now considered this operation generally appropriate in cases of severe wounds such as those received by Lieutenant Shaposhnikov. He told her that Shaposhnikov's death had occurred as a result of cardiac arrest and that – as stated in the report of the anatomical pathologist, Junior Medical Officer Boldyrev – it had been beyond the power of the doctors to foresee or guard against such an event.

Shimansky went on to say that many hundreds of casualties passed through the hospital, but seldom had the staff taken anyone so much to their hearts as Lieutenant Shaposhnikov – an intelligent, well-educated and unassuming patient who had always scrupulously avoided making any unnecessary demands on them. Lastly he said that a mother should be proud to have brought up a son who had selflessly and honourably laid down his life for the Motherland. He then asked if Lyudmila had any requests.

Lyudmila apologized for taking up his time, took a sheet of paper from her handbag and began to read out her requests.

She asked to be shown her son's grave. Shimansky gave a silent nod of the head and made a note on his pad.

She asked if she could have a word with Dr Mayzel. Shimansky informed her that, on hearing of her arrival, Dr Mayzel had himself expressed a wish to speak with her.

She asked if she could meet Sister Terentyevna. Shimansky nodded and made a note.

She asked to be given her son's belongings. Shimansky made another note on his pad.

Finally she put two tins of sprats and a packet of sweets on the table and asked him to give the other patients the presents she had brought for her son.

Her large, light blue eyes suddenly met his own. He blinked involuntarily at their brilliance. Then he said that all her requests would be granted and asked her to return to the hospital at half-past nine the next morning.

Shimansky watched the door close behind her, looked at the presents she had left for the wounded, tried to find his pulse, gave up, and began to drink the water he had offered Lyudmila at the beginning of the interview.

31

Lyudmila seemed not to have a spare moment. That night she walked up and down the streets, sat on a park-bench, went to the station to get warm, and then walked up and down the deserted streets again with a quick, businesslike stride.

Shimansky carried out Lyudmila's requests to the letter.

At half-past-nine in the morning she saw Sister Terentyevna; she asked her to tell her everything she knew about Tolya. She then put on a white smock. Together with Terentyevna she went up to the first floor, walked down the corridor that led to the operating-theatre, stood by the door of the intensive care unit and looked at the solitary, now empty, bed. Sister Terentyevna stood beside her, dabbing her nose with her handkerchief. They went back down and Terentyevna said goodbye. Soon after that a stout man with grey hair came into the waiting-room. There were huge dark circles beneath his dark eyes. His starched, blindingly white smock seemed whiter still by comparison with his swarthy face and dark, staring eyes.

Dr Mayzel explained why Dr Rodionov had been against the operation. He seemed already to know everything Lyudmila wanted to ask him. He told her about his conversations with Lieutenant Tolya before the operation. Understanding Lyudmila's state of mind, he described the operation itself with brutal frankness.

Then he said that he had felt a fatherly tenderness towards Lieutenant Tolya. As he spoke, a high, plaintive note slipped into his bass voice. Lyudmila looked for the first time at his hands. They were peculiar; they seemed to live a quite separate life from the man with mournful eyes. His hands were severe and ponderous, the dark-skinned fingers large and strong.

Mayzel took his hands off the table. As though he had read Lyudmila's thoughts, he said: 'I did all I could. But, instead of saving him from death, my hands only brought his death closer.' He rested his huge hands on the table again.

Lyudmila could tell that every word he had said was true.

Everything he said, passionately though she had desired to hear it, had tortured and burnt her. But there was something else that had made the conversation difficult and painful: she sensed that the doctor had wanted this meeting not for her sake, but for his own. This made her feel a certain antagonism towards him.

As she said goodbye, she said she was certain he had done everything possible to save her son. He gave a deep sigh. She could see that her words had comforted him – and realized that it was because he felt he had a right to hear these words that he had wanted the meeting.

'And on top of everything else, they even expect me to comfort them!' she thought.

After the surgeon had left, Lyudmila spoke to the commandant, a man in a Caucasian fur-cap. He saluted and announced in a hoarse voice that the commissar had given orders that she was to be taken by car to the cemetery, but that the car would be ten minutes late since they were delivering a list of civilian employees to the central office. The lieutenant's personal belongings had already been packed; it would be easiest if she picked them up on her return from the cemetery.

All Lyudmila's requests were met with military precision and correctness. But she could feel that the commissar, the nurse and the commandant also wanted something from her, that they too wanted some word of consolation or forgiveness.

The commissar felt guilty because men were dying in his hospital. Until Lyudmila's visit this had never disturbed him: it was what was to be expected in a military hospital. The quality of the medical treatment had never been criticized by the authorities. What he had been reprimanded for was failing to organize enough political work or to provide adequate information about the morale of the wounded.

He hadn't fought hard enough against defeatism and against the hostility of those socially backward patients opposed to collectivization. There had even been cases of military secrets being divulged. All this had led to a summons from the political division of the military district medical administration; he had been told that he would be sent to the front if the Special Section ever again informed them of ideological errors in the hospital.

Now, however, in front of the mother of the dead lieutenant, the commissar felt himself to blame for the fact that three patients had died the day before – while he himself had taken a shower, ordered his favourite dish of stewed sauerkraut from the cook and drunk a bottle of beer from the store in Saratov. And Sister Terentyevna felt guilty because her husband, a military engineer, served on the army staff and had never been to the front; while her son, who was a year older than Shaposhnikov, worked in the design office of an aviation factory. As for the commandant, a regular soldier, he was serving in a hospital back in the rear, sending home felt boots and good quality gabardine – while the uniform that had been passed on to the dead lieutenant's mother was made of the very cheapest material.

Even the thick-lipped sergeant-major with the fleshy ears, the man responsible for the burial of dead patients, felt guilty before the woman he was driving to the cemetery: the coffins were knocked together out of thin, poor-quality boards; the dead were laid out in their underclothes and buried in communal graves – extremely close together unless they were officers; the inscriptions over the graves were in an ugly script, on unpolished board and in paint that would not last. Of course, men who died in a field first-aid post were just heaped together in pits without individual coffins, and the inscriptions there were written in indelible pencil that would only last until it next rained. And men who died in combat, in forests, bogs, gullies and fields, often found no one at all to bury them – only wind, sand and snowstorms…

Nevertheless, the sergeant-major felt guilty about his poor-quality timber as the lieutenant's mother questioned him about the conduct of burials, asking how they dressed the corpses, whether they buried them together and whether a last word was spoken over the grave.

Another reason he felt awkward was that before the journey he had been to see a friend in the store; he had drunk a glass of diluted medical spirit and eaten some bread and onion. He was ashamed that his breath made the car stink of onions and alcohol – but he could hardly stop breathing.

He looked gloomily into the rectangular mirror in front of the driver: in it he could see the reflection of the man's bright, mocking eyes. 'Well, the sergeant-major's certainly had a good time,' they said mercilessly.

Everyone feels guilty before a mother who has lost her son in a war; throughout human history men have tried in vain to justify themselves.

32

The soldiers of a labour battalion, conscripts who were too old for active service, were unloading coffins from a truck. You could tell from their silence and lack of haste that they were used to this work. One man stood in the back of the truck and pushed a coffin to the rear; another man put his shoulder beneath it and took a few paces forward; a third walked silently up and took the other end of the coffin on his shoulder. Their boots squeaked on the frozen earth as they carried the coffins to the wide communal grave, laid them down beside it and returned to the truck. When the empty truck set off for the city, the soldiers sat down on the coffins and rolled cigarettes, using lots of paper and a very small amount of tobacco.

'There's not such a rush today,' said one of them, striking a light from a very good-quality steel: a thin cord of tinder running through a copper-casing where a flint had been set. The soldier pulled at the tinder and a puff of smoke rose into the air.

'The sergeant-major said there'd only be one lorry today,' said another soldier as he lit his cigarette, letting out clouds of smoke.

'In that case we can finish the grave.'

'That's right. It's best to do it straight away. Then he can come and check it against the list,' said a third soldier. He wasn't smoking; instead he took a piece of bread from his pocket, shook it, blew over it and began eating.

'Tell the sergeant-major to bring us a pickaxe. The earth's frozen solid almost quarter of the way down. Tomorrow we've got to do a new grave. We'll never be able to dig it just with spades.'

The soldier who had been striking a light clapped his hands, knocked the end of his cigarette out of a wooden holder and gently tapped the holder against the lid of the coffin.

All three fell silent, as though listening for something.

'Is it true we're being put on dry rations?' said the soldier eating the piece of bread. He spoke in a hushed voice so as not to disturb the men in the coffins with a conversation that didn't concern them.

The second of the two smokers blew his cigarette-end out of a long, smoke-blackened reed holder, held it up to the light and shook his head. Everything was quiet again…

'It's quite a good day, just a bit windy.'

'Listen. There's the truck. We'll be finished by lunchtime.'

'No. That's not our truck. It's a car.'

The sergeant-major got out of the car, followed by a woman in a shawl. They walked together towards the iron railings, to what had been the burial ground until they had run out of space the previous week.

'Thousands of people are being buried and no one attends the funerals,' said one of the soldiers. 'In peacetime it's the other way round: one coffin and a hundred people carrying flowers.'

'People mourn for them all the same,' said the soldier, tapping gently on the board with a thick oval fingernail, 'even if we don't see the tears… Look, the sergeant-major's coming back on his own.'

This time all three of them lit up. The sergeant-major walked up and said good-naturedly: 'So you're having another smoke, are you? How do you think we're going to get the work finished?'

They quietly let out three clouds of smoke. Then one of them, the owner of the steel, said: 'You only have to stop for a smoke and the truck arrives. Listen, I can tell by the sound of the engine.'

33

Lyudmila walked up to the small mound of earth. On a plywood board she read her son's name and rank.

She felt her hair stirring beneath her shawl. Someone was running their cold fingers through it.

On either side, stretching right up to the railings, were rows and rows of the same small grey mounds. There were no flowers on them, not even grass, just a single wooden stem shooting straight up from the grave. At the top of each stem was a plywood board with a man's name on it. There were hundreds of these boards. Their density and uniformity made them seem like a field of grain…

Now she had found Tolya at last. She had tried so many times to imagine where he was, what he was thinking about and what he was doing: leaning against the side of a trench and dozing; walking down a path; sipping tea, holding his mug in one hand and a piece of sugar in the other; or perhaps running across a field under fire… She had wanted to be there beside him. After all, he needed her: she would top up his mug of tea; she would say, 'Have another slice of bread'; she would take off his shoes and wash his chafed feet; she would wrap a scarf round his neck… But he had always eluded her. And now she had found him, he no longer needed her.

Further away she could see graves from before the Revolution with crosses made out of granite. The gravestones stood there like a crowd of unloved, unwanted old men. Some of them were lying on their sides, others leant helplessly against tree-trunks.

The sky seemed somehow airless – as though all the air had been pumped out and there was nothing but dry dust over her head. And the pump was continuing its work: together with the air, faith and hope had now disappeared; nothing was left but a small mound of grey, frozen earth.

Everything living – her mother, Nadya, Viktor's eyes, the bulletins about the course of the war – had ceased to exist.

Everything living had become inanimate. In the whole wide world only Tolya was still alive. But what silence there was all around him. Did he realize that she had come…?

Lyudmila knelt down and, very gently, so as not to disturb her son, straightened the board with his name on it. He had always got angry with her when she straightened the collar of his jacket on their way to school.

'There. I'm here now. You must have thought Mama was never going to come.' She spoke in a half-whisper, afraid of being overheard.

Some trucks went past. The dust whirled about in the wind. Milkwomen with churns and people carrying sacks tramped by wearing soldiers' boots. Schoolchildren ran past in soldiers' winter caps.

But the day and all its movement seemed to Lyudmila just a misty vision.

What silence there was everywhere.

She was talking to her son, remembering every detail of his life; and these memories, which survived only in her consciousness, filled the world with the voice of a child, with his tears, with the rustle of the pages of a picture-book, the clinking of a teaspoon against the edge of a white plate, the humming of home-made radio sets, the squeak of skis, the creaking of rowlocks on the ponds near the dacha, the rustling of sweet-papers, with fleeting glimpses of a boy's face, shoulders and chest.

Animated by her despair, his tears, his moments of distress, his every act – good or bad – took on a distinct and palpable existence.

She seemed to be caught up, not by memories of the past, but by the anxieties of everyday life.

What did he think he was doing – reading all night long in such awful light? Did he want to have to wear spectacles at his age?

And now he was lying there in a coarse calico shirt, bare-footed. Why hadn't they given him any blankets? The earth was frozen solid and there was a sharp frost at night.

Blood began to pour from Lyudmila's nose. Her handkerchief was soon sodden and heavy. Her eyes blurred and she felt giddy; for a moment she thought she might faint. She screwed up her eyes. When she opened them again, the world brought to life by her suffering had vanished. There was nothing but grey dust whirling over the graves; one after another, they began to smoke.

The water of life, the water that had gushed over the ice and brought Tolya back from the darkness, had disappeared; the world created by the mother's despair, the world that for a moment had broken its fetters and become reality, was no more.

Her despair had raised the lieutenant from the grave, filling the void with new stars. For a few minutes he had been the only living person in the world; it was to him that everything else had owed its existence. But even the mother's tremendous strength was not enough to prevent the multitudes of people, the roads and cities, the seas, the earth itself, from swamping her dead Tolya.

Lyudmila dabbed at her eyes. They were quite dry, but the handkerchief was sodden. She realized that her face was smeared with sticky blood and sat there, hunched up, resigned, taking her first involuntary steps towards the realization that Tolya no longer existed.

The people in the hospital had been struck by her calm and the number of questions she had asked. They hadn't appreciated her inability to understand something quite obvious – that Tolya was no longer among the living. Her love was so strong that Tolya's death was unable to affect it: to her, he was still alive.

She was mad, but no one had noticed. Now, at last, she had found Tolya. Her joy was like that of a mother-cat when she finds her dead kitten and licks it all over.

A soul can live in torment for years and years, even decades, as it slowly, stone by stone, builds a mound over a grave; as it moves towards the apprehension of eternal loss and bows down before reality.

The soldiers finished their work and left; the sun had nearly gone down; the shadows of the plywood boards over the graves lengthened. Lyudmila was alone.

She ought to tell Tolya's relatives about his death. Above all, she must tell his father in the camp. His father. And what had Tolya been thinking about before the operation? Had they fed him with a spoon? Had he been able to sleep a little on his side? Or on his back? He liked water with lemon and sugar. How was he lying right now? Was he shaven or unshaven?

It must be the unbearable pain in her soul that was making everything darker and darker.

She suddenly felt that her grief would last for ever; Viktor would die, her daughter's grandchildren would die – and she would still be grieving.

When her anguish grew unbearable, the boundary between her inner world and the real world again dissolved; eternity retreated before her love.

Why should she give the news of Tolya's death to his father, to Viktor, to her other relatives? After all, she didn't yet know for sure. Perhaps it would be better to wait; things might turn out differently.

'Don't tell anyone,' she whispered. 'No one knows yet. It will be all right.'

Lyudmila covered Tolya's feet with the hem of her coat. She took off her shawl and laid it over her son's shoulders.

'Heavens! What are you doing? Why haven't they given you any blankets? You really must have something over your feet.'

She fell into delirium, talking to her son, scolding him for writing such short letters. Sometimes she woke up and adjusted the shawl; it had been blown aside by the wind.

How good that they were alone together, that there was no one to disturb them. No one had ever loved him. People had always said he was ugly: that he had swollen lips; that he was very strange; that he was ridiculously touchy and quick-tempered. No one had ever loved her either; the people close to her saw only her failings… My poor boy, my poor, timid, clumsy little son… He was the only person who loved her – and now he was alone with her in the cemetery at night; he would never leave her; he would still love her when she was a useless old woman who got in everyone's way… How ill adapted he was to life. He never asked for anything; he was always absurdly shy. The schoolmistress said he was the laughing-stock of the school; the boys all teased him till he was quite beside himself and began to cry like a little child. Tolya, Tolya, don't leave me alone.

Day dawned. An icy red glow flared up over the steppes east of the Volga. A truck rumbled down the road.

Her madness had passed. She was sitting beside her son's grave. His body was covered with earth. He was dead.

She could see her dirty fingers and a shawl of hers lying on the ground; her legs had grown numb: she could feel that her face was smeared with dirt. Her throat tickled.

But none of this mattered. And if someone had told her that the war was over or that her daughter had just died, if a glass of hot milk or a piece of warm bread had suddenly appeared beside her, she wouldn't have stirred; she wouldn't have stretched out her hands or made any movement. She was sitting there without thought, without anxiety. Nothing mattered to her; there was nothing she needed. All that existed was some agonizing force that was crushing her heart and pressing against her temples. A doctor in a white smock and some other people from the hospital were talking about Tolya; she could see their mouths open, but she couldn't hear what they said. A letter was lying on the ground. It had fallen out of her coat-pocket. It was the letter she had received from the hospital, but she didn't want to pick it up or shake the dust off it. She was no longer thinking about how, when he was two, Tolya had waddled clumsily after a grasshopper as it jumped from spot to spot; it didn't matter that she'd forgotten to ask whether he had lain on his side or on his back on the last day of his life. She could see the light of day; she was unable not to see it.

Suddenly she remembered Tolya's third birthday: in the evening they had had tea and pastries and Tolya had asked: 'Mummy, why's it dark when today's my birthday?'

She could see some trees, the polished gravestones shining in the sun and the board with her son's name. 'shaposhn' was written in big letters, while 'ikov' was written very small, each letter clinging to the one before. She had no thoughts and no will. She had nothing.

She got up, picked up the letter, flicked a lump of earth off her coat with numb fingers, wiped her shoes and shook her coat until it was white again. She put on her shawl, using the hem to wipe the dust off her eyebrows and clean the blood from her lips and chin. With even steps and without looking round, she began to walk towards the gates.

34

After her return to Kazan, Lyudmila began to lose weight; soon she began to look like photographs of herself as a student. She went to the store to collect the family's rations; she prepared meals; she stoked the stove; she cleaned the floors and did the washing. The autumn days seemed very long; she could find nothing to fill their emptiness.

On the day she got back she told her family all about her journey and her feelings of guilt towards everyone close to her. She described her visit to the hospital and unwrapped the parcel containing the bloodstained shreds of her son's uniform. Nadya cried; Alexandra Vladimirovna breathed heavily; Viktor's hands trembled so much he couldn't even pick up a glass of tea. Marya Ivanovna had rushed in to visit Lyudmila; she turned pale, her mouth fell open and a martyred expression appeared in her eyes. Lyudmila was the only person able to speak calmly, looking around her with her bright, wide-open, light blue eyes.

She had always been very argumentative, but now she no longer argued with anyone; in the past one had only had to direct someone to the station for Lyudmila to fly into a temper and excitedly start to prove that they should take a different street and quite another trolley-bus.

One day Viktor asked her: 'Lyudmila, who is it you talk to at night?'

'I don't know,' she answered. 'Perhaps I'm just dreaming.'

He didn't question her further, but he told Alexandra Vladimirovna that almost every night Lyudmila opened some suitcases, spread a blanket over the sofa in the corner and began talking in a quiet, anxious voice.

'I get the feeling that during the daytime she's with you and me and Nadya in a dream, while at night her voice comes alive again like it was before the war,' he said. 'I think she's ill. She's become someone else.'

'I don't know,' said Alexandra Vladimirovna. 'We're all of us suffering, each in our own way.'

Their conversation was cut short by a knock at the front door. Viktor got up to answer it, but Lyudmila called, 'I'll go,' from the kitchen.

No one could understand why, but they had all noticed that since her return from Saratov, Lyudmila had been checking the letter-box several times a day. And whenever there was a knock at the door, she rushed to answer it.

Viktor and Alexandra Vladimirovna looked at each other as they listened to Lyudmila's hurried steps – she was almost running.

Then they heard her say in an exasperated tone of voice: 'No, we haven't got anything today. And don't come so often. I gave you half a kilo of bread only the day before yesterday.'

35

Lieutenant Viktorov had been summoned to HQ to see Major Zakabluka, the commander of a fighter squadron that was being held in reserve. The duty-officer, Lieutenant Velikanov, said the major had flown off in a U-2 to the Air Army HQ near Kalinin and would return that evening. When Viktorov asked why he had been sent for, Velikanov winked and said that it might well have to do with the booze-up in the mess.

Viktorov glanced behind a curtain made out of a blanket and a tarpaulin sheet. He could hear the clatter of a typewriter. As soon as he caught sight of him, the chief clerk said: 'No, comrade Lieutenant, there aren't any letters for you.'

Lenochka, the civilian typist, glanced round at Viktorov. She then turned towards a mirror from a shot-down German plane – a present from the late Lieutenant Demidov – straightened her forage cap, moved the ruler lying on the documents she was copying, and started typing again.

This long-faced lieutenant bored Lenochka; he always asked the chief clerk the same gloomy question.

On his way back to the airfield, Viktorov turned off towards the edge of the forest.

The squadron had been in reserve for a month, replacing men and material.

The Northern countryside seemed very strange to Viktorov. The life of the forest and the young river that wound between the steep hills, the smell of mushrooms and mould, the rustling of the trees were all somehow disturbing.

When he was flying, the various smells seemed to reach right up to his cabin. From the forest and lakes came the breath of an old Russia Viktorov had previously only read about. Ancient tracks ran among these lakes and forests; houses and churches had been built from the tall, upright trees; the masts of sailing-boats had been hewn from them. The Grey Wolf had run through these forests. Alyonushka had stood and wept on the very bank along which Viktorov was now walking towards the mess. This vanished past seemed somehow simple-minded, youthful, naive; not only the maidens in towers, but even the grey-bearded merchants, deacons and patriarchs seemed a thousand years younger than the worldly-wise young pilots who had come to this forest from a world of fast cars, machine-guns, diesel engines, radios and cinemas. The Volga itself- quick and slim, flowing between steep, many-coloured banks, through the green of the forest, through patterns of light blue and red – was a symbol of this vanished past.

How many of them there were – privates, sergeants and lieutenants – all travelling the same war-path. They all smoked countless cigarettes, tapped on tin bowls with tin spoons, played card-games in railway-carriages, treated themselves to ice-lollies in town, coughed as they downed their hundred-gram tots of vodka, wrote the same number of letters, shouted down field-telephones, fired light or heavy guns, yelled as they stepped on the accelerator of a T-34 tank…

The earth beneath Viktorov's boots was as squeaky and springy as an old mattress. The leaves on the surface were light, brittle and still separate from one another; under them lay leaves that had withered many years before and fused into a brown, crackling mass – the ashes of the life that had once burst into bud, rustled in the winds of a storm and gleamed in the sun after a shower. Rotten, almost weightless brushwood crumbled beneath his feet. A soft, gentle light fell on the forest-floor, diffused by a screen of foliage. The air itself was thick and congealed; a fighter-pilot, accustomed to a rushing wind, felt this very acutely. The living trees felt fresh and damp like cut timber. The smell of the dead trees and brushwood, however, was still stronger… From the pines rose a sharp note of turpentine, an octave higher. The aspen smelt sweet and sickly and the breath of the elder was bitter. The forest had its own life; it was as though he were entering an unfamiliar house where everything was different from outside. The smells were different, the light was filtered through drawn curtains, the sounds had a different resonance. All this made him feel strange and uncomfortable. It was as though he were at the bottom of a reservoir, looking up through a thick layer of water, as though the leaves were splashing about, as though the strands of gossamer clinging to the green star on his forage cap were algae suspended from the surface. It was as though the inert swarms of midges, the darting flies with their large heads, the blackcock squeezing through the branches, might flick their fins yet never be able to rise above the forest – just as a fish can never rise above the surface of the water; and if a magpie did happen to soar over the top of an aspen, then it immediately plunged down again into the branches – like a fish whose white belly gleamed for a moment in the sun before it flopped back into the water. And how very strange the moss seemed, covered in blue and green drops of dew that slowly faded away in the gloom of the forest-floor.

It was good to emerge from this silent semi-darkness into a bright glade. Suddenly everything was different: the earth was warm; the air was in movement; you could smell the junipers in the sun; there were large, wilting bluebells which looked as though they had been cast from mauve-coloured metal, and wild carnations on sticky, resinous stems. You felt suddenly carefree; the glade was like one happy day in a life of poverty. The lemon-coloured butterflies, the polished, blue-black beetles, the ants, the grass-snake rustling through the grass, seemed to be joining together in a common task. Birch-twigs, sprinkled with fine leaves, brushed against his face; a grasshopper jumped up and landed on him as though he were a tree-trunk; it clung to his belt, calmly tensing its green haunches as it sat there with its round, leathery eyes and sheep-like face. The last flowers of the wild strawberries. The heat of the sun on his metal buttons and belt-clasp… No U-88 or night-flying Heinkel could ever have flown over this glade.

36

At night Viktorov often remembered the months he had spent in the hospital at Stalingrad. But he no longer remembered how his nightshirt had been damp with sweat, how the brackish water had made him feel sick, how the thick, heavy smell had tormented him. Those days in hospital now seemed a time of happiness. Here in the forest, listening to the rustling of the trees, he thought: 'Did I really once hear her footsteps?'

Had it all really happened…? She had taken him in her arms; she had stroked his hair; she had cried; and he had kissed her wet, salty eyes. In a Yak he could fly to Stalingrad in only a few hours; he could refuel in Ryazan – he had a friend there who was a controller. What did it matter if he then got shot for it?

He kept thinking of a story he had read in an old book: the Sheremetyev brothers, the rich sons of the field-marshal, gave their sixteen-year-old sister in marriage to Prince Dolgoruky. As far as Viktorov could remember, she only met him once before the wedding. The brothers gave the bride an enormous dowry – the silver alone took up three whole rooms. And then two days after the wedding Peter II was killed. Dolgoruky, who had been in attendance on him, was seized, taken to the far North and imprisoned in a wooden tower. The young wife could have had her marriage annulled – she had only lived with her husband for two days – but she refused to listen to anyone's advice. She set off after her husband and settled in a peasant hut in a remote forest. Every day for ten years she walked to the tower where Dolgoruky was imprisoned. One morning she found the window of the tower wide open and the door unlocked. The young princess ran down the street, falling on her knees before everyone she met – whether peasant or musketeer – begging them to tell her what had happened to her husband. She was told that Dolgoruky had been taken to Nizhny Novgorod. She made the long journey after him on foot, suffering great hardships. In Nizhny Novgorod she discovered that Dolgoruky had been executed and then quartered. The princess decided to enter a convent and travelled to the Pecherskaya Lavra in Kiev. On the day she was to take the veil she walked for a long time along the bank of the Dnieper. What she regretted was not her freedom but the obligation to take off her wedding-ring. She couldn't bring herself to part with it… Hour after hour she paced up and down the bank; as the sun was about to set, she took off the ring, threw it into the Dnieper and set off towards the convent gates.

The pilot, who had been brought up in an orphanage and who had once been a mechanic at the Stalingrad Power Station, couldn't stop thinking of Princess Dolgorukaya. He walked through the forest, imagining that he had died and been buried; that his plane had caught fire, nose-dived into the ground, grown rusty, disintegrated and been covered over by grass; and that now Vera Shaposhnikova was here, stopping, climbing down towards the Volga, looking into the water… And two hundred years ago it had been the young Dolgorukaya: she had come out into a clearing, made her way through the tall flax, and parted with her own hands these bushes laden with red berries. Viktorov felt a sensation of hopeless pain, of bitterness and sweetness.

A young, narrow-shouldered lieutenant was walking through the forest in a worn tunic. How many people there were like him -forgotten during unforgettable years.

37

Before he even got to the airfield, Viktorov knew that something had happened. Fuel-tankers were driving about the runway; technicians and mechanics were bustling around the fighter-planes covered in camouflage netting. The radio transmitter, normally silent, was chattering away.

'No doubt about it,' thought Viktorov, quickening his pace.

Everything was immediately confirmed when he met Solomatin, one of his fellow lieutenants, a man with pink scars on his cheeks.

'The order's come through. We're being taken out of reserve.'

'To the front?'

'Where do you think? Tashkent?' said Solomatin, striding off towards the village.

He looked very upset. He was seriously involved with his landlady and was obviously on his way to her now.

'Solomatin's decided to go halves. He's keeping the cow for himself and leaving the hut to the woman,' said a familiar voice at Viktorov's side. Lieutenant Yeromin, Viktorov's partner, fell in beside him.

'Where do you think they're sending us, Yeroma?'

'The North-Western Front may be about to advance. The divisional commander's just arrived in an R-5. I can ask a friend who's a Douglas pilot on the Air Force staff. He always knows everything.'

'Why bother? We'll be told soon enough.'

The flurry of excitement affected not only the pilots and ground staff, but the whole village. Junior Lieutenant Korol, the youngest pilot in the squadron, was walking down the street with some freshly washed and ironed linen; on top of it lay a honey-cake and a packet of dried berries. The other pilots often teased Korol, saying that his landladies, two elderly widows, were spoiling him with their honey-cakes. Whenever he'd been out on a mission, the two women – one tall and straight, the other hunch-backed – would come to meet him on his way back from the airfield. He would walk between them, looking like a spoiled and sullen little child; his comrades said he was flying in formation with a question mark and an exclamation mark.

Wing-Commander Vanya Martynov came out of his house, dressed in a greatcoat. He was carrying a suitcase in one hand and a dress forage cap in the other – he had left it out so it wouldn't get crumpled. The landlady's daughter, the red hair she had waved herself blowing in the wind, looked after him in a way that made their relationship only too plain.

A lame little boy told Viktorov that Political Instructor Golub and Lieutenant Vovka Skotnoy, with whom he shared his billet, had left with all their belongings. Viktorov had only moved in a few days before: until then he and Golub had been billeted with a dreadful landlady, a woman with a high forehead and protuberant yellow eyes. Looking into her eyes was enough to make you feel ill.

In order to get rid of her tenants, she used to fill the hut with smoke. Once she even sprinkled ash in their tea. Golub had tried to persuade Viktorov to report her to the commissar, but he couldn't bring himself to do so.

'Well, I hope the cholera gets her!' said Golub.

Their new billet had seemed like paradise. But they had not been allowed to stay there for long.

Soon Viktorov was carrying a kitbag and a battered suitcase past the tall grey huts that seemed almost two storeys high. The crippled boy hopped along at his side, taking aim at chickens and at planes circling over the forest with a German holster Viktorov had given him. He walked past the hut Yevdokiya Mikheevna had smoked him out of; he could see her expressionless face behind the dirty window-panes. No one ever talked to her when she stopped for a rest as she carried her two wooden buckets back from the well. She had no cows and no sheep; she didn't even have any house-martins in the eaves. Golub had asked questions about her, hoping to bring to light her kulak background, but she turned out to be from a very poor family. The women in the village said she had gone crazy after her husband's death: she had walked into a lake in cold autumn weather and sat there for days. But she had been taciturn even before that, even before her marriage.

There he was, walking through a village in the forest – and in a few hours he would have flown away for ever. The village, the forest, the elks who came into the vegetable gardens, the ferns, the yellow pools of resin, the cuckoos – all these would cease to exist for him. The old men and the little girls would disappear, as would the stories about collectivization, the stories of bears who had stolen punnets full of raspberries from the women, the stories of little boys who had stepped with bare heels on the heads of vipers… This unfamiliar village would vanish – this village whose life revolved around the forest just as the workers' settlement where he had been born and raised revolved around the factory.

Then his fighter would land and a new airfield would come into being. Nearby they would find a new peasant village or workers' settlement – with its own old women and small girls, its own tears and jokes, its own cats with bald, scarred noses, its own good and bad landladies, its own stories about the past and about general collectivization. Here too the handsome Solomatin would put on his peaked service cap, walk down the street, sing to his guitar and drive some young girl out of her mind.

Major Zakabluka, with his bronzed face and a white, clean-shaven skull, read out their orders. His five Orders of the Red Star jingled as he swayed on his crooked legs. He told them that their route would be announced before take-off and that they were to sleep in their bunkers; anyone who absented himself from the airfield would be punished with the utmost severity.

'I don't want anyone nodding off when we're in the air,' he explained. 'Get some sleep before we set off.'

Then Berman, the commissar, stepped forward. He was generally considered too arrogant, though he could talk sensibly and eloquently about the finer points of flying. His unpopularity had increased after the Mukhin affair. Mukhin had been involved with Lida Voynovaya, a radio-operator. This love-affair had charmed everyone – whenever they had a spare moment, the two of them would be walking hand in hand along the banks of the river. Everything about the affair was so transparent that the men didn't even make jokes about it.

Then a rumour sprang up – apparently Lida had told a girl-friend and the girl-friend had passed it on to the squadron – that during one of their walks Mukhin had threatened Lida with a gun and raped her.

Berman was furious; he pursued the case with such furious energy that within ten days Mukhin had appeared before a tribunal and been sentenced to be shot.

Before the sentence was carried out, however, Major-General Alexeev, the Member of the Air Army Soviet, had flown in to ascertain the exact circumstances of Mukhin's crime. To his profound embarrassment, Lida knelt down before him and implored him to believe that the whole case against Mukhin was an absurd fabrication.

She then told him the full story. She and Mukhin had been kissing in a glade in the forest. She had dozed off and – as a jest – Mukhin had quietly placed his pistol between her knees and fired into the ground. She had woken up and screamed, and Mukhin had started kissing her again. She had told all this to her girl-friend – who had then circulated another, more sinister version. But only one thing in all this was true – and that was something exceptionally simple: her and Mukhin's love for one another.

Everything was finally resolved: Mukhin's sentence was rescinded and he was transferred to another squadron. But the whole affair made Berman very unpopular.

One day, in the mess, Solomatin remarked that a Russian would never have acted like that. Someone else, probably Molchanov, had answered that every nation had its villains.

'Take Korol,' said Vanya Skotnoy. 'He's a Jew – and he's a splendid person to have as a mate. It's good to know there's someone you can rely on at your tail.'

'Korol's not a Jew,' said Solomatin. 'He's one of us. In the air I trust him more than I trust myself. Once, over Rzhev, he shot down a Messerschmidt that was right on my tail. And I've twice let a damaged Fritz off the hook to get him out of trouble. And I forget everyone when I'm in combat – even my own mother'.

'I see,' said Viktorov. 'If you like a man, he can't be a Jew!'

Everyone laughed.

'It's all very well to laugh,' Solomatin replied, 'but Mukhin didn't think it was funny when Berman sentenced him to be shot.'

At this moment Korol came in. One of the pilots asked in a sympathetic tone of voice: 'Listen, Borya, are you a Jew?'

'Yes, I am,' answered Korol in some embarrassment.

'Are you sure?'

'Absolutely.'

'Are you circumcised, though?'

'To hell with you!' retorted Korol. Once again everyone laughed.

When they were on their way back to the village, Solomatin had come up to Viktorov and said: 'You're a fool to talk like that, you know. I used to work in a soap-works and the whole place was full of Jews. All the administrative staff were Jewish. I can tell you I had enough of those Samuel Abramoviches. They knew how to look after one another all right.'

'Why go on about it?' said Viktorov with a surprised shrug of the shoulders. 'Do you think I'm in league with them?'

Now it was Berman's turn to address the assembled pilots. He announced that this was the beginning of a new era for the fighter squadron: their time in the rear was over. Everyone knew this already, but they listened attentively in case he dropped any hint as to whether they would be kept on the North-Western Front and stationed near Rzhev, or whether they would be transferred to the South or the West.

'Now – first, a fighter pilot must know his machine, must know it well enough to be able to play with it; second, he must love it, love it as though it were his sister or mother; third, he must have courage – and courage means a cool head and a fiery heart; fourth, he must have the sense of comradeship that is instilled into us by the whole of Soviet life; fifth, he must be whole-hearted and selfless in combat. And success depends on each pair of aircraft working together. Follow the leading aircraft! A true pilot is always thinking – even when he's on the ground. He's always analysing the last combat, wondering if he made any mistakes.'

As they pretended to pay attention to Berman's homily, the pilots talked quietly among themselves.

'Perhaps we'll be assigned to escort the Douglases carrying provisions to Leningrad,' said Solomatin, who knew a young girl in Leningrad.

'Maybe we'll be stationed near Moscow,' said Molchanov, whose family lived on the outskirts.

'Or Stalingrad,' said Viktorov.

'I doubt it,' said Skotnoy. He didn't mind where they were sent; all his relatives were in occupied territory.

'What about you, Borya? I suppose you want to be off to Berdichev, your very own Jewish capital,' said Solomatin.

Korol's dark eyes went black with rage and he turned on Solomatin, cursing and swearing.

'Second Lieutenant Korol!' shouted Berman.

'Yes, comrade Commissar!'

'Silence!'

Major Zakabluka was renowned as a connoisseur of swear-words and would never have made an issue of anything like this himself. Every morning he would shout out to his orderly, 'Mazyukin… you damned motherfucker…,' before concluding quietly, 'Will you hand me my towel?'

But knowing how captious Berman could be, Zakabluka was afraid of pardoning Korol then and there. Berman would report that Zakabluka had discredited the political leadership in front of the pilots. He had already reported that Zakabluka had set up his own private farm while he was in the rear, that he got drunk on vodka with his staff officers and that he was having an affair with Zhenya Bondarevaya, a livestock expert from the village.

So Zakabluka had no choice but to pursue the matter. In a stern, hoarse voice he barked: 'Stand up straight, Second Lieutenant Korol! Two paces forward! What's this slovenliness?'

He then took the matter a step further.

'Political Instructor Golub, explain to the commissar why Korol has just infringed discipline.'

'Beg to report, comrade Major. He quarrelled with Solomatin -I've no idea why.'

'Lieutenant Solomatin!'

'Yes, comrade Major.'

'Report to the commissar, not to me.'

'Beg to report, comrade Commissar.'

'Go ahead,' nodded Berman without so much as looking at Solomatin. He suspected that Major Zakabluka had his own reasons for what he was doing. Zakabluka was cunning, exceptionally so, both on the ground and in the air. Up in the air he was better than anyone at guessing an opponent's tactics, at outwitting his stratagems. And on the ground he was able to play a part when necessary, to act the simpleton and laugh ingratiatingly at some feeble joke made by a stupid superior. And he knew how to keep these wild young pilots under his thumb.

During their month in reserve, Zakabluka had displayed a considerable interest in farming, particularly poultry and livestock raising. He had also exploited the resources of the forest, making his own raspberry liqueur and preparing both pickled and dried mushrooms. His dinners were famous and other squadron commanders liked to drop by in their U-2S for a drink and a bite to eat. Zakabluka was very hospitable – but not without ulterior motives.

There was another side of his character which often complicated their relations: sly and calculating as he was, there were times when he would stop at nothing, when he would act so recklessly as to endanger his life.

'Arguing with one's superior officers is like pissing against the wind,' he would say – and then act quite senselessly, leaving Berman gasping in amazement.

When they were both in a good mood, they would wink at one another as they talked, patting each other on the back or the stomach.

'Yes, our commissar's certainly a sly old fellow,' Zakabluka would say.

'And our major's a true hero,' Berman would answer.

What Zakabluka most disliked in Berman was his unctuousness – and the diligence with which he reported every careless word anyone came out with. He made fun of Berman's weakness for pretty girls, the way he loved roast chicken – 'Give us a drumstick!' – but couldn't care less about vodka. He disapproved of the way he would turn a blind eye to other people's living conditions while knowing very well how to look after his own. At the same time he valued him for his intelligence and bravery – sometimes he seemed quite unaware of physical danger – and his readiness to take on his superiors for the good of the cause.

And now here they were – these two men who were about to lead a fighter squadron into action – glancing suspiciously at one another as they listened to Lieutenant Solomatin.

'Let me say straight out, comrade Commissar, that I am to blame for Korol's infringement of discipline. I was making fun of him. He put up with it for a while, but then he forgot himself.'

'Explain what it was that you said,' interrupted Zakabluka.

'We were trying to guess which front the Squadron would be transferred to. I said to Korol: "I suppose you want us to go to your own capital, Berdichev." '

The pilots all glanced at Berman.

'Which capital?' said Berman – and then understood.

Everyone could sense Berman's embarrassment. Zakabluka was very surprised – usually Berman was as sharp as a razor. But his next move was equally surprising.

'What's so terrible about that?' asked Berman. 'What if you, Korol, had said to Solomatin, who comes, as we know, from the village of Dorokhovo in the Novo-Ruzskiy district, that you presumed he wanted to fight above Dorokhovo? Would he have answered you with a punch in the face? I'm surprised to find the mentality of the shtetl in a member of the Komsomol.' [21]

Berman's words always had a strange, hypnotic effect on people. Everyone knew that Solomatin had deliberately offended Korol – and yet there was Berman confidently explaining that Korol had failed to overcome his nationalist prejudices and that his behaviour evinced a contempt for the friendship of peoples. And Korol should remember that it was the Fascists who exploited nationalist prejudices.

Everything Berman said was in itself quite fair and reasonable. The ideals he spoke about so excitedly were those of democracy and the Revolution. But Berman's strength at moments like this lay in the way he made use of an ideal rather than serving it, the way he subordinated it to his own – often questionable – needs of the moment.

'Do you understand, comrades?' he went on. 'Where there is no ideological clarity, there can be no discipline. That is the true explanation of Korol's behaviour.' He paused for a moment. 'Korol's disgraceful, anti-Soviet behaviour.'

By now, of course, it was quite impossible for Zakabluka to intervene: the incident had been transformed into a question of politics – and no officer dared interfere in political matters.

'And so, comrades,' said Berman, pausing again to give more weight to his final words, 'the responsibility for this incident lies with the immediate culprit, but it also lies with me, the squadron commissar, for failing to help Lieutenant Korol to grow out of his abominable nationalism. The whole affair is more serious than I at first realized. For that very reason I have decided not to punish Korol for his infringement of discipline. Instead I take upon myself the responsibility for re-educating him.'

Everyone settled down again in their chairs, sensing that the affair had now been resolved. Korol looked at Berman. Something in his look made Berman frown, twitch and turn away.

That evening Solomatin said to Viktorov: 'You see, Lenya, it's always like that. They stand up for each other all right – but on the sly. If it had been you or Vanya Skotnoy, you'd have ended up in a penal unit.'

38

That night, instead of going to sleep, the pilots were lying about on their bunks, smoking and chatting. Skotnoy, who had had a farewell ration of vodka at supper, began to sing:

'The plane's in a nose-dive – The earth's rushing to meet her. Don't cry for me, love; Forget me, my sweetest.'

In the end Velikanov couldn't keep his mouth shut. He blurted out that they were to be stationed near Stalingrad.

The moon rose over the forest; you could see its bright, restless light through the trees. Two kilometres away the village seemed silent and dark, as though covered in ashes. The pilots sitting by the entrance to the bunker gazed at the wonderful world of the earth. Viktorov looked at the faint shadows cast by the wings and tails of the planes out on the runway and joined in with Skotnoy: 'They'll drag out our bodies From the twisted metal. The hawks will escort us On our last flight of all.'

The pilots lying on the bunks carried on talking. It was too dark to see, but they all knew each other's voices.

'Demidov was always volunteering for missions. He'd have wasted away if he hadn't been able to fly.'

'Remember that dogfight near Rzhev when we were escorting the Petlyakovs? Eight Messers went straight for him – and he fought them off for seventeen minutes.'

'He used to sing when we were in the air. I remember those songs of his every day. He even used to sing Vertinsky.'

'Yes, he was a cultured man – a Muscovite.'

'He certainly wasn't the kind of fellow to leave you in the lurch. He always kept an eye on anyone who was behind.'

'You hardly even knew him.'

'Nonsense! You get to know your mate from the way he flies. I knew him all right.'

Skotnoy came to the end of another verse. Everyone fell silent, expecting him to start up again. Instead he repeated a well-worn saying comparing the length of a fighter pilot's life to that of a child's shirt.

The conversation turned to the Germans.

'It's the same with them. You can tell at once whether someone's a real pilot, or whether he's just on the look-out for stragglers and greenhorns.'

'Their patrols don't stick together like we do.'

'I don't know about that.'

'They really sink their teeth into you if you're damaged. Otherwise they'd rather leave you alone.'

'One to one, I can always give them a good thrashing.'

'Don't take offence – but I wouldn't award medals just for shooting down a Junkers.'

'Why should I take offence? You can't take my medal away from me now.'

'I wonder what our squadron leader's going to do with his cow and his chickens. Is he going to put them in a Douglas and take them with him?'

'They've already had their throats cut. Now they're being cured.'

'Right now I'd be too shy to take a girl out to a club. I've forgotten what it's like.'

'Solomatin wouldn't be.'

'Are you jealous, Lenya?'

'Yes, but not concerning the girl in question.'

'I see. Faithful unto the grave.'

Their talk turned again to the combat over Rzhev, their last before being sent to the rear; seven of their fighters had encountered a large group of Junkers on a bombing raid, with an escort of Messers-chmidts. Each pilot seemed to be blowing his own trumpet, but really they were talking about what they had achieved together.

'I could hardly make them out against the forest – but it was another matter once they began to climb. JU-87S – I could tell at once by their yellow noses and their trailing undercarriage. "Well," I thought to myself, "things are going to get hot!" '

'For a moment I thought we were being fired on by our own anti-aircraft guns.'

'The sun certainly helped, I'll admit that. I dropped down on him with the sun right behind me. I was leading the left wing. And then my plane must have jumped a good thirty metres… I pulled back the stick – she was still listening…! I opened fire on the Junkers. She was on fire. And then I saw a Messer banking towards me – like a long pike with a yellow head. But he was too late. And I could see his blue tracer bullets.'

'And I could see I was hitting the bull's-eye every time!'

'Now, now, let's not get carried away!'

'As a kid, I was always flying kites. My father used to thrash me for it. And when I was at the factory, I used to walk seven kilometres to the flying club after work. I was dead beat. But I didn't miss a single lesson.'

'Listen to me! He set me on fire – the oil-tank, the feed-pipes, even the fuselage itself. He even managed to smash the windshield and my goggles. There was glass everywhere, and tears in my eyes. Well, I dived beneath him and tore off my goggles. Solomatin covered me. I was on fire, but I didn't have time to feel frightened. Somehow I managed to land. The plane was in flames, my boots got burnt – but I was all right!'

'I could see my mate was almost down. I made two more turns. He dipped his wings at me to tell me to leave. Then I was on my own. I just gave a hand to anyone who needed it.'

'I was well and truly shot to pieces – as full of holes as an old grouse.'

'I went for that Messer twelve times. In the end I singed him. I could see him shaking his head and I knew that was my chance. I shot him down with my cannon at twenty-five metres.'

'They're not happy fighting in the horizontal. They're always more at home in the vertical.'

'Now that really is news!'

'Why do you say that?'

'Everyone knows that – even the girls in the village.'

After a moment of silence, a voice said: 'We'll be off at dawn – and Demidov will be left on his own.'

'Well, my friends, you can do as you please, but I'm off to the village.'

'A parting visit? Let's go then!'

Everything – the river, the fields, the forest – was so beautiful, so peaceful, that hatred, betrayal and old age seemed impossible; nothing could exist but love and happiness. The moon shone down through the grey mist that enveloped the earth. Few pilots spent the night in their bunkers. On the edge of the village you could glimpse white scarves and hear quiet laughter. Now and then a tree would shake, frightened by a bad dream; the water would mumble something and return to silence.

The bitter hour of parting had come. One pilot would forget his girl in a couple of days; another couple would be separated by death; another would be allowed to meet again.

The morning came. Motors roared, their wind flattened the grass and thousands of dew-drops trembled in the sun… One by one, the fighters took off, circled, waited for their comrades and settled into formation…

What had seemed so infinite during the night was now dissolving in the blue of the sky… Houses like little grey boxes, small rectangular gardens, slipped by under their wings… They could no longer see the overgrown path, they could no longer see Demidov's grave… They were off! The forest slid past under their wings. 'Greetings, Vera!' said Viktorov.

39

The prisoners were woken by the orderlies at five in the morning. It was still pitch dark; the barrack-huts were lit by the merciless light that is common to prisons, railway stations and the waiting-rooms of city hospitals.

Thousands of men coughed and spat as they pulled on their padded trousers, wound their foot-cloths round their feet and had a good scratch. Sometimes the men on the upper tier of bedboards gave the men getting dressed down below a kick on the head; the latter just quietly pushed their feet out of the way.

There was something profoundly unnatural about the glaring electric light, the general bustle and the thick tobacco smoke. Hundreds of square miles of taiga lay frozen in icy silence – but the camp was crowded with people, full of noise, movement and light.

Snow had fallen during the first half of the night. Drifts had blocked the doors of the huts and covered the track to the mines…

Sirens began to howl in the mines; somewhere in the taiga the wolves howled out an accompaniment. The dogs were barking on the main square, the guards were shouting at one another and you could hear the tractors clearing the tracks outside.

In the light of the searchlights the dry snow seemed innocent and tender. Roll-call began on the main square, to the accompaniment of incessant barking; the voices of the guards sounded hoarse and irritated. Then a swollen river of people flowed out towards the mines. The snow creaked under thousands of leather and felt boots. The watch-tower stared after them with its single eye.

Throughout the North, sirens continued to howl. The same orchestra struck up over Krasnoyarsk, over the Autonomous Republic of Komi, over Sovietskaya Gavan, over the snows of Kolyma, the Chukotsk tundra and the camps of Murmansk and Northern Kazakhstan…

To the accompaniment of the sirens or the blows of a crowbar against a metal rail, prisoners set off to mine the potassium of Solikamsk, the copper of Ridder and the shores of Lake Balkash, the nickel and lead of Kolyma and the coal of Kuznetsk and Sakhalin. They set off to build a railway line along the shore of the Arctic Ocean, to clear roads through the tundra of Kolyma, to fell trees in the forests of Siberia, Murmansk, Archangelsk and the Northern Urals…

Day began at the same hour of night, amid the same snow, in every one of the camps and sub-camps of the vast network of Dalstroy. [22]

40

During the night Abarchuk had a fit of despair. Not just the usual sullen despair of the camps, but something fierce and burning like malaria, something that made him scream out loud, fall off the bedboards and beat his fists against his skull.

In the morning, when the prisoners were reluctantly but hurriedly getting ready for work, Abarchuk's long-legged neighbour, Nyeumo-limov, a gas foreman who had commanded a cavalry brigade during the Civil War, asked: 'What were you tossing about like that for during the night? Did you dream of a woman?'

'Don't you ever think of anything else?'

'I thought you were crying in your sleep. I wanted to wake you up,' said Monidze, another of Abarchuk's neighbours, who had once been on the Presidium of the Communist Youth International.

Another friend of Abarchuk's, Abrasha Rubin, a medical orderly, hadn't noticed anything. All he said, as they went outside into the dark and frost, was: 'Guess what? I dreamed Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin had come to visit us at the Institute of Red Professors. He was very bright and lively. Yenchman's theory created a tremendous stir.'

Abarchuk worked in the tool store. While his assistant, Barkhatov, a man who had once knifed a family of six during a robbery, was lighting the stove and stoking it with left-over cedar-logs, Abarchuk went through the tools in the drawers. The biting sharpness of the files and chisels, impregnated with the icy cold, seemed to embody the way he had felt during the night.

This day was exactly the same as every day that had gone before. The accountant had sent Abarchuk the requests from the distant sub-camps, already approved by the technical department. Now he had to get out the right tools and materials, pack them into boxes and draw up the accompanying documents. Some of the packages were incomplete; this necessitated the drawing up of special documents.

Barkhatov, as always, did nothing, and it was impossible to make him do anything. From the moment he arrived at the store, he concerned himself only with matters of nutrition; today he was boiling a small pot of cabbage and potato soup. A professor of Latin from the Kharkov Pharmaceutical Institute, now a messenger in the first section, rushed in for a moment to see him; with trembling red fingers he poured some dirty grains of millet onto the table. Barkhatov was evidently blackmailing him.

That afternoon Abarchuk was called to the accounts department; apparently his figures didn't tally. The deputy director shouted at him and threatened to report him to the director. Abarchuk felt sick. It was impossible for him to cope with the work by himself and he didn't dare complain about Barkhatov. He was tired, afraid of losing his job in the store, afraid of having to go out logging or being sent down the mines. His hair had already turned grey, he didn't have much strength left. Yes, that must be the reason for the despair he had felt during the night – his life had vanished beneath the ice of Siberia.

When he came back from the accounts department, he found Barkhatov asleep. His head was pillowed on a pair of felt boots he must have been given by one of the criminals. Beside it stood the empty cooking-pot; some of the millet was sticking to his cheek.

Abarchuk knew that Barkhatov sometimes stole tools from the store. He might, in fact, have bartered some for this very pair of felt boots. Once, Abarchuk had found three planes missing and had confronted his assistant.

'Stealing scarce metal during the War for the Fatherland! You should be ashamed of yourself!'

'Shut your mouth!' Barkhatov had retorted. 'Or else…'

Abarchuk did not dare wake Barkhatov directly; instead he coughed, banged the saws about and dropped a hammer on the floor. Barkhatov woke up. He gave Abarchuk a look of cool displeasure. After a while, he said very quietly: 'Someone from yesterday's transport told me that there are worse camps than these ones here in the lakes. The prisoners wear fetters and have their heads shaved. Surnames aren't used at all: they just have numbers sewn on their chest and their knees, and an ace of diamonds on their back.'

'Nonsense,' said Abarchuk.

'That's where you Fascist politicals should be sent,' Barkhatov continued thoughtfully. 'You first of all, you swine – so you can't wake me up.'

'Forgive me, citizen Barkhatov, for having disturbed your rest.' Although he was very frightened of Barkhatov, sometimes Abarchuk was unable to control his anger.

At the end of the shift, Nyeumolimov came in, black with coal-dust.

'Well,' asked Abarchuk, 'how's the work going? Are people entering into the spirit of competition?'

'Little by little. The coal's a military necessity – at least everyone understands that. Today the Culture and Education Section received some posters: "Let us help the Motherland with our shock labour!" '

Abarchuk sighed. 'You know what, someone ought to write a treatise on despair in the camps. There's a despair that crushes you, another that attacks you suddenly, another that stifles you and won't let you breathe. And then there's a special kind that doesn't do any of these things but somehow tears you to pieces from within – like a deep-sea creature brought suddenly up to the surface.'

Nyeumolimov smiled sadly. His rotten teeth were almost the same colour as the coal-dust on his face.

Barkhatov came up to them. Abarchuk looked round and complained: 'You walk so quietly you make me jump. All of a sudden I find you right beside me.'

A man of few smiles, Barkhatov said very seriously: 'You don't mind if I go to the food store?'

He left.

'During the night I remembered the son I had by my first wife,' Abarchuk said to his friend. 'He's probably at the front now.'

He leant towards Nyeumolimov.

'I want the lad to grow up a good Communist. I was thinking to myself that if I met him, I'd say: "Remember, your father's fate doesn't matter. That's just a detail. But the cause of the Party is something holy! Something that conforms in the highest degree to the Law of the Epoch!'"

'Does he have your surname?'

'No,' answered Abarchuk. 'I was afraid he'd grow up to be a bourgeois.'

All through the previous evening and during the night he had thought of Lyudmila. He wanted to see her. He had been looking at pages torn from the Moscow papers, expecting all of a sudden to read: 'Lieutenant Anatoly Abarchuk'. He would know then that his son had wanted to bear his father's surname.

For the first time in his life he wanted someone to feel sorry for him. He imagined himself walking up to his son, gasping, hardly able to breathe, pointing to his throat and saying: 'I can't talk.'

Tolya would embrace him. Abarchuk would put his head on his son's chest and burst out crying, bitterly and unashamedly. They would stand like that for a long time, his son a head taller.

Tolya was probably thinking about him all the time. He would have searched out his old comrades and learned about the part his father had played in the battle for the Revolution. 'Daddy, Daddy,' he would say, 'your hair's turned quite white. How thin and lined your neck looks. You've been struggling all these years. You've been carrying on a great struggle, all on your own.'

For three days during the investigation he had been given salty food without water. He had been beaten… He had realized that it wasn't simply a matter of wanting him to sign confessions of sabotage and espionage or to make accusations against people. Most of all, they wanted him to doubt the justice of the cause to which he had devoted his life. During the investigation itself, he thought he must have fallen into the hands of a bunch of gangsters. He thought that if he could only obtain an interview with the head of the department, he would be able to have his thug of an investigator arrested.

But as time passed he realized it wasn't just a matter of there being a few sadists around.

He had learned the laws that applied on convict trains and in the holds of convict ships. He had seen criminals gambling away other people's belongings at card-games, even their lives. He had seen pitiable debauchery and betrayal. He had seen the criminal ' India ', [23] bloody, hysterical and impossibly cruel. He had seen terrible battles between the 'bitches', who agreed to work, and the orthodox 'thieves', who refused to work.

He had repeated, 'You don't get arrested for nothing,' believing that only a tiny minority, himself among them, had been arrested by mistake. As for everyone else – they had deserved their sentences. The sword of justice was chastising the enemies of the Revolution.

He had seen servility, treachery, submissiveness, cruelty… And he had referred to all this as 'the birthmarks of capitalism', believing that these marks were borne by people of the past – White officers, kulaks, bourgeois nationalists…

His faith was unshakeable, his devotion to the Party infinite.

Just as he was about to leave, Nyeumolimov said: 'Oh, I forgot to say, someone was asking about you.'

'Who?'

'Someone from yesterday's transport. They were being assigned work. One of them asked about you. I said, "Yes, I do know him, I happen to have slept next to him for the last three years." He told me his surname, but it's gone clean out of my head.'

'What did he look like?'

'Well, rather shabby – and he had a scar on his temple.'

'Oh!' cried Abarchuk. 'You don't mean Magar?'

'Yes, that's right.'

'But he's my very oldest comrade, my teacher, the man who introduced me into the Party. What did he say? What did he ask about?'

'Just the usual question: the length of your sentence. I said you'd asked for five years and been given ten. I said you were beginning to cough and that you'd be released early.'

But Abarchuk was no longer listening.

'Magar, Magar…,' he repeated. 'At one time he used to work in the Cheka. He was someone special, you know, very special. He'd give anything of his to a comrade. He'd take off his overcoat for you in the middle of winter, give you his last crust of bread. And he's intelligent, well-educated. And a true proletarian by birth, the son of a fisherman from Kerch.'

He glanced round and then bent towards Nyeumolimov.

'Do you remember? We used to say that the Communists in the camp should set up an organization to help the Party. Abrasha Rubin asked, "Who should we choose as secretary?" Well, he's the man.'

'I'll vote for you,' said Nyeumolimov. 'I don't know him. Anyway, how are you going to find him? Ten lorries have left for the sub-camps by now. He was probably in one of them.'

'Never mind. We'll find him. Magar… Well, well. And he asked after me?'

'I almost forgot why I came here,' said Nyeumolimov. 'Give me a clean sheet of paper. My memory's going.'

'For a letter?'

'No, for a statement to Marshal Budyonniy. I'm going to ask to be sent to the front.'

'Not a hope.'

'But Syoma remembers me!'

'They don't take politicals in the Army. What you can do is help increase our output of coal. The soldiers will thank you for that.'

'But I want to join up.'

'Budyonniy won't be able to help you. I wrote to Stalin myself.'

'What do you mean? Budyonniy not be able to help! You must be joking! Or do you grudge me the paper? I wouldn't ask, but I can't get any from the Culture and Education Section. I've used up my quota.'

'All right then, you can have one sheet,' said Abarchuk.

He had a small amount of paper that he didn't have to account for. In the Culture and Education Section paper was strictly rationed and you had to account for each sheet.

That evening everything was the same as usual in the hut.

The old guards officer, Tungusov, was recounting an endless romantic story: the criminals listened attentively, scratching themselves and nodding their heads in approval. The characters in this confused and elaborate yarn included Lawrence of Arabia and various ballerinas he had known; some of the incidents came from the life of the Three Musketeers and the voyage of Jules Verne's Nautilus.

'Wait a minute!' said one of the listeners. 'How was she able to cross the Persian frontier? You said yesterday she'd been poisoned by the cops.'

Tungusov paused, glanced meekly at his critic and announced brightly: 'It was only on the surface that Nadya's situation appeared hopeless. Life returned to her thanks to the efforts of a Tibetan doctor who poured several drops of a precious decoction – obtained from the blue herbs of the high mountains – through her half-open lips. By morning she was so far recovered that she was able to walk about her room without assistance. Her strength was returning.'

'Right then, carry on!' said his now satisfied listeners.

In the corner known as the 'kolkhoz sector' everyone was laughing loudly as they listened to Gasyuchenko reciting obscene ditties in a sing-song voice. He was an old buffoon whom the Germans had appointed headman of his village.

A journalist from Moscow, a good-natured, shy, intelligent man with a hernia, was slowly chewing on a rusk of white bread – from a food parcel he had received from his wife the day before. His eyes were full of tears: the taste of the crunchy rusk evidently reminded him of his past life.

Nyeumolimov was engaged in an argument with a member of a tank-crew who had been sent to the camp for a particularly foul murder. The murderer was entertaining the listeners by making fun of the cavalry, while Nyeumolimov, pale with hatred, was shouting: 'Don't you know what we did with our swords in 1920!'

'Yes, you stabbed stolen chickens. One KV tank could have routed the whole of your First Cavalry Army. And you can hardly compare the Civil War with the War for the Fatherland.'

A young thief called Kolka Ugarov was pestering Abrasha Rubin, trying to persuade him to swap his boots for a pair of very worn slippers whose soles were coming off. Sensing trouble, Rubin yawned nervously and glanced round at his neighbours in the hope of finding support.

'Listen, Yid,' said Kolka, who looked like a wild, bright-eyed cat. 'Listen, you swine, you're beginning to get on my nerves.'

Then he asked: 'Why wouldn't you sign the form to release me from work?'

'I don't have the right. You're in excellent health.'

'Are you going to sign?'

'Kolya, my friend, I swear I'd be only too glad to, but I can't.'

'Are you going to sign?'

'Please understand. Surely you realize that if I could…'

'Very well then. That's that.'

'Wait a moment! Please understand.'

'I do understand. Soon you will too.'

Stedling, a Russified Swede supposed to have been a spy, looked up for a moment from the picture he was drawing on a piece of cardboard from the Culture and Education Section; he glanced at Kolka, then at Rubin, shook his head and returned to his picture. The picture was entitled 'Mother Taiga'. Stedling was not afraid of the criminals; for some reason they left him alone.

After Kolka had left, Stedling said to Rubin: 'You're behaving like a madman, Abram Yefimovich.'

The Byelorussian Konashevich was another man who wasn't afraid of the criminals. Before the war he had been an aircraft mechanic in the Far East and he had won the Pacific Fleet middleweight boxing championship. The criminals respected Konashevich, but he never intervened on behalf of anyone they were maltreating.

Abarchuk walked slowly down the narrow passageway between the two tiers of bedboards. His despair had returned. The far end of the long barrack-hut was thick with tobacco smoke. Abarchuk always imagined that when he reached that distant horizon he would see something new, but everything was always exactly the same: the hallway where the prisoners washed their foot-cloths in wooden troughs, the mops leaning against the wall, the painted buckets, the bedboards themselves, the mattresses stuffed with shavings that leaked out of the sacking, the even hum of conversation, and the drab, haggard faces of the zeks.

Most of the zeks were sitting down, waiting for lights-out and talking about soup, women, the dishonesty of the bread-cutter, the fate of their letters to Stalin and petitions to the Public Prosecutor, the new norms for cutting and trucking away the coal, how cold it was today, how cold it would be tomorrow…

Abarchuk walked slowly by, overhearing scraps of conversation as he passed. It seemed as though one and the same conversation had been going on for many years between thousands of men in transport-ships, trains and camps, the young talking about women and the old talking about food. It was somehow even worse when the old men talked greedily about women, and the young men talked about the delicious food in the free world outside.

Abarchuk quickened his pace as he passed Gasyuchenko. The old man – who was married, with children and grandchildren – was saying something truly awful.

If only the lights would go out, so he could lie down, bury his head in his jacket, see nothing, hear nothing…

Abarchuk looked at the door: any minute now Magar would come in. He would persuade Zarokov to put them side by side and when it was dark the two of them would be able to talk together, openly and sincerely – teacher and pupil, both of them members of the Party.

A feast was being held on the boards belonging to the masters of the hut – Zarokov, Barkhatov and Perekrest, the leader of the coal-team. Perekrest's lackey, an economist called Zhelyabov, had spread a towel over a bedside table and set out some bacon-fat, herrings and gingerbread – the tribute Perekrest had received from the members of his team.

Abarchuk felt his heart flutter as he walked past. They might call out to him and ask him to join them! He could do with something tasty to eat. Barkhatov was a real swine. He did just as he pleased in the storeroom: he pinched nails, he'd gone off with three planes, and Abarchuk had never said a word about it. He might at least call out: 'Hey, you! Why don't you come over here for a moment?'

Abarchuk knew – and he despised himself for it – that it wasn't just a matter of wanting something to eat. He was aware of one of those vile, petty desires born of the camps, the desire to hobnob with the strong, to chat with someone whom thousands of people lived in awe of.

Abarchuk cursed first himself and then Barkhatov.

They didn't call him, but they did call Nyeumolimov. The man who had once commanded a cavalry brigade, the holder of two Orders of the Red Flag, smiled as he walked over towards them. And twenty years before, he had led cavalry regiments into battle to fight for a world commune…

What could have made him talk to Nyeumolimov about Tolya, about everything he held most dear? But then he too had fought for Communism, he too had sent reports to Stalin from his office on a building site in the Kuzbass, and he too had anxiously hoped they would call his name as he walked past, looking down at the floor in pretended indifference.

He walked over towards Monidze's place. Monidze looked up from the socks he was darning and said: 'Guess what Perekrest said to me today? "Remember, my friend, I can smash your skull in – and when I tell the guards they'll thank me. You're the vilest of traitors." '

'There are worse things than that,' said Abrasha Rubin, who was sitting nearby.

'Yes,' agreed Abarchuk. 'Did you see how happy the commander of the cavalry brigade was when they called out his name?'

'I suppose you were disappointed not to be called yourself,' said Rubin.

'Look who's talking!' retorted Abarchuk, smarting at Rubin's perceptiveness.

'Me? It's not for me to feel disappointed,' Rubin murmured, his half-closed eyes making him look rather like a chicken. 'I'm one of the very lowest caste, the untouchables. Did you hear my conversation with Kolka just now?'

'You shouldn't say that kind of thing,' said Abarchuk dismissively, and walked on down the narrow passage between the boards. Once again he heard snatches of the same never-ending conversation.

'Borshch with pork every day, Sunday included.'

'What breasts! You wouldn't believe it.'

'I like things simple. Kasha and mutton. Who needs all these sauces of yours?'

He turned back and sat down by Monidze. Rubin was saying: 'I couldn't understand why he said, "You'll become a composer." It was a joke about informers. Do you see? Writing an opera – writing to the operations officer!'

Monidze carried on darning. 'To hell with him,' he said. 'Inform-ing's the very last thing you should do.'

'What do you mean?' demanded Abarchuk. 'It's your duty as a Communist.'

'Ex-Communist,' replied Monidze. 'Like you.'

'I'm not an ex-Communist,' said Abarchuk. 'Nor are you.'

'Communism's got nothing to do with it,' said Rubin. 'I'm fed up with eating maize-slop three times a day. I can't even bear to look at the muck. That's one reason for informing. But then I don't want to be attacked during the night and found in the latrine next morning like Orlov – my head sticking through the hole. Did you hear my conversation with Kolka Ugarov just now?'

'Head down, feet up!' said Monidze and started laughing, evidently because there was nothing to laugh about.

'There's more to life than the instinct for self-preservation!' said Abarchuk, feeling an hysterical desire to hit Rubin. He jumped up and walked off down the hut.

Of course, he too was fed up with cornmeal soup. How many days now had he been trying to guess what they'd have for dinner on the anniversary of the October Revolution – vegetable ragout, sailor's macaroni, meat-and-potato pie?

And a lot depended on the operations officer – the ways of attaining high position were obscure and mysterious. He might end up working in the laboratory: he'd wear a white smock, the woman in charge would be a civilian worker and he would no longer be at the mercy of the criminals; or he might join the planning section or be put in charge of a mine… But all the same, Rubin was wrong. Rubin liked to degrade a man by ferreting out what was creeping up from his subconscious. Rubin was a saboteur.

Abarchuk had always been uncompromising with opportunists. He had hated all double-dealers and socially-alien elements.

His spiritual strength, his faith, had always lain in his right to make judgements. He had doubted his wife – and had separated from her. He hadn't trusted her to bring up his son a steadfast fighter – and had denied him the right to bear his surname. He had damned anyone who wavered; he had despised all grumblers and weak-minded sceptics. He had brought to trial some engineers in the Kuzbass who had been pining for their families in Moscow. He had condemned forty socially unreliable workers who had left the construction site for their villages. He had renounced his petty-bourgeois father.

It was sweet to be unshakeable. In passing judgement on people he had affirmed his own inner strength, his ideals, his purity. This was his consolation and his faith. He had never deviated from the directives of the Party. He had willingly renounced Party maximalism. For him, self-renunciation had been equivalent to self-affirmation. He had worn the same boots and the same soldier's tunic whether he was at work, at meetings of the Board of the People's Commissariat, or going for a walk along the quay at Yalta when he had been sent there to convalesce. He had wanted to become like Stalin.

And in losing his right to pass judgement, he lost himself. Rubin had sensed that. Almost every day he would allude to the weaknesses and cowardice, to all the petty desires that somehow stole into your soul in the camp.

The previous day he had said: 'Barkhatov supplies his young thugs with metal from the store, and our Robespierre doesn't say a word. As the song goes, even a chicken wants to stay alive.'

When Abarchuk was about to condemn someone and then felt he could equally well be condemned himself, he began to hesitate, to lose himself, to fall into despair.

Abarchuk stopped by the place where old Prince Dolgoruky was talking to Stepanov, a young professor at the Economics Institute. Stepanov behaved very arrogantly, refusing to get up when the camp authorities came into the hut and openly expressing anti-Soviet views. He was proud of the fact that, unlike the majority of the political prisoners, he was there for a reason: he had written an article entitled 'The State of Lenin and Stalin' and distributed it to his students. He had been denounced by either the third or fourth person who had read it.

Dolgoruky had returned to the Soviet Union from Sweden. Before that, he had lived for a long time in Paris and felt deeply homesick. He had been arrested a week after his return. In the camp he prayed, made friends with members of the different Christian sects and wrote mystical poems. At this moment he was reading one of them to Stepanov.

Abarchuk listened, leaning his shoulder against the post supporting the two tiers of boards. Dolgoruky's eyes were half-closed and his chapped lips were trembling as he recited.

I feel that I have chosen everything -

The time and place, the day I came into the world;

I chose the strength to suffer fire, to fling

Myself into the water, to be hurled

Into the stench of flesh, smeared and profaned

With blood and pus, dabbed with these wads of filth

And fouled by the ten-horned beast – his belly's stealth

And blasphemies have left my soul unstained!

For I believe in justice from above,

The imponderable source of best and worst

That hears burned Russia speak in flames – and burst

Free in these words! Great lord of truth and love!

You carve in plenitudes of fire the life

Which craves abundance, craves your absolute -

Prune to fruition with your burning knife!

The tree submits! Now make my soul your fruit!

After he had finished, he sat for a moment with his eyes half-closed, his lips still moving.

'That's shit,' said Stepanov. 'Pure decadence!'

Dolgoruky gave a dismissive wave of his pale, anaemic hand.

'Look where all your Chernyshevskys and Herzens have got us! Don't you remember what Chaadayev wrote in his Third Philosophical Letter?'

'I detest you and your mystical obscurantism as much as I detest the organizers of this camp,' replied Stepanov in a schoolmasterly tone. 'Both they and you forget the third and most natural path for Russia: the path of democracy and freedom.'

Abarchuk had often argued with Stepanov, but just then he didn't feel like it; for once he didn't want to brand Stepanov as an enemy, an internal émigré. He went to the corner where the Baptists were praying and began listening to their muttering.

Suddenly the stentorian voice of hut-foreman Zarokov rang out: 'Everyone stand up!'

They all jumped up – someone in authority must have come into the hut. Abarchuk squinted round and saw Dolgoruky's long pale face. Yes, he was a goner. He was standing there at attention, still muttering away. Probably he was repeating the same poem. Stepanov was sitting; like the anarchist he was, he refused to submit to the sensible regulations of the camp.

'A search, there's going to be a search,' whispered the prisoners.

But no search took place. The two young escort-guards in their red and blue service caps just walked down between the bedboards, looking round at the prisoners.

As they passed Stepanov, one of them said: 'Still sitting there, professor? Afraid your arse will catch cold?'

Stepanov looked up – he had a wide snub-nosed face – and answered by rote in a loud parrot-like voice: 'Citizen guard, I request you to address me politely. I'm a political prisoner.'

That night there was an incident in the barrack-hut: Rubin was murdered.

The murderer had placed a large nail against his ear while he was asleep and driven it into his brain with one blow. Five people, Abarchuk among them, were summoned by the operations officer. What seemed to concern him was the provenance of the nail. This particular type of nail had only recently been delivered to the store; as yet there had been no requests for it from the production sections.

While they were washing, Barkhatov came and stood next to Abarchuk at the wooden trough. Licking the drops of water off his lips, his face still wet, he turned to Abarchuk and said very quietly: 'Listen, swine, nothing's going to happen to me if you squeal. But you'll really catch it! Yes, I'll fix you – and in a way that will make the whole camp shit themselves!'

He wiped himself dry, looked calmly into Abarchuk's eyes, saw what he was looking for and shook Abarchuk by the hand.

In the canteen Abarchuk gave Nyeumolimov his bowl of cornmeal soup.

His lips trembling, Nyeumolimov said: 'The swine! Our Abrasha! He was a real man!' and then pulled Abarchuk's bowl of soup towards him.

Abarchuk got up from the table without a word.

The crowd of people by the exit parted as Perekrest came in. He had to bend as he came through the doorway: camp ceilings were not designed for men of his height.

'Today's my birthday,' he said to Abarchuk. 'Come and join us. We've got some vodka.'

It was terrible. Dozens of people must have heard last night's murder, must even have seen the man walking up to Rubin's place. It would have been easy for one of them to jump up and raise the alarm. Together they could have dealt with the murderer in no time. They could have saved their comrade. But no one had looked up; no one had called out. A man had been slaughtered like a lamb. And everyone had just lain there, pretending to be asleep, burying their heads in their jackets, trying not to cough, trying not to hear the dying man writhing in agony.

How vile! What pathetic submissiveness!

But then he too had been awake, he too had kept silent, he too had buried his head in his jacket… Yes, there was a reason for this submissiveness – it was born of experience, of an understanding of the laws of the camp.

They could indeed have got up and stopped the murderer; but a man with a knife will always be stronger than a man without a knife. The strength of a group of prisoners is something ephemeral; but a knife is always a knife.

Abarchuk thought about the coming interrogation. It was all very well for the operations officer to ask for statements. He didn't have to sleep in the hut at night, he didn't have to wash in the hallway, leaving himself open to a blow from behind, he didn't have to walk down mine-shafts, he didn't have to go into the latrine where he might get jumped on and have a sack thrown over his head.

Yes, he had seen someone walk up to Rubin. He had heard Rubin wheezing, thrashing his arms and legs around in his death-agony.

The operations officer, Captain Mishanin, called Abarchuk into his office and closed the door. 'Sit down, prisoner.'

He put the usual initial questions, questions the political prisoners always answered quickly and precisely.

He then looked up with his tired eyes, and knowing very well that an experienced prisoner, afraid of the inevitable reprisals, would never say how the nail had come into the murderer's hands, stared at Abarchuk for a few seconds.

Abarchuk looked back at him. He scrutinized the captain's young face, looking at his hair and his eyebrows, and thought to himself that he could only be two or three years older than his own son.

The captain then asked the question which three prisoners had already refused to answer.

Abarchuk didn't say anything.

'Are you deaf or something?'

Abarchuk remained silent.

How he longed for the man to say to him, even if he weren't sincere, even if it were just a prescribed interrogation technique: 'Listen, comrade Abarchuk, you're a Communist. Today you're in the camp, but tomorrow we'll be paying our membership dues together. I need your help as a comrade, as a fellow Party member.'

Instead the captain said: 'So you've gone to sleep, have you? I'll wake you up.'

But it wasn't necessary. In a hoarse voice Abarchuk said: 'Barkha-tov stole the nails from the storeroom. He also took three files. The murder was, in my opinion, committed by Nikolay Ugarov. I know that Barkhatov gave him the nails and that he threatened Rubin several times. Yesterday he swore he would kill him – Rubin had refused to put him on the sick-list.'

He took the cigarette that was offered him. 'I consider it my duty to the Party to inform you of this, comrade Operations Officer. Comrade Rubin was an old Party member.'

Captain Mishanin lit Abarchuk's cigarette, then took up his pen and began to write.

'You should know by now, prisoner,' he said gently, 'that you have no right to talk about Party membership. You are also forbidden to address me as "comrade". To you I am "citizen chief".'

'I apologize, citizen chief,' replied Abarchuk.

'It will be several days before I finish the inquiry,' said Mishanin. 'Then everything will be set straight. After that, well… We can have you transferred to another camp.'

'It's all right, citizen chief, I'm not afraid,' said Abarchuk.

He went back to the storeroom. He knew that Barkhatov wouldn't ask him any direct questions. Instead, he would watch him unrelentingly, squeezing out the truth from his movements, from his eyes, from the way he coughed…

He was happy. He had won a victory over himself.

He had won back the right to pass judgement. And when he thought about Rubin now, it was with regret that he'd never have the chance to say what he'd thought of him the other day.

Three days went by and there was still no sign of Magar. Abarchuk asked about him at the mines administration, but none of the clerks he knew could find his name on their lists.

That evening, just as Abarchuk had resigned himself to the fact that fate had kept them apart, a medical orderly called Trufelev came into the hut. Covered in snow and pulling splinters of ice from his eyelashes, he said to Abarchuk: 'Listen, we had a zek in the infirmary just now who wanted to see you. I'd better take you there straight away. Ask leave from the foreman. Otherwise… you know what our zeks are like. He might snuff it any moment – and it will be no good talking to him when he's in his wooden jacket.'

41

Trufelev led Abarchuk down the corridor of the infirmary. It had a foul smell of its own, quite distinct from that of the hut. They walked in semi-darkness past heaps of wooden stretchers and bundles of jackets waiting to be disinfected.

Magar was in the isolation ward, a cell with log walls containing two iron bedsteads standing side by side. This ward was usually kept for goners and people with infectious illnesses. The thin legs of the two bedsteads seemed to be made of wire, but they weren't in the least bent – no one of normal weight ever lay there.

'No, no, the bed on the right!' came a familiar voice. Abarchuk forgot about the camp and his white hair. It was as though he had found once again what he had lived for during so many years, what he would gladly have sacrificed his life for.

He stared into Magar's face. 'Greetings, greetings, greetings…,' he said very slowly, almost ecstatically.

Afraid of being unable to contain his excitement, Magar spoke with deliberate casualness. 'Sit down then. You can sit on the bed opposite.'

Noticing the way Abarchuh looked at the bed, he added: 'Don't worry – you won't disturb him! No one will ever disturb him now.'

Abarchuk bent down to take a better look at his comrade's face, then glanced again at the corpse draped in blankets.

'How long ago?'

'It's two hours since he died. The orderlies won't touch him till the doctor comes. It's a good thing. If they put someone else there, we won't be able to talk.'

'True enough,' said Abarchuk.

Somehow he couldn't bring himself to ask the questions he so desperately wanted to: 'Were you sentenced along with Bubnov – or was it the Sokolnikov case? How many years did you get? Which isolation prison were you in-Vladimir or Suzdal? Were you sentenced by a Special Commission or a Military Board? Did you sign a confession?'

'Who was he?' he asked, indicating the draped body. 'What did he die of?'

'He was a kulak. He'd just had too much of the camp. He kept calling out for some Nastya or other. He wanted to go away somewhere…'

Gradually, in the half-light, he made out Magar's face. He would never have recognized him. It wasn't that he'd changed – it was that he was an old man who was about to die.

He could feel the corpse's hard, bony arm against his back. It was bent at the elbow. Sensing that Magar was looking at him, he thought: 'He's probably thinking the same thing – "Well, I'd never have recognized him." '

'I've just realized,' said Magar. 'He kept muttering something: "Wa… wa… wa… wa…" He wanted water. There's a glass right beside him. I could have carried out his last wish.'

'It seems as though he can interrupt us even now.'

'That's hardly surprising,' said Magar. Abarchuk could recognize the excitement in his voice. Magar had always begun serious conversations in this tone.

'It's not really him we're talking about,' Magar continued. 'We're talking about ourselves.'

'No!' said Abarchuk.'No!'

He caught hold of Magar's hot hand, squeezed it, put his arms round his shoulders and then began to choke, sobbing silently and trembling.

'Thank you,' Magar murmured, 'my comrade, my friend.'

They both fell silent, breathing heavily. They were breathing in time with one another. To Abarchuk, it was not only their breathing that was united.

It was Magar who broke the silence.

'Listen now,' he said, sitting up in bed. 'Listen, my friend. This will be the last time I call you like this.'

'Don't talk like that,' said Abarchuk. 'You're going to live!'

'I'd sooner undergo torture, but I have to say this… You listen too,' he added, turning to the corpse. 'What I'm going to say has to do with you and your Nastya… This is my last duty as a revolutionary and I must fulfil it… You're someone very special, comrade Abarchuk. And we met at a very special time – our best time, I think… Let me begin now. First. We made a mistake. And this is what our mistake has led to. Look! You and I must ask this peasant to pardon us… Give me a fag. What am I saying? No repentance can expiate what we've done. I have to say this… Secondly. We didn't understand freedom. We crushed it. Even Marx didn't value it – it's the base, the meaning, the foundation that underlies all foundations. Without freedom there can be no proletarian revolution… Thirdly. We go through the camp, we go through the taiga, and yet our faith is stronger than anything. But this faith of ours is a weakness – a means of self-preservation. On the other side of the barbed wire, self-preservation tells people to change – unless they want to die or be sent to a camp. And so Communists have created idols, put on uniforms and epaulettes, begun preaching nationalism and attacking the working class. If necessary, they'll revive the Black Hundreds… [24] But here in the camp the same instinct tells people not to change, not to change during all the decades they spend here – unless they want to be buried straight away in a wooden jacket. It's the other side of the coin.'

'Stop!' screamed Abarchuk, raising his clenched fist to Magar's face. 'They've broken you. You weren't strong enough. What you're saying is all lies. You're raving.'

'I'm not. I wish I were. I'm calling you to follow me! Just as I called you twenty years ago. If we can't live the life of true revolutionaries, then the best we can do is die.'

'I've had enough! Stop!'

'Forgive me. I know. I'm like an old prostitute weeping over her lost virtue. But I'll say it again: remember! Forgive me, friend…'

'Forgive you! I wish one of us were lying here like this corpse, that we'd never lived to meet…'

Abarchuk was standing in the doorway when he finished.

'I'll come and see you again. I'll put you right. I'll be your teacher now.'

Next morning Abarchuk came across Trufelev outside in the compound. He was pulling a sledge with a churn of milk tied across it. It was odd, deep inside the Arctic Circle, to see someone with his face covered in sweat.

'Your friend won't be drinking any of this milk,' he said. 'He hanged himself during the night.'

It's always nice to pass on some surprising news. Trufelev gave Abarchuk a look of friendly triumph.

'Did he leave a note for me?' asked Abarchuk, gulping at the icy air. Magar must have left a note. What had happened yesterday was nothing. He hadn't been himself – something had come over him.

'What do you mean – a note? Anything you write goes straight to the operations officer.'

That night was the most painful Abarchuk had ever known. He lay there quite still, clenching his teeth, gazing with wide-open eyes at the hut wall and its dark smears of squashed bed-bugs. He turned then to his son, the son he had once denied the right to bear his surname, and called out: 'Now you're all I have left. You're my only hope. Do you understand, my friend? My teacher, Magar, wanted to strangle me, to strangle my mind and my will – and now he's hanged himself. Tolya, Tolya, you're all I have, all I have left in the world. Can you see me? Can you hear me? Will you ever know that during this long night your father never stooped, never wavered?'

And next to him, all around him, the camp slept, heavily, noisily and uglily; the thick, stifling air was full of snores, sleepy cries, protracted groans and the sound of teeth being ground together.

Suddenly Abarchuk sat up. He thought he had seen a shadow close by in the darkness.

42

In late summer 1942 Kleist's Army Group in the Caucasus seized the most important of the Soviet oilfields, near Maykop. German troops had reached Crete and North Cape, Northern Finland and the shores of the Channel. The desert fox, Marshal Erwin Rommel, was eighty kilometres from Alexandria. Chasseurs had hoisted the swastika over the peak of Mount Elbruz. Manstein had received orders to train giant cannons and Nebelwerfer rocket-launchers on Leningrad itself, the citadel of Bolshevism. The sceptical Mussolini was drawing up plans for his advance into Cairo and learning to ride an Arab stallion. Dietl was advancing over the snow in northern latitudes never before fought over by any European army. Paris, Vienna, Prague and Brussels had become provincial German cities.

The time had come for National Socialism to realize its cruellest designs against human life and freedom. It is a lie that it was the pressures of the war that forced the Fascist leaders to undertake these measures. On the contrary, danger and a lack of confidence in their own power were what most served to restrain and temper them.

If Fascism should ever be fully assured of its final triumph, the world will choke in blood. If the day ever dawns when Fascism is without armed enemies, then its executioners will know no restraint::he greatest enemy of Fascism is man.

In the autumn of 1942, during the apogee of National Socialism's military success, the government of the Reich announced a series of cruel and inhuman decrees: under one of these, that of 12 September, European Jewry was removed from the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts and transferred to that of the Gestapo.

Adolf Hitler and the Party leadership had decided upon the final destruction of the Jewish nation.

43

From time to time Sofya Osipovna Levinton remembered her old life: her five years at Zurich University, the summer holiday she had spent in Paris and Italy, the concerts she had been to at the Conservatory, the expeditions to the mountains of Central Asia, her thirty-two years as a doctor, her favourite dishes, the friends whose lives, with all their ups and downs, had been intertwined with her own, her frequent telephone calls, the odd phrases of Ukrainian she had always used, her games of cards, the belongings she had left in her room in Moscow.

She also remembered her time in Stalingrad – together with Alexandra Vladimirovna, Zhenya, Seryozha, Vera and Marusya. The closer people had been to her, the further away they now seemed.

Early one evening, while their train stood in a siding somewhere near Kiev, she was searching her collar for lice; two middle-aged women beside her were chattering away, very quietly, in Yiddish. She suddenly realized with absolute clarity that all this really was happening to her – to Sonechka, Sonka, Sofya, Major Sofya Osipovna Levinton of the Medical Service.

The most fundamental change in people at this time was a weakening of their sense of individual identity; their sense of fate grew correspondingly stronger.

'Who am I? In the end, who am I?' Sofya Osipovna wondered. 'The short, snotty little girl afraid of her father and grandmother? The stout, hot-tempered woman with tabs of rank on her collar? Or this mangy, lice-ridden creature?'

She had lost any hope of happiness, but many different dreams had appeared in its place: of killing lice… of reaching the chink in the wall and being able to breathe… of being able to urinate… of washing just one leg… And then there was thirst, a thirst that filled her whole body.

She had been thrown into the wagon. In the gloom, which had seemed like complete darkness, she had heard the sound of quiet laughter.

'Is that a madman laughing?' she asked.

'No,' answered a man's voice. 'We're just telling jokes.'

Someone else said in a melancholy tone of voice: 'One more Jewess on our ill-fated train.'

Sofya Levinton stood by the door and answered people's questions, frowning as she tried to get used to the darkness. She felt suddenly overwhelmed, not only by the stench and the noise of people crying and groaning, but by the sound of words and intonations she had last heard in childhood.

She wanted to step further inside, but found this impossible. Feeling a thin little leg in short trousers, she said: 'Forgive me, son; did I hurt you?'

The boy didn't answer.

'Mother,' said Sofya into the darkness, 'perhaps you could move your dumb little boy. I can't stand here for ever.'

'You should have sent a telegram in advance,' said a hysterical voice from the corner. 'Then you could have reserved a room with a private bath.'

'Fool!'

A woman whose face she could now just make out, said: 'You can sit down beside me. There's plenty of room here.'

Sofya could feel her fingers trembling. Yes, this was a world she had known since childhood, the world of the shtetl – but very changed.

The cattle-wagon was full of workers from different co-operatives, girls at teacher-training college, teachers from a school for trade unionists; there was a radio technician, an engineer who worked at a canned-food factory, a livestock expert, and a girl who worked as a vet. Previously, such professions had been unheard of in the shtetl. But then Sofya herself was still the same small girl who had been afraid of her father and grandmother – she hadn't changed. Perhaps, at heart, this world remained equally unchanged. But what did it matter? Changed, or unchanged, the world of the shtetl was poised on the brink of the abyss.

'Today's Germans are just savages,' she heard a young woman say. 'They haven't even heard of Heinrich Heine.'

A man's voice from another corner said mockingly: 'What help's this Heine of yours been to us? The savages are rounding us up like cattle.'

People plied Sofya with questions about the position on the different fronts. Nothing she said was very encouraging and she was promptly told she had been misinformed; she realized that this wagon had its own strategy, a strategy founded on a passionate hunger to remain alive.

'Surely you must have heard that an ultimatum has been sent to Hitler demanding the immediate release of all Jews?'

Yes, of course. What saves people when their bovine melancholy, their mute fatalism yields to a piercing sense of horror – what saves people then is the opium of optimism.

They soon lost interest in Sofya. She was just one more prisoner -with no more idea of her destination than anyone else. No one asked her name and patronymic; no one remembered her surname. She realized with surprise that although the process of evolution had taken millions of years, these people had needed only a few days to revert to the state of cattle, dirty and unhappy, captive and nameless…

She was also surprised how upset everyone still got over trivia, how quick they were to quarrel with one another. One middle-aged woman turned to her and said: 'Look at that grande dame over there! She sits there beside that chink in the wall as though no one except her son has a right to any fresh air.'

The train stopped twice during the night. They listened to the squeaking boots of the guards, occasionally making out odd phrases of both German and Russian. The language of Goethe sounded quite appalling in the middle of the night at a Russian wayside halt, but the Russian spoken by the collaborators was still more sinister.

Like everyone else, Sofya began to suffer from hunger and thirst. Even her dreams had something pathetic about them; she dreamed of a squashed tin with a few drops of warm liquid at the very bottom. She scratched herself with the quick, jerky movements of a dog scratching itself for fleas.

Sofya now understood the difference between life and existence: her life had come to an end, but her existence could drag on indefinitely. And however wretched and miserable this existence was, the thought of violent death still filled her with horror.

It began to rain; a few drops came in through the barred window.

Sofya tore a strip from the hem of her shirt, made her way towards the wall and pushed the material through a small chink. She waited for it to absorb the rainwater, pulled it away and began to suck; it was cool and damp. Soon, the other people sitting by the wall were following her example. Sofya felt quite proud of herself; she was the one who had thought up a way of catching the rainwater.

The little boy she had bumped into during the night was still sitting nearby; he was watching everyone squeeze their shreds of material into the chinks. The dim light was enough for her to make out his thin face and sharp nose. He must have been about six years old. Sofya realized that he hadn't moved or said a word while she had been there; nor had anyone else said a word to him. She held out her wet rag and said: 'Here you are, son.'

He didn't answer.

'Go on. It's for you.'

Hesitantly, the boy stretched out his hand.

'What's your name?' she asked.

'David,' he answered quietly.

Sofya's neighbour, Musya Borisovna, told her that David was from Moscow. He had come to stay with his grandmother and been cut off by the outbreak of war. The grandmother had died in the ghetto and he had been left with another relative, Rebekka Bukhman; her husband had fallen ill and she wouldn't let the boy sit beside her in the wagon.

By evening Sofya had had her fill of conversations, stories and arguments; she was even talking and arguing herself. She often began with the words: 'Fellow Jews, what I think…'

Many of the people in the wagon were looking forward to the end of the journey; they thought they were being taken to camps where each person would be given work in his own field and the sick would receive special care. They talked about this incessantly. But, deep down, their souls were still gripped by a silent horror.

Sofya learned that there were many things in human beings that were far from human. She heard about a paralysed woman who had been frozen to death by her sister; she had been put in a tub and dragged out onto the street on a winter's night. She heard about mothers who had killed their own children; there was one in this very wagon. She heard about people who had lived in sewers for months on end, eating filth like rats, ready to endure anything if only they could stay alive.

The conditions the Jews lived in were terrible; and they were neither saints nor villains, they were human beings.

Sofya's pity for these people grew particularly intense when she looked at little David. Most of the time he just sat there without saying a word; sometimes he took a crumpled matchbox out of his pocket, looked inside, and hid it away again.

For several days now Sofya hadn't wanted to sleep. She sat there, wide awake, in the stinking darkness. 'I wonder where Zhenya Shaposhnikova is now,' she thought suddenly. As she listened to people's cries and mutterings, she realized that their heads were filled with painfully vivid images that no words could ever convey. How could these images be preserved, how could they be fixed – in case men remained alive on earth and wanted to find out what had happened?

'Golda! Golda!' cried a man's voice, racked with sobs.

44

…The brain of the forty-year-old accountant, Naum Rozenberg, was still engaged in its usual work. He was walking down the road and counting: no the day before yesterday, 61 yesterday, 612 during the five days before – altogether that made 783… A pity he hadn't kept separate totals for men, women and children… Women burn more easily. An experienced brenner arranges the bodies so that the bony old men who make a lot of ash are lying next to the women. Any minute now they'd be ordered to turn off the road; these people – the people they'd been digging up from pits and dragging out with great hooks on the end of ropes – had received the same order only a year ago. An experienced brenner could look at a mound and immediately estimate how many bodies there were inside-50,100, 200,600,1000… Scharfuhrer Elf insisted that the bodies should be referred to as items – 100 items, 200 items – but Rozenberg called them people: a man who had been killed, a child who had been put to death, an old man who had been put to death. He used these words only to himself – otherwise the Scharfiihrer would have emptied nine grams of metal into him – but he continued obstinately muttering: 'So now you're coming out of the grave, old chap… There's no need to clutch your mother like that, my child, you won't be separated from her now…' 'What are you muttering about over there? Me? Nothing. You must have imagined it.' And he carried on muttering; that was his little struggle… The day before yesterday there had been a pit with only eight men in it. The Scharfiihrer had spluttered: 'It's ridiculous; how can you have twenty brentiers burning eight items?' The Scharfiihrer was right, but what could you do if there were only two Jewish families in a whole village? Orders were orders – all graves were to be dug up and all bodies burnt… Now they had turned off the road, they were walking along the grass – and there, for the hundred and fifteenth time, was the grey mound of a grave in the middle of a clearing. Eight men dug; four men felled oak trees and sawed them into logs the length of a human body; two men split these logs with axes and wedges; two men went back to the road to fetch old dry planks, kindling and petrol cans; four prepared the bonfire site and dug a ditch for the ash-pit – yes, they'd have to work out which way the wind was blowing.

The smell of damp and mould immediately vanished; the guards began laughing, cursing and holding their noses; the Scharfiihrer walked off to the edge of the clearing. The brenners threw down their spades, tied old rags round their mouths and noses and picked up their hooks again… 'Good day, grandad! So you're seeing the sun again! My! You are heavy…!' A mother who who had been killed with her three children – two boys, one of them already at school, and a girl born in 1939 who'd had rickets, but never mind, she's cured of that now… 'Don't clutch your mother like that, my child, she won't leave you now…' 'How many items?' shouted the Scharfiihrer from the edge of the clearing. 'Nineteen,' – and then, very quietly, to himself -'dead people.' Everyone cursed; they'd wasted half the day. But then last week they'd dug up a grave with two hundred young women in it. When they'd taken off the top layer of earth, a cloud of grey steam had risen from the grave. The guards had laughed: 'These women really are hot stuff!'

First they laid dry wood over the ventilation-ditches, then a layer of oak logs – they burned well – then women who'd been killed, then more wood, then men who'd been killed, then more wood, then the bits of human bodies that were left over, then a can of petrol, and then, right in the middle, an incendiary bomb. Then the Scharfuhrer gave the order; the guards were already smiling as the brenners shouted out: 'It's alight!' Finally, the ash was shovelled back into the grave. And it was quiet again. It had been quiet before and it was quiet again.

Then they had been taken further into the forest. This time there was no mound in the middle of the green clearing and the Scharfuhrer ordered them to dig a pit four metres long by three metres wide. They had understood at once: they had completed their task… 89 villages, 18 shtetl, 4 settlements, 2 district towns, 3 State farms – 2 arable and one dairy. Altogether that was 116 localities, 116 mounds they had dug… Rozenberg the accountant was still counting as he helped dig the pit for himself and the other brenners: 783 last week, and 4,826 during the thirty days before – that made 5,609 bodies they had cremated. He counted and counted and time slipped imperceptibly by; he was working out the average number of items – no, human bodies -in each grave: 5,809 divided by 116, the number of graves – that made 48.35 bodies in each communal grave, 48 in round numbers. If 20 brenners had been working for 37 days, then each brenner.. . 'Fall in!' shouted the chief guard. 'In die Grube marsch!' bellowed the Scharfuhrer.

But he didn't want to be buried. He started to run, he fell down, he started running again. He ran slowly – he didn't know how to – but they didn't get him. Now he was lying down on the grass, surrounded by the silence of the forest. He wasn't thinking about the sky above, nor was he thinking about Golda who had been killed in her sixth month of pregnancy; he was counting, trying-to finish the calculations he had been doing in the pit: 20 brenners, 37 days… So, first, the total of brenner days; second, how much wood per man; third, how many hours each item took to burn, how many…

A week later he'd been caught by the police and taken to the ghetto.

And here he was in the cattle-wagon, still muttering away, counting, dividing, multiplying. The accounts for the year! He would have to hand them in to Bukhman, the chief accountant at the State Bank. And then suddenly, while he was dreaming, his tears had come gushing out, burning him, breaking through the crust that had formed over his brain and his heart.

'Golda! Golda!' he cried out.

45

The window of her room looked out onto the barbed-wire fence that surrounded the ghetto. Musya Borisovna the librarian woke up during the night, lifted the hem of the curtain and saw two soldiers dragging a machine-gun. There were blue patches on its polished body and the spectacles of the officer walking in front were glittering in the moonlight. She heard the quiet hum of motors. Cars and lorries with dimmed headlights were approaching the ghetto. The heavy, silvery dust swirled around their wheels; they were like gods floating through the clouds.

Musya Borisovna watched as sub-units of the SS and SD, detachments of Ukrainian police, auxiliary units and a column of cars belonging to the Gestapo drew up at the gates of the sleeping ghetto. In these few minutes of moonlight she took the measure of the history of our age.

The moonlight, the slow majestic movement of the armoured units, the powerful black trucks, the timid ticking of the pendulum clock on the wall, the stockings, bra and blouse that seemed to have frozen on the chair – everything most incongruous had fused together.

46

Natasha, the daughter of Karasik, an old doctor who had been arrested and executed in 1937, tried now and then to sing in the cattle-wagon. No one seemed to mind even when she began singing during the night.

She was very shy. She always looked down at the ground when she spoke and her voice was barely audible. She had never visited anyone except her close relatives and she was astonished at the boldness of girls who danced at parties.

She had not been included in the small number of craftsmen and doctors whose lives were considered useful enough to be preserved… A policeman had pushed her towards a dusty mound in the marketplace where three drunken men were standing. She had known one of these men before the war: he had been in charge of some railway depot; now he was the Chief of Police. Before she had even understood that these three men were the arbiters of life and death, the policeman had given her another shove; she had joined the buzzing crowd of men, women and children who had been pronounced useless.

Then they had walked towards the airfield in the stifling heat of their last August day. As they walked past the dusty apple trees by the roadside, they had prayed, torn their clothes and uttered their last piercing cries. Natasha herself had remained quite silent.

She would never have thought that blood could be so strikingly red. When there was a momentary silence amid the shooting, screaming and groaning, she heard the murmur of flowing blood; it was like a stream, flowing over white bodies instead of white stones.

The quiet crackle of machine-gun fire and the gentle, exhausted face of the executioner – he had waited patiently as she walked timidly to the edge of the pit – had hardly seemed frightening at all… Later, during the night, she had wrung out her wet shirt and walked back to the town. The dead don't rise from the grave – so she must have been alive.

When she made her way back to the ghetto, through the small alleys and yards, she had found people dancing and singing on the main square. A band was playing a sad, dreamy waltz that had always been one of her favourites. Couples were whirling round in the wan light of the moon and the streetlamps; the shuffling of soldiers' boots and girls' shoes merged with the music. At that moment this young, drooping girl had felt joyful and self-assured. Quietly, under her breath, she began singing in anticipation of some future happiness. From time to time, when no one was watching, she had even tried to waltz.

47

David could only very dimly remember what had happened since the beginning of the war. There was one night, though, when a little of what he had just lived through came back to him.

It was dark and his grandmother was taking him to the Bukhmans. The sky was full of stars and the horizon was quite light, almost lemon-green. Burdock leaves brushed against his cheeks like cold, moist hands.

Everyone was sitting in a hiding-place in the attic, behind a false wall. In the sun the black sheets of corrugated-iron roofing gave off a fierce heat. Sometimes the smell of burning penetrated their hiding-place. The ghetto was on fire. During the day they had to lie absolutely still. The Bukhman's daughter, Svetlanochka, kept up a monotonous crying. Bukhman himself had a weak heart and in the daytime he looked as though he were dead. During the night he ate some food and quarrelled with his wife.

Suddenly they heard dogs barking. And words in a foreign language: 'Asta! Asta! Wo sind die Juden?' There was a growing rumble over their heads: the Germans had climbed out of the dormer-window onto the roof.

Then the thundering in the black tin sky died down. Through the walls they heard quiet, sly blows – someone was testing for echoes.

The hiding-place became silent. It was a terrible silence, a silence of tensed shoulders and necks, of bared teeth, of eyes bulging out of their sockets.

Then little Svetlana began her wordless lament. Her cries broke off very abruptly. David looked round and met the frenzied eyes of her mother, Rebekka Bukhman.

Once or twice since then he had glimpsed those eyes… And the head of the little girl – thrown right back like the head of a rag-doll.

He could remember everything that had happened before the war.

Those memories came back to him all the time. He had become like an old man – living on his past, loving it and cherishing it.

48

On David's birthday, 12 December, his mother had bought him a picture book.

A small grey goat was standing in a clearing; the darkness of the forest seemed particularly sinister. Among the dark-brown tree-trunks, the toadstools and the fly-agarics, you could see the wolf's green eyes and his red jaw with its bared teeth.

Only David knew about the now inevitable murder. He banged his fist on the table, he screened the goat with the palm of his hand – but he knew there was no way he could save it.

During the night he shouted out: 'Mummy, Mummy, Mummy!'

His mother woke up. As she came towards him, she was like a white cloud in the darkness. He yawned blissfully, knowing that the strongest power in the whole world was now defending him from the darkness of the forest.

When he was older, it was the red dogs in The Jungle Book that most frightened him. One night his room had become filled with wild red beasts; he had made his way barefoot, past the sticking-out chest of drawers, to his mother's bed.

When he was feverish and delirious, he always had the same nightmare. He was lying on a sandy beach and tiny waves, no bigger than the smallest of little fingers, were tickling his body. Suddenly, on the horizon, appeared a blue mountain of water; it got bigger and bigger as it rushed silently towards him. David lay there on the warm sand; the dark blue mountain loomed over him. This was something even more terrible than the wolf and the red dogs.

In the morning his mother would leave for work. He would go down the back stairs and pour a cup of milk into an empty crab-meat can – this was for a thin stray cat with a pale nose, weepy eyes and a long fine tail. And then one day a woman who lived next door had said that some people had come in the early morning, put that disgusting animal in a box and taken it away to the Institute, thank God…!

'Where on earth is this Institute? How can you expect me to go there? It's quite impossible. You'll just have to forget that unfortunate cat,' his mother had said as she looked into his pleading eyes. 'How are you going to survive in the world? You mustn't let yourself be so vulnerable.'

His mother had wanted to send him to a children's summer-camp. He had cried and pleaded with her, throwing up his hands in despair and shouting: 'I promise I'll go to my grandmother's, but please not that camp!'

His mother had taken him to his grandmother's by train. On the way he refused to eat; the idea of eating a hard-boiled egg, of taking a meat-rissole from a piece of greasy paper, made him feel ashamed.

His mother stayed there with him for the first five days and then had to go back to work. He said goodbye to her without a single tear, but he put his arms round her neck and hugged her so fiercely that she said: 'You'll strangle me like that, you silly. There are lots and lots of cheap strawberries here, and in two months time I'll come back and fetch you.'

There was a bus-stop next to his grandmother's house. The bus went from the town to the tannery. The Ukrainian word for bus-stop was zupynka.

His late grandfather had been a member of the Jewish Bund; he had been very famous and had once lived in Paris. As a result, his grandmother was greatly respected – and frequently given the sack from her work.

He could hear radios blaring out through the open windows. 'Attention, attention, this is Radio Kiev speaking…'

In the daytime the street was quite deserted; it only came to life when the apprentices at the tannery came past, calling out across the street: 'Bella, did you pass? Yashka, come and help me go over Marxism again!'

In the evenings everyone came home – the tannery workers, the shop assistants, and Sorok, an electrician at the local radio-station. His grandmother worked for the trade-union committee at the surgery.

David never got bored, even when his grandmother was out.

Not far from the house was an old orchard that didn't belong to anyone. Chickens marked with paint wandered about between decrépit apple trees that no longer bore fruit; an elderly goat grazed quietly; ants appeared silently on the tall blades of grass. The town-dwellers – the blackbirds and sparrows – behaved with noisy self-assurance, while the birds from the fields outside, birds whose names David didn't know, were like timid village maidens.

He heard many words that were quite new to him: gletchik… dikt . .. kalyuzha… ryazhenka… ryaska… puzhalo. .. lyadache koshenya [25] He could recognize in these words echoes and reflections of his own mother-tongue. He heard Yiddish. He felt quite astonished when his mother and grandmother began speaking it together; never before had he heard his mother speak a language he couldn't understand.

His grandmother took David to visit her niece, stout Rebekka Bukhman. David was struck by the number of white wicker blinds in her room. Edward Isaakovich Bukhman came in, wearing a soldier's tunic and a pair of boots. He was the head accountant at the State Bank.

'Chaim,' said Rebekka, 'this is our guest from Moscow, Raya's son.'

'Go on then,' she urged David. 'Say hello to Uncle Edward.'

'Uncle Edward, why does Aunt Rebekka call you Chaim?' David asked.

'That's a very difficult question,' said Edward Bukhman. 'Don't you know that in England all Chaims are called Edward?'

Then the cat began scratching at the door. Finally she managed to open it with her claws and everyone saw an anxious-looking little girl sitting on a pot in the middle of the room.

One Sunday David went with his grandmother to market. There were other women going in the same direction: old women in black dresses; peasant women in heavy boots; sullen, sleepy-looking women who worked as guards on the railways; haughty-looking women with red and blue handbags who were married to important local officials.

Jewish beggars kept shouting at them in rude, angry voices – people seemed to give alms out of fear rather than compassion. Big trucks from the collective farms drove along the cobbled roadway, carrying sacks of potatoes and wickerwork cages full of hens that squawked at each pot-hole like a group of sickly old Jews. David saw a dead calf being dragged off a cart; its pale mouth was hanging half-open and the curly white hairs on its neck were stained with blood.

His grandmother bought a speckled hen; she carried it by its legs, which had been tied together with a white rag. David was walking beside her. He wanted to reach out and help the hen lift up its powerless head; he wondered how his grandmother could be so inhumanly cruel.

David remembered some incomprehensible words of his mother's: she had said that his grandfather's relatives were members of the intelligentsia, while his grandmother's relatives were all shopkeepers and tradesmen. That must be why his grandmother didn't feel sorry for the hen.

They went into a yard; an old man in a skull-cap came out to meet them. His grandmother said something in Yiddish. The old man picked the hen up in his hands and began mumbling; the hen cackled unsuspectingly. Then the old man did something very quick – something barely perceptible but obviously terrible – and threw the hen over his shoulder. It ran off, feebly flapping its wings. David saw that it had no head. The body was running all by itself. The old man had killed it. After a few steps it fell to the earth, scratching with its young, powerful claws, and died.

That night David felt as though the damp smell of dead cows and their slaughtered children had even got into his room.

Death, who had once lived in a fairy-tale forest where a fairy-tale wolf was creeping up on a fairy-tale goat, was no longer confined to the pages of a book. For the first time David felt very clearly that he himself was mortal, not just in a fairy-tale way, but in actual fact.

He understood that one day his mother would die. And it wasn't from the fairy-tale forest and the dim light of its fir-trees that Death would come for him and his mother – it would come from this very air, from these walls, from life itself, and there was no way they would be able to hide from it.

He sensed Death with a depth and clarity of which only small children or great philosophers are capable, philosophers who are themselves almost childlike in the power and simplicity of their thinking.

A calm warm smell came from the big wardrobe and the chairs whose worn seats had been replaced by plywood boards; it was the same smell that came from his grandmother's hair and dress. A warm, deceptively calm night surrounded him.

49

The living world was no longer confined to the pages of spelling books and the faces of toy bricks. David saw how much blue there was in the drake's dark wings and how much gay smiling mockery in the way he quacked. He climbed up the rough trunks of cherry trees and reached out to pick the white cherries that glowed among the leaves. He walked up to a calf that had been tethered on a patch of wasteland and offered him a sugar-lump; numb with happiness, he looked into the friendly eyes of this great baby.

Red-haired little Pynchik came up to David and said to him, rolling his r's splendidly: 'Let's have a scrrrap!'

There was little difference between the Jews and the Ukrainians who lived in the different houses that looked onto his grandmother's yard. Old Partynskaya called on his grandmother and said in her drawling voice: 'Guess what, Roza Nusinovna? Sonya's going to Kiev; she's made it up with her husband again.'

His grandmother threw up her hands and laughed.

'What a farce!'

David found he liked this world better than his own Kirov street – where an old woman called Drago-Dragon, with waved hair and a lot of rouge, went for walks with her poodle; where a Zis-101 limousine waited outside the front door every morning; where a woman with a pince-nez and a cigarette between her made-up lips stood over the communal gas-stove, furiously muttering, 'You Trotskyist, you've moved my coffee off the burner again!'

It had been night when he and his mother arrived at the station. In the moonlight they had walked down the cobbled street, past the white Catholic church – where a niche in the wall housed a rather thin, bowed Christ, about the height of a twelve-year-old, his head crowned with thorns – and past the teacher-training college where his mother had once studied.

A few days later, on Friday evening, David saw the old men walking to the synagogue through the clouds of golden dust kicked up by the barefooted footballers on the wasteland.

There was a heart-rending charm in this juxtaposition of white Ukrainian huts, squeaking well-handles and the ancient patterns on black-and-white prayer-shawls. Everything was jumbled together – Kobzar [26], Pushkin and Tolstoy, physics textbooks, Lenin's Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder… And the sons of cobblers and tailors who had first come here at the time of the Civil War, teachers from the raykom, orators and troublemakers from the district trade-union soviets, truck-drivers, detectives, lecturers in Marxism…

It was at his grandmother's that David first learned that his mother was unhappy. Aunt Rachel – a stout woman whose cheeks were so red that she seemed to be always blushing-was the first person to tell him.

'Leaving such a wonderful woman as your mother! Well, he'll live to regret it!'

By the following day David knew that his father had left his mother for a Russian woman who was eight years his elder; that he earned two and a half thousand roubles a month in the Philarmonia Society; and that his mother refused to accept any alimony and lived on the three hundred and ten roubles a month she earned herself.

Once David showed his grandmother the cocoon he kept in a little matchbox.

'Ugh! What do you want that filth for? Throw it away!' she ordered.

Twice David went to the goods-yard and watched bulls, rams and pigs being loaded into the cattle-wagons. He heard one of the bulls bellowing loudly – complaining or asking for pity. The boy's soul was filled with horror, but the tired railway-workers in their torn, dirty jackets didn't so much as look round.

A week after David's arrival, Deborah, one of his grandmother's neighbours, gave birth to her first child. She was the wife of Lazar Yankelevich, a machinist in the agricultural-machinery factory. The previous year she had been to visit her sister in Kolyma and had been struck by lightning during a storm. They had tried to give her artificial respiration, but finally gave up and buried her. She had lain there, as though dead, for two hours – and now she had given birth to a child. She had been sterile for fifteen years. His grandmother told David all this and then added: 'That's what they say – but she did have an operation last year.'

David and his grandmother went to call on Deborah.

'Well, Luzya! Well, Deba!' said David's grandmother, looking at the little creature in the washing-basket. There was something almost threatening in the way she pronounced these words, as though she were warning the father and mother never to be frivolous about the miracle that had just taken place.

There was an old woman called Sorgina who lived in a little house by the railway-line with her two sons; they were both deaf-mutes and both worked as hairdressers. All their neighbours were afraid of the family.

'Yes, yes, they're as quiet as mice till they get drunk,' old Partyn-skaya told David. 'But when they get drunk, they snatch up their knives and rush at one another, screaming and squealing like a pair of horses!'

Once David's grandmother sent him round to Musya Borisovna with a jar of sour cream. The librarian's room was tiny. There was a little cup on a table, some little books on a shelf fixed to the wall and a little photograph hanging over her bed. It was a photograph of David in swaddling clothes together with his mother. When David looked at the photograph Musya Borisovna blushed and said: 'Your mother and I shared the same desk at school.'

He read out the fable of the ant and the grasshopper and she, very quietly, read the poem 'Sasha Was Crying as They Cut Down the Forest'.

In the morning the whole yard was buzzing. Solomon Slepoy's fur coat had been stolen – it had been sewn up in moth-balls for the summer.

'God be praised!' said his grandmother. 'It's the least he deserves.'

David learned that Slepoy had been an informer and had betrayed lots of people at the time of the confiscation of foreign currency and gold coins. He had informed on people again in 1937. Two of the people he betrayed had been shot and one had died in a prison hospital.

Night and its strange noises, bird-song, innocent blood – everything was mixed together into a rich, seething stew. Decades later, David might have been able to understand it; but even at the time he was aware both of its horror and of its poignant charm.

50

Before slaughtering infected cattle, various preparatory measures have to be carried out: pits and trenches must be dug; the cattle must be transported to where they are to be slaughtered; instructions must be issued to qualified workers.

If the local population helps the authorities to convey the infected cattle to the slaughtering points and to catch beasts that have run away, they do this not out of hatred of cows and calves, but out of an instinct for self-preservation.

Similarly, when people are to be slaughtered en masse, the local population is not immediately gripped by a bloodthirsty hatred of the old men, women and children who are to be destroyed. It is necessary to prepare the population by means of a special campaign. And in this case it is not enough to rely merely on the instinct for self-preservation; it is necessary to stir up feelings of real hatred and revulsion.

It was in such an atmosphere that the Germans carried out the extermination of the Ukrainian and Byelorussian Jews. And at an earlier date, in the same regions, Stalin himself had mobilized the fury of the masses, whipping it up to the point of frenzy during the campaigns to liquidate the kulaks as a class and during the extermination of Trotskyist-Bukharinite degenerates and saboteurs.

Experience showed that such campaigns make the majority of the population obey every order of the authorities as though hypnotized. There is a particular minority which actively helps to create the atmosphere of these campaigns: ideological fanatics; people who take a bloodthirsty delight in the misfortunes of others; and people who want to settle personal scores, to steal a man's belongings or take over his flat or job. Most people, however, are horrified at mass murder, but they hide this not only from their families, but even from themselves. These are the people who filled the meeting-halls during the campaigns of destruction; however vast these halls or frequent these meetings, very few of them ever disturbed the quiet unanimity of the voting. Still fewer, of course, rather than turning away from the beseeching gaze of a dog suspected of rabies, dared to take the dog in and allow it to live in their houses. Nevertheless, this did happen.

The first half of the twentieth century may be seen as a time of great scientific discoveries, revolutions, immense social transformations and two World Wars. It will go down in history, however, as the time when – in accordance with philosophies of race and society – whole sections of the Jewish population were exterminated. Understandably, the present day remains discreetly silent about this.

One of the most astonishing human traits that came to light at this time was obedience. There were cases of huge queues being formed by people awaiting execution – and it was the victims themselves who regulated the movement of these queues. There were hot summer days when people had to wait from early morning until late at night; some mothers prudently provided themselves with bread and bottles of water for their children. Millions of innocent people, knowing that they would soon be arrested, said goodbye to their nearest and dearest in advance and prepared little bundles containing spare underwear and a towel. Millions of people lived in vast camps that had not only been built by prisoners but were even guarded by them.

And it wasn't merely tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, but hundreds of millions of people who were the obedient witnesses of this slaughter of the innocent. Nor were they merely obedient witnesses: when ordered to, they gave their support to this slaughter, voting in favour of it amid a hubbub of voices. There was something unexpected in the degree of their obedience.

There was, of course, resistance; there were acts of courage and determination on the part of those who had been condemned; there were uprisings; there were men who risked their own lives and the lives of their families in order to save the life of a stranger. But the obedience of the vast mass of people is undeniable.

What does this tell us? That a new trait has suddenly appeared in human nature? No, this obedience bears witness to a new force acting on human beings. The extreme violence of totalitarian social systems proved able to paralyse the human spirit throughout whole continents.

A man who has placed his soul in the service of Fascism declares an evil and dangerous slavery to be the only true good. Rather than overtly renouncing human feelings, he declares the crimes committed by Fascism to be the highest form of humanitarianism; he agrees to divide people up into the pure and worthy and the impure and unworthy.

The instinct for self-preservation is supported by the hypnotic power of world ideologies. These call people to carry out any sacrifice, to accept any means, in order to achieve the highest of ends: the future greatness of the motherland, world progress, the future happiness of mankind, of a nation, of a class.

One more force co-operated with the life-instinct and the power of great ideologies: terror at the limitless violence of a powerful State, terror at the way murder had become the basis of everyday life.

The violence of a totalitarian State is so great as to be no longer a means to an end; it becomes an object of mystical worship and adoration. How else can one explain the way certain intelligent, thinking Jews declared the slaughter of the Jews to be necessary for the happiness of mankind? That in view of this they were ready to take their own children to be executed – ready to carry out the sacrifice once demanded of Abraham? How else can one explain the case of a gifted, intelligent poet, himself a peasant by birth, who with sincere conviction wrote a long poem celebrating the terrible years of suffering undergone by the peasantry, years that had swallowed up his own father, an honest and simple-hearted labourer?

Another fact that allowed Fascism to gain power over men was their blindness. A man cannot believe that he is about to be destroyed. The optimism of people standing on the edge of the grave is astounding. The soil of hope – a hope that was senseless and sometimes dishonest and despicable – gave birth to a pathetic obedience that was often equally despicable.

The Warsaw Rising, the uprisings at Treblinka and Sobibor, the various mutinies of brenners, were all born of hopelessness. But then utter hopelessness engenders not only resistance and uprisings but also a yearning to be executed as quickly as possible.

People argued over their place in the queue beside the blood-filled ditch while a mad, almost exultant voice shouted out: 'Don't be afraid, Jews. It's nothing terrible. Five minutes and it will all be over.'

Everything gave rise to obedience – both hope and hopelessness.

It is important to consider what a man must have suffered and endured in order to feel glad at the thought of his impending execution. It is especially important to consider this if one is inclined to moralize, to reproach the victims for their lack of resistance in conditions of which one has little conception.

Having established man's readiness to obey when confronted with limitless violence, we must go on to draw one further conclusion that is of importance for an understanding of man and his future.

Does human nature undergo a true change in the cauldron of totalitarian violence? Does man lose his innate yearning for freedom? The fate of both man and the totalitarian State depends on the answer to this question. If human nature does change, then the eternal and world-wide triumph of the dictatorial State is assured; if his yearning for freedom remains constant, then the totalitarian State is doomed.

The great Rising in the Warsaw ghetto, the uprisings in Treblinka and Sobibor; the vast partisan movement that flared up in dozens of countries enslaved by Hitler; the uprisings in Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in the labour-camps of Siberia and the Far East after Stalin's death; the riots at this time in Poland, the number of factories that went on strike and the student protests that broke out in many cities against the suppression of freedom of thought; all these bear witness to the indestructibility of man's yearning for freedom. This yearning was suppressed but it continued to exist. Man's fate may make him a slave, but his nature remains unchanged.

Man's innate yearning for freedom can be suppressed but never destroyed. Totalitarianism cannot renounce violence. If it does, it perishes. Eternal, ceaseless violence, overt or covert, is the basis of totalitarianism. Man does not renounce freedom voluntarily. This conclusion holds out hope for our time, hope for the future.

51

An electronic machine can carry out mathematical calculations, remember historical facts, play chess and translate books from one language to another. It is able to solve mathematical problems more quickly than man and its memory is faultless. Is there any limit to progress, to its ability to create machines in the image and likeness of man? It seems that the answer is no.

It is not impossible to imagine the machine of future ages and millennia. It will be able to listen to music and appreciate art; it will even be able to compose melodies, paint pictures and write poems. Is there a limit to its perfection? Can it be compared to man? Will it surpass him?

Childhood memories… tears of happiness… the bitterness of parting… love of freedom… feelings of pity for a sick puppy… nervousness… a mother's tenderness… thoughts of death… sadness… friendship… love of the weak… sudden hope… a fortunate guess… melancholy… unreasoning joy… sudden embarrassment…

The machine will be able to recreate all of this! But the surface of the whole earth will be too small to accommodate this machine – this machine whose dimensions and weight will continually increase as it attempts to reproduce the peculiarities of mind and soul of an average, inconspicuous human being.

Fascism annihilated tens of millions of people.

52

Inside a large, bright, clean house in a village in the Urals surrounded by forest, Novikov, the commanding officer of the tank corps, and Getmanov, his commissar, finished reading the reports of their brigade commanders. They had just been ordered to prepare to leave for the front.

The present moment was a brief lull after the feverish activity of the previous few days.

As is always the case, Novikov and his subordinates felt they hadn't had enough time to complete their training programme. But now there was no more time to study optics, radio equipment, the principles of ballistics or the workings of motors and running parts. They had finished their exercises in the evaluation of targets, the determination of the correct moment to open fire, the observation of shell-bursts, the adjustment of aim and the substitution of targets. A new teacher – the war itself – would soon fill in the blanks and catch out anyone who had been left behind.

Getmanov stretched out his hand towards the small cupboard between the windows, tapped it with his finger and said: 'Come on, friend. Let's see you in the front line!'

Novikov opened the cupboard, took out a bottle of cognac and filled two large blueish glasses.

'Well then, who shall we drink to?' said the commissar thoughtfully.

Novikov knew who they were supposed to drink to, and why Getmanov had asked this question. After a moment's hesitation, he said: 'Comrade Commissar, let's drink to the men we're about to lead into battle. Here's hoping they don't shed too much blood!'

'That's right. Let's drink to the lads. They're the most precious capital of all.'

They clinked their glasses and drained them. With a haste he was unable to conceal, Novikov refilled the glasses and said: 'And here's to comrade Stalin. May we justify his faith in us!'

Novikov saw the hidden mockery in Getmanov's friendly, watchful eyes. Cursing himself, he thought: 'Damn it! I shouldn't have been in such a hurry.'

'Yes, let's drink to the old man,' Getmanov replied good-humouredly. 'Under his leadership we've marched to the banks of the Volga.'

Novikov stared at the commissar. But what could he hope to read in the slit eyes, bright but without kindness, of this intelligent forty-year-old man with his large smiling face and high cheekbones?

Suddenly Getmanov began to talk about their chief of staff, General Nyeudobnov.

'He's a fine fellow. A Bolshevik. A true Stalinist. A man with experience of leadership. And stamina. I remember him from 1937. Yezhov sent him to clean up the military district. Well, I wasn't exactly running a kindergarten myself at that time, but he really did do a thorough job. He was an axe – he had whole lists of men liquidated. Yes, he certainly merited Yezhov's trust – as much as Vasily Vasily-evich Ulrich. [27] We must ask him to join us now or he'll be offended.'

Getmanov's tone of voice made it seem as though he was condemning the struggle against the enemies of the people, a struggle in which – as Novikov knew – he had himself played an important role. Once again he looked at Getmanov and felt baffled.

'Yes,' he said slowly and reluctantly. 'Some people did go too far then.'

Getmanov made a gesture of despair. 'We received a bulletin from the General Staff today. It's quite appalling. The Germans have almost reached Mount Elbruz, and at Stalingrad they're forcing our troops into the river. And let me say this straight out: those lads are partly to blame for all this. They shot our own men, they destroyed our own cadres.'

Novikov felt a sudden surge of trust in Getmanov.

'Yes, comrade Commissar, many fine men were destroyed. Real damage was done to the Army then. Look at General Krivoruchko – he lost an eye during interrogation. Though he did split open his interrogator's skull with an inkpot.'

Getmanov nodded in agreement. 'Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria thinks very highly of Nyeudobnov. And Lavrentiy Pavlovich is an intelligent man: he never misjudges people.'

'Yes, yes,' thought Novikov resignedly. He didn't say anything.

For a moment they were both silent, listening to the low voices next door.

'Nonsense, those are our socks.'

'What do you mean, comrade Lieutenant? Have you gone blind or something? And don't you touch those – those are our collars.'

'Nonsense, comrade Political Instructor! Look! Can't you see?'

The two orderlies were sorting out Novikov's and Getmanov's laundry.

'I keep an eye on those devils the whole time,' said Getmanov. 'Once the two of us were on our way towards Fatov's battalion to watch their firing exercises. I crossed the river by some stepping-stones, while you jumped across and then stamped your feet to shake off the mud. I looked round and saw our two orderlies doing exactly the same thing: mine used the stepping-stones, while yours jumped across and stamped his feet.'

'Hey, you fire-eaters!' called Novikov. 'Try swearing a bit more quietly.' The two orderlies immediately fell silent.

General Nyeudobnov, a pale man with a high forehead and thick grey hair, came into the room. He looked at the bottle and glasses, put down his file on the table, and said to Novikov:

'Comrade Colonel, we need a new chief of staff for the second brigade. Mikhalev won't be back for six weeks; I just received a certificate from hospital.'

'And even then he'll be missing his guts and part of his stomach,' said Getmanov. He poured out some cognac and offered it to Nyeudobnov.

'Have a drink, comrade General, while your guts are still in one piece.'

Nyeudobnov raised his eyebrows and looked questioningly at Novikov.

'Please, comrade General, feel free!'

Novikov was annoyed by the way Getmanov always seemed to be in control of every situation. At meetings he held forth at length about technical matters he knew nothing about. And, with the same assurance, he would invite people to lie down for a rest on someone else's bed, offer them someone else's cognac, or read through papers that had nothing to do with him.

'We could appoint Major Basangov temporarily,' said Novikov. 'He knows what's what. And he was taking part in tank-battles right at the beginning of the war, near Novograd-Volynsk. Does the commissar have any objections?'

'Of course not,' said Getmanov. 'It's not for me to object… There is one thing, though. The second-in-command of the second brigade is an Armenian; you want the chief of staff to be a Kalmyk – and we've already got some Lifshits as chief of staff of the third brigade. Couldn't we do without the Kalmyk?' He looked at Novikov, then at Nyeudobnov.

'That's how we all feel,' said Nyeudobnov. 'And on the face of it you're right. But then Marxism's taught us to look at things differently.'

'What matters is how well the comrade in question can fight the Germans,' said Novikov. 'That's what Marxism tells me. I'm really not interested in where his grandfather prayed – whether he went to church, to a mosque…,' he paused for a moment to think, '… or to a synagogue. What matters in war is how well you can fight.'

'Quite right,' said Getmanov brightly. 'We're certainly not having synagogues and meeting-houses in our tank corps. We are, after all, defending Russia.'

A frown suddenly appeared on his face. 'Quite frankly,' he went on angrily, 'all this makes me want to vomit. In the name of the friendship of nations we keep sacrificing the Russians. A member of a national minority barely needs to know the alphabet to be appointed a people's commissar, while our Ivan, no matter if he's a genius, has to "yield place to the minorities". The great Russian people's becoming a national minority itself. I'm all for the friendship of nations, but not on these terms. I'm sick of it!'

Novikov thought for a moment, glanced at the papers on the table, then tapped a fingernail against his glass. 'So that's how it is. You think I discriminate against Russians out of a particular sympathy for Kalmyks?'

He turned to Nyeudobnov. 'Very well, I'm appointing Major Sazonov as temporary chief of staff of the second brigade.'

'A fine soldier,' said Getmanov quietly.

Yet again, Novikov, who had always been rude, harsh and highhanded with people, realized how uncertain of himself he felt with Getmanov. 'It doesn't matter,' he told himself. 'Politically, I'm illiterate. I'm just a proletarian who happens to know about war. My task is very simple – to smash the Germans.'

But however much he laughed at Getmanov's military ignorance, Novikov couldn't deny that he was afraid of him.

Getmanov was short and broad-shouldered. He had a large stomach and a large head with tousled hair. He was very active, quick to laugh, and he had a loud voice. He appeared inexhaustible. Despite the fact that he had never served at the front, people said of him: 'Yes, our commissar's a true soldier.' He enjoyed holding meetings and his speeches went down well with the troops: he made lots of jokes and spoke very simply, often quite coarsely.

He walked with a slight waddle and often made use of a stick. If an absent-minded soldier was slow in saluting him, he would stop in front of him, leaning on his famous stick, take off his cap, and make a deep bow – like some old man in a village.

He was quick-tempered and resented it if someone answered him back; if anyone did argue with him, he would at once start puffing and frowning. He once lost his temper and punched Captain Gubyonkov, the chief of staff of the heavy artillery regiment; the latter was rather obstinate and – in the words of his comrades – 'terribly high-principled'.

On this occasion, Getmanov's orderly had simply remarked: 'The swine – he really drove our commissar crazy.'

Getmanov felt no respect for people who had gone through the terrible first days of the war. He once remarked about Makarov, the commander of the First Brigade and a favourite of Novikov's, 'All that philosophy of 1941 – I'll shove it down his throat!' Novikov hadn't said anything, though he enjoyed talking to Makarov about that terrible but fascinating time.

On the surface, Getmanov, with his bold, sweeping judgements, seemed the very antithesis of Nyeudobnov. Nevertheless, there was something similar about them that brought them together.

Nyeudobnov's calm, deliberate manner of speaking, his blank, but expressive expression, were truly depressing. Getmanov, on the other hand, would laugh and say: 'We're in luck. The Fritzes have done more to put the peasants' backs up in one year than we Communists in twenty-five.' Or 'What can we do? The old boy really likes it when people call him a genius.' But this boldness of Getmanov's, far from being infectious, usually quite unnerved the man he was talking to.

Before the war, Getmanov had been in charge of an oblast. He had given speeches about the production of fire-bricks and the organization of scientific research at the Coal Institute, about the quality of bread from the municipal bakery, about the faults of a story entitled 'Blue Flames' that had been printed in the local almanac, about the reconstruction of the municipal garage, about inadequate storage facilities in the local warehouses, and about an epidemic of fowl-pest in the kolkhozes.

Now he spoke with the same authority about the quality of fuel and the rate of deterioration of engines, about tactics in battle, about the co-ordination of tanks, artillery and infantry if they broke through the enemy front, about medical assistance under fire, about radio codes, about the psychology of the soldier in combat, about the relations between one tank-crew and another, and between the individual members of each crew, about running repairs and major overhauls, and about the removal of damaged tanks from the battlefield.

Once, after a gunnery exercise, Novikov and Getmanov had stopped in front of the winning tank. As he answered their questions, the soldier in command had gently caressed the side of the tank. Getmanov had asked if he had found the exercise difficult.

'No, why should I? I love my tank very much. I came to the training school straight from my village. The moment I saw her, I fell in love. Impossibly in love.'

'So it was love at first sight, was it?' said Getmanov. He burst out laughing.

There was something condescending in Getmanov's laughter – as though he were criticizing this young man's ridiculous love for his tank. Novikov felt then that he himself could be equally ridiculous, that he could fall equally stupidly in love. But he said nothing of this to Getmanov. Getmanov had then become serious again.

'Good lad! Love for one's tank is a great strength,' he said sententiously. 'It's brought you success.'

'But what's there to love about it?' Novikov had asked ironically. 'It offers a magnificent target. Anyone can put it out of action. It makes an appalling din that gives its position away to the enemy and drives its crew round the bend. And it shakes you about so much you can hardly even observe, let alone take aim.'

Getmanov had looked at Novikov and smiled sardonically. Now, as he refilled the glasses, he looked at Novikov with that same smile and said: 'We'll be going through Kuibyshev. Our commanding officer will have a chance to see a friend or two there. Here's to your meeting!'

'That's all I needed,' thought Novikov. He was blushing like a schoolboy and he knew it.

Nyeudobnov had been abroad when the war began. It was only in early 1942, on his return to the People's Commissariat of Defence in Moscow, that he had first heard the air-raid warnings and seen the anti-tank defences beyond the Moscow river. Like Getmanov, he never asked Novikov direct questions about military matters, perhaps because he was ashamed of his own ignorance.

Novikov kept wondering how it was he had become a general. He began to study the pages of forms that made up Nyeudobnov's dossier; his life was reflected there like a birch tree in a lake.

Nyeudobnov was older than Novikov or Getmanov. He had been imprisoned in 1916 for belonging to a Bolshevik circle. After the Civil War he had been sent by the Party to work in the OGPU. [28] He had been posted to the frontier and then sent to the Military Academy where he had been secretary of the Party organization for his year… He had then worked in the military department of the Central Committee and in the central office of the People's Commissariat of Defence.

Before the war he had twice been sent abroad. He was on the nomenklatura. Before now, Novikov had never fully understood what this meant, just what special rights and privileges it entailed.

The period, usually a very lengthy one, between being recommended for promotion and having this confirmed had, in Nyeudobnov's case, always been reduced to a bare minimum. It was as if the People's Commissar for Defence had had no more urgent matters to attend to.

There was one strange thing, however, about the information contained in such dossiers: one moment they seemed to explain all the mysteries of a man's life, all his successes and failures – and then a moment later they seemed only to obscure matters, not to explain anything at all.

Since the beginning of the war, people's biographies, service records, confidential reports and diplomas of honour had come to be looked at differently… And so General Nyeudobnov had been subordinated to Colonel Novikov. He knew, though, that this was only a temporary abnormality, something that would be rectified as soon as the war was over.

Nyeudobnov had brought with him a hunting rifle that had made all the aficionados gasp with envy. Novikov had said that Nicholas II might have used one just like it. Nyeudobnov had been given it in 1938, together with a dacha and various other confiscated items: furniture, carpets, and some fine china.

Whether they were talking about the war, kolkhozes, a book by General Dragomir, the Chinese, the fine qualities of General Rokossovsky, the climate in Siberia, the quality of cloth used for military greatcoats, the superiority of blondes over brunettes, Nyeudobnov never ventured any opinion that was in the least original. It was hard to know whether this was a matter of reserve or simply a reflection of his true nature.

After supper he sometimes became more talkative and began telling stories about enemies of the people who had been unmasked in the most unlikely places – medical-instrument factories, workshops producing army boots, sweetshops, Pioneer [29] palaces, the stables of the Moscow Hippodrome, the Tretyakovsky Gallery…

He had an excellent memory and seemed to have studied the works of Lenin and Stalin in great detail. During an argument he would say: 'As early as the Seventeenth Congress, comrade Stalin said…' – and begin to quote.

'There are quotations and quotations,' Getmanov once said to him. 'All kinds of things have been said at one time or another. For instance: "We don't want other people's land and we won't yield an inch of our own." And where are the Germans now?'

Nyeudobnov had just shrugged his shoulders as though the Germans on the Volga were of no importance compared to the famous words he had quoted.

Suddenly everything vanished – tanks, service regulations, gunnery exercises, the forest, Getmanov, Nyeudobnov… Nothing was left but Zhenya. Zhenya! Was he really going to see her again?

53

____________________ m ____________________

Novikov had been surprised when Getmanov, having read a letter from home, had said: 'My wife says she feels sorry for us. I told her what our living conditions are like.' What Getmanov found arduous, Novikov regarded as uncomfortably luxurious.

For the first time he had been able to choose his own lodgings. Once, leaving to visit one of the brigades, he said he didn't like the sofa. On his return, he found it had already been exchanged for an armchair. His orderly, Vershkov, was waiting anxiously to see if he liked it.

The cook was always asking: 'Is the borshch all right, comrade Colonel?'

Ever since he was a child he had loved animals. Now he had a hedgehog that lived under his bed and pattered round the room at night. He also had a young chipmunk that ate nuts and lived in a special cage, decorated with an emblem of a tank, which had been presented to him by the maintenance workshop. The chipmunk had quickly got used to Novikov and now sometimes sat on his knee, looking up at him with childish trust and curiosity. Orlenev the cook, Kharitonov the driver, and Vershkov were all kind and attentive towards these animals.

All this was not without importance for Novikov. Once, before the war, he had brought a puppy into the officers' mess. It had taken a bite out of the slipper of the lady sitting next to him – a colonel – and made three puddles on the floor in half an hour. There had been such an outcry in the communal kitchen that he had had to part with the creature at once.

It was their last day – and it brought with it worries about fuel, about supplies for the journey and the best way to load the vehicles onto the tank-carriers.

He began to wonder about his future neighbours, the men whose artillery regiments and infantry battalions would also be setting out today. He began to wonder about the man before whom he himself would have to stand to attention and say: 'Comrade Colonel-General, allow me to report…'

It was their last day – and he hadn't managed to see his brother and niece. When he came to the Urals he had thought how near his brother would be, but in the end he hadn't had time for him.

He had already received reports that the tank-carriers were ready, that the brigades had set off, and that the hedgehog and chipmunk had been released into the forest.

It's hard to be the absolute master, to feel responsible for the last trifling detail. The tanks have already been loaded, but has everything been done correctly? Are they all in first gear, brakes firmly on, turrets pointing ahead, hatches battened down? Have wooden blocks been placed in position to stop the tanks shifting and unbalancing the wagons?

'How about a farewell game of cards?' asked Getmanov.

'All right,' said Nyeudobnov.

Novikov chose instead to go outside and be alone for a moment.

It was early in the evening, very quiet, and the air was extraordinarily transparent; even the smallest objects were clearly and distinctly visible. The smoke rose vertically from the chimneys. Logs crackled in the field-kitchens. A girl was embracing a dark-haired soldier in the middle of the street, her head on his chest, weeping. Boxes, suitcases and typewriters in black cases were being carried out of the buildings that had served as their HQ. Signallers were reeling in the thick black cables that stretched between corps headquarters and the headquarters of each brigade. A tank behind the barns backfired and let out puffs of exhaust smoke as it prepared to set off. Drivers were filling the petrol tanks of their new Ford trucks and removing the thick covers from their radiators. Meanwhile, the rest of the world was perfectly still.

Novikov stood on the porch and looked round; for a moment all his cares and anxieties fell away. Soon afterwards he set out in his jeep on the road to the station.

The tanks were coming out of the forest. The ground, already hardened by the first frosts, rang beneath the unaccustomed weight. The evening sun lit up the crowns of the distant firs where Karpov's brigade was slowly emerging. Makarov's brigade was passing through some young birch trees. The soldiers had decorated their tanks with branches; the pine-needles and birch-leaves seemed as much a part of the tanks as the armour-plating, the roar of the motors and the silvery click of their tracks.

When old soldiers see reserves being moved up to the front, they say, 'It looks like a wedding.'

Novikov pulled in to the side of the road and watched the tanks come past. What dramas had taken place here! What strange and ridiculous stories! What extraordinary incidents and emergencies had been reported to him…! At breakfast one day a frog had been discovered in the soup… Sub-Lieutenant Rozhdestvensky, who had completed ten years of schooling, had accidentally wounded a comrade in the stomach while he was cleaning his rifle; he had then committed suicide… A soldier in the motorized infantry battalion had refused to take the oath, saying: 'I only swear oaths in church.'

Blue-grey smoke twined round the bushes by the side of the road. What diverse thoughts lay hidden beneath all these leather helmets! Some they all shared – love of one's country, the sorrow of war; others were extraordinarily varied.

My God… What a lot of them there were, all wearing black overalls with wide belts. They had been chosen for their broad shoulders and short stature – so they could climb through the hatches and move about inside the tanks. How similar the answers on their forms had been – to questions about their fathers and mothers, their date of birth, the number of years they had completed at school, their experience as tractor-drivers. The shiny green T-34S, hatches open, tarpaulins strapped to their armour-plating, seemed to blend into one.

One soldier was singing; another, his eyes half-closed, was full of dire forebodings; a third was thinking about home; a fourth was chewing some bread and sausage and thinking about the sausage; a fifth, his mouth wide open, was trying to identify a bird on a tree; a sixth was worrying about whether he'd offended his mate by swearing at him the previous night; a seventh, still furious, was dreaming of giving his enemy – the commander of the tank in front – a good punch on the jaw; an eighth was composing a farewell poem to the autumn forest; a ninth was thinking about a girl's breasts; a tenth was thinking about his dog – sensing that she was about to be abandoned among the bunkers, she had jumped up onto the armour-plating, pathetically wagging her tail in an attempt to win him over; an eleventh was thinking how good it would be to live alone in a hut in the forest, drinking spring-water, eating berries and going about barefoot; a twelfth was wondering whether to feign sickness and have a rest in hospital; a thirteenth was remembering a fairy-tale he had heard as a child; a fourteenth was remembering the last time he had talked to his girl – he felt glad that they had now separated for ever; a fifteenth was thinking about the future – after the war he would like to run a canteen.

'Yes,' thought Novikov, 'they're fine lads.'

They were looking at him. They thought he was inspecting their uniforms; that he was listening to the sound of the engines to check the competence of the drivers and mechanics; that he was checking whether the correct distance was being maintained between each tank and each section or whether there were any madmen trying to race one another. In fact he was just standing there, no different from them, full of the same thoughts – about his bottle of cognac that had been opened by Getmanov, about how difficult it was to get on with Nyeudobnov… He was thinking that he would never again go hunting in the Urals and what a pity it was that the last hunt had been a failure – just stupid anecdotes, too much vodka and the chatter of tommy-guns… He was thinking that soon he would see the woman he had been in love with for years… When he had heard, six years ago, that she had got married, he had written a brief note: 'I am taking indefinite leave. I return my revolver – number 10322.' That had been when he was serving in Nikolsk-Ussuriysk. But in the end he hadn't pulled the trigger…

There his men were: timid, gloomy, easily amused, thoughtful; womanizers, harmless egotists, idlers, misers, contemplatives, good sorts… There they all were – going into battle for a common, just cause. The simplicity of this truth makes it difficult to talk about; but it is often forgotten by people who should, instead, take it as their point of departure.

The thoughts of these men may have been trivial – an abandoned dog, a hut in a remote village, hatred for another soldier who's stolen your girl… But these trivialities are precisely what matter.

Human groupings have one main purpose: to assert everyone's right to be different, to be special, to think, feel and live in his or her own way. People join together in order to win or defend this right. But this is where a terrible, fateful error is born: the belief that these groupings in the name of a race, a God, a party or a State are the very purpose of life and not simply a means to an end. No! The only true and lasting meaning of the struggle for life lies in the individual, in his modest peculiarities and in his right to these peculiarities.

Novikov had the feeling that these men would succeed, that they would outwit and overcome the enemy. This vast reserve of intelligence, labour, bravery, calculation, skill and anger, of all the different endowments of these students, schoolboys, tractor-drivers, lathe-operators, teachers, electricians and bus-drivers – all this would flow into one, would coalesce. And once united, they were certain to conquer. They were too rich not to conquer.

If one failed, another would succeed; if it wasn't in the centre, it would be on a flank; if it wasn't in the first hour of battle, it would be in the second. These men would surpass the enemy in both strength and cunning; they would break him, destroy him… Victory depended on them alone. In the smoke and dust of battle they would turn, they would break through, they would strike a fraction of a second earlier than the enemy, a fraction of an inch more accurately, more crushingly…

Yes, they held the answer. These lads in their tanks, with their cannons and machine-guns, were the most precious resource of all.

But would they unite? Would the inner strength of all these men coalesce?

Novikov stood and watched. He felt a sense of mounting joy and confidence about Zhenya: 'She'll be mine! She'll be mine!'

54

What an extraordinary time this was! Krymov felt that history had left the pages of books and come to life.

Here, in Stalingrad, the glitter of sunlight on water, the colour of the sky and the clouds, struck him with a new intensity. It had been the same when he was a child: the patter of summer rain, a rainbow, his first glimpse of snow, had been enough to fill him with happiness. Now he had rediscovered this sense of wonder – something nearly all of us lose as we come to take the miracle of our lives for granted.

Everything Krymov had disliked in the life of these last years, everything he had found false, seemed absent from Stalingrad. 'Yes, this is how it was in Lenin's day!' he said to himself.

He felt that people were treating him differently, better than they had done before the war. It was the same now as when he had been encircled by the Germans: he no longer felt he was a stepson of the age. Recently, on the left bank, he had been preparing his talks and lectures with enthusiasm, quite reconciled to his new role.

Nevertheless, there were times when he did feel a sense of humiliation. Why hadn't he been allowed to continue as a fighting commissar? He had done his job well enough, better than many others…

There was something good about the relations between people here. There was a true sense of dignity and equality on this clay slope where so much blood had been spilt.

There was an almost universal interest in such matters as the structure of kolkhozes after the war, the future relations between the great peoples and their governments. The day-to-day life of these soldiers – their work with spades, with the kitchen-knives they used for cleaning potatoes and the cobblers' knives they used for mending boots – seemed to have a direct bearing on their life after the war, even on the lives of other nations and states.

Nearly everyone believed that good would triumph, that honest men, who hadn't hesitated to sacrifice their lives, would be able to build a good and just life. This faith was all the more touching in that these men thought that they themselves would be unlikely to survive until the end of the war; indeed, they felt astonished each evening to have survived one more day.

55

After his evening lecture, Krymov was taken to Batyuk's bunker. Lieutenant-Colonel Batyuk, a short man whose face expressed all the weariness of the war, was in command of the division disposed along the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan and alongside Banniy Ovrag.

Batyuk seemed glad of Krymov's visit. For supper there was meat in aspic and a hot pie. As he poured out some vodka for Krymov, Batyuk narrowed his eyes and said: 'I heard you were coming round giving lectures. I wondered who you'd visit first – me or Rodimtsev. In the end you went to Rodimtsev's.'

He smiled at Krymov and grunted. 'It's just like being in a village. As soon as things quieten down in the evening, we start phoning our neighbours. What did you have to eat? Has anyone been round? Are you going anywhere yourself? Did the high-ups say which of us has got the best bath-house? Has anyone been written about in the newspaper? Yes, they always write about Rodimtsev, never about us. To read the newspapers, you'd think he was defending Stalingrad all by himself.'

He gave his guest some more vodka, but himself just had some tea and a crust of bread. He seemed indifferent to the pleasures of the table.

Krymov realized that the deliberateness of Batyuk's movements and his slow Ukrainian manner of speech were misleading; in fact he was mulling over some very difficult problems. He was upset that Batyuk didn't ask a single question about his lecture. It was as though it bore no relation to any of Batyuk's real concerns.

Krymov was appalled by what Batyuk told him about the first hours of the war. During the mass retreat from the frontier, Batyuk led his own battalion west to hold a ford against the Germans. His superior officers, retreating along the same road, thought he was about to surrender to the Germans. There and then, after an interrogation consisting only of hysterical shouts and curses, it was decided to have Batyuk shot. At the last moment – he was already standing against a tree – he was rescued by his own soldiers.

'Yes, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel,' said Krymov. 'That's no joke.'

'I didn't quite die of a heart attack,' said Batyuk. 'But my heart hasn't been the same since – that's for sure!'

'Can you hear the firing over in the Market?' asked Krymov in a rather theatrical tone. 'Is Gorokhov up to something?'

Batyuk glanced at him.

'I know what Gorokhov's up to. He's playing cards.'

Krymov said he'd heard there was going to be a meeting of snipers at Batyuk's; he'd like to attend.

'Certainly,' said Batyuk. 'Why not?'

They began to talk about the Front. Batyuk said he was worried by the gradual build-up of German troops in the north of the sector; it was mostly taking place at night.

Finally the snipers assembled; Krymov realized who the pie was intended for. Men in padded jackets sat down one after another on benches beside the wall and round the table; they seemed shy and awkward, but at the same time conscious of their own worth. The new arrivals stacked their rifles and tommy-guns in the corner, trying to make as little noise as possible; they might have been workers putting down their axes and spades.

The famous Zaitsev looked somehow kind and gentle – just a good-natured country lad. But when he turned his head and frowned, Krymov glimpsed the true harshness of his features.

It reminded him of a moment at a conference before the war. Looking at an old friend seated beside him, he had suddenly seen his seemingly hard face in a different light. His eyes kept blinking, his mouth was half-open and he had a weak nose and chin. Altogether he seemed feeble and irresolute.

Next to Zaitsev were Bezdidko – a mortar man with narrow shoulders and brown, laughing eyes – and Suleiman Khalimov, a young Uzbek with the thick lips of a child. Then there was Matsegur, a crack-shot who kept having to wipe the sweat off his forehead; he looked like a quiet family-man – anything but a sniper. The other snipers – Shuklin, Tokarev, Manzhulya and Solodkiy – also looked like shy, diffident young lads.

Batyuk cocked his head to one side as he questioned them. He looked more like an inquisitive schoolboy than one of the canniest and most experienced officers in Stalingrad. Everyone's eyes lit up when he started talking, in Ukrainian, to Bezdidko; they were expecting some good jokes.

'Well, Bezdidko, how's it been?'

'Yesterday I gave the Fritzes a hard time, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel. You already know that. But today I only got five – and I wasted four bombs.'

'Well, you're not in the same class as Shuklin. He put fourteen ranks out of action with one gun.'

'Yes, and that gun was all that was left of his battery.'

'He blew up a German brothel yesterday,' said the handsome Bulatov, blushing.

'I just recorded it as an ordinary bunker.'

'Talking of bunkers,' said Batyuk, 'my door was smashed in yesterday by a mortar-bomb.' He turned to Bezdidko and said reproachfully: 'I thought that son of a bitch Bezdidko was aiming a bit wide.'

Manzhulya, a gun-layer who seemed even quieter than the rest, took a piece of pie and murmured: 'It's good pastry, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel.'

Batyuk tapped his glass with a rifle-cartridge.

'Well, comrades, let's get down to business.'

It was just another production conference – like those held in factories or village mills… Only the people here were not bakers, weavers or tailors, nor were they talking of threshing methods or bread.

Bulatov told them how he had seen a German walking down a path with his arm round a woman. He had made them drop to the ground, and then, before killing them, had let them get up three times, only to force them back to the ground by stirring up clouds of dust an inch or two from their feet.

'He was bending down towards her when I finished him off. They ended up stretched across the path like a cross.'

Bulatov's nonchalance made this story peculiarly horrible. It was quite unlike most soldiers' tales.

'Come on! That's enough of your bullshit, Bulatov!' Zaitsev interrupted.

'That takes my score to seventy-eight,' said Bulatov. 'And I'm not bullshitting. The commissar wouldn't allow me to lie. Here's his signature.'

Krymov wanted to join in the conversation; he wanted to say that among the Germans Bulatov had killed there might well have been workers, revolutionaries, internationalists. It was important to remember this or they'd become mere chauvinists… But he kept quiet. He knew that this kind of thinking was unhelpful, that it would serve only to demoralize the soldiers.

The blond Solodkiy said with a lisp that he'd killed eight Germans yesterday. He added: 'I come from a kolkhoz near Umansk. What the Fascists did in my village is unbelievable. And I haven't got off scot-free myself – I've been wounded three times. That's what's made me a sniper.'

After suggesting very earnestly that it was best to pick a spot along a path the Germans used to fetch water or to go to the kitchen, Tokarev said: 'I'm from Mozhaev. My wife's in occupied territory. I got a letter from her saying what they've been through. They killed my son because of the name I gave him – Vladimir Ilyich.'

'I never hurry,' said Khalimov excitedly. 'I shoot when my heart tells me. I come to the front – Sergeant Gurov my friend. He teach me Russian, I teach him Uzbek. Germans kill him, I kill twelve Germans. I take binoculars from officer and hang them round neck. I carry out your orders, comrade Political Instructor.'

There was something terrible about the reports of these snipers. Krymov had always scorned lily-livered intellectuals, people like Shtrum and Yevgenia Nikolaevna who had made such a to-do over the fate of the kulaks. Referring to 1937, he had told Yevgenia: 'There's nothing wrong with liquidating our enemies; what's terrible is when we shoot our own people.'

Now he felt like saying that he'd always, without the least hesitation, been ready to shoot White Guards, to exterminate Menshevik and SR scum, to liquidate the kulaks, that he had never felt the least pity for enemies of the Revolution, but that it was wrong to rejoice at the killing of German workers. There was something horrible about the way these soldiers talked – even though they knew very well what they were fighting for.

Zaitsev began to tell the story of his battle of wits with a German sniper at the foot of Mamayev Kurgan. It had lasted for days. The German knew Zaitsev was watching him and he himself was keeping watch on Zaitsev. They seemed well-matched; neither could catch the other out.

'He'd already picked off three of our men that day, but I just lay in my ditch. I didn't make a sound. Then he had one more go – his aim was perfect – another of our soldiers fell to the ground with his hands in the air. One of their soldiers went by with some papers. I just lay there and watched… I knew what he'd be thinking – that if I'd been around, I'd have picked off that soldier. And I knew he couldn't see the soldier he'd shot himself – he'd want to have a look. Neither of us moved. Then another German went by with a bucket – not a sound from my ditch. Another fifteen minutes and he started to get to his feet. He stood up. Then I stood up myself…'

Reliving what he'd been through, Zaitsev got up from the table. His face had now assumed the expression Krymov had earlier only glimpsed. Now he was no longer just a good-natured young lad-there was something leonine, something powerful and sinister in his flared nostrils, in his broad forehead, in the triumphant glare of his eyes.

'He realized who I was. And then I shot him.'

There was a moment of silence, probably the same silence that had followed Zaitsev's shot – you could almost hear the dead body falling to the ground. Batyuk suddenly turned to Krymov and asked: 'Well. do you find all this interesting?'

'It's great stuff,' said Krymov – and that was all he said.

Krymov stayed behind after the end of the meeting. Batyuk moved his lips as he counted out some drops for his heart into an empty glass; then he filled it with water. Yawning every now and then, he started to tell Krymov about everyday life in the division. Everything he said seemed to have some bearing on what had happened to him in the first hours of the war; it was as though all his thoughts had developed from that one point.

Ever since he had arrived in Stalingrad, Krymov had had a strange feeling. Sometimes it was as though he were in a kingdom where the Party no longer existed; sometimes he felt he was breathing the air of the first days of the Revolution.

'Have you been a member of the Party for long, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel?' he asked Batyuk abruptly.

'Why do you ask, comrade Commissar? Do you think I'm deviating from the Party line?'

For a moment Krymov didn't answer. Then he said: 'I've always been considered quite a good orator, you know. I've spoken at large workers' meetings. But ever since I arrived here, I've felt that I'm following people rather than guiding them. It's very odd. Just now I wanted to say something to your snipers and then I thought they knew all they needed to know already. Actually, that wasn't the only reason I didn't say anything. We've been told to make the soldiers think of the Red Army as an army of vengeance. This isn't the moment for me to start talking about internationalism or class consciousness. What matters is to mobilize the fury of the masses against the enemy. I don't want to be like the idiot in the story who began reciting the funeral service at a wedding…'

He thought for a moment. 'Anyway, I'm used to it… The Party's mobilized the fury of the masses in order to destroy the enemy, to annihilate them. There's no place for Christian humanitarianism now. Our Soviet humanitarianism is something more stern… We certainly don't wear kid-gloves…' He paused again.

'Of course I'm not talking about incidents like when you were nearly shot. And in 1937 there were times when we shot our own people – yes, we're paying for that now. But now the Germans have attacked the homeland of workers and peasants. War's war! They deserve what they get.'

Krymov waited for a response from Batyuk, but it wasn't forthcoming – not because Batyuk was perplexed by what he had said, but because he had fallen asleep.

56

It was almost dark. Men in padded jackets were scurrying about between the furnaces of the 'Red October' steelworks. In the distance you could hear shooting and see brief flashes of light; the air was full of a kind of dusty mist.

Guryev, the divisional commander, had set up the regimental command-posts inside the furnaces. Krymov had the impression that the people inside these furnaces – furnaces that until recently had forged steel – must be very special, must themselves have hearts of steel.

You could hear the tramp of German boots; you could hear orders being shouted out; you could even hear quiet clicks as the Germans reloaded their tommy-guns.

As he climbed down, shoulders hunched, into the mouth of a furnace that was now the command-post of an infantry battalion, as his hands felt the warmth that still lingered in the fire-bricks, a sort of timidity suddenly came over Krymov; it was as though the secret of this extraordinary resistance was about to be revealed to him.

In the semi-darkness he made out a squatting figure with a broad face, and heard a welcoming voice.

'Here's a guest come to our palace! Welcome! Quick – some vodka and a hard-boiled egg for our visitor!'

A thought flashed through Krymov's brain: he would never be able to tell Yevgenia Nikolaevna how he had thought of her as he climbed into a dark, airless steel-furnace in Stalingrad. In the past he'd tried to forget her, to escape from her, but now he was reconciled to the way-she followed him wherever he went. The witch – she'd even followed him into this furnace!

It was all as clear as daylight. Who needed stepsons of the time? Better to hide them away with the cripples and pensioners! Better to make them into soap! Her leaving him was just one more sign that his life was hopeless. Even here in Stalingrad they didn't want him as a combatant.

That evening, after his lecture, Krymov talked to General Guryev. Guryev had taken off his jacket and kept wiping the sweat off his red face. In the same harsh voice he offered Krymov vodka, shouted orders down the telephone to his battalion commanders, abused the cook for failing to grill the shashlyks correctly, and rang his neighbour, Batyuk, to ask if they were playing dominoes on Mamayev Kurgan.

'We've got some good men here,' said Guryev. 'They're a fine lot. Batyuk's certainly got a head on his shoulders. And General Zholudyev at the tractor factory's an old friend of mine. And then there's Colonel Gurtyev at "The Barricades" – only he's a monk, he never drinks vodka at all. That really is a mistake.'

Then he told Krymov about how no one else had so few men as he did – between six and eight in each company. And no one else was so cut off from the rear – when they sent him reinforcements, a third of them would arrive wounded. No one else, except perhaps Gorokhov, had to put up with that.

'Yesterday Chuykov summoned Shuba, my chief of staff. They had a disagreement over the exact position of the front line. Poor Colonel Shuba came back in a terrible state.'

He glanced at Krymov.

'Do you think Chuykov just swore at him?' He burst out laughing. 'No, he gets sworn at by me every day. He came back with his front teeth knocked out.'

'Yes,' said Krymov slowly. This 'yes' was an admission that the dignity of man didn't always hold sway on the slopes of Stalingrad.

Then Guryev held forth about how badly the war was reported in the newspapers.

'Those sons of bitches never see any action themselves. They just sit on the other side of the Volga and write their articles. If someone gives them a good dinner, then they write about him. They're certainly no Tolstoys. People have been reading War and Peace for a century and they'll go on reading it for another century. Why's that? Because Tolstoy's a soldier, because he took part in the war himself. That's how he knew who to write about.'

'Excuse me, comrade General,' said Krymov. 'Tolstoy didn't take part in the Patriotic War.'

'He didn't take part in it – what do you mean?'

'Just that,' said Krymov. 'He didn't take part in it. He hadn't even been born at the time of the war with Napoleon.'

'He hadn't been born?' said Guryev. 'What do you mean? How on earth?'

A furious argument then developed – the first to have followed any of Krymov's lectures. To his surprise, the general flatly refused to believe him.

57

The divisional commander asked Major Byerozkin about the position with regard to house 6/1. Should they withdraw?

Byerozkin advised against it-even though the building was indeed almost totally surrounded. It housed observation posts of great importance to the artillery on the left bank, and a sapper detachment able to prevent any further attacks by German tanks. The Germans were hardly likely to begin a major offensive without first liquidating this little pocket of resistance – their tactics were predictable enough. And with a minimum of support the building might be able to hold out for some time and disrupt the German strategy. Since the telephone cable had been cut repeatedly, and since signallers were only able to reach the building during a few hours in the middle of the night, it would be worth sending a radio-operator there.

The divisional commander agreed. During the night Political Instructor Soshkin managed to get through to house 61 with a group of soldiers. They brought with them several boxes of ammunition, hand-grenades, a radio set and a very young operator, a girl.

On his return the following morning, Soshkin said that the commander of the detachment holding the house had refused to write an official report. 'I haven't got time for any of that rubbish,' he had said. 'I give my reports to the Fritzes.'

'I can't make head or tail of what's going on there,' said Soshkin. 'They all seem terrified of this Grekov, but he just pretends to be one of the lads. They all go to sleep in a heap on the floor, Grekov included.


and they call him Vanya. Forgive me for saying so, but it's more like some kind of Paris Commune than a military unit.'

Byerozkin shook his head. 'So he refused to write a report. Well, he is a one!'

Pivovarov, the battalion commissar, then came out with a speech about people behaving like partisans.

'What do you mean – "like partisans"?' said Byerozkin in a conciliatory tone. 'It's just independence, a show of initiative. I often dream of being surrounded myself – so I could forget all this paperwork.'

'That reminds me,' said Pivovarov. 'You'd better write a detailed report for the divisional commissar.'

The divisional commissar took a serious view of all this. He ordered Pivovarov to obtain detailed information about the situation in house 6/1 and to give Grekov a good talking-to then and there. At the same time he wrote reports to the Member of the Military Soviet and to the head of the Army Political Section, informing them of the alarming state of affairs, both morally and politically, in house 6/1.

At Army level, Soshkin's report was taken still more seriously. The divisional commissar received instructions to sort the matter out with the utmost urgency. The head of the Army Political Section also sent an urgent report to the head of the Political Section for the Front.

Katya Vengrova, the radio-operator, had arrived in house 6/1 during the night. In the morning she reported to Grekov, the 'house-manager'. As he listened, Grekov gazed into her eyes; they seemed confused, frightened, and at the same time mocking.

She was round-shouldered and she had a large mouth with pale, bloodless lips. Grekov paused for a moment when Katya asked if she could go. A number of different thoughts, all quite unrelated to the war, flashed through his head: 'By God, she's pretty… nice legs… she looks frightened… I guess she's mother's little girl… How old is she…? Eighteen at the most… I just hope the lads don't all pounce on her…' His final thought was quite unrelated to those that had gone before: 'Can't you see who's boss here? Haven't I driven those Fritzes up the wall?'

'There isn't anywhere for you to go,' Grekov said at last. 'Just stay by your transmitter. We'll find you something to send soon enough.'

He tapped the transmitter and glanced up at the sky where German dive-bombers were whining and humming.

'Are you from Moscow?' he asked.

'Yes.'

'Sit down. We're quite without ceremony here. It's like being in the country.'

Katya stepped to one side; crumbled brick squeaked beneath her heels. She could see the sunlight glinting on the machine-gun barrels and on the dark metal of Grekov's German pistol. She sat down, looking at a pile of greatcoats beneath a ruined wall. For a moment she felt surprised that all this no longer surprised her. She knew that the machine-guns in the breach in the wall were Degterevs; that the captured Walther took eight bullets, that it was powerful but difficult to aim; that the greatcoats in the corner belonged to soldiers who had been killed and that the corpses hadn't been buried very deep – the general smell of burning blended with another smell that had already become all too familiar. And her wireless-set was just like the one she had worked with in Kotluban – the same dial on the receiver, the same switch. She remembered the times in the steppes when she had looked into the dusty glass of the ammeter and tidied her hair, smoothing it back under her cap.

No one spoke to her; it was as though she had nothing to do with the wild and terrible goings-on around her.

But when one grey-haired man started swearing – he seemed from the conversation to be a mortar man – Grekov chided: 'Softly now! That's no way to speak in front of our girl.'

Katya winced – not because of the old man's foul language, but because of the way Grekov had looked at her. Even though no one said anything to her, she knew that the atmosphere had changed since her arrival. She could feel the tension with her skin – a tension that didn't evaporate even when they heard the whine of dive-bombers, followed by explosions and a hail of broken brick.

By now Katya had grown used to falling bombs and the whistle of shrapnel, but she felt as confused as ever by the heavy male looks that bore down on her here.

The night before, the other girls had commiserated with her. 'It sounds quite terrifying there,' they had said.

A soldier had taken her to Regimental Headquarters. She had sensed at once how close she was to the enemy, how fragile life had become. People themselves seemed suddenly fragile – here one minute, gone the next.

The officer in command had shaken his head sadly and said: 'How can they send children like you to the front?' And then: 'Don't be frightened, my dear. If anything's not as it should be, just inform me over the radio.'

He had said this in such a kind, fatherly voice that it was all she could do not to burst into tears.

She had then been taken to Battalion Headquarters. They had a gramophone there; the commander, a redhead, offered Katya a drink and invited her to dance to a record of 'The Chinese Serenade'.

The atmosphere there had been terrifying. Katya had felt that the commander was drinking not to enjoy himself, but simply to stifle some unbearable fear, to forget that his own life was now as fragile as glass.

And now here she was – sitting on a heap of bricks in house 6/1. For some reason she didn't feel any fear at all; instead, she thought of the wonderful, fairy-tale life she had enjoyed before the war.

The men in the surrounded building seemed extraordinarily strong and sure of themselves. This self-confidence was very reassuring – like that possessed by firemen, by tailors cutting some priceless cloth, by skilled workers in a metal-rolling mill, by old teachers expounding beside their blackboards, by eminent doctors.

Before the war Katya had always believed that her life was doomed to be unhappy. When she had seen friends of hers going anywhere by bus, she had thought them spendthrifts. As for people coming out of restaurants – however bad – they seemed like fabulous beings; sometimes she had followed a little group on their way home from some 'Daryal' or 'Terek' and tried to listen to their conversation. Returning home from school, she would announce solemnly: 'Guess what happened today! A girl gave me some fizzy water with syrup – real syrup that tasted of blackcurrants!'

To live on what remained – after the deduction of income tax, cultural tax and the State loan – of her mother's salary of 400 roubles had been far from easy. Instead of buying new clothes, they had always refashioned their old ones. The other tenants had paid Marusya, the caretaker's wife, to clean the communal areas, but they had done their share themselves; Katya herself had cleaned the floors and carried out the rubbish. They had bought milk at the State shop – the queues were enormous but it saved them six roubles a month; if there wasn't any milk in the State shop, then Katya's mother had gone to market late in the afternoon – the peasant women would be in a hurry to catch the evening train and would sell off their milk at almost the same price as in the State shop. They had never travelled by bus, and they only went by tram if they had to go a very long distance. Instead of going to the hairdresser's, Katya had always had her hair cut by her mother. They had done their own laundry and the light-bulb in their room was almost as dim as those in the communal areas. They had cooked for three days at a time. They had soup, and sometimes kasha with a little oil; once Katya had had three plates of soup one after the other and said: 'Well, today we've had a three-course meal.'

Her mother had never talked about how things had been while her father still lived with them; she herself couldn't remember. Once, Vera Dmitrievna, a friend of her mother's, had watched the two of them preparing a meal and said: 'Yes, we too had our hour of glory.' This had made her mother angry; she hadn't allowed Vera Dmitrievna to enlarge on how things had been during their hour of glory.

One day Katya had found a photograph of her father in a cupboard. It was the first time she had seen a photograph of him, but she knew immediately who it was. On the back was written: 'To Lida -I am from the tribe of Asra: when we love, we die in silence.' [30] She said nothing to her mother, but from then on, when she returned from school, she would often take the photograph out and gaze for a long time into her father's dark, melancholy eyes.

Once she had asked: 'Where's Papa now?'

Her mother had just said: 'I don't know.'

It was only when Katya left for the army that her mother at last told her about him; she learned that he had married again and that he had been arrested in 1937.

They had talked right through the night. Everything had been reversed: her mother, usually so reserved, had told her how she had been abandoned by her husband; she had talked about her feelings of jealousy, of humiliation and hurt, of love and pity. Katya had been quite astonished: the world of the human soul suddenly seemed so vast as to make even the raging war seen insignificant. In the morning they had said goodbye. Her mother had drawn her head towards her, but the pack on her shoulders had pulled her away. Katya had said: 'Mama, I'm from the tribe of Asra: when we love, we die in silence.'

Then her mother had gently pushed her away.

'Go on, Katya. It's time you left.'

And Katya had left – like millions of others, both young and old. She had left her mother's house, perhaps never to return, perhaps to return only as a different person, cut off for ever from her harsh and beloved childhood.

And now here she was, sitting next to Grekov, 'the house-manager', looking at his large head, at his frowning face and thick lips.

58

That first day, the telephone was still working; there was nothing for Katya to do. The feeling of being excluded from the life of the building became increasingly oppressive. Nevertheless, that day did much to prepare her for what lay in store.

She learned that the observation-post for the artillery on the left bank was situated in the ruins of the first floor. It was commanded by a lieutenant in a dirty tunic whose spectacles kept slipping down his snub nose.

The angry old man who swore a lot had been transferred from the militia; he was very proud indeed to be in command of a mortar team. The sappers were installed between a high wall and a heap of rubble; they were commanded by a stout man who groaned and grimaced when he walked, as though he was suffering from corns.

The single piece of artillery was in the charge of Kolomeitsev, a bald man in a sailor's tunic. Katya had heard Grekov shout: 'Kolomeitsev! Wake up! You've just slept through yet another golden opportunity!'

The infantry and the machine-guns were commanded by a second lieutenant with a blond beard. The beard made his face seem very young – though he no doubt imagined it made him look mature, perhaps in his thirties.

In the afternoon she was given something to eat – bread and mutton-sausage. Then she remembered she had a sweet in her tunic-pocket and slipped it quietly into her mouth. After that – in spite of the firing nearby – she felt like a nap. She soon fell asleep, still sucking her sweet; but even in her sleep she still felt a sense of anguish, of imminent disaster. Suddenly she heard a slow, drawling voice. Her eyes still closed, she listened to the words:

'Past sorrow is to me like wine, Stronger with every passing year.' [31]

In this stone well, lit by the amber evening light, a dirty young man with dishevelled hair was sitting reading out loud from a book. Five or six men were sprawled around him on piles of red bricks. Grekov was lying on his overcoat, resting his chin on his fists. One young man, probably a Georgian, listened with an air of suspicion. It was as though he were saying: 'Come on now – you won't get me to buy this rubbish.'

An explosion close by raised a cloud of dust. It was like something from a fairy-tale; the armed men, sitting on blood-coloured bricks and surrounded by this red mist, seemed to have sprung from the day of judgment recorded in the Lay of Igor's Campaign. [32] Suddenly Katya's heart stirred in an absurd expectation of some future happiness.

The following day, an event took place which appalled even these hardened soldiers.

The 'senior tenant' on the first floor, Lieutenant Batrakov, had under his command an observer, Bunchuk, and a plotter, Lampasov. Katya saw them all several times a day: sullen Lampasov, cunning yet simple-hearted Bunchuk and the strange lieutenant with glasses who was always smiling at his own thoughts. When it was quiet, she could even hear their voices through the hole in the ceiling.

Lampasov had reared chickens before the war; he loved telling Bunchuk about the intelligence and treacherous ways of his hens.

Peering through his telescope, Bunchuk would report in a sing-song voice: 'Yes, there's a column of vehicles coming from Kalach… a tank in the middle… Some more Fritzes on foot, a whole battalion… and then three field-kitchens just like yesterday… I can see smoke and some Fritzes with pans…' Some of his observations were of greater human than military interest: 'Now there's a German officer going for a walk with his dog… the dog's sniffing a post, it probably wants to pee… Yes, it must be a bitch… The officer's just standing there, he's having a scratch… Now I can see two girls chatting to some Fritzes… they're offering the girls cigarettes… One of them's lit up, the other's shaking her head… She must be saying: "I don't smoke".'

Suddenly, in the same sing-song voice, Bunchuk announced: 'The square's full of soldiers… and a band… there's a stage in the middle… no, a pile of wood…'

He fell silent. Then, in the same voice, now full of despair, he went on: 'Comrade Lieutenant, I can see a woman in a shift… she's being frog-marched… she's screaming… the band's struck up… they're tying the woman to a post… Comrade Lieutenant, there's a little boy with her… Ay… they're tying him up… Comrade Lieutenant, I can't bear to look… two Fritzes are emptying some cans of petrol…'

Batrakov hurriedly reported all this by telephone to the left bank. Then he grabbed the telescope himself.

'Ay, comrades, the band's playing and the whole square's full of smoke…'

'Fire!' he suddenly howled out in a terrible voice and turned in the direction of the left bank.

Not a sound from the left bank…

A few seconds passed, and then the place of execution was subjected to a concentrated barrage by the heavy artillery. The square was enveloped in dust and smoke.

Several hours later, they were informed by their scout, Klimov, that the Germans had been about to burn a gypsy woman and her son whom they suspected of being spies. The day before, Klimov had left some dirty washing with an old woman who lived in a cellar together with her granddaughter and a goat; he had promised to come back for it later when it was ready. Now he intended to ask this woman what had happened to the two gypsies – whether they had been burned to death on the pyre or killed by the Soviet shells.

Klimov crawled through the ruins along paths known to him alone – only to find that the old woman's dwelling had just been destroyed by a Russian bomb. There was nothing left of the old woman, her granddaughter or the goat – or of Klimov's pants and shirt. All he found among the splintered beams and lumps of plaster was a kitten, covered with dirt. It was in a pitiful state, neither complaining nor asking for anything, evidently believing that life was always just a matter of noise, fire and hunger.

Klimov had no idea what made him suddenly stuff the kitten into his pocket.

Katya was astonished by the relations between the inmates of house 6/1-. Instead of standing to attention to give his report, Klimov simply sat down next to Grekov; they then talked together like two old friends. Klimov lit up from Grekov's cigarette.

When he had finished, Klimov went up to Katya. 'Yes, my girl,' he said, 'life on this earth can be terrible.'

Under his hard, penetrating stare, Katya blushed and gave a sigh. Klimov took the kitten out of his pocket and placed it on a brick beside her.

During the course of the day at least a dozen men came up to Katya and started to talk about cats; not one of them spoke about the gypsies, though they had all been deeply shocked. Some of them wanted a sentimental, heart-to-heart conversation – and spoke coarsely and mockingly; others just wanted to sleep with her – and spoke very solemnly, with cloying politeness.

The kitten trembled constantly, evidently in a state of shock.

'You should do away with it right now,' the old man in charge of the mortars said with a grimace – and then added: 'You must pick off the fleas.'

Another member of the mortar-crew, the handsome, swarthy Chentsov, also a former member of the militia, urged: 'Get rid of that vermin, my girl. Now, if it were a Siberian cat…'

The sullen Lyakhov, a sapper with thin lips and an unpleasant-looking face, was the only man to be genuinely concerned about the kitten and indifferent to the charms of the radio-operator.

'Once, when we were in the steppe,' he told her, 'something suddenly hit me. I thought it must be a shell at the end of its trajectory. But guess what? It was a hare. He stayed with me till evening. Then things quietened down a bit and he left.

'Now, you may be a girl,' he went on, 'but at least you can understand: that's a 108 millimetre, that's the tune of a Vanyusha, that's a reconnaissance plane flying over the Volga… But the poor stupid hare can't make out anything at all. He can't even tell the difference between a mortar and a howitzer. The Germans send up a flare and he just sits there and shakes – you can't explain anything to him. That's what makes me sorry for these dumb animals.'

Recognizing that he was in earnest, Katya responded in the same tone. 'I don't know… Take dogs, for example – they can tell different planes apart. When we were stationed in the village, there was a mongrel called Kerzon. When our ILs flew over, he just lay there without even raising his head. But as soon as he heard the whine of a Junkers, he went straight to his hiding-place. He never once made a mistake.'

The air was rent by a piercing scream – a German Vanyusha. There was a metallic crash, a cloud of black smoke mixed with red dust, and a shower of rubble. A minute later, when the dust began to settle, Katya and Lyakhov resumed their conversation – for all the world as though it was two different people who had just fallen flat on their faces. The self-assurance of these soldiers seemed to have rubbed off on Katya. It was as though they were convinced that everything here, even the iron and stone, might be weak and fragile – but not they themselves.

A burst of machine-gun fire whistled over their heads, then another.

'This spring we were stationed near Sviatogorsk,' Lyakhov told her. 'Once there was a terrible whistling right over our heads, but we couldn't hear any shots. We didn't know what on earth was happening. It turned out to be the starlings imitating bullets… The lieutenant had even put us on alert – they did it perfectly.'

'When I was at home,' said Katya, smiling, 'I imagined that war would be a matter of lost cats, children screaming and blazing buildings. That seems to be just how it is.'

The next man to approach her was the bearded Zubarev.

'Well,' he asked sympathetically, 'and how's our little man with the tail?'

He lifted up the scrap of cloth that had been laid over the kitten.

'Poor little thing. You do look weak!' As he said this, his eyes gleamed insolently.

That evening, after a brief skirmish, the Germans managed to advance a short distance along the flank of the building; now their machine-guns covered the path leading back to the Soviet lines. The telephone link with Battalion Headquarters was severed again. Grekov ordered a passage to be blasted to link up with a nearby tunnel.

'We'll use the dynamite,' said Antsiferov, the sergeant-major – a stout man with a mug of tea in one hand and a sugar-lump in the other.

The other inmates were sitting in a pit at the foot of the main wall and talking. As before, no one mentioned the two gypsies; nor did they seem worried at being encircled.

This calm seemed strange to Katya; nevertheless, she submitted to it herself. Even the dreaded word 'encirclement' no longer held any terrors for her. Nor was she frightened when a machine-gun opened up right next to them and Grekov shouted: 'Fire! Fire! Look – they've got right in!' Nor when Grekov ordered: 'Use whatever's to hand – knives, spades, grenades. You know your job. Kill the bastards – it doesn't matter how.'

During the few quiet moments, the men engaged in a long and detailed discussion of Katya's physical appearance. The short-sighted Batrakov, who had always seemed to live in another world, turned out to be surprisingly interested.

'All I care about are a woman's tits,' he said.

Kolomeitsev disagreed. He – in Zubarev's words – preferred to call a spade a spade.

'So have you talked to her about the cat, then?' asked Zubarev.

'Of course,' said Batrakov. 'Even old grey-beard here's had a chat with her about that.'

The old man in command of the mortars spat and drew his hand across his chest.

'Really! I ask you! Does she have what makes a woman a woman?'

He got particularly angry if anyone hinted that Grekov might have his eye on her.

'Well, of course! To us, even a Katya seems passable. In the country of the blind… She's got legs like a stork, no arse worth speaking of, and great cow-like eyes. Call that a woman?'

'You just like big tits,' Chentsov retorted. 'That's an outmoded, pre-revolutionary point of view.'

Kolomeitsev, a coarse, foul-mouthed man, whose large bald head concealed many surprising contradictions, said: 'She's not a bad girl, but I'm very particular. I like them small, preferably Armenian or Jewish, with large quick eyes and short hair.'

Zubarev looked thoughtfully at the dark sky criss-crossed by the beams of searchlights. 'Well, I wonder how it will work out in the end.'

'You mean who she'll end up with?' said Kolomeitsev. 'Grekov -that's obvious.'

'Far from it,' said Zubarev. 'It's not in the least obvious.' He picked up a piece of brick and hurled it against the wall.

The others laughed.

'I see! You're going to charm her with the down on your chin, are you?' said Batrakov.

'No,' said Kolomeitsev, 'he's going to sing. They're going to make a programme together: "Infantry at the microphone". He'll sing and she'll broadcast it into the ether. They'll make a fine pair!'

Zubarev looked round at the boy who'd been reading poetry the evening before. 'And how about you?'

'If he doesn't say anything, it's because he doesn't want to,' said the old grey-beard warningly. Then he turned to the boy and said in a fatherly way, as though he were rebuking his son for listening to the grown-ups: 'You'd do better to go down to the cellar and get some sleep while you can.'

'Antsiferov's down there right now with his dynamite,' said Batrakov.

Meanwhile Grekov was dictating to Katya. He informed Army Headquarters that the Germans were almost certainly preparing an offensive and that it would almost certainly be directed at the Tractor Factory. What he didn't say was that house 6/1 appeared to lie on the very axis of this offensive. But as he looked at Katya's thin little neck, at her lips, at her half-lowered eyelashes, he saw an all-too-vivid picture of a broken neck with pearly vertebrae poking out through lacerated skin, of two glassed-over, fish-like eyes, and of lips like grey, dusty rubber.

He was longing to seize hold of her, to feel her life and warmth while they were both alive, while this young being was still full of grace and charm. He thought it was just pity that made him want to embrace the girl – but does pity make your temples throb and your ears buzz?

Headquarters were slow to answer. Grekov stretched till every joint in his body began to crack, gave a loud sigh, thought, 'It's all right, we've got the night ahead of us,' and asked tenderly: 'How's Klimov's kitten getting on? Is he getting his strength back?'

'Far from it,' answered Katya.

She thought about the gypsies on the bonfire. Her hands were shaking. She glanced at Grekov to see if he'd noticed.

Yesterday she'd thought that no one in this building was ever going to talk to her; today the bearded second lieutenant, tommy-gun in hand, had rushed by as she was eating her kasha and called out as though they were old friends: 'Don't just pick at it, Katya!' He had gestured at her to show how she ought to plunge her spoon into the pot.

She had seen the boy who'd read the poem yesterday carrying some mortar-bombs on a tarpaulin. Later she had looked round and seen him standing by the water-boiler. Realizing he was watching her, she had looked away, but by then he had already turned away himself.

She already knew who would start showing her letters and photographs tomorrow, who would look at her in silence and sigh, who would bring her a present of half a flask of water and some rusks of white bread, who would say he didn't believe in women's love and would never fall in love again… As for the bearded second lieutenant, he would probably start pawing her.

Finally an answer came through from Headquarters. Katya started to repeat the message to Grekov.

'Your orders are to make a detailed report every day at twelve hundred hours precisely…'

Grekov suddenly knocked Katya's hand off the switch. She let out a cry.

He grinned and said: 'A fragment from a mortar-bomb has put the wireless-set out of action. Contact will be re-established when it suits Grekov.'

Katya gaped at him in astonishment.

'I'm sorry, Katyusha,' said Grekov and took her by the hand.

59

In the early morning Divisional Headquarters were informed by Byerozkin's regiment that the men in house 6/1 had excavated a passage into one of the concrete tunnels belonging to the Tractor Factory; some of them were now in the factory itself. A duty-officer at Divisional HQ informed Army HQ, where it was then reported to General Krylov himself. Krylov ordered one of the men to be brought to him for questioning. A signals officer was detailed to take a young boy, chosen by the duty-officer, to Army HQ. They walked down a ravine leading to the bank; on the way the boy kept turning round and anxiously asking questions.

'I must go back home. My instructions were to reconnoitre the tunnel – so we could evacuate the wounded.'

'Never mind,' said the officer. 'You're about to see someone a little senior to your own boss. You have to do as he says.'

On the way the boy told the officer how they had been in house 6/1 for over two weeks, how they'd lived for some time on a cache of potatoes they'd found in the cellar, how they'd drunk the water from the central heating system, and had given the Germans such a hard rime that they'd sent an envoy with an offer of free passage to the factory. Naturally their commander – the boy referred to him as the 'house-manager' – had replied by ordering them all to open fire. When they reached the Volga, the boy lay down and began to drink; he then shook the drops from his jacket onto the palm of his hand and licked them off. It was as though he were starving and they were crumbs of bread. He explained that the water in the central heating system had been foul. To begin with, they had all had stomach-upsets, but then the house-manager had ordered them to boil the water and they had recovered.

They walked on in silence. The boy listened to the sound of the bombers and looked up at the night sky, now decorated by red and green flares and the curved trajectories of tracer-bullets and shells. He saw the glow of the guttering fires in the town, the white flame of the guns and the blue columns of water sent up by shells falling in the Volga. His pace gradually slackened, till finally the officer shouted: 'Come on now! Look lively!'

They made their way between the rocks on the bank; mortar-bombs whistled over their heads and they were constantly challenged by sentries. Then they climbed a little path that wound up the slope between the bunkers and trenches. Sometimes there were duck-boards underfoot, sometimes steps cut into the clay. Finally they reached the Headquarters of the 62nd Army. The officer straightened his belt and made his way down a communication trench towards some bunkers constructed from particularly solid logs.

The sentry went to call an aide; through a half-open door they glimpsed the soft light of an electric lamp under its shade. The aide shone his torch at them, asked the boy's name and told them to wait.

'But how am I going to get back home?' asked the boy.

'All roads lead to Kiev,' answered the aide. He then added sternly: 'Go on now – get inside! Otherwise you'll get yourself killed by a mortar-bomb and I'll have to answer for you to the general.'

The boy sat down in the warm, dark entranceway, leant against the wall and fell asleep.

In his dreams the terrible cries and screams of the last few days blurred together with the quiet, peaceful murmur of his own home – a home that no longer existed. Then someone shook him and he heard an angry voice:

'Shaposhnikov! You're wanted by the general! Look lively!'

60

Seryozha Shaposhnikov spent two days at Army HQ. He found it oppressive. People seemed to hang around all day doing nothing.

Somehow it reminded him of the time he had spent eight hours in Rostov with his grandmother, waiting for the train to Sochi – he laughed at the absurd idea of comparing house 6/1 to a holiday resort.

He kept begging the chief of staff to let him go, but the latter had had no definite instructions from the general. The general had already spoken to Shaposhnikov, but after two questions their conversation had been interrupted by a telephone call from his commanding officer. The chief of staff preferred not to let the boy go for the time being – the general might still remember him.

Every time the chief of staff came into the bunker, he felt Shaposhnikov looking at him. Sometimes he said: 'Don't worry, I haven't forgotten,' but at other times the boy's constant look of entreaty really got under his skin. 'Anyway,' he demanded, 'what are you complaining about? It's nice and warm here and you get lots of food. There'll be time enough to get yourself killed back at the front.'

When a man is plunged up to his neck into the cauldron of war, he is quite unable to look at his life and understand anything; he needs to take a step back. Then, like someone who has just reached the bank of a river, he can look round: was he really, only a moment ago, in the midst of those swirling waters?

Seryozha's old life in the militia regiment now seemed almost unbelievably peaceful: sentry-duty at night in the steppe, a distant glow in the sky, the soldiers' conversations…

Life in house 6/1 had blotted out everything that had gone before. Improbable though this life was, it now seemed the only reality; it was as if everything before was imaginary. Only now and then, at night, did he feel a sudden twinge, a sudden surge of love as he imagined Alexandra Vladimirovna's grey head or Aunt Zhenya's quick, mocking eyes.

During his first days in house 6/1 he had thought how strange and impossible it would be if people like Grekov, Kolomeitsev and Antsiferov were suddenly to appear at home… Now he sometimes thought how absurd his aunts, his cousin and Uncle Viktor would seem if they were suddenly to become part of his present life.

Heavens! If his grandmother could hear the way he swore now…

Grekov!

He wasn't sure whether these men had always been exceptional, or whether they had only become exceptional on arriving in house 6/1.

Grekov! What an extraordinary combination of strength, daring, authority and common sense. He remembered the price of children's shoes before the war; he knew the wages of a machinist or a cleaning lady, how much grain and money the peasants received for each unit of work on the collective farm where his uncle lived.

Sometimes he talked about how things had been in the army before the war: the purges, the constant examinations, the bribes you had to pay for an apartment. He talked about men who'd became generals in 1937 by writing dozens of statements and denunciations unmasking supposed enemies of the people.

Sometimes his strength seemed to lie in his mad bravery, in the gay desperation with which he would leap up from a breach in the wall, throw hand-grenades at the advancing Germans and shout: 'No you don't, you swine!' At other times it seemed to lie in his easygoing simplicity, in the way he could be friends with everyone in the house.

There was nothing exceptional about his life before the war: he had been a foreman, first in a mine, then on a building site, before becoming an infantry captain in a unit stationed on the outskirts of Minsk; he had studied both in the barracks and in the field and had gone to Minsk for further training; in the evening he had read a little, drunk vodka, gone to the cinema, played cards with his friends and quarrelled with his wife, who was jealous, not without reason, of a large number of the women and girls in the district. Grekov had revealed all this quite freely. And now – in Seryozha's eyes and in the eyes of many others – he had suddenly become a legendary warrior, a crusader for truth.

New people had entered Seryozha's life, taking the place even of his nearest and dearest.

Kolomeitsev had been in the Navy. He had served on various ships and had been sunk three times in the Baltic. For all his contempt for many highly-esteemed figures, Kolomeitsev always showed the greatest respect for scientists and writers. Seryozha round this very appealing. No military commander, whatever his rank, was of the least importance beside a bald Lobachevsky or an ailing Romain Rolland.

Kolomeitsev's views on literature were very different indeed from what Chentsov had said about instructive, patriotic literature. There was one writer, either an American or an Englishman, whom he particularly liked. Seryozha had never read this writer and Kolomeitsev couldn't even remember his name; nevertheless, Kolomeitsev praised him so enthusiastically, in such coarse, colourful language, that Seryozha was convinced he was a great writer.

'What I like about him,' said Kolomeitsev, 'is that he's not trying to teach me anything. A bloke gets his leg over a woman, a soldier gets pissed, an old man loses his wife – and that's that. It's life. It's exciting, you laugh, you feel sorry, and in the end you still don't know what it's all about.'

Kolomeitsev was a friend of Vasya Klimov, the scout.

One day, Klimov and Shaposhnikov had to go right up to the German lines. They climbed over the railway embankment and crept up to a bomb-crater that sheltered a heavy-machine-gun crew and an artillery officer. Pressed flat against the ground, they watched the Germans go about their tasks. One young man unbuttoned his jacket, tucked a red checked handkerchief under his collar and began shaving; Seryozha could hear the scrape of the razor against his wiry, dust-covered stubble. Another German was eating something out of a small flat tin; for a brief moment Seryozha saw his face take on a look of concentrated, lasting pleasure. The officer was winding up his watch. Seryozha felt like asking very quietly, so as not to frighten him: 'Hey! What time is it?'

Klimov took the pin out of a grenade and dropped it into the crater. Before the dust had settled, he threw another grenade after it and then jumped in himself. The Germans were all dead; it was hard to believe they could have been alive only a moment before. Sneezing at the dust and gas, Klimov took what he needed – the breech-block from the machine-gun, a pair of binoculars and the watch from the officer's still warm wrist. Very carefully, so as not to get stained with blood, he removed the soldiers' papers from the remains of their uniforms.

When they got back, Klimov handed over his prizes, described what had happened, asked Seryozha to splash a little water over his hands, then sat down next to Kolomeitsev, saying: 'Now we can have a fag.'

Just then Perfilev rushed up. He had once described himself as 'a peaceful inhabitant of Ryazan who likes fishing'.

'Hey, Klimov! Don't make yourself too comfortable!' he shouted. 'The house-manager's looking for you. You've got to go behind the German lines again.'

'All right,' said Klimov guiltily. 'I'm coming.'

He began collecting together his belongings – a tommy-gun and a canvas bag full of hand-grenades. He handled objects very carefully, as though he were somehow afraid of hurting them. He never swore and he addressed nearly everyone in the polite form of the second person.

'You're not a Baptist, are you?' old Polyakov once asked this man who had killed a hundred and ten people.

Klimov was by no means taciturn, however, and he particularly liked talking about his childhood. His father had worked at the Putilov factory. He himself had been a skilled lathe-operator; before the war he had taught apprentices. He made Seryozha laugh with a story of how one of his apprentices had nearly choked to death on a screw; he had gone quite blue before Klimov managed to remove the screw with a pair of pliers.

Once Seryozha saw Klimov after he had drunk a captured bottle of schnapps; then he had been quite terrifying – even Grekov had seemed wary of him.

The untidiest man in the building was Lieutenant Batrakov. He never cleaned his boots and one of the soles flapped on the ground -people didn't have to look up to know when he was coming. On the other hand he cleaned his glasses hundreds of times a day with a small piece of chamois; apparently the lenses were the wrong strength – it was as if they were blurred by dust and smoke. Klimov had brought him several pairs of German spectacles but, though the frames were good, the lenses were no better than his own.

Before the war Batrakov had taught mathematics at a technical school; he was very arrogant and he talked about his ignorant students with disdain. He had put Seryozha through a full-scale maths exam; everyone had laughed at his failure and told him he would have to retake the course.

Once, during an air-raid, when earth, stone and iron were being smashed apart by sledge-hammer blows, Grekov saw Batrakov sitting on top of what was left of a staircase, reading a book.

'No,' said Grekov, 'the Germans haven't got a hope. What can they do against madmen like that?'

Far from terrifying the inmates of the building, the German attacks only succeeded in arousing a certain condescending irony: 'Hm, the Fritzes really are having a go at it today!' 'Look what those maniacs are doing now!' 'The fool – where does he think he's dropping his bombs?'

Batrakov was a friend of Antsiferov, the commander of the sapper detachment, a man in his forties who loved talking about his various chronic illnesses. This was unusual at the front: when people were under fire, ulcers and sciaticas usually cleared up of their own accord.

Even in Stalingrad, however, Antsiferov continued to suffer from the numerous diseases that had attacked his enormous body; captured German medicines were of no help. He had a large, bald head, a full face, and his eyes were round. At times there was something quite bizarre about him – especially when he was sitting in the sinister light cast by the distant fires and drinking tea with his soldiers. He suffered from corns and he always felt hot; usually he took off both his shoes and his tunic. There he would sit – sipping hot tea from a cup decorated with tiny blue flowers, wiping his bald head with a huge handkerchief, smiling, sighing and blowing into his cup. The sullen Lyakhov, a bandage round his head, would constantly refill this cup with boiling water from a soot-encrusted kettle. Sometimes Antsiferov would climb up on a small mound of bricks, wheezing and groaning, to see what was happening in the world. Bare-foot, with no shirt, he might have been a peasant coming to the door of his hut during a downpour to keep an eye on his garden.

Before the war he had been a foreman on a building site. His experience of construction now proved useful for the opposite purpose: he was constantly mulling over the best way to destroy cellars, walls, even entire buildings.

Most of his discussions with Batrakov were about philosophical matters. He evidently needed to think over this shift from construction to destruction, to find meaning in it. Sometimes, however, they left the heights of philosophy (Does life have a meaning? Does Soviet power exist in other galaxies? In what way is Man intellectually superior to Woman?) to touch on more mundane matters.

Stalingrad had changed everything; now the muddle-headed Batrakov seemed a man of wisdom.

'You know, Vanya,' said Antsiferov. 'It's only through you that I've begun to understand anything. I used to think there was nothing more I needed to know about life: all I had to do was to get new tyres for one person's car, give another some vodka and something to eat, and slip a hundred roubles to a third…'

Batrakov seriously believed that it really was his muddle-headed philosophizing – rather than Stalingrad itself – that had led Antsiferov to see people in a different light.

'Yes, my friend', he said condescendingly. 'It's a real pity we didn't meet before the war.'

The infantry were quartered in the cellar. It was they who had to beat off the German attacks and, at Grekov's piercing call, launch counter-attacks themselves.

Their commander, Lieutenant Zubarev, had studied singing at the Conservatory before the war. Sometimes he crept up to the German lines at night and began singing 'Don't Wake Me, Breath of Spring', or one of Lensky's arias from Eugene Onegin.

If anyone asked why he risked his life to sing among heaps of rubble, he wouldn't answer. It may have been from a desire to prove – to himself, to his comrades and even to the enemy – that life's grace and charm can never be erased by the powers of destruction, even in a place that stank day and night of decaying corpses.

Seryozha could hardly believe he had lived all his life without knowing Grekov, Kolomeitsev, Polyakov, Klimov, Batrakov and the bearded Zubarev. He himself had been brought up among intellectuals; he could now see the truth of the faith his grandmother had repeatedly affirmed in simple working people. He was also able to see where his grandmother had gone wrong: in spite of everything, she had thought of the workers as simple.

The men in house 6/1 were far from simple. One statement of Grekov's had particularly impressed Seryozha:

'No one has the right to lead other people like sheep. That's something even Lenin failed to understand. The purpose of a revolution is to free people. But Lenin just said: "In the past you were led badly, I'm going to lead you well." '

Seryozha had never heard such forthright condemnations of the NKVD bosses who had destroyed tens of thousands of innocent people in 1937. Nor had he heard people talk with such pain of the sufferings undergone by the peasantry during collectivization. It was Grekov who raised these matters most frequently, but Kolomeitsev and Batrakov talked of them too.

Every moment Seryozha spent at Army HQ – away from house 6/1 - seemed interminably wearisome. There was something quite absurd in conversations about the duty-roster, about who had been called to see which commanding officer. Instead, he tried to imagine what Polyakov, Kolomeitsev and Grekov were up to now.

It was evening; things would be quietening down. Probably they were talking yet again about Katya.

Once Grekov had decided on something, neither the Buddha nor Chuykov would be able to stop him. Yes, that building housed a bunch of strong, remarkable, desperate men. Zubarev would probably be singing his arias again… And she would be sitting there helplessly, awaiting her fate.

'I'll kill them!' he thought, not knowing who he had in mind.

What chance did he have? He'd never kissed a girl in his life. And those devils were experienced; they'd find it easy enough to make a fool of her.

He looked at the door of the bunker. Why had he never thought before of simply getting up, just like that, and leaving?

Seryozha got up, opened the door, and left.

Just then the duty-officer at Army HQ was instructed over the phone to send the soldier from the encircled building to Vasiliev, the head of the Political Section, as quickly as possible.

If the story of Daphnis and Chloe still touches people's hearts, it is not simply because their love was born in the shade of vines and under a blue sky. That story is repeated everywhere – in a stuffy basement smelling of fried cod, in a concentration-camp bunker, to the click of an accountant's abacus, in the dust-laden air of a cotton mill.

And now the story was being played out again to the accompaniment of the howl of dive-bombers – in a building where people nourished their filthy sweat-encrusted bodies on rotten potatoes and water from an ancient boiler, where instead of honey and dream-filled silence there was only noise, stench and rubble.

61

Pavel Andreyevich Andreyev, an old man who worked as a guard in the Central Power Station, received a letter from his daughter-in-law in Leninsk; his wife, Varvara Alexandrovna, had died of pneumonia.

After receiving this news Andreyev became very depressed. He called very rarely on his friends the Spiridonovs and usually spent the evening sitting by the door of the workers' hostel, watching the flashes of gunfire and the play of searchlights against the clouds. If anyone tried to start a conversation with him, he just remained silent. Thinking that the old man was hard of hearing, the speaker would repeat the question more loudly. Andreyev would then say: 'I can hear you. I'm not deaf, you know.'

His whole life had been reflected in that of his wife; everything good or bad that had happened to him, all his feelings of joy and sadness, had importance only in so far as he was able to see them reflected in her soul.

During a particularly heavy raid, when bombs of several tons were exploding around him, Andreyev had looked at the waves of earth, dust and smoke filling the power station and thought: 'Well, I wonder what my old woman would say now! Take a look at that, Varvara!'

But she was no longer alive.

It was as though the buildings destroyed by bombs and shells, the central courtyard ploughed up by the war – full of mounds of earth, heaps of twisted metal, damp acrid smoke and the yellow reptilian flames of slowly-burning insulators – represented what was left to him of his own life.

Had he really once sat here in a room filled with light? Had he really eaten his breakfast here before going to work – with his wife standing next to him wondering whether to give him a second helping?

Yes, all that remained for him now was a solitary death…

He suddenly remembered her as she had been in her youth, with bright eyes and sunburnt arms.

Well, it wouldn't be long now…

One evening he went slowly down the creaking steps to the Spiridonovs' bunker. Stepan Fyodorovich looked at his face and said: 'You having a hard time, Pavel Andreyevich?'

'You're still young, Stepan Fyodorovich. You're not as strong as I am. You can still find a way of consoling yourself. But I'm strong; I can go all the way.'

Vera looked up from the saucepan she was washing, unable for a moment to understand what the old man meant. Andreyev, who had no wish for anyone's sympathy, tried to change the subject.

'It's time you left, Vera. There are no hospitals here – nothing but tanks and planes.'

Vera smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

'Even people who've never set eyes on her before say she should cross over to the left bank,' Stepan Fyodorovich said angrily. 'Yesterday the Member of the Military Soviet came to our bunker. He just looked at Vera without saying a word. But once we were outside and he was about to get into his car, he started cursing me. "And you call yourself her father! What do you think you're doing? If you like, we can have her taken across the Volga in an armoured launch." But what can I do? She just refuses to go.'

He spoke with the fluency of someone who has been arguing day in day out about the same thing. Andreyev didn't say anything; he was looking at an all-too-familiar darn on his sleeve that was now coming undone.

'As if she's going to get any letters from her Viktorov here!' Stepan Fyodorovich went on. 'There's no postal service. Think how long we've been here – we haven't heard from Zhenya or Lyudmila or even from Grandmother… We haven't the least idea what's happened to Tolya and Seryozha.'

'Pavel Andreyevich got a letter,' said Vera.

'Hardly a letter. Just a notification of death,' replied Stepan Fyodorovich. Shocked at his own words, he gestured impatiently at the walls of the bunker and the curtain that screened off Vera's bunk. 'And this is no place for a young woman – what with workers and military guards around day and night, all of them smoking like chimneys and shouting their heads off.'

'You might at least take pity on the child,' said Andreyev. 'It's not going to last long here.'

'And what if the Germans break through?' said Stepan Fyodorovich. 'What then?'

Vera didn't answer. She had convinced herself that one day she would glimpse Viktorov coming through the ruined gates of the power station. She would catch sight of him in the distance – in his flying suit and boots, his map-case at his side.

Sometimes she went out onto the road to see if he was coming. Soldiers going past in lorries would shout out: 'Come on, my beautiful. Who are you waiting for? Come and join us!'

For a moment she would recover her gaiety and shout back: 'Your lorry can't get through where I'm going.'

She would stare at Soviet fighters flying low overhead, feeling certain that any moment she would recognize Viktorov. Once a fighter dipped its wings in greeting. Vera cried out like a desperate bird, ran a few steps, stumbled, and fell to the ground; after that she had back-ache for several days.

At the end of October she saw a dogfight over the power station itself. It ended indecisively; the Russian planes flew up into the clouds and the Germans turned back to the West. Vera just stood there, gazing up into the empty sky. Her dilated eyes looked so full of tension that a technician going through the yard asked: 'Are you all right, comrade Spiridonova? You're not hurt?'

She was certain that it was here, in the power station, that she would meet Viktorov; she couldn't tell her father, however, or the angry Fates would prevent this meeting. Sometimes she felt so certain that she would jump up, bake some rye-and-potato pasties, sweep the floor, clean her dirty boots and tidy everything up… Sometimes, sitting with her father at table, she would listen for a moment and say: 'Just a second,' then throw her coat over her shoulders, climb up, and look round to see if there was a pilot in the yard, asking how to get to the Spiridonovs'.

Never, not even for one moment, did she think he might have forgotten her. She was sure that Viktorov thought about her day and night, just as she thought about him.

The power station was bombarded by heavy artillery almost every day. The Germans had found the range and their shells fell right inside the building; the ground was constantly shaken by the roar of explosions. Sometimes solitary bombers would fly over and drop their bombs. Low-flying Messerschmidts would strafe the station with their machine-guns. Occasionally German tanks appeared on the distant hills and you could hear the quick chatter of small-arms.

Stepan Fyodorovich, like the other workers, appeared quite accustomed to the bombs and shells, but they were all of them living on their last reserves of energy. Sometimes he felt overwhelmed by a sense of exhaustion; he just wanted to lie down, pull his jacket over his face and be still. Sometimes he got drunk. Sometimes he wanted to run to the Volga, cross over and make his way through the steppe without once looking back. He even felt ready to accept the shame of desertion -anything to escape the terrible whine of bombs and shells. Once he spoke to Moscow over the radio. The Deputy People's Commissar said: 'Comrade Spiridonov, greetings from Moscow to the heroic collective of which you are the leader!' This merely made Spiridonov feel embarrassed – it was hardly a matter of heroism. And then there were constant rumours that the Germans were preparing a massive raid on the power station, that they were determined to raze it to the ground with gigantic bombs. Rumours like that made his hands and feet go quite cold. All day long he would keep squinting up at the grey sky. At night he would suddenly jump out of bed, thinking he had heard the taut hum of the approaching German squadrons; his chest and his back would be covered in sweat.

He evidently wasn't the only person with frayed nerves. Chief Engineer Kamyshov once told him: 'I can't take any more. I keep imagining something terrible. Then I look at the road and think: "God, why don't I just scarper?" ' And Nikolayev, the Party organizer, came round one night and said: 'Give me a drop of vodka, Stepan Fyodorovich. I've run out myself and I can't get to sleep without my anti-bomb medicine.' As he filled the glass, Stepan Fyodorovich said: 'You live and learn. I should have chosen a job with equipment that's easy to evacuate. But these turbines are nailed to the ground – and so are we. All the other factories were moved to Sverdlovsk months ago.'

'I just don't understand it,' Stepan Fyodorovich said to Vera one day. 'Everyone else keeps on at me to let them go. I've heard every excuse under the sun. And you still refuse, no matter what I say. If I had any choice in the matter, I'd be off right now!'

'I'm staying here because of you,' she answered bluntly. 'If it weren't for me, you'd be drinking like a fish.'

For all of this, Stepan Fyodorovich did more than sit there and tremble. There was also hard work, courage, laughter and the intoxicating sense of living out a merciless fate.

Vera was constantly tormented by anxiety about her child. She was afraid that it would be born sickly, that it would have been harmed by the life she led in this suffocating, smoke-filled cellar whose floor and walls were constantly shaken by explosions. She often felt sick and dizzy herself. What a sad, frightened baby it would be if its mother had had nothing to feed her eyes on but ruins, fire, tortured earth and a grey sky full of aeroplanes with black swastikas. Maybe it could hear the roar of explosions even now; maybe it cringed at the howl of the bombs, pulling its tiny head back into its contorted body.

But then there were the men – men in overcoats covered in oil and fastened at the waist with soldiers' canvas belts – who smiled and waved as they ran past, calling out: 'How are things, Vera? Vera, do you ever think of me?' Yes, she could sense a great tenderness around her. Maybe her little one would feel it, too; maybe he would grow up pure and kind-hearted.

Sometimes she looked inside the workshop used for repairing tanks. Viktorov had worked there once. She tried to guess which bench he had stood at. She tried to imagine him in his working clothes or his flying uniform, but she kept seeing him in a white hospital gown.

Everyone knew her there, the workers themselves and the soldiers from the tank corps. In fact, it was impossible to tell them apart – their caps were all crumpled, their jackets all covered in oil, their hands all black.

Vera could think of nothing but her fears for Viktorov and for the baby, whose existence she was now constantly aware of. The vague anxiety she felt about her grandmother, Aunt Zhenya, Seryozha and Tolya now took second place.

At night, though, she longed for her mother. She would call out to her, tell her her troubles and beg for help, whispering; 'Mama, dearest Mama, help me!'

She felt weak and helpless, a different person from the one who calmly told her father: 'There's nothing more to discuss. I'm staying here and that's that.'

62

While they were eating, Nadya said thoughtfully: 'Tolya preferred boiled potatoes to fried.'

'Tomorrow,' said Lyudmila, 'he'll be nineteen years and seven months old.'

That evening she remarked: 'How upset Marusya would have been, if she'd known about the Fascist atrocities at Yasnaya Polyana.'

Soon Alexandra Vladimirovna came in from a meeting at the factory.

'What splendid weather, Vitya!' she said to Viktor as he helped her off with her coat. 'The air's dry and frosty. "Like vodka", as your mother used to say.'

'And if she liked the sauerkraut,' Viktor recalled, 'she used to say, "It's like grapes.'"

Life went on like an iceberg floating through the sea: the underwater part, gliding through the cold and the darkness, supported the upper part, which reflected the waves, breathed, listened to the water splashing…

Young people in families they knew were accepted as research students, completed their dissertations, fell in love, married, but there was always an undertone of sorrow beneath the lively talk and the celebrations.

When Viktor heard that someone he knew had been killed at the front, it was as though some particle of life inside him had died, as though some colour had faded. Amid the hubbub of life, the dead man's voice still made itself heard.

The time Viktor was bound to, spiritually and intellectually, was a terrible one, one that spared neither women nor children. It had already killed two women in his own family – and one young man, a mere boy. Often Viktor thought of two lines of Mandelstam, which he had once heard from Madyarov, a historian who was a relative of Sokolov's:

The wolfhound century leaps at my shoulders, But I am no wolf by blood.

But this time was his own time: he lived in it and would be bound to it even after his death.

Viktor's work was still going badly. His experiments, which he had begun long before the war, failed to yield the predicted results. There was something absurd and discouraging about the chaos of the data and the sheer obstinacy with which they contradicted the theory.

At first Viktor was convinced that the reason for these failures lay in his unsatisfactory working conditions and the lack of new apparatus. He was continually irritated with his laboratory assistants, thinking that they devoted too little energy to their work and were too easily distracted by trivia.

However, his troubles did not really stem from the fact that the bright, charming and talented Savostyanov was constantly scheming to obtain more ration-coupons for vodka; nor from the fact that the omniscient Markov gave lectures during working hours – or else spent his time explaining just what rations this or that Academician received and how this Academician's rations were shared out between his two previous wives and his present wife; nor from Anna Naumovna's habit of recounting all her dealings with her landlady in insufferable detail.

On the contrary – Savostyanov's mind was still clear and lively; Markov still delighted Viktor with his calm logic, the breadth of his knowledge and the artistry with which he set up the most sophisticated experiments: Anna Naumovna lived in a cold, dilapidated, little cubby-hole, but worked with a superhuman conscientiousness and dedication. And of course Viktor was still proud to have Sokolov as a collaborator.

Greater rigour in the execution of the experiments, stricter controls, the recalibration of the instruments – all these failed to introduce any clarity. Chaos had erupted into the study of the organic salts of heavy metals when exposed to fierce radiation.

Sometimes this particle of salt appeared to Viktor in the guise of an obscene, crazy dwarf – a red-faced dwarf with a hat over one ear, twisting and writhing indecently as he made obscene gestures at the stern countenance of the theory. The theory had been elaborated by physicists of international fame, its mathematics were flawless, and decades of experimental data from the most renowned laboratories of England and Germany fitted comfortably into its framework. Shortly before the war, an experiment had been set up in Cambridge with the aim of confirming, in certain extreme conditions, the behaviour of particles predicted by the theory. The success of this experiment was the theory's most brilliant triumph. To Viktor, it seemed as exalted and poetic as the experiment on relativity which confirmed the predicted deviation of a ray of light from a star passing through the sun's gravitational field. Any attack on this theory was quite unthinkable – it would be like a soldier trying to rip the gold braid off a field-marshal's shoulders.

Meanwhile, the dwarf carried on with his obscene foolery. Not long before Lyudmila had set off for Saratov, Viktor had thought that it might be possible to expand the framework of the theory – even though this necessitated two arbitrary hypotheses and considerable further complication of the mathematics.

The new equations related to the branch of mathematics which was Sokolov's particular speciality. Viktor wasn't sure of himself in this area and asked for Sokolov's help. Sokolov managed fairly quickly to extrapolate new equations for the expanded theory.

The matter now seemed settled – the experimental data no longer contradicted the theory. Delighted with this success, Viktor congratulated Sokolov. Sokolov in turn congratulated Viktor – but the anxiety and dissatisfaction still remained.

Viktor's depression soon returned. 'I've noticed, Pyotr Lavren-tyevich,' he said to Sokolov, 'that I get into a bad mood whenever I see Lyudmila darning stockings in the evening. It reminds me of the two of us. What we've done is patch up the theory, and very clumsily at that, using different-coloured wools.'

He worried away at his doubts like someone scratching a scab. Fortunately he was incapable of deceiving himself, knowing instinctively that self-consolation could lead only to defeat.

The expansion of the theory had been quite valueless. Now the theory had been patched up, it had lost its inner harmony; the arbitrary hypotheses deprived it of any independent strength and vitality and the equations had become almost too cumbersome to work with. It had somehow become rigid, anaemic, almost talmudic. It was as though it no longer had any live muscle.

A new series of experiments carried out by the brilliant Markov then contradicted the new equations. To explain this contradiction, he would have to resort to yet another arbitrary hypothesis. Once again he would have to shore up the theory with splinters of wood and old matchsticks.

'It's a botched job,' he said to himself. Viktor knew all too well that he was following the wrong path.

A letter came from the Urals: the factory was busy with orders for military equipment and the work of casting and machining the apparatus ordered by Shtrum would have to be postponed for six to eight weeks.

This letter didn't upset Viktor. He no longer expected the arrival of the new apparatus to change anything. Now and again, however, he would be seized with a furious desire to get his hands on the apparatus as soon as possible – just to convince himself once and for all that the theory was hopelessly and irrevocably contradicted by the new data.

The failure of his work seemed to be linked with his personal sorrows. Everything had become grey and hopeless. For weeks on end he would feel depressed and irritable. At times like these he became uncharacteristically interested in the housekeeping, repeatedly interfering and expressing astonishment at how much Lyudmila spent.

He even took an interest in the quarrel between Lyudmila and their landlady. The landlady was demanding additional rent for the use of the woodshed.

'Well,' he would ask, 'how are the negotiations with Nina Matveevna?'

After hearing Lyudmila through, he would say: 'What a mean old bitch!'

Now he no longer thought about the link between science and people's lives, about whether science was a joy or a sorrow. Only a master, a conqueror, can think about such questions – and he was just a bungling apprentice.

He felt as though he'd never again be able to work as he had before. His talent for research had been crushed by his sorrows. He went through the names of great physicists, mathematicians and writers whose most important work had been accomplished in their youth and who had failed to achieve anything of note after the age of thirty-five or forty. They at least had something to be proud of – whereas he would live out his life without having accomplished anything at all worthy of memory. Evariste Galois, who had laid down the lines along which mathematics would develop for a whole century, had been killed at the age of twenty-one; Einstein had published 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies' at the age of twenty-six; Hertz had died before he was forty. What an abyss lay between these men and Shtrum!

Viktor told Sokolov that he'd like to suspend their laboratory work for a while. Sokolov, however, had high expectations of the new apparatus and thought they should continue. Viktor didn't even remember to tell him about the letter from the factory.

Lyudmila never once asked Viktor about his work, though he could see that she knew of his failure. She was indifferent to the most important thing in his life – but she had time for housework, for conversations with Marya Ivanovna, for her quarrels with the landlady, for sewing a dress for Nadya, for meetings with Postoev's wife… Viktor felt bitter and angry with Lyudmila, quite failing to understand her true state of mind.

Viktor thought that his wife had returned to her habitual way of life; in fact, she was able to carry out these tasks precisely because they were habitual and so placed no demands on her. She was able to cook noodle soup and talk about Nadya's boots simply because she had done this for years and years. Viktor failed to see that she was only going through the motions, not truly entering into her previous life. She was like someone deep in thought, who, quite without noticing them, skirts pot-holes and steps over puddles as he walks down a familiar road.

In order to talk to her husband about his work, she would have needed new strength, new spiritual resources. She didn't have this strength. Viktor, however, thought that she remained interested in everything except his work.

He was also hurt by the way Lyudmila kept on bringing up occasions when he had been unkind to Tolya. It was as though she were drawing up the accounts between Tolya and his stepfather – and the balance was not in Viktor's favour.

Once Lyudmila said to her mother:

'Poor boy! What a torment it was to him when he had spots all over his face. He even asked me to get some kind of cream from the beauty parlour. And Viktor just teased him.'

This was true. Viktor had liked teasing Tolya; when Tolya came home and said hello to his stepfather, Viktor used to look him up and down, shake his head and say thoughtfully: 'Well, brother, you have come out in stars!'

Recently Viktor had preferred not to stay at home in the evenings. Sometimes he went round to Postoev's to play chess or listen to music -Postoev's wife was quite a good pianist. Sometimes he called on Karimov, a new friend he had met here in Kazan. More often, though, he went to Sokolov's.

He liked the Sokolovs' little room; he liked the hospitable Marya Ivanovna and her welcoming smile; above all, he enjoyed the conversations they had at table.

But, late at night, as he approached his front door, he was gripped by anguish – an anguish that had been lulled only for a moment.

63

Instead of going home from the Institute, Viktor went straight to his new friend, Karimov; he was to pick him up and go on to the Sokolovs'.

Karimov was an ugly man with a pock-marked face. His swarthy skin made his hair look still greyer, while his grey hair made his skin look still swarthier. He spoke Russian very correctly, and only the most attentive listener could detect his slight oddities of pronunciation and syntax.

Viktor had never heard his name before, but it appeared to be well-known even outside Kazan. Karimov had translated The Divine Comedy and Gulliver's Travels into Tartar; at present he was working on The Iliad.

At one time, before they had been introduced, they often used to run into one another at the University, in the small smoking-room on the way out of the reading-room. The librarian, a loquacious, slovenly old woman who used a lot of lipstick, had already told Viktor all about Karimov. He knew that Karimov had studied at the Sorbonne, that he had a dacha in the Crimea, and that he had formerly spent most of the year at the seaside. His wife and daughter had been caught in the Crimea by the war; Karimov had had no news of them since. The old woman had hinted that Karimov had been through eight years of great suffering, but Viktor had only looked at her blankly. It was clear that the old woman had also told Karimov all about Viktor. The two of them felt uneasy at knowing so much about each other without having been introduced; when they did meet, they tended to frown rather than smile. Finally, they bumped into each other one day in the library cloakroom, simultaneously burst out laughing and began to talk.

Viktor didn't know whether Karimov enjoyed his conversation; he only knew that he himself enjoyed talking when Karimov was listening. He knew from experience that a man who seems intelligent and witty at first often proves terribly boring to talk to.

There were people in whose presence Viktor found it hard to say even one word; his voice would go wooden and the conversation would become grey and colourless – as though they were both deaf-mutes. There were people in whose presence even one sincere word sounded false. And there were old friends in whose presence he felt peculiarly alone.

What was the reason for all this? Why is it that you occasionally meet someone – a travelling companion, a man sleeping next to you in a camp, someone who joins in a chance argument – in whose presence your inner world suddenly ceases to be mute and isolated?

Viktor and Karimov were walking side by side, talking away; Viktor realized that there were times now when he didn't think of his work for hours on end, especially during these evening talks at the Sokolovs'. He had never experienced this before; he normally thought about his work the whole time – in the tram, listening to music, eating, while he was drying his face after getting washed in the morning.

Yes, he must have got himself into a blind alley. Now he was unconsciously pushing away any thought of his work…

'How's your work gone today, Akhmet Usmanovich?' he asked.

'My mind's gone quite blank. All I can think of is my wife and daughter. Sometimes I think that everything's all right and that we will see each other again. And then I have a feeling that they're already dead.'

'I can understand,' said Viktor.

'I know,' said Karimov.

How strange it all was: here was someone Viktor had known for only a few weeks – and he could talk to him about what he couldn't even talk about with his wife or his daughter.

Almost every evening, people who would never have met in Moscow gathered together in the Sokolovs' small room.

Sokolov, though outstandingly talented, always spoke in a rather pedantic way. No one would have guessed from his smooth, polished speech that his father was a Volga fisherman. He was a kind, noble man, and yet there was something in his face that seemed sly and cruel.

There were other respects in which Sokolov differed from the Volga fishermen: he never drank, he hated draughts, and he was terrified of infection – he was constantly washing his hands and he would cut the crust off a loaf of bread where he had touched it with his fingers.

Viktor was always amazed when he read Sokolov's work. How could a man think so boldly and elegantly, how could he elaborate and prove the most complex ideas with such concision – and then drone on so tediously over a cup of tea?

Viktor himself, like many people brought up in a cultured, bookish environment, enjoyed dropping phrases like 'a load of crap' or 'bullshit' into a conversation. In the presence of a venerable Academician, he would refer to a shrewish female lecturer as 'an old cow' or even 'a bitch'.

Before the war Sokolov had always refused to allow any discussion of politics. As soon as Viktor even mentioned politics, Sokolov had either fallen into a reserved silence or else changed the subject with studied deliberateness.

There was a strange streak of submissiveness in him, a passive acceptance of the terrible cruelties of collectivization and the year 1937. He seemed to accept the anger of the State as other people accept the anger of Nature or the anger of God. Viktor sometimes thought that Sokolov did believe in God, and that this faith showed itself in his work, in his personal relationships, and in his humble obedience before the mighty of this world.

[…]

Sokolov's brother-in-law, the historian Madyarov, spoke calmly

and unhurriedly. He never openly defended Trotsky or the senior Red Army officers who had been shot as traitors to the Motherland; but it was clear from the admiration with which he spoke of Krivoruchko and Dubov, from the casual respect with which he mentioned the names of commissars and generals who had been liquidated in 1937, that he did not for one moment believe that Marshals Tukhachevsky, Blucher and Yegorov, or Muralov, the commander of the Moscow military district, or Generals Levandovsky, Gamarnik, Dybenko and Bubnov, or Unschlicht, or Trotsky's first deputy, Sklyansky, had ever really been enemies of the people and traitors to the Motherland.

No one had talked like this before the war. The might of the State had constructed a new past. It had made the Red cavalry charge a second time. It had dismissed the genuine heroes of long-past events and appointed new ones. The state had the power to replay events, to transform figures of granite and bronze, to alter speeches long since delivered, to change the faces in a news photograph.

A new history had been written. Even people who had lived through those years had now had to relive them, transformed from brave men to cowards, from revolutionaries to foreign agents.

Listening to Madyarov, however, it seemed clear that all this would give way to a more powerful logic – the logic of truth.

'All these men,' he said, 'would have been fighting against Fascism today. They'd have sacrificed their lives gladly. Why did they have to be killed?'

The landlord of the Sokolovs' flat was a chemical engineer from Kazan, Vladimir Romanovich Artelev. Artelev's wife worked late. Their two sons were at the front. He himself was in charge of a workshop at the chemical factory. He was badly dressed and he didn't even have a winter coat or fur hat. He had to wear a quilted jerkin under his raincoat, and he had a dirty, crumpled cap that he always pulled right down over his ears when he went out.

When Viktor saw him come in, blowing on his numb, red fingers, smiling shyly at the people round the table, he could hardly believe that this was the landlord; rather than the head of a large workshop at an important factory, he seemed like some beggarly neighbour coming to scrounge.

This evening, Artelev was hovering by the door, hollow-cheeked and unshaven, listening to Madyarov; he must have been afraid the floorboards would squeak if he walked right in. Marya Ivanovna whispered something in his ear on her way to the kitchen. He shook his head timidly, evidently saying he didn't want anything to eat.

'Yesterday,' said Madyarov, 'a colonel who's here for medical treatment was telling me he has to appear before a Party Commission for hitting a lieutenant in the face. That sort of thing never happened during the Civil War.'

'But you said yourself that Shchors had the members of a Revolutionary Military Commission whipped,' said Viktor.

'Yes,' said Madyarov, 'but that was a subordinate whipping his superiors. That's a little different.'

'It's the same story in industry,' said Artelev. 'Our director addresses everyone in the familiar form, but he'd take offence if you addressed him as "Comrade Shurev". No, it has to be "Leontiy Kuzmich". The other day in the workshop he got angry with one of the chemists, an old man. Shurev swore at him and said: "You do as I say -or I'll give you a boot up the arse that will send you flying onto the street." The old man is seventy-one years old.'

'And doesn't the trade union say anything?' asked Sokolov.

'What's the trade union got to do with it?' asked Madyarov. 'Their job is to exhort us to make sacrifices. You know: first we had to make preparations for the war; now it's "everything for the Front"; and after the war we'll be called upon to remedy the consequences of the war. They haven't got time to bother about some old man.'

'Maybe we should have some tea now?' Marya Ivanovna whispered to Sokolov.

'Yes, of course!' said Sokolov. 'Let's have some tea.'

'It's amazing how silently she moves!' thought Viktor, gazing absent-mindedly at Marya Ivanovna's thin shoulders as she glided out through the half-open door to the kitchen.

'Yes, comrades,' said Madyarov suddenly, 'can you imagine what it's like to have freedom of the press? One quiet morning after the war you open your newspaper, and instead of exultant editorials, instead of a letter addressed by some workers to the great Stalin, instead of articles about a brigade of steel-workers who have done an extra day's work in honour of the elections to the Supreme Soviet, instead of stories about workers in the United States who are beginning the New Year in a state of despondency, poverty and growing unemployment, guess what you find…! Information! Can you imagine a newspaper like that? A newspaper that provides information!

'You begin reading: there's an article about the bad harvest in the region of Kursk, the inspector's report on conditions inside Butyrka Prison, a discussion about whether the White Sea canal is really necessary or not, an account of how a worker called Golopuzov has spoken out against the imposition of a new State loan.

'In short, you learn everything that's happened in the country: good and bad harvests; outbursts of civic enthusiasm and armed robberies; the opening of a new mine and an accident in another mine; a disagreement between Molotov and Malenkov; reports on the strike that has flared up in protest against a factory director who insulted a seventy-year-old chemical engineer. You read Churchill's and Blum's actual speeches instead of summaries of what they "alleged"; you read an account of a debate in the House of Commons; you learn how many people committed suicide in Moscow yesterday and how many were injured in traffic accidents. You learn why there's no buckwheat in Moscow instead of being told that the first strawberries have just been flown in from Tashkent. You find out the quantity of a kolkhoz-worker's daily ration of bread from the newspapers, not from the cleaning-lady whose niece from the country has just come to Moscow to buy some bread. Yes, and at the same time you continue to be a true Soviet citizen.

'You go into a bookshop and buy a book. You read historians, economists, philosophers and political correspondents from America, England and France. You can work out for yourself where these writers are mistaken – you're allowed out onto the street without your nanny.'

Just as Madyarov reached the end of his speech, Marya Ivanovna came in with a great pile of cups and saucers. And at the same moment, Sokolov banged on the table and said: 'That's enough! I absolutely insist that you bring this conversation to an end.'

Marya Ivanovna's mouth dropped open as she stared at her husband. The cups and saucers she was carrying began to tinkle; her hands were trembling.

'There we are,' said Viktor. 'Freedom of the press has been abolished by Pyotr Lavrentyevich. We didn't enjoy it for long. It's a good thing Marya Ivanovna wasn't exposed to such seditious talk.'

'Our system,' said Sokolov testily, 'has demonstrated its strength. The bourgeois democracies have already collapsed.'

'Yes,' said Viktor, 'but then in 1940 the degenerate bourgeois democracy of Finland came up against our centralism – and things didn't turn out too well for us. I'm no admirer of bourgeois democracy – but facts are facts. And what about that old chemist?'

Viktor looked round and saw Marya Ivanovna gazing at him very attentively.

'It wasn't Finland, but the Finnish winter,' said Sokolov.

'Come on, Petya!' said Madyarov.

'We could say,' Viktor went on, 'that during the war the Soviet State has demonstrated both its strengths and its weaknesses.'

'What weaknesses?' asked Sokolov.

'Well,' said Madyarov, 'for a start there are all the people who've been arrested when they could be fighting against the Germans. Why do you think we're fighting on the banks of the Volga?'

'What's that got to do with the system?'

'What on earth do you mean?' asked Viktor. 'I suppose you, Pyotr Lavrentyevich, think that the corporal's widow shot herself in 1937?' [33]

Once again Viktor felt Marya Ivanovna's attentive gaze. He thought to himself that he'd been behaving strangely in this argument: when Madyarov first began criticizing the State, he had argued against Madyarov; but when Sokolov attacked Madyarov, he had begun arguing against Sokolov.

Sokolov enjoyed the odd laugh at a stupid speech or an illiterate article, but his stance on any important issue was always steadfast and undeviating. Whereas Madyarov certainly made no secret of his views.

'You're attempting to explain our retreat in terms of the imperfections of the Soviet system,' pronounced Sokolov. 'But the blow struck against our country by the Germans was of such force that, in absorbing this blow, our State has demonstrated with absolute clarity not its weakness but its strength. What you see is the shadow cast by a giant, and you say: "Look, what a shadow!" You forget the giant himself. Our centralism is a social motor of truly immense power, capable of achieving miracles. It already has achieved miracles. And it will achieve more!'

'If you're no use to the State,' said Karimov, 'it will discard you; it will throw you out together with all your ideas, plans and achievements. But if your idea coincides with the interests of the State, then you'll be given a magic carpet.'

'That's true enough,' said Artelev. 'I was once posted for a month to a factory of special military importance. Stalin himself knew about each new workshop that opened – he was in telephone contact with the director… And what equipment! Raw materials, special components, spare parts – everything just appeared quite miraculously… And as for the living conditions! Bathrooms, cream brought to the door every morning! I've never known anything like it. And a superb canteen. And above all, there was no bureaucracy. Everything could be organized without red tape.'

'Or rather,' added Karimov, 'the State bureaucracy, like the giant in a fairy-tale, was placed at the service of the people.'

'If such perfection has already been attained at factories of military importance,' said Sokolov, 'then it will clearly eventually be attained throughout the whole of industry.'

'No!' said Madyarov. 'There are two distinct principles. Stalin doesn't build what people need – he builds what the State needs. It's the State, not the people, that needs heavy industry. And as for the White Sea canal – that's no use to anyone. The needs of the State are one pole; people's needs are the other pole. These two poles are irreconcilable.'

'You're right,' said Artelev. 'And outside these special factories there's total chaos. People here in Kazan need a certain product, but according to the plan I have to deliver it to Chita – and from there it's sent back to Kazan. I need fitters, but haven't used up the funds allocated for children's nurseries – so what do I do? I put my fitters down in the books as child-minders. We're stifled by centralism! Some inventor suggested a method for producing fifteen hundred articles where we now produce two hundred. The director simply threw him out: the plan's calculated according to the total weight of what we produce – it's easier just to let things be. And if the whole factory comes to a standstill because of a shortage of some material that can be bought for thirty roubles, then he'll close the factory and lose two million roubles. He won't risk paying thirty roubles on the black market.'

Artelev looked round at his listeners and, as though afraid they wouldn't let him finish, went on hurriedly:

'A worker gets very little, but he does get paid according to his labour. Whereas an engineer gets almost nothing – you can earn five times as much selling fizzy water on the street. And the factory directors and commissariats just go on repeating: "The plan! The plan!" It doesn't matter if you're dying of hunger – you must fulfil the plan. We had a director called Shmatkov who was always shouting: "The factory's more important than your own mother. Even if you work yourself to death – you must fulfil the plan! And if you don't – I'll work you to death myself." And then one fine day we hear that Shmatkov is being transferred to Voskresensk. "Afanasy Lukich," I asked him, "how can you leave us like this? We're behind with the plan!" He just said quite straightforwardly, "Well, we've got children living in Moscow and Voskresensk is much closer. And then we've been offered a good flat – with a garden. My wife's always getting ill and she needs some fresh air." I'm amazed the State can trust people like that, while workers – and famous scientists, if they're not Party members – have to beg for their bread.'

'It's quite simple really,' said Madyarov. 'These people have been entrusted with something far more important than factories and institutes. These people have been entrusted with the holy of holies, the heart, the life-force, of Soviet bureaucracy.'

'I can truly say,' Artelev continued, without acknowledging Madyarov's joke, 'that I love my workshop. And I work hard – I don't spare myself. But I lack the most important quality – I don't know how to work human beings to death. I can work myself to death, but not the workers.'

Everything Madyarov had said made sense; and yet, without understanding why, Viktor still felt a need to contradict him.

'There's something twisted in your reasoning,' he said. 'How can you deny that today the interests of the individual not only coincide with, but are one and the same as, the interests of the State? The State has built up the armaments industry. Surely each one of us needs the guns, tanks and aeroplanes with which our sons and brothers have been armed?'

'Absolutely!' said Sokolov.

64

Marya Ivanovna poured out the tea. The discussion turned to literature.

'Dostoyevsky's been forgotten,' said Madyarov. 'He never gets reprinted and the libraries try not to lend out his books.'

'Because he's a reactionary,' said Viktor.

'That's true,' said Sokolov. 'He shouldn't have written The Devils.'

'Are you sure, Pyotr Lavrentyevich, that he shouldn't have written The Devils?' enquired Viktor. 'Perhaps it's The Diary of a Writer he shouldn't have written?'

'You can't shave the edges off genius,' said Madyarov. 'Dostoyev-sky simply doesn't fit into our ideology. Not like Mayakovsky – who Stalin called the finest and most talented of our poets… Mayakovsky is the personification of the State even in his emotionality. While Dostoyevsky, even in his cult of the State, is humanity itself.'

'If you're going to talk like that,' said Sokolov, 'there'll be no room in the official canon for any of the literature of the last century.'

'Far from it,' said Madyarov. 'What about Tolstoy? He made poetry out of the idea of a people's war. And the State has just proclaimed a people's war. Tolstoy's idea coincides with the interests of the State. And so – as Karimov would say – the magic carpet is whisked in. Now we have Tolstoy on the radio, we have literary evenings devoted to Tolstoy, his works are constantly being reprinted; he even gets quoted by our leaders.'

'Chekhov's done best of all. He was recognized both by the last epoch and by our own,' said Sokolov.

'You've hit the nail on the head!' exclaimed Madyarov, slapping his hand on the table. 'But if we do recognize Chekhov, it's because we don't understand him. The same as Zoshchenko, who is in some ways his disciple.'

'I don't understand,' objected Sokolov. 'Chekhov's a realist. It's the decadents that we criticize.'

'You don't understand?' asked Madyarov. 'Well then, I'll explain.'

'Don't you dare say anything against Chekhov!' said Marya Ivanovna. 'He's my favourite writer.'

'And you're quite right, my dear Masha,' said Madyarov. 'Now I suppose you, Pyotr Lavrentyevich, look to the decadents for an expression of humanity?'

Sokolov, by now quite angry, gave a dismissive wave of the hand. Madyarov paid no attention. He needed Sokolov to look to the decadents for humanity. Otherwise he couldn't finish his train of thought.

'Individualism is not the same as humanity,' he explained. 'Like everyone else, you confuse the two. You think the decadents are much criticized now? Nonsense! They're not subversive of the State, simply irrelevant to it. I am certain that there is no divide between Socialist Realism and the decadent movement. People have argued over the definition of Socialist Realism. It's a mirror: when the Party and the Government ask, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?" it replies, "You – Party, You – Government, You – State, you're the fairest of them all!" While the decadents' answer to this question is, "Me, Me, Me, I'm the fairest of them all." Not so very different. Socialist Realism is the affirmation of the uniqueness and superiority of the State; the decadent movement is the affirmation of the uniqueness and superiority of the individual. The form may be different, but the essence is one and the same – ecstatic wonder at one's own superiority. The perfect State has no time for any others that differ from it. And the decadent personality is profoundly indifferent to all other personalities except two; with one of these it makes refined conversation, with the other it exchanges kisses and caresses. It may seem that the decadents with their individualism are fighting on behalf of man. Not a bit of it. The decadent are indifferent to man – and so is the State. Where's the divide?'

Sokolov was listening with his eyes half-closed. Sensing that Madyarov was about to infringe still more serious taboos, he interrupted:

'Excuse me, but what's all this got to do with Chekhov?'

'I'm just coming to that. Between him and the present day lies a veritable abyss. Chekhov took Russian democracy on his shoulders, the still unrealized Russian democracy. Chekhov's path is the path of Russia 's freedom. We took a different path – as Lenin said. Just try and remember all Chekhov's different heroes! Probably only Balzac has ever brought such a mass of different people into the consciousness of society. No – not even Balzac. Just think! Doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, lecturers, landlords, shopkeepers, industrialists, nannies, lackeys, students, civil servants of every rank, cattle-dealers, tram-conductors, marriage-brokers, sextons, bishops, peasants, workers, cobblers, artists' models, horticulturalists, zoologists, innkeepers, gamekeepers, prostitutes, fishermen, lieutenants, corporals, artists, cooks, writers, janitors, nuns, soldiers, midwives, prisoners on the Sakhalin Islands…'

'That's enough!' Sokolov finally shouted out.

'Enough?' repeated Madyarov in a mock-threatening tone of voice. 'No, that isn't enough. Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness – with people of every estate, every class, every age… More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all these people – as a Russian democrat. He said – and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy – that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! He said something no one in Russia had ever said. He said that first of all we are human beings – and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers. Do you understand? Instead of saying that people are good or bad because they are bishops or workers, Tartars or Ukrainians, instead of this he said that people are equal because they are human beings. At one time people blinded by Party dogma saw Chekhov as a witness to the fin de siècle. No. Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history – the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man. Our Russian humanism has always been cruel, intolerant, sectarian. From Avvakum to Lenin our conception of humanity and freedom has always been partisan and fanatical. It has always mercilessly sacrificed the individual to some abstract idea of humanity. Even Tolstoy, with his doctrine of non-resistance to Evil, is intolerant – and his point of departure is not man but God. He wants the idea of goodness to triumph. True believers always want to bring God to man by force; and in Russia they stop at nothing – even murder – to achieve this.

'Chekhov said: let's put God – and all these grand progressive ideas – to one side. Let's begin with man; let's be kind and attentive to the individual man – whether he's a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let's begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual – or we'll never get anywhere. That's democracy, the still unrealized democracy of the Russian people.

'The Russians have seen everything during the last thousand years – grandeur and super-grandeur; but what they have never seen is democracy. Yes – and this is what separates Chekhov from the decadents. The State may sometimes express irritation with the decadents; it may box them on the ears or kick them up the arse. But it simply doesn't understand Chekhov – that's why it tolerates him.

There's still no place in our house for democracy – for a true humane democracy.'

It was obvious that Sokolov was very upset by Madyarov's boldness. Noticing this, and with a delight he couldn't quite understand, Viktor said: 'Well said! That's all very true and very intelligent. Only I beg you to be indulgent towards Scriabin. He may be a decadent, but I love him.'

Sokolov's wife offered Viktor a saucer of jam. He made a gesture of refusal. 'No thanks. Not for me.'

'It's blackcurrant,' replied Marya Ivanovna.

Viktor looked into her golden-brown eyes and said: 'Have I told you about my weakness, then?'

She smiled and nodded her head. Her teeth were uneven, and her lips thin and pale. When she smiled, her pallid, even slightly grey, face suddenly became quite charming.

'She's a splendid woman,' thought Viktor. 'If only her nose wasn't always so red.'

Karimov turned to Madyarov.

'Leonid Sergeich, how can you reconcile your earlier hymn to Dostoyevsky with this passionate speech in praise of Chekhov and his humanity? Dostoyevsky certainly doesn't consider everyone equal. Hitler called Tolstoy a degenerate, but they say he has a portrait of Dostoyevsky hanging in his office. I belong to a national minority myself. I'm a Tartar who was born in Russia and I cannot pardon a Russian writer his hatred of Poles and Yids. No – even if he is a genius. We had more than enough blood spilt in Tsarist Russia, more than enough of being spat at in the eye. More than enough pogroms. A great writer in this country has no right to persecute foreigners, to despise Poles and Tartars, Jews, Armenians and Chuvash.'

The grey-haired, dark-eyed Tartar smiled haughtily and angrily -like a true Mongol. Still addressing Madyarov, he continued:

'Perhaps you've read Tolstoy's Hadji Mourat? Perhaps you've read The Cossacks? Perhaps you've read the story "A Prisoner in the Caucasus "? They Were written by a Russian count. While Dostoyevsky was a Lithuanian. As long as the Tartars remain in existence, they will pray to Allah on behalf of Tolstoy.'

Viktor looked at Karimov, thinking: 'Well, well. So that's how you feel, is it?'

'Akhmet Usmanovich,' said Sokolov, 'I profoundly respect your love for your people. But allow me to be proud of my nationality too. Allow me to love Tolstoy – and not only because of what he wrote about the Tartars. We Russians, for some reason, are never allowed to be proud of our own people. And if we show such pride, we're immediately taken for members of the Black Hundreds.'

Karimov got to his feet, his face covered in pearls of sweat.

'Let me tell you the truth. Why should I lie when I know the truth? Anyone who remembers how the pride of our race, every cultural figure of any importance, was exterminated way back in the twenties -anyone with a mind can see why The Diary of a Writer must be banned!'

'We suffered too,' said Artelev.

'It wasn't just people who were destroyed – it was a whole culture. Today's intelligentsia are savages by comparison.'

'Yes,' said Madyarov with heavy irony. 'But the Tartars might not have stopped at culture. They might have wanted Tartar home-rule and a Tartar foreign policy. And that's not on…'

'But you've got your own State now,' said Sokolov. 'You've got your own Institutes, your own schools, your own operas, your own books. You've got newspapers in Tartar. You owe all that to the Revolution.'

'Yes, a State opera and a comic-opera State. But it's Moscow that collects our harvest and Moscow that sends us to prison.'

'Would it be any better if you were jailed by a Tartar?' asked Madyarov.

'What if people weren't jailed at all?' asked Marya Ivanovna.

'Mashenka!' said Madyarov, 'what will you want next?' He looked at his watch and said: 'Hm, it's getting on.'

'Stay for the night, Lenechka,' Marya Ivanovna said hurriedly. 'I can make up the camp-bed.'

Madyarov had once told Marya Ivanovna that he felt particularly lonely late at night, when he came back to a dark empty room with no one waiting for him.

'Well,' he said, 'I won't say no. Is that all right by you, Pyotr Lavrentyevich?'

'Of course.'

'Said the master of the house without the least enthusiasm,' Madyarov added with a smile.

Everyone got up from the table and began saying goodbye. Sokolov accompanied his guests to the door. Marya Ivanovna lowered her voice and said to Madyarov: 'It is good that Pyotr Lavrentyevich no longer shrinks from these conversations. In Moscow he clammed up at the merest hint of anything political.'

She pronounced her husband's name and patronymic with particular tenderness and respect. At night she often copied out his work by hand; she kept all his notebooks and even pasted his casual jottings onto cards. She thought of him as a great man – and at the same time as her helpless child.

'I like Shtrum,' said Madyarov. 'I can't understand why people say he's disagreeable.' He smiled and added: 'I noticed he pronounced all his speeches in your presence, Mashenka. While you were busy in the kitchen, he spared us his eloquence.'

Marya Ivanovna had turned towards the door. She seemed not to have heard Madyarov. But then she asked: 'What do you mean, Lenya? He pays no more attention to me than to an insect. Petya considers him unkind, arrogant and too ready to mock people. That's why he's not popular and why some of the physicists are even afraid of him. But I don't agree. I think he's very kind.'

'That's the last thing I'd say of him,' said Madyarov. 'He disagrees with everyone and heaps sarcasm on them. But he's got a free mind; he hasn't been indoctrinated.'

'No, he is kind. And vulnerable.'

'But you have to admit,' said Madyarov, 'that our Petya doesn't let slip a careless word even now.'

Just then Sokolov came into the room. He overheard Madyarov.

'I'd like to ask you, Leonid Sergeyevich, first not to give me advice, and secondly never again to start conversations of that nature in my presence.'

'I don't need your advice, for that matter,' replied Madyarov. 'And just as you answer for your words, I'll answer for mine.'

Sokolov looked as if he wanted to say something very stinging. Instead, he left the room.

'Well, perhaps I'd better go home after all,' said Madyarov.

'You'll make me very upset,' said Marya Ivanovna. 'And you know how kind he is. It will torment him all night.'

She went on to explain that Pyotr Lavrentyevich had a very sensitive soul, that he had suffered a lot, that he had been interrogated very harshly in 1937 and as a result had had to spend four months in a clinic for nervous disorders.

Madyarov nodded his head. 'All right, Masha. I give in.'

Then, in a sudden fury, he added: 'That's all very well, but your Petya wasn't the only one to be interrogated. Have you forgotten the eleven months I spent in the Lubyanka? And how during all that time Pyotr only once telephoned my wife Klava – his own sister…? Have you forgotten how he forbade you to telephone her? All that hurt Klava very deeply. Yes, your Petya may be a great physicist, but he's got the soul of a lackey.'

Marya Ivanovna buried her face in her hands and remained silent. Then she said very quietly: 'No one, no one will ever understand how deeply this pains me.'

No one else understood how appalled her husband had been by the savagery of general collectivization and the events of 1937. She alone understood his spiritual purity. But then she alone knew how servile he was in the face of power.

That was why he was so capricious at home, such a petty tyrant. That was why Masha had to clean his shoes for him, why she had to fan him in hot weather with her headscarf, why she had to keep the mosquitoes off with a branch when they went for walks near their dacha.

Once, during his last year at university, Viktor had thrown a copy of Pravda on to the floor and said to a fellow student: 'It's so deadly boring. How can anyone ever read it?'

Immediately afterwards he had felt terrified. He had picked up the newspaper, smoothed its pages and smiled weakly. Even now, years later, the memory of that pitiful, hang-dog smile was enough to make him break out into a sweat.

A few days later, Viktor had held out another issue of Pravda to that same friend and said animatedly: 'Grishka, have a look at the leading article. It's a good stuff.'

His friend had taken the newspaper from him and said pityingly:

'Vitya's frightened, is he? Do you think I'm going to denounce you?'

Viktor had then taken a vow either to remain silent and not express dangerous thoughts or else to say what he thought without funking it. He had not kept this vow. He had often flared up and thrown caution to the wind – only to suddenly take fright and attempt to snuff out the flame he himself had lit.

In 1938, after the trial of Bukharin, he had said to Krymov:

'Say what you like, but I've met Bukharin. I've talked to him twice. I remember his kind, intelligent smile. And he's certainly got a head on his shoulders. My impression is that he's someone of great charm and absolute purity.'

Krymov had looked at him morosely. Thrown into confusion, Viktor had muttered: 'But then who knows? Espionage. Working as an agent of the Okhrana. [34] There's nothing charming or pure about that. It's just despicable!'

Krymov's next words left Viktor even more confused.

'Since we're relatives,' he said sullenly, 'let me say one thing to you: I am quite unable, and always shall be unable, to associate the name of Bukharin with the Okhrana.'

'My God, I can't believe all this horror!' Viktor had burst out with sudden fury. 'These trials are a nightmare. But why do they confess? Why do they all confess?'

Krymov had said nothing more. He had obviously said too much already…

What a wonderful power and clarity there is in speaking one's mind. What a terrible price people paid for a few bold words.

How often Viktor had lain awake listening to the cars on the street! Sometimes Lyudmila had gone barefoot to the window and parted the curtains. She had stayed there for a while and watched; then, thinking that Viktor was asleep, she had gone silently back to bed and lain down. In the morning she had asked: 'Did you sleep well?'

'All right, thank you. And you?'

'It felt very stuffy. I had to go to the window for some fresh air.'

'Yes.'

How can one ever describe those nights and that extraordinary sense of both doom and innocence?

'Remember, Viktor, every word reaches them. You're destroying yourself, together with me and the children.'

And another time:

'I can't tell you everything. But for the love of God, don't say a word to anyone. Viktor, we live in a terrible age – you've no idea just how terrible. Remember, Viktor, not a word to anyone.'

Sometimes Viktor glimpsed the opaque, sad eyes of someone he had known since childhood. He had been frightened not by what his old friend said, but by what he didn't say. And of course he had been much too frightened to ask directly: 'Are you an agent? Do you get called in for questioning?'

He remembered looking at his assistant's face after making a thoughtless joke about Stalin's having formulated the laws of gravity long before Newton.

'You didn't say anything, and I didn't hear anything,' this young assistant had said gaily.

Why, why, why all these jokes? It was mad to make such jokes – like banging a flask of nitroglycerine with a hammer.

What power and clarity lies in the word! In the unfettered, carefree word! The word that is still spoken in spite of all one's fears.

Was Viktor aware of the hidden tragedy in these conversations? Everyone who took part in them hated German Fascism and was terrified of it… But why did they only speak their minds at a time when Russia had been driven back to the Volga, at a time when terrible military defeats held out the threat of slavery?

Viktor walked silently beside Karimov.

'There's something very surprising,' he suddenly said, 'about novels portraying the foreign intelligentsia. I've just been reading Hemingway. When his characters have a serious conversation, they are always drinking. Cocktails, whisky, rum, cognac, more cocktails, more cognac, still more different brands of whisky. Whereas the Russian intelligentsia has always had its important discussions over a glass of tea. The members of "People's Will", the Populists, the Social Democrats all came together over glasses of weak tea. Lenin and his friends even planned the Revolution over a glass of weak tea. Though apparently Stalin prefers cognac.'

'Yes, yes,' said Karimov, 'you're quite right. And the conversation we had today was over a glass of tea.'

'Absolutely. And isn't Madyarov intelligent? Isn't he bold? I'm really not used to anyone speaking the way he does. It excites me.'

Karimov took Viktor by the arm.

'Viktor Pavlovich, have you noticed that the most innocent remark of Madyarov's somehow sounds like a generalization? I find that worrying. And he was arrested for several months in 1937 and then released. At a time when no one was released. There must be a reason. Do you follow me?'

'Yes,' Viktor answered slowly, 'I do. How could I not understand you? You think he's an informer.'

They parted at the next corner. Viktor walked back towards his house.

'To hell with it all!' he said to himself. 'At least we've talked like human beings for once. Without fear and hypocrisy. Saying whatever we felt about whatever we liked. Paris is worth a mass…'

How good that there still were people like Madyarov, people who hadn't lost their independence. Yes. Karimov's warning didn't strike the usual chill into Viktor's heart.

Viktor realized that he had once again forgotten to tell Sokolov about the letter from the Urals.

He walked on down the dark, empty street. Suddenly an idea came to him. Immediately, with his whole being, he knew it was true. He had glimpsed a new and improbable explanation for the atomic phenomena that up until now had seemed so hopelessly inexplicable; abysses had suddenly changed into bridges. What clarity and simplicity! This idea was astonishingly graceful and beautiful. It seemed to have given birth to itself – like a white water-lily appearing out of the calm darkness of a lake. He gasped, revelling in its beauty…

And how strange, he thought suddenly, that this idea should have come to him when his mind was far away from anything to do with science, when the discussions that so excited him were those of free men, when his words and the words of his friends had been determined only by freedom, by bitter freedom.

65

The Kalmyk steppe seems sad and lifeless when you see it for the first time, when you come to it full of preoccupations, when you watch absent-mindedly as the low hills slowly emerge from the horizon and slowly sink back into it… Lieutenant-Colonel Darensky had the feeling it was the very same wind-swept hillock that kept appearing in front of him, the very same curve that his car kept following… The horsemen too seemed identical – even though some were beardless and others grey-haired, even though some were on dun ponies, others on black…

The jeep passed through hamlets and villages, past small houses with tiny windows that sheltered a jungle of geraniums; it looked as though you had only to break the glass for the life-giving air to drain away into the surrounding emptiness, for the thick green of the geraniums to wither and die. The jeep drove past circular yurts with clay-smeared walls, through tall, grey feather-grass, through prickly camel-grass, past white splashes of salt, past the little clouds of dust kicked up by flocks of sheep, past small fires that gave off no smoke and danced in the wind…

To someone travelling by jeep, on tyres filled with the smoky air of the city, everything here blurs into a uniform grey… This Kalmyk steppe, which stretches, gradually changing to desert, right to the mouth of the Volga and the shores of the Caspian, has one strange characteristic: the earth and the sky above have reflected one another for so long that they have finally become undistinguishable, like a husband and wife who have spent their whole lives together. It's impossible to tell whether dusty, aluminium-grey feather-grass has begun to grow on the dull, lustreless blue of the sky, or whether the steppe itself has become impregnated with the sky's blue; earth and sky have blurred together, dusty and ageless. In the same way, the thick opaque water of Lakes Dats and Barmantsak looks like a sheet of salt, while the salt flats look like lakes…

And in November and December – before the first snows – it's impossible to tell whether the earth has been dried and hardened by the sun or by frost.

All this may account for the number of mirages here: the boundary between air and earth, between water and salt, has been erased. The mind of a thirsty traveller can transform this world with ease: the scorching air becomes elegant, blueish stone; the lifeless earth is filled with the gentle murmur of streams; palm trees stretch out to the horizon and the terrible sun blends with the clouds of dust to form the golden cupolas of temples and palaces… In a moment of exhaustion, a man can transform this sky and this earth into the world of his dreams.

But there is another, unexpected side to the steppe. It is also a noble, ancient world; a world where there are no screaming colours or harsh lines, but only a sober grey-blue melancholy that can rival the colours of a Russian forest in autumn; a world whose soft undulating hills capture the heart more surely than the peaks of the Caucasus; a world whose small, dark, ancient lakes seem to express the very essence of water more truly than seas or oceans.

Everything passes; but there is no forgetting this huge, cast-iron sun shining through the evening mist, this bitter wind laden with the scent of wormwood…

And the steppe has its own riches. In spring the young tulip-filled steppe is an ocean of colours. The camel-grass is still green; its harsh spines are still soft and tender…

The steppe has one other unchanging characteristic: day and night, summer and winter, in foul weather or fine weather, it speaks of freedom. If someone has lost his freedom, the steppe will remind him of it…

Darensky got out of his car and looked at a horseman on top of a small hill. Dressed in a long robe tied by a piece of string, he was sitting on his shaggy pony and surveying the steppe. He was very old; his face looked as hard as stone.

Darensky called out to the man and then walked up to him, holding out his cigarette-case. The old man turned in his saddle; his movement somehow combined the agility of youth with the thoughtful caution of age. He looked in turn at the hand holding out the cigarettes, at Darensky's face, at the pistol hanging by his side, at the three bars indicating his rank, and at his smart boots. Then he took a cigarette and rolled it between his fine, brown, childlike fingers.

The old man's hard, high-cheekboned face suddenly changed; two kind intelligent eyes looked out from between his wrinkles. There was something very splendid about these old brown eyes, about their look of trust blended with wary scrutiny; for no apparent reason Darensky suddenly felt happy and at ease. The pony, who had pricked up his ears suspiciously at Darensky's approach, inquisitively pointed first one ear, then the other, and then smiled at him with his beautiful eyes and his two rows of large teeth.

'Thank you,' said the old man in a thin voice, putting his hand on Darensky's shoulder. 'I had two sons in a cavalry division. The first one' – he raised his hand a little above the pony's head – 'was killed by the Germans. The second one' – he lowered his hand a little below the pony's head – 'is a machine-gunner: he's got three medals. How about you? Is your father still alive?'

'My mother's alive, but my father's dead.'

'Ay! that's bad!' said the old man, shaking his head. Darensky had the feeling that he wasn't just being polite, that he felt genuinely sad to learn of the death of the father of the Russian lieutenant-colonel who had offered him a cigarette.

The old man gave a sudden cry, waved his hand in the air and galloped down the hill with extraordinary grace and speed. What was he thinking as he galloped through the steppe? Of his sons? Of the father of the Russian lieutenant-colonel whose jeep needed mending?

Darensky watched. One word pounded like blood at his temples:

'Freedom… freedom… freedom…'

Yes, he was envious of the old Kalmyk.

66

Darensky had been sent from Front Headquarters on a lengthy mission to the army deployed on the extreme left of the flank. These missions were particularly unpopular among the staff officers, on account of the lack of water and housing, the poor supplies, the vast distances and the vile roads. The High Command had little precise information about these troops, lost as they were in the sands between the shores of the Caspian and the Kalmyk steppe; Darensky had a lot of tasks to carry out.

After travelling hundreds of miles through the steppe, he felt overwhelmed by melancholy and boredom. Here no one even dreamed of an offensive; there was something hopeless about the situation of these troops who had been driven back almost to the end of the world…

The continual tension of life at Front HQ, the rumours of an impending offensive, the movements of the reserves, the codes and telegrams, the never-ending work of the Signals-Section, the roar of the columns of tanks and vehicles coming in from the North – had all this really just been an illusion?

As Darensky listened to the gloomy conversations of the officers, as he collated and checked data about the state of the equipment, inspected artillery regiments and batteries, noticed the sullenness on the faces of the men and the laziness of their movements, he slowly gave in to the monotonous gloom around him. Russia seemed like a wounded animal that had been driven back into the sand-dunes, into steppes fit only for camels; there she was, lying on the harsh earth, impotent, unable ever to rise again.

Darensky arrived at Army Headquarters. A plump-faced, balding young man, wearing a tunic without any insignia of rank, was playing cards with two women in uniform, both of them lieutenants. Instead of breaking off as the lieutenant-colonel entered the room, they looked at him absent-mindedly and went on with their game.

'Why not play a trump? Or a jack?'

Darensky waited for the end of the hand before asking, 'Are these the commander's quarters?'

'He's gone to the right flank. He won't be back till evening,' said one of the young women. She looked Darensky up and down. 'Are you from Front HQ, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel?'

'That's right,' said Darensky. With a barely perceptible wink, he asked: 'Excuse me, but could I see the Member of the Military Soviet?'

'He's with the commander. He won't be back till evening either,' said the second woman. 'Are you on the artillery staff?'

'That's right.'

Though she was clearly very much the older of the two, Darensky found the first woman extremely attractive. She was the kind of woman who can look very beautiful and yet – seen from the wrong angle – appear suddenly faded, middle-aged and dull. She had a fine straight nose and blue eyes that were lacking in warmth; you could tell she knew both her own value and that of other people.

Her face looked very young, not a year over twenty-five. But as soon as she frowned or looked thoughtful, you could see the wrinkles at the corners of her lips and the loose skin at her throat; then she looked at least forty-five. But her legs – in elegant, tailored boots -were quite splendid.

All these details, which take some time to recount, were taken in at once by Darensky's experienced eye.

The second woman was young, but already stout. Taken individually, none of her features was particularly beautiful: her hair lacked body, her face was very broad, and her eyes were an indeterminate colour. But she was young and feminine. Yes, sitting next to her, even a blind man would be conscious of her femininity.

These details, too, were noted by Darensky in less than a second. More than that – in this fraction of a second he was somehow able to weigh up the merits of the two women and make the choice, a choice quite without practical consequences, that nearly all men make in such a situation. Though he had a lot of questions on his mind – Where would he find the commanding officer? Would he be able to obtain the necessary information from him? Where could he eat and sleep? Would it be a long and difficult journey to the division on the extreme left? – Darensky still had time to say to himself: 'Yes, that's the one I'd choose!' It was merely a passing thought; and yet, instead of going straight to the chief of staff, he stayed behind for a game of cards.

He ended up partnering the woman with the blue eyes. During the game he learnt several things: his partner was called Alla Sergeyevna; the other woman worked in the first-aid post; the young man, Volodya, was a cook in the Military Soviet canteen and appeared to be a relative of someone high up.

From the very start, Darensky sensed Alla Sergeyevna's power; it was obvious from the way people addressed her when they came into the room. The commanding officer was clearly her husband – not just her lover, as he had first thought.

At first he couldn't understand why Volodya was so familiar with her. Then it suddenly dawned on him that Volodya must be the brother of the commander's first wife. What was still unclear was whether the commander's first wife was still alive; and if so, whether they had got a divorce.

The younger woman, Claudia, was equally clearly not the wife of the Member of the Military Soviet. There was an occasional note of arrogance and condescension in the way Alla Sergeyevna talked to her: 'Yes, we may be playing cards together, we may call each other 'ty', but that's simply because of the war.'

Claudia in turn had a certain sense of her own superiority over Alla Sergeyevna. Darensky understood this as: 'All right, I may not be lawfully married, but at least I'm faithful to my Member of the Military Soviet. So you watch it! You may be properly married, but there are one or two things I could say about you.'

Volodya made no attempt to hide how strongly he was attracted to Claudia. He seemed to be saying: 'My love is hopeless. How can a mere cook hope to rival the Member of the Military Soviet? But even if I am only a cook, I love you with a pure love and you know it. All I ask is to be able to look into your pretty little eyes. As for what your Member of the Military Soviet loves you for, that doesn't matter to me.'

Darensky played very badly and Alla Sergeyevna took him under her wing. She liked this lean, elegant colonel. He said, 'I thank you,' and mumbled, 'Forgive me' if their hands touched during the deal; he looked pained when Volodya wiped his nose on his fingers and his fingers on his handkerchief; he smiled politely at other people's jokes and was extremely witty himself.

After one of his jokes she said: 'You're very witty, but it took me a moment to get the point. I'm losing my mind out here in the steppes.'

She said this very quietly, as if to let him know, or rather feel, how easily a conversation could develop between the two of them, a conversation that would send shivers up their spines, a conversation of the only kind that matters between a man and a woman.

Darensky continued to make mistakes and she continued to correct him; at the same time they began to play another game in which Darensky made no mistakes. Nothing had been said between them except, 'No, don't hang on to your low spades' or 'Go on, go on, there's no need to save your trumps'; but she already knew and appreciated all his charms – his strength and his gentleness, his discretion and his audacity, his shyness… Alla Sergeyevna sensed these qualities both because of her own perceptiveness and because Darensky knew how to display them. She for her part was able to show him that she understood the way he watched her smile, the way he watched her gesture with her hands or shrug her shoulders, the way he looked at her breasts under her elegant gabardine tunic, at her legs, at her carefully manicured nails. And he could tell that her voice was just a little more melodic than usual, that her smile lingered a little longer than usual – so that he could appreciate the beauty of her voice, her white teeth and the dimples in her cheeks…

Darensky was quite shaken by his sudden feeling of excitement. It was something he never got used to; it was always as though he was experiencing it for the first time. His considerable experience of women had never degenerated into mere habit; his experience was one thing, his joy and excitement quite another. It was this that made him a true lover of women.

It somehow came about that he had to stay the night at Army Headquarters.

The following morning he called on the chief of staff, a taciturn colonel who didn't ask a single question about Stalingrad itself or the position of the various fronts. By the end of their conversation Darensky had come to the conclusion that this colonel would be of no help at all; he asked him to stamp his documents and then went out to inspect the troops himself.

As he got into his jeep he felt a strange lightness and emptiness in his arms and legs, a total lack of thought or desire; he felt at once sated and drained. Everything round about seemed insipid and empty: the sky, the feather-grass and the hills that only yesterday had seemed so beautiful. He didn't want to talk or joke with his driver. Even his thoughts about his friends and relatives, about his beloved mother, were somehow cold and lifeless. His thoughts about this war in the desert, at the furthest limits of Russian territory, were equally lacking in passion.

Every now and then he spat, shook his head and muttered with a kind of obtuse surprise: 'What a woman…'

He thought remorsefully that this kind of affair always came to a bad end. He remembered something he had read, either in Kuprin or in some foreign novel, about love being like a lump of coal: hot, it burns you; cold, it makes you dirty. He wanted to cry, or rather to have a good moan, to find someone he could tell his troubles to. It wasn't his own choice, it was the will of Fate. This was the only kind of love he knew… Then he fell asleep. When he woke up, he thought suddenly: 'Well, if I don't get myself killed, I'll certainly drop in on Allochka on the way back.'

67

On his way back from work, Major Yershov stopped by Mostovskoy's place on the bedboards.

'One of the Americans heard the radio today: our resistance at Stalingrad has really upset the German strategy.'

Then he frowned and added: 'And there was a report from Moscow – something about the liquidation of the Comintern.'

'You must be crazy,' said Mostovskoy, looking into Yershov's intelligent eyes, eyes that were like the cool, turbid waters of spring.

'Maybe the American got it mixed up,' said Yershov, scratching his head. 'Maybe the Comintern's been expanded.'

During his life Mostovskoy had known several people who were like a diaphragm that resonated to the thoughts, ideals and passions of a whole society. Not one important event ever seemed to pass them by. Yershov was such a person; he was a mouthpiece for the thoughts and aspirations of the whole camp. But a rumour about the liquidation of the Comintern didn't hold the least interest for this master of men's minds.

Brigade Commissar Osipov, who had been responsible for the political education of a large military unit, was equally indifferent.

'General Gudz said that it was because of your internationalist propaganda that all this funk first set in. We should have brought people up in the spirit of patriotism, the spirit of Russia.'

'You mean God, the Tsar and the Fatherland?' said Mostovskoy mockingly.

'Nonsense,' said Osipov with a nervous yawn. 'Anyway, who cares about orthodoxy? What matters, dear comrade, is that the Germans are skinning us alive.'

The Spanish soldier known to the Russians as Andryushka, who slept on the third tier of boards, wrote ' Stalingrad ' on a scrap of wood and gazed at the word during the night. In the morning he turned it over in case the kapos caught sight of it as they came by on their rounds.

'If I wasn't sent out to work, I used to lie on the boards all day long,' Major Kirillov told Mostovskoy. 'But now I wash my shirt and I chew splinters of pine-wood against scurvy.'

The SS officers, known as 'the happy lads' because of the way they sang on their way to work, now picked on the Russians with even more cruelty than usual.

There were invisible links between the barrack-huts and the city on the Volga. But no one was interested in the Comintern.

It was around then that the émigré Chernetsov approached Mostovskoy for the first time. Covering up his empty eye-socket with the palm of his hand, he began talking about the broadcast the American had heard. Mostovskoy was pleased; he needed to talk about this very badly.

'The sources aren't very reliable,' he said. 'It's probably just a rumour.'

Chernetsov raised his eyebrows. It looked grotesque – an eyebrow raised in neurotic bewilderment over an empty socket.

'What do you mean?' he asked. 'It makes perfect sense. Our masters the Bolsheviks set up the Third International, and our masters the Bolsheviks developed the theory of so-called Socialism in One Country. That theory's a contradiction in terms – like fried ice. Georgiy Plekhanov wrote in one of his last articles: "Socialism either exists as an international, world-wide system, or not at all." '

'So-called Socialism?' repeated Mostovskoy.

'That's right, "so-called". Soviet Socialism.'

Chernetsov smiled and saw Mostovskoy smile back. They recognized their past in these jibes, in this mockery and hatred.

The sharp blade of their youthful enmity flashed out anew, as though cutting through whole decades; this meeting in a concentration camp reminded them not only of years of hatred, but also of their youth.

This man, for all his hostility, knew and loved what Mostovskoy had known and loved in his youth. It was Chernetsov – not Osipov or Yershov – who remembered the First Party Congress and names that everyone else had long ago forgotten. They talked excitedly about the relations between Marx and Bakunin, about what Lenin and Plekhanov had said about the hard-liners and the softs on the editorial staff of Iskra.. . How warmly Engels had welcomed the young Russian Social Democrats who had come to visit him when he was a blind old man! What a pain Lyubochka Axelrod had been in Zurich!

Evidently sharing the same feelings as Mostovskoy, the one-eyed Menshevik grinned and said: 'Touching accounts have been written of meetings between old friends. What about meetings between old enemies, between tired, grey-haired old dogs like you and me?'

Mostovskoy glimpsed a tear on Chernetsov's cheek. They both knew that they would die soon. The events of their lives would be levelled over; their enmity, their convictions, their mistakes, would all be buried beneath the sand.

'Yes,' said Mostovskoy. 'If you fight against someone all your days, he becomes a part of your life.'

'How strange to meet in this wolf-pit,' said Chernetsov. Then, apropos of nothing at all, he murmured: 'What wonderful words: "wheat", "corn", "April showers".'

'This camp's a terrible place,' said Mostovskoy. He laughed. 'Anything else seems good in comparison – even meeting a Menshevik.'

Chernetsov nodded sadly. 'Yes, things are hard for you.'

'Hitlerism!' said Mostovskoy. 'I never imagined there could be such a hell.'

'Don't try and fool me,' said Chernetsov. 'There's not much you don't know about terror!'

The melancholy warmth of only a moment before might never have existed. They began to argue furiously and without mercy.

The terrible thing about Chernetsov's slander was that it contained an element of truth. What he did was to extrapolate general laws from occasional mistakes and incidental cruelties.

'Of course it suits you to think that some people went too far in 1937,' he said to Mostovskoy, 'that the success of collectivization went to people's heads, that your great and beloved leader is perhaps just a little cruel and megalomaniac. But the truth of the matter is very different: it's precisely Stalin's monstrous inhumanity that makes him Lenin's successor. As you love to repeat – Stalin is the Lenin of today. You still think that the workers' lack of rights and the poverty in the villages are something temporary, just growing pains. But you're the true kulaks, you're the true monopolists – the wheat you buy from a peasant for five kopecks a kilo and sell back to him for a rouble a kilo is the foundation-stone of your whole socialist edifice.'

'So even you, an émigré and a Menshevik, admit that Stalin is the Lenin of today,' retorted Mostovskoy. 'It's true: we are the heirs to all the generations of Russian revolutionaries from Pugachev to Razin. The heir to Razin, Dobrolyubov and Herzen is Stalin, not you renegade Mensheviks!'

'Fine heirs you make!' said Chernetsov. 'Do you realize the meaning of the elections for the Constituent Assembly? After a thousand years of slavery! During an entire millennium Russia has been free for little more than six months. Your Lenin didn't inherit Russian freedom – he destroyed it. When I think of the trials of 1937, I remember a very different legacy. Do you remember the secret-police chief Colonel Sudeykin? He and Degaev hoped to terrify the Tsar by inventing conspiracies, and then seize power themselves. And you think of Stalin as the heir to Herzen?'

'You must be mad,' said Mostovskoy. 'Are you serious about Sudeykin? And what about the great social revolution, the expropriation of the expropriators, the factories seized from the capitalists, the land seized from the gentry? Has all that passed you by? Whose legacy is that? Sudeykin's? And the way the workers and peasants have entered every sphere of social activity? Do you call that a legacy from Sudeykin? I almost pity you.'

'I know, I know,' said Chernetsov. 'One can't argue with facts. But one can explain them. Your Marshals and writers, your doctors of science, your people's commissars are servants not of the proletariat, but of the State. And as for the people who work in the fields and on the shop-floors! I don't think even you would have the nerve to call them masters. Fine masters they make!'

He leaned towards Mostovskoy.

'Incidentally, there's only one of you I really respect – and that's Stalin. He's a real man! The rest of you are just cissies. He understands the true basis of Socialism in One Country: iron terror, labour camps and medieval witch-trials!'

'I've heard all this shit before,' said Mostovskoy. 'But I must say, there is something particularly nasty about your way of putting things. Only a man who's lived in your home since he was a child and then been thrown out onto the street can be that despicable. And do you realize what that man is? A lackey!'

He stared hard at Chernetsov.

'Still, I'd wanted to talk about what brought us together in 1898, not what separated us in 1903.'

'So that's what you wanted, is it? A cosy little chat about the days before the lackey was sent packing?'

At that Mostovskoy really did get angry.

'Yes, that's just it! A runaway lackey. A lackey who's been thrown out onto the street! Wearing kid gloves. We don't wear gloves – we've got nothing to hide. We plunge our hands into dirt and blood. We came to the workers' movement without Plekhanov's kid gloves. What use have those gloves been to you, anyway? Thirty pieces of silver for some articles in the Socialist Messenger? While the whole camp – the English, the French, the Poles, the Norwegians and the Dutch -believes in us…! The salvation of the world lies in our hands! In the power of the Red Army! The army of freedom!'

'And is that how it's always been?' interrupted Chernetsov. 'What about the pact with Hitler and the invasion of Poland in 1939? And the way your tanks crushed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia? And the invasion of Finland? Your army and Stalin have taken back everything that was given to the small nations by the Revolution. And what about the suppression of the peasant rebellions in Central Asia? And Kronstadt? Was that in the name of freedom and democracy?'

Mostovskoy held his hand up to Chernetsov's face.

'I've already told you – we don't wear kid gloves.'

Chernetsov nodded.

'Do you remember Strelnikov, the political-police chief? He didn't wear kid gloves either. He had revolutionaries beaten up till they were half-dead and then wrote out false confessions… What was the purpose of 1937? You say you were preparing to fight Hitler. Was your teacher Marx or Strelnikov?'

'None of your filth surprises me,' said Mostovskoy. 'It's what I've come to expect. But you know what does surprise me? Why should the Nazis put you in a camp? They hate us frenziedly. That's clear enough. But why should Hitler imprison you and your friends?'

Once again, as at the very beginning of the conversation, Chernet-sov smiled.

'Well,' he said, 'they haven't let me go yet. Maybe you should get up a petition for my release.'

Mostovskoy was in no mood for joking.

'No, you shouldn't be in one of Hitler's camps – not with the hatred you bear us. Nor should this character.' He pointed at Ikonnikov who was making his way towards them.

Ikonnikov's hands and face were smeared with clay. He held out some dirty sheets of paper covered in writing and said: 'Have a look through this. Tomorrow I might be dead.'

'All right. But why've you decided to leave us so suddenly?'

'Do you know what I've just heard? The foundations we've been digging are for gas ovens. Today we began pouring the concrete.'

'Yes,' said Chernetsov, 'there were rumours about that when we were laying the railway-tracks.'

He looked round. Mostovskoy thought Chernetsov must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to an Old Bolshevik. He probably felt proud to be seen like this by the Italians, Norwegians, Spanish and English – and, above all, by the Russian prisoners-of-war.

'But how can people carry on working?' asked Ikonnikov. 'How can we help to prepare such a horror?'

Chernetsov shrugged his shoulders. 'Do you think we're in England or something? Even if eight thousand people refused to work, it wouldn't change anything. They'd be dead in less than an hour.'

'No,' said Ikonnikov. 'I can't. I just can't do it.'

'Then that's the end of you,' said Mostovskoy.

'He's right,' said Chernetsov. 'This comrade knows very well what it means to attempt to instigate a strike in a country where there's no democracy.'

His argument with Mostovskoy had upset him. Here, in the Nazi camp, the phrases he had repeated so often in his Paris apartment sounded absurd; they rang false even in his ears. The other prisoners were always repeating the word ' Stalingrad '. Like it or not, the fate of the world hung on that city.

A young Englishman had made a victory sign and said: 'I'm praying for you all. Stalingrad 's halted the avalanche.' Words like these made Chernetsov feel happy and excited.

He turned to Mostovskoy.

'Heine said that only a fool reveals his weaknesses to an enemy. Very well, maybe I am a fool, but you're right – I do understand the meaning of the struggle being fought by your army. That's a bitter admission for a Russian socialist. It's hard to both rejoice and suffer, to hate you but feel pride in your achievements.'

He looked at Mostovskoy. For a moment it seemed as though even his good eye had filled with blood.

'But do you really not understand, even here, that man cannot live without freedom and democracy?'

'Come on now!' said Mostovskoy sternly. 'That's enough of your hysterics.'

He looked round. Chernetsov thought Mostovskoy must be wondering whether the men coming in from work had noticed how straightforwardly and naturally he was talking to a Menshevik, an émigré. He probably felt ashamed to be seen like this by the foreigners – and above all by the other Russians.

Chernetsov's blood-filled socket stared blindly at Mostovskoy.

Ikonnikov reached up and grasped the bare foot of the priest sitting on the second tier of boards.

'Que dois-je faire, mio padre? Nous travaillons dans una Vernich-tungslager. '

Ikonnikov looked round at the three men with his coal-black eyes.

'Tout le monde travaille là-bas. Et moi je travaille là-bas. Nous sommes des esclaves,' he said slowly. 'Dieu nous pardonnera.'

'C'est son métier, ' added Mostovskoy.

'Mais ce n'est pas votre métier,' said Gardi reproachfully.

'Yes, that's what you said, Mikhail Sidorovich,' said Ikonnikov, speaking so quickly he almost tripped up over his own words, 'but I'm not asking for absolution. It's wrong to make out that only the people in power are guilty, that you yourself are only an innocent slave. I'm helping to build an extermination camp; I'm responsible before the people who are to be gassed. But I'm free. I can say "No!" What power can stop me if I have the strength not to be afraid of extinction? I will say "No!" Je dirai non, mio padre, je dirai non! '

Gardi placed his hands on Ikonnikov's grey head.

'Donnez-moi votre main,' he said.

'Now the shepherd's going to admonish the lost sheep for his pride,' said Chernetsov.

Mostovskoy nodded.

But, rather than admonishing Ikonnikov, Gardi lifted his dirty hand to his lips and kissed it.

68

The following day Chernetsov was talking to one of his few acquaintances among the Soviet Russians, a soldier called Pavlyukov who worked as a medical orderly in the infirmary. Pavlyukov was complaining about having to leave his present job to join the digging gangs.

'It's the Party members,' he said. 'They've got everything sewn up. They hate me because I bribed the right people and got myself a good job. But they know how to look after themselves, all right – they always end up working in the kitchens, washrooms and stores. Do you remember what it was like before the war, grandad? Well, it's the same here. They even get their men in the kitchen to give them the biggest portions of food. An Old Bolshevik gets looked after as if he were in a health-resort, but the rest of us are no better than dogs. They just look straight through you even when you're starving to death. Is that fair? After all, we've had to endure Soviet power too.'

Chernetsov admitted it was twenty years since he had last lived in Russia. He knew that the words 'émigré' and 'abroad' immediately made Soviet Russians keep their distance. But Pavlyukov didn't react at all.

They sat down on a pile of planks. Pavlyukov, who seemed a real son of the people with his wide nose and forehead, looked at the sentry pacing about his concrete tower and said: 'I've got no choice. I'll have to join up with Vlasov. Otherwise it'll be the end of me.'

'Is that your only reason?' asked Chernetsov. 'Is it just a matter of survival?'

'I'm certainly not a kulak,' said Pavlyukov, 'and I've never had to slave away in the camps felling trees, but I've got my own grudges against the Communists. "No, you mustn't sow that… No, you mustn't marry her… No, that's not your job…" You end up turning into a parrot. Ever since I was a child, I'd wanted to open a shop of my own – somewhere a man could buy whatever he wanted. With its own little restaurant. "There, you've finished your shopping – now treat yourself to a beer, to some vodka, to some roast meat!" I'd have served country dishes. And my prices would have been really cheap. Baked potatoes! Fat bacon with garlic! Sauerkraut! And you know what I'd have given people to go with their drinks? Marrow-bones! I'd have kept them simmering away in the pot. "There, you've paid for your vodka – now have some black bread and some bone-marrow!" And I'd have had leather chairs so there wouldn't be any lice. "You just sit down and be quiet – we'll look after you!" Well, if I'd come out with any of that, I'd have been sent straight off to Siberia. But I really don't see what harm it could have done anyone. And I'd only have charged half the price of the State shops.'

Pavlyukov cast a sidelong glance at Chernetsov.

'Forty men from our barracks have already signed up.'

'Why?'

'For a bowl of soup. And a warm greatcoat. And because they don't want to be worked to death.'

'Any other reasons?'

'Some of them have ideological reasons.'

'What exactly?'

'Oh, various ones. The people killed in the camps. The poverty in the villages. They just can't stand Communism.'

'No,' said Chernetsov, 'that's not right. It's despicable.'

The Soviet citizen looked at the émigré with half-mocking, half-bewildered curiosity.

'It's just not right,' repeated Chernetsov. 'It's dishonourable. This is no time to settle scores. And it's the wrong way to go about it. You're not being fair to yourself or to your country.'

He stood up and rubbed his buttocks.

'No one could accuse me of sympathy for the Bolsheviks,' he said. 'But believe me – now's not the time to settle accounts. Don't do it. Don't join Vlasov!' In his excitement he had begun to stammer. 'Listen to me, comrade,' he repeated, 'don't do it!'

Pronouncing the word 'comrade' took him back to the days of his youth. 'Oh God,' he muttered, 'oh God, could I ever…?'

… The train drew away from the platform. The air was thick with dust and carried a variety of disparate smells – lilac, fumes from the kitchen of the station restaurant, smoke from the locomotives, the smell that comes from rubbish-dumps in the spring.

The lantern drew slowly further away. In the end it was just a still point among the red and green lights.

The student stood for a while on the platform and then went out through the gate beside the station. As she said goodbye, the woman had flung her arms round his neck and kissed his hair and forehead, overwhelmed – like he was – by a sudden surge of emotion… He walked away from the station. His head span and a new happiness welled up inside him; it was as though something were beginning that would eventually fill his whole life.

He remembered that evening when he finally left Russia. He remembered it as he lay in hospital after the operation to remove his eye. He remembered it as he walked through the cool, dark entrance to the bank where he worked.

The poet Khodasevich, who had also left Russia for Paris, had written about just this:

A pilgrim walks away in the mist: It's you who comes into my mind. On a fume-filled street a car drives past: It's you who comes into my mind. I see the lamps come on at six, But have only you in my mind. I travel west – your image picks Its endless way through my mind.

He wanted to go back to Mostovskoy and ask:

'You didn't ever know a Natasha Zadonskaya, did you? Is she still alive? And did you really walk over the same earth as her for all those decades?'

69

Keyze, a burglar from Hamburg who wore yellow leggings and a cream-coloured check jacket with outside pockets, was in a good mood at roll-call that evening. Mispronouncing the words, he sang quietly: 'Kali zavtra voyna, yesli zavtra v pokhod. ..'

There was a good-humoured expression on his yellow, wrinkled face. He clapped the other prisoners on the back with a puffy, hairless, snow-white hand whose fingers were strong enough to strangle a horse. He didn't think twice about killing; it was no more difficult than pulling out his knife in jest. He was always rather excited after he had killed someone, like a kitten that has been playing with a may-bug.

Most of the murders he committed were on the instructions of Sturmfuhrer Drottenhahr, the director of the medical section of the eastern block. The most difficult part was carrying the corpses to the crematorium, but Keyze didn't have to do this himself and no one would have dared ask him. Nor were people allowed to get so weak they had to be taken to the place of execution on stretchers; Drottenhahr knew his job.

Keyze never made rude remarks or hurried the people who were to be operated on; he never pushed them or hit them. Although he had climbed the two concrete steps more than four hundred times, he felt a real interest in his victims – an interest aroused by the mixture of horror, impatience, submissiveness and passionate curiosity with which they looked at their executioner.

Keyze could never understand why the very mundaneness of his job so appealed to him. There was nothing special about the special cell; it was just a stool, a grey stone floor, a drain, a tap, a hosepipe, and a writing desk with a notebook on it.

The operation itself was equally mundane. If he had to shoot someone, Keyze called it 'emptying a coffee-bean into someone's head'; if he had to give someone an injection of carbolic acid, he called it 'a small dose of elixir'.

The whole mystery of human life seemed to lie in the coffee-bean or the elixir. Really this mystery was astonishingly simple.

Keyze's brown eyes simply weren't those of a human being; they seemed to be made of plastic or some yellowish-brown resin. When they took on an expression of merriment, they inspired terror -probably the same terror a fish feels when it swims up to a snag half-covered in sand and suddenly discovers that the dark mass has eyes, teeth and tentacles.

Keyze was well aware of his own superiority over the artists, revolutionaries, scholars, generals and members of religious sects in the barrack-huts. It wasn't just a matter of the coffee-bean or the elixir; it was an innate feeling of superiority that brought him real joy.

Nor was it a matter of his huge physical strength, his ability to brush obstacles aside, to knock people off their feet or smash through steel with his bare hands. No, what he admired in himself were the complex enigmas of his own soul. There was something very special in his anger, something in the play of his moods that transcended logic. On one occasion a group of Russian prisoners picked out by the Gestapo was being taken to the special barracks; Keyze had asked them to sing some of their favourite songs.

Four Russians with swollen hands and sepulchral expressions struck up 'Where Are You Now, My Suliko?' Keyze listened sorrowfully, glancing now and again at the man with high cheekbones who was standing furthest away. He respectfully refrained from interrupting, but at the end of the song he told this man that since he hadn't sung with the group he must now sing a solo. He looked at the dirty collar of his tunic and the remnants of his torn-off major's tabs and said: 'Verstehen Sie, Herr Major? Do you understand, swine?'

The man nodded. Keyze picked him up by the collar and gave him a little shake; he might have been shaking an alarm-clock that had gone wrong. The newly-arrived prisoner punched Keyze on the cheekbone and cursed him.

Everyone thought that would be the end of the prisoner. But instead of killing Major Yershov there and then, Keyze simply led him to a place in the corner, beside the window. It had been lying unoccupied, waiting for the appearance of a prisoner Keyze took a liking to. Later that day Keyze brought Yershov a hard-boiled goose-egg and said with a laugh: 'Ihre Stimme wird schon!' [35]

From then on Yershov remained a favourite of Keyze's. The other people in the barracks also treated him with respect; his unbending severity was tempered with gentleness and gaiety.

Brigade Commissar Osipov, one of the men who had sung 'Suliko', was furious with Yershov after the incident with Keyze. 'A very tricky customer indeed!' he said of him. Mostovskoy, on the other hand, soon christened him 'the Master of Men's Minds'.

Another man to dislike Yershov was Kotikov, a silent fellow who seemed to know everything about everyone. Kotikov was colourless; everything about him – his eyes, his lips, even his voice – was colourless. The lack of colour was so pronounced that it became a colour in its own right.

Keyze's gaiety during roll-call that evening made the prisoners tense and frightened. They were always expecting something bad to happen; day and night their anxious premonitions waxed and waned.

Towards the end of roll-call eight kapos came into the special barracks. They wore ridiculous, clown-like peaked caps and a bright yellow band on their sleeves. You could tell from their faces that they didn't fill their mess-tins from the general cauldron.

The man in command, Kônig, was tall, fair-haired and handsome. He was dressed in a steel-coloured greatcoat with torn-off stripes; beneath it you could glimpse a pair of brilliantly polished boots that seemed almost white. A former SS officer, he had lost his commission and been imprisoned for various criminal offences. He was now head of the camp police.

'Mutze ab!' he shouted. [36]

The search began. With the trained, habitual movements of factory workers, the kapos tapped tables for hollow spaces, shook out rags, checked the seams of people's clothes and looked inside saucepans… Sometimes, as a joke, they kneed a prisoner in the buttocks and said: 'Your good health!'

Now and again they turned to Kônig with something they had found: a note, a razor-blade, a pad of paper. With a wave of his glove, Kônig let them know whether or not it was of interest. Meanwhile the prisoners remained standing in ranks.

Mostovskoy and Yershov were standing next to each other, glancing at Kônig and Keyze. The faces of the two Germans looked as though they had been cast from metal.

Mostovskoy swayed on his feet; he felt dizzy. He pointed at Keyze and said: 'A fine individual!'

'A truly splendid Aryan,' replied Yershov. Not wishing to be overheard by Chernetsov, he whispered: 'But some of our lads aren't much better.'

Keen to join in the conversation he couldn't hear, Chernetsov said: 'Every people has a sacred right to its own heroes, saints and villains.'

Mostovskoy turned towards Yershov, but what he said was also addressed to Chernetsov: 'Of course we've got our share of scoundrels too, but still, there's something unique about a German murderer.'

The search came to an end and the command was given to go to bed. The prisoners began to climb up onto the boards.

Mostovskoy lay down and stretched out his legs. Then he realized he hadn't yet checked to see if his belongings were all in place. He sat up with a wheeze and began to go through them. At first he thought he must have lost his scarf or his gingham foot-cloths. In the end he found them, but his feeling of anxiety remained.

Yershov came over and said in an undertone: 'Kapo Nedzelsky's been gossiping. He say's our block's being split up. A few of us are being kept for further interrogation; the rest are being sent to general camps.'

'What does it matter?' asked Mostovskoy.

Yershov sat down.

'Mikhail Sidorovich!' he said in a very clear whisper.

Mostovskoy raised himself up on one elbow and looked at him.

'I've been thinking about something important, Mikhail Sidorovich. I need to talk to you. If we're going to die, I think we should do it in style.'

Yershov went on in a whisper. As he listened, Mostovskoy grew more and more excited. It was as though some magical wind was blowing on him.

'Time is precious,' said Yershov. 'If the Germans ever take Stalingrad, then everyone will just sink back into apathy. You only have to look at someone like Kotikov to see that.'

Yershov's plan was to form a military alliance of prisoners-of-war. He went through this plan point by point, as though he were reading from notes.

'… The imposition of discipline and solidarity on all Soviet citizens in the camp. The expulsion of traitors. Sabotage. The setting-up of action committees among the Polish, French, Yugoslav and Czech prisoners…'

He glanced up at the dim light and said: 'There are some of our own men in the munitions factory. They trust me. We can start hoarding arms. Then we can widen our horizons. Three-men cells. An alliance with the German underground. The use of terror against traitors. Our final goal – a general uprising, a united free Europe.'

'A united free Europe! Oh Yershov, Yershov…'

'I'm not just talking. I mean business.'

'Well then,' said Mostovskoy, 'you can count on me.' He shook his head and repeated, 'A free Europe… Now we've even got our own section of the Communist International here in the camp… With two members, one of them not even a Communist.'

'With your knowledge of English, French and German we'll be able to make thousands of contacts,' said Yershov. 'What price your Comintern now? "Prisoners of the world unite!" '

Looking at Yershov, Mostovskoy pronounced a phrase he thought he had forgotten long ago: 'The Will of the People!' He felt quite surprised at himself.

'We'll have to talk to Osipov and Colonel Zlatokrylets,' Yershov went on. 'Osipov's an important figure. But he doesn't like me – you must talk to him yourself. And I'll talk to the Colonel today. That makes four of us.'

70

Day and night Yershov mulled over his plans for an underground movement embracing the whole of Germany. He worked out a system of communications between the various organizations and learned the name of each different camp together with its railway station. He would have to devise a secret code. And the organizers would need to be able to move freely from camp to camp – he would have to find a way of getting the clerks to include their names in the transport-lists.

His soul was inspired by a great vision. The work of thousands of underground agitators and heroic saboteurs would culminate in an armed take-over of the camps. The men involved in the uprising would need to capture the camp anti-aircraft guns and convert them to weapons that could be used against tanks and infantry. He would have to pick out the prisoners who had experience of anti-aircraft guns and form them into gun-crews.

Major Yershov knew what camp life was like; he was aware of the power of fear, bribery and the desire for a full stomach. He had seen how many people had exchanged honest soldiers' tunics for the epaulettes and light-blue overcoats of Vlasov's volunteers. He had seen apathy, betrayal and grovelling obsequiousness. He had seen people's horror at the horrors inflicted on them. He had seen them petrified with fear before the officers of the dreaded SS.

Yes, ambitious though he was, he was no mere dreamer. During the black days of the German blitzkrieg he had been able to rally men whose stomachs were distended with hunger; his boldness and enthusiasm had been a source of encouragement to all his comrades. He was a man whose contempt for violence was passionate and unextinguishable.

Everyone could feel the bright warmth that emanated from Yershov. It was the same simple, necessary warmth that comes from a birch log in a Russian stove. It was this good-hearted warmth-not just the power of his intellect and his fearlessness – that had made him the acknowledged leader of the Soviet officers in the camp.

He had long known that Mostovskoy was the first person he would reveal his plans to… Now, more than ever before in the thirty-three years of his life, he had a sense of his own strength. Here he was, lying on the bedboards and gazing up at the rough planks of the ceiling. He felt as though he were looking up at the lid of a coffin, his heart still beating…

His life before the war had been difficult. His father, a peasant in the oblast of Voronezh, had been dispossessed in 1930 after being denounced as a kulak. At that time Yershov had been doing his military service.

He had refused to break with his father. He was turned down by the Military Academy – even though he had passed the entrance exams with the grade 'excellent'. After graduating from military school with considerable difficulty, he was posted to a district recruiting office. Meanwhile his father and the rest of his family had been deported to the Northern Urals. Yershov applied for leave and set off to visit them. From Sverdlovsk he travelled two hundred kilometres on the narrow-gauge railway. On either side of the line were vast expanses of bog and forest, together with stacks of dressed timber, barbed wire, barrack-huts, dug-outs and tall watch-towers that looked like toadstools on giant legs. The train was delayed twice – a posse of guards was searching for an escaped prisoner. During the night they waited in a passing-loop for a train coming from the opposite direction. Yershov was unable to sleep for the whistles of sentries and the barking of OGPU dogs – close to the station was a large camp.

It took Yershov over two days to reach the end of the line. He had a lieutenant's tabs on his collar and his documents were in order; nevertheless, each time they were checked, he expected to be packed off to a camp with the words: 'Come on, get your things together.' It was as though even the air in this region had barbed wire round it.

He travelled the next seventy kilometres in the back of a lorry; once again there were bogs on either side of the road. The lorry belonged to the OGPU farm where Yershov's father was working. It was jammed with deported workers being sent to fell trees. Yershov questioned them, but they were afraid of his uniform and answered only in monosyllables.

Towards evening the lorry reached a small village squeezed in between the edge of the forest and the edge of the bog. Yershov was to remember the gentle calm of that sunset in the Northern wastes. In the evening light the huts looked quite black, as though they had been boiled in pitch.

When he entered the dug-out, bringing with him the evening light, he was met by the smell of poverty, by miserable food, miserable clothes and miserable bedding, by a warm, suffocating dampness that was filled with smoke.

Then his father emerged from the darkness. The expression on his thin face, in his handsome eyes, was indescribable.

He flung his thin arms around his son's neck. There was such pain in this plea for help, such trust, that Yershov could find only one response: he burst into tears.

Soon afterwards they visited three graves. Yershov's mother had died during the first winter, his elder sister Anyuta during the second winter, and Marusya during the third.

Here, in this world of camps, the cemeteries and villages merged together. The same moss grew on the walls of wooden huts, on the sides of dug-outs, on the grave-mounds and on the tussocks in the bogs. Yershov's mother and sisters would remain for ever beneath this sky – through dry winter frosts, through wet autumns when the soil of the cemetery swells as the dark bog encroaches.

Father and son stood there in silence, side by side. Then the father glanced up at his son and spread his hands helplessly as though to say: 'May I be pardoned by both the living and the dead. I failed to save the people I loved.'

That night his father told his story. He spoke calmly and quietly. What he described could only be spoken about quietly; it could never be conveyed by tears or screams.

On a small box covered with newspaper stood some food and a half-litre of vodka Yershov had brought as a present. The old man talked while his son sat beside him and listened. He talked about hunger, about people from the village who'd died, about old women who had gone mad, about children whose bodies had grown lighter than a chicken or a balalaika.

He described their fifty-day journey, in winter, in a cattle-wagon with a leaking roof; day after day, the dead had travelled on alongside the living. They had continued the journey on foot, the women carrying their children in their arms. Yershov's mother had been delirious with fever. They had been taken to the middle of the forest where there wasn't a single hut or dug-out; in the depths of winter they had begun a new life, building camp-fires, making beds out of spruce-branches, melting snow in saucepans, burying their dead…

'The will of Stalin,' he said without the least trace of anger or resentment. He spoke as simple people speak about a force of destiny, a force that knows no weakness or hesitation.

Yershov returned from leave and sent a petition to Kalinin, begging him to act with supreme, unprecedented mercy, to pardon an innocent old man and allow him to come and live with his son. Before his letter even reached Moscow, Yershov was summoned before the authorities; he had been denounced for making his journey to the Urals.

After being discharged from the army, he went to work on a building-site. He wanted to save some money and then join his father. Very soon, however, he received a letter from the Urals informing him of his father's death.

On the second day of the war, Lieutenant Yershov was called up.

During the battle for Roslavl his battalion commander was killed; Yershov took command. He rallied his men, launched a counterattack, won back the ford and secured the withdrawal of the heavy artillery belonging to the General Staff reserves.

The greater the burden, the stronger his shoulders became. He didn't know his own strength. Submissiveness just wasn't a part of his nature. The stronger the force against him, the more furious his determination to fight.

Sometimes he wondered why it was he felt such hatred for the Vlasovites. What Vlasov said in his appeals to the prisoners was exactly what he had heard from his father. He knew it was true. But he also knew that on the tongues of the Germans and Vlasovites this truth turned into a lie.

He was certain that he was not only fighting the Germans, but fighting for a free Russia: certain that a victory over Hitler would be a victory over the death camps where his father, his mother and his sisters had perished.

Now that his background was no longer relevant, Yershov had proved himself a true leader, a force to be reckoned with; this realization was at once pleasant and bitter. High rank, decorations, the Special Section, personnel departments, examination boards, telephone calls from the raykom, the opinion of the deputy chief of the Political Section – none of this meant anything any more.

Mostovskoy once told him: 'In the words of Heinrich Heine, "we're all of us naked beneath our clothes." But while one man looks miserable and anaemic when he takes off his uniform, another man is disfigured by tight clothing – you only see his true strength when he's naked.'

His dreams had become a concrete task. He was constantly going over everything he knew about people, weighing up their good and bad points, wondering whom he should recruit, whom he should entrust with what position. Who should he include in his underground staff? There were five names that came to mind. Petty human weaknesses and eccentricities suddenly took on a new importance; trivial matters were no longer trivial.

General Gudz had the authority of his rank, but he was weak-willed, cowardly and obviously uneducated; he must have needed a good staff and an intelligent second-in-command. He took it for granted, never showing the least gratitude, that the other officers should do him favours and give him presents of food. He seemed to remember his cook more often than his wife and daughters. He was always talking about hunting, about ducks and geese; all he appeared to remember about the years he had served in the Caucasus was the wild goats and boar he had hunted. From the look of him he had drunk a lot. And he boasted. He often talked about the defeats of 1941: everyone else, including his neighbours on either side, had made countless mistakes – while he himself had always been right. But he never blamed the top brass for the disasters of that year… He had seen a lot of service. Yes, and he knew how to get on with the right people… If it had been up to him, Yershov wouldn't have trusted Gudz with a regiment, let alone a whole corps.

Brigade Commissar Osipov, on the other hand, was a very intelligent man. One moment he would crack a joke about how they had expected an easy war on the enemy's territory; an hour later he would be giving a sermon to someone who had shown signs of faintheartedness, ticking him off with stony severity. And the next day he would be announcing in his lisping voice: 'Yes, comrades, we fly higher than anyone else, further than anyone else and quicker than anyone else. Just look how far we've managed to fly.'

He spoke very lucidly about the defeats of the first months of the war, but with no more regret than a chess-player who has lost a piece. He talked freely and easily to people, but with a bluff comradeliness that seemed affected and false. What he enjoyed most was talking to Kotikov… Why was it he was so interested in Kotikov?

Osipov had vast experience; he knew people. This was very important for Yershov's underground staff, even essential. But it might also turn out to be a hindrance.

Osipov liked to tell amusing anecdotes about important military figures, referring to them familiarly as Semyon Budyonniy, Andryusha Yeremenko…

Once he told Yershov: Tukhachevsky, Yegorov and Blucher were no more guilty than you or me.'

Kirillov, however, had told Yershov that in 1937, when Osipov had been Deputy Director of the Military Academy, he had mercilessly denounced dozens of men as enemies of the people.

He was terrified of being ill, constantly prodding himself or sticking out his tongue and squinting at it in case it was furred over. But he clearly wasn't afraid of death.

Colonel Zlatokrylets was very gloomy, but a straightforward man and a real soldier. He blamed the High Command for 1941. Everyone could sense his strength as a commanding officer. He was equally strong physically. He had a powerful voice, the kind of voice one needs to rally fugitives or lead an attack. And he swore a lot.

He found it easier to give orders than explanations. But he was a true comrade, someone who would give a soldier soup from his own mess-tin.

No, there were certainly no flies on Zlatokrylets. He was a man Yershov could work with. Even if he was coarse and boorish.

As for Kirillov, he was intelligent, but somehow very weak. He noticed every trifle; his tired, half-closed eyes saw everything. He was cold, misanthropic, but surprisingly ready to forgive weakness and cowardice. He wasn't afraid of death; indeed, there were times when it seemed to attract him.

His view of the retreat was more intelligent than that of any of the other officers. Not a Party member himself, he had once said: 'I don't believe the Communists can make people better. It just doesn't happen. Look at history.'

Although he appeared to feel indifferent about everything, one night he'd just lain there and cried. Yershov had asked what was the matter. After a long time he had replied very quietly: 'I'm sad about Russia.' On another occasion he had said: 'One thing I do miss is music.' And yesterday he'd come up with a crazy grin on his face and said: 'Listen, Yershov, I'm going to read you a poem.' Yershov hadn't liked it, but the words had lodged themselves in his memory.

No need, comrade, in this unceasing pain

Of yours to call for help. Strange, but it's you

I call to help me, to warm my hands again.

Yes, on your still warm blood I'll warm mine too…

So do not worry, do not weep or bleed!

Nothing can harm you now that you are dead.

Can you help me? There's one thing I still need -

Your boots… There are still battles ahead.

Had he really written that himself?

No, he certainly didn't want Kirillov. How could he lead others if it was all he could do to keep going himself?

But as for Mostovskoy! He was astonishingly well-educated and he had an iron will. People said he'd been like granite under interrogation. Still, there was no one Yershov couldn't find fault with. The other day he'd said to Mostovskoy: 'Why do you waste so much time gossiping with riff-raff, Mikhail Sidorovich? Why bother with that gloomy Ikonnikov-Morzh and that one-eyed scoundrel of an émigré?'

'Are you afraid I'll waver in my convictions?' asked Mostovskoy teasingly. 'Do you think I'll become an evangelist or a Menshevik?'

'Who knows?' said Yershov. 'If you don't want to smell, you shouldn't touch shit. That Ikonnikov of yours was in our camps once. Now the Germans are dragging him off for interrogation. He'll sell himself, he'll sell you and he'll sell whoever's close to you…'

No one was ideal. Yershov simply had to weigh up everyone's strengths and weaknesses. That was easy enough. But it was only from a man's spirit that you could judge his suitability. And this could be guessed at, but never measured. He had begun with Mostovskoy.

71

Breathing heavily, Major-General Gudz was making his way towards Mostovskoy. He shuffled along, wheezing and sticking out his lower lip; brown folds of loose skin rippled over his cheeks and neck. At one time he had been impressively stout, and these sounds and movements were all that remained; now they seemed quite bizarre.

'My dear grandfather,' he said to Mostovskoy. 'I'm a mere milksop. I've no more right to criticize you than a major has to criticize a colonel-general. But still, let me be quite frank with you: fraternizing with Yershov is a mistake. He's politically dubious and he has no military understanding whatsoever. He likes giving advice to colonels, but he has the mentality of a lieutenant. You should be on your guard with him.'

'You're talking nonsense, your excellency,' said Mostovskoy.

'What do you expect?' wheezed Gudz. 'Of course I'm talking nonsense. But yesterday I was informed that twelve men from the general barracks have enrolled in this accursed Russian Liberation Army. Do you realize how many of them were kulaks? What I'm saying isn't just a personal opinion. I was instructed to say this by a man of considerable political experience.'

'You don't happen to mean Osipov, do you?'

'And what if I do? A theoretician like you will never be able to understand the swine we have to deal with here.'

'What a strange conversation this is,' said Mostovskoy. 'Sometimes I begin to think there's nothing left of people except political vigilance. Who'd have thought we'd end up like this?'

Gudz listened to the wheezing and bubbling of his bronchitis and said: 'I'll never live to see freedom. No.' There was something terrible about the sadness in his voice.

Watching him walk away, Mostovskoy suddenly slapped himself on the knee. Ikonnikov's papers had disappeared – that was why he had felt so anxious after last night's search.

'God knows what that devil's gone and written. Maybe Yershov's right and he is a provocateur. He probably planted the papers on me on purpose.'

He went over to Ikonnikov's place. He wasn't there and his neighbours had no idea what had happened to him. Yes, damn it – he should never have spoken to that holy fool, that seeker after God.

And as for Chernetsov – what if they had always done nothing but argue? What difference did that make? What was the use of such arguments? And Chernetsov had been there when Ikonnikov handed over the papers… There was a witness as well as an informer.

'You're a bloody fool – hobnobbing with scum and then throwing your life away when you're needed to fight for the Revolution,' he said bitterly to himself.

In the washroom he bumped into Osipov. Under a dim electric light he was washing his foot-cloths in a tin trough.

'I'm glad you're here,' said Mostovskoy. 'I want to talk to you.'

Osipov nodded, looked round and wiped his hands on his sides. The two of them sat down on the cement ledge by the wall.

'Just what I thought. The rascal certainly gets around,' said Osipov when Mostovskoy began to talk about Yershov's plans.

'Comrade Mostovskoy,' he said, stroking Mostovskoy's hand with his damp palm, 'I'm amazed at your decisiveness. You're one of Lenin's Bolsheviks. Age doesn't exist for you. You're an example to us all.'

He lowered his voice.

'Comrade Mostovskoy, we've already set up a military organization. We'd decided not to tell you about it prematurely so as not to risk your life. But there's no such thing as old age for a comrade of Lenin's. Still, there's one thing I must say: Yershov is not to be trusted. You must look at it objectively. He's a kulak. The repressions have soured him. All the same, we're realists – and we know that for the time being we can't get on without him. He's won himself a cheap popularity. You know better than I how the Party has always made use of people like that for its own ends. But you ought to be aware of our opinion of him: we trust him only so far, and only for the time being…'

'Comrade Osipov, you can trust Yershov all the way. I'm sure of him.'

They could hear the water dripping onto the cement floor.

'Listen, comrade Mostovskoy,' said Osipov slowly. 'There can be no secrets from you. We have one comrade who was sent here by Moscow. I can tell you his name: Kotikov. What I've been saying is his view of Yershov, not just my own. For us Communists Kotikov's directives are law – orders given to us by the Party, orders given to us, in exceptional circumstances, by Stalin himself. But we can work with this godson of yours, this "master of men's minds" as you've christened him. We've already decided that. What matters is to be realistic, to think dialectically. But you know that better than anyone.'

Mostovskoy remained silent. Osipov embraced him and kissed him three times on the lips. There were tears in his eyes.

'It's as though I were kissing my own father,' he said. 'And I want to make the sign of the cross over you, just like my mother used to do over me.'

Slowly the feeling that had tortured Mostovskoy, the sense of life's impossible complexity, was melting away. Once again, as in his youth, the world seemed clear and simple, neatly divided into friends and enemies.

That night the SS came to the special barracks and took off six men, Mikhail Sidorovich Mostovskoy among them.

PART TWO

1

When people in the rear see fresh troops being moved up to the Front, they feel a sense of joyful expectation: these gun batteries, these freshly-painted tanks seem to be the ones destined to strike the decisive blow, the blow that will bring about a quick end to the war.

Men who have been held in reserve for a long time feel a special tension as they board the trains that will take them to the front line. Young officers dream of special orders from Stalin in sealed envelopes… More experienced men, of course, don't dream of anything of the sort: they just drink hot water, soften up their dried fish by banging it against a table or the sole of a boot, and discuss the private life of the major or the opportunities for barter at the next junction.

They already know only too well what happens when a train unloads at a station in the middle of nowhere, a place apparently known only to the German dive-bombers… How the new recruits slowly lose their high spirits; how, after the monotony of the journey, you can no longer even lie down for an hour; how for days on end you don't get a chance to eat or drink; how your temples seem to be about to burst from the incessant roar of overheated motors; how your hands barely have the strength to move the gears and levers. As for the commander – he's had more than enough of coded messages, more than enough of being cursed and sworn at over the radio. His superiors just want to plug a gap in the line – they don't care how well the men did in their firing exercises. 'Forward! Forward!' That's the only word the commander ever hears. And he does press forward – at breakneck speed. And then sometimes the unit gets flung into action before he's even had time to reconnoitre the area; an irritable, exhausted voice simply orders: 'Counter-attack at once! Along those heights! We've got no one there and the enemy's pushing hard. It's a mess.'

Then, in the ears of the drivers and mechanics, of the radio-operators and gun-layers, the roar of the long march blurs into the whistle of German shells, the crash of exploding mortar-bombs.

This is when the madness of war becomes most obvious… An hour later there is nothing to show for all your work except some broken-down, burning tanks with twisted guns and torn tracks. Where are the hard months of training now? What has become of the patient, diligent work of the mechanics and electricians?

And the superior officer draws up a standard report to cover up the useless waste of this fresh unit, this unit he flung into action with such thoughtless haste: 'The action of the forces newly arrived from the rear temporarily checked the enemy advance and made possible a regrouping of the forces under my command.'

If only he hadn't just shouted, 'Forward! Forward!' – if only he had just allowed them time to reconnoitre the area and not blunder straight into a minefield! Even if the tanks hadn't achieved anything decisive, at least they'd have given the Germans a run for their money.

Novikov's tank corps was on its way to the Front. The naive young soldiers, men who had not yet received their baptism of fire, believed they were the ones who would take part in the decisive operation. The older men just laughed; Makarov, the commanding officer of the 3rd Brigade, and Fatov, the best of the battalion commanders, had seen all this too many times before.

The sceptics and pessimists had gained their knowledge and understanding through bitter experience; they had paid for it with blood and suffering. In this they were superior to the greenhorns. Nevertheless, they were wrong: Novikov's tank corps was indeed destined to play a decisive role in an operation that was to determine both the outcome of the war and the subsequent fate of hundreds of millions of people.

2

Novikov had been ordered to contact Lieutenant-General Ryutin on arrival in Kuibyshev, in order to answer several questions of interest to the Stavka. He had expected to be met at the station, but the commandant, a major with a wild and yet very sleepy look in his eyes, said that no one had asked for him. It turned out to be impossible even to telephone the general; his number was secret.

In the end Novikov set off on foot. In the station square he felt the usual timidity of a field officer in the unfamiliar surroundings of a city. His sense of his own importance suddenly crumbled: here there were no orderlies holding out telephone receivers, no drivers rushing to start up his car.

Instead, people were rushing along the cobbled street to join a newly formed queue at the door of a store. 'Who's last…? Then I'm after you.' To these people with their clanking milk-cans this queue was evidently the most important thing in the world. Novikov felt particularly irritated by the soldiers and officers; nearly all of them were carrying bundles and suitcases. 'The swine – the whole lot of them should be put straight on a train for the Front!' he said to himself.

Could he really be about to see her? Today? 'Zhenya! Hello!'

His interview with General Ryutin was extremely brief. They had barely started when the general received a telephone call from the General Staff – he was to fly to Moscow immediately.

Ryutin apologized to Novikov and then made a call on the local exchange.

'Everything's been changed, Masha. I'm flying by Douglas at dawn tomorrow. Tell Anna Aristarkhovna. We won't be able to bring any potatoes – they're still at the State farm.'

His pale face took on a look of suffering and disgust. Then, evidently interrupting a flood of complaints, he snapped, 'So you want me to inform the General Staff that I'm unable to leave until the tailor's finished my wife's coat?' and hung up.

'Comrade Colonel,' he said to Novikov, 'give me your opinion of the suspension of these tanks. Do they answer to the requirements we originally laid down?'

Novikov found this conversation wearisome. During his months in command he had learned to evaluate people very quickly. He had learned to weigh up the importance of all the inspectors, instructors, heads of commissions and other representatives who had come to see him. He understood very well the importance of such simple phrases as 'Comrade Malenkov told me to inform you…' And he knew that there were generals covered in medals, full of bustle and eloquence, who were powerless even to obtain a ton of fuel-oil, appoint a storekeeper or fire a clerk.

Ryutin's position wasn't on the top level of the pyramid of State; he was merely a statistician, a provider of information. During their conversation Novikov looked repeatedly at his watch.

The general closed his large notebook.

'I'm sorry, comrade Colonel. I'm afraid I have to leave you. I'm flying at dawn tomorrow. I don't know what to do. Perhaps you should come to Moscow yourself?'

'Yes, comrade Lieutenant-General. Together with all the tanks under my command,' said Novikov coldly.

They said goodbye. Ryutin asked him to give his regards to General Nyeudobnov; they had once served together. As Novikov walked down the strip of green carpet leading towards the door of the large office, he heard Ryutin back on the telephone:

'Get me the director of kolkhoz number one.'

'Poor man,' thought Novikov. 'He's got to rescue his potatoes.'

He left the building and set out for Yevgenia Nikolaevna's. In Stalingrad he had visited her on a stifling summer night; he had come straight from the steppe, covered in the smoke and dust of the retreat. There seemed to be an abyss between the man he had been then and the man he was now. And yet here he was, the same person, about to visit her once again.

'You'll be mine!' he said to himself. 'You'll be mine!'

3

It was an old two-storey house, one of those obstinate buildings that never quite keep up with the seasons; it felt cool and damp in summer, but its thick walls retained a close, dusty heat during the autumn frosts.

He rang; the door opened and he felt the closeness inside. Then, in a corridor littered with trunks and broken baskets, he caught sight of Yevgenia Nikolaevna. He saw her, but he didn't see her black dress or the white scarf round her head, he didn't even see her eyes and face, her hands and her shoulders. It was as though he saw her not with his eyes but with his heart. She gave a cry of surprise, but she didn't step back as people often do at some unexpected sight.

He greeted her and she answered. He walked towards her, his eyes closed. He felt happy; at the same time he felt ready to die then and there. He sensed the warmth of her body.

He realized that this previously unknown feeling of happiness had no need of eyes, thoughts or words.

She asked him about something or other and he answered. As he followed her down the dark corridor, he clung to her hand like a little boy afraid of being lost in a crowd.

'What a wide corridor,' he thought. 'Big enough for a tank.'

They went into a room with a window looking out onto the blank wall of the house next door. There were two beds, one on each side – one with a grey blanket and a flat crumpled pillow, the other with fluffed-up pillows and a bedspread of white lace. Above this second bed hung Easter and New Year cards with pictures of men in dinner-jackets and chickens hatching out of eggs.

The table was cluttered with sheets of rolled-up drawing-paper; in one corner stood a bottle of oil, a chunk of bread and half of a tired-looking onion.

'Zhenya,' he said.

There was a strange look in her usually alert, mocking eyes.

'You've come a long way,' she said. 'You must be hungry.'

She seemed to want to destroy something new that had arisen between them, something it was already too late to destroy. Novikov had become somehow different – a man with absolute power over hundreds of men and machines, a man with the pleading eyes of an unhappy schoolboy. This incongruity confused her: she wanted just to look down on him, to pity him, to forget his strength. Her happiness had seemed to lie in her freedom; and yet even though this freedom was now slipping away from her, she still felt happy.

'Do you still not understand?' said Novikov abruptly.

Once again he stopped listening to what either of them was saying. Once again he felt a sense of happiness well up inside him, together with the somehow connected feeling of being ready to die then and there. She put her arms round his neck. Her hair flowed across his forehead and cheeks like a stream of warm water; through it he could glimpse her eyes.

Her whispering voice blotted out the war, drowned the roar of tanks.

In the evening they ate some bread and drank some hot water. Yevgenia said: 'Our commander's forgotten the taste of black bread.'

She brought in a saucepan of buckwheat kasha she had left outside the window. The frost had turned the grains blue and violet. In the warmth of the room they began to sweat.

'It's like lilac,' said Yevgenia.

Novikov tried some lilac and thought, 'How awful!'

'Our commanding officer's even forgotten the taste of buckwheat,' said Yevgenia.

'Yes,' thought Novikov. 'It's a good thing I didn't take Getmanov's advice and bring her a parcel of food.'

'At the beginning of the war I was with a fighter squadron near Brest,' he told her. 'The pilots all rushed back to the airfield and I heard a Polish woman shout out: "Who's that?" A little boy answered: "A Russian soldier." At that moment I felt very acutely: "I'm Russian, yes I'm Russian!" Of course I've always known very well that I'm not a Turk, but at that moment it was as though my whole soul was singing: "I'm Russian, I'm Russian!" Of course we were brought up in a different spirit before the war… And today, the happiest day of my life, it's just the same – Russian grief, Russian happiness… Well, I just wanted to say that… What is it?' he asked suddenly.

In her mind's eye Yevgenia had glimpsed Krymov and his dishevelled hair. God, had they really separated for ever? It was when she was happiest that she found this thought most unbearable.

For a moment she felt she was about to reconcile this present time, the words of the man now kissing her, with that time in the past; that she was about to understand the secret currents of her life, about to glimpse what always remains hidden – those depths of the heart where one's fate is decided.

'This room,' she said, 'belongs to a German. She took me in. This angelic little bed belongs to her. In all my life, I've never met anyone more innocent and more helpless… It sounds strange to say this while we're at war, but I'm sure there's no kinder person in the whole city. Isn't that strange?'

'Will she be back soon?'

'No, the war's already over for her. She's been deported.'

'Thank God for that.'

She wanted to tell him how sorry she felt for Krymov. He had no one to write to, no one to go home to, nothing but hopeless gloom and loneliness. She also wanted to tell him everything about Limonov and Shargorodsky. She wanted to tell him about the notebook where Jenny Genrikhovna had written down all the funny remarks she and the other children had come out with; if he wanted to, he could read it right now – it was there on the table. And she wanted to tell him the story of her residence permit and the head of the passport office. But she still felt shy; she didn't trust him enough. Would he really want to know all this?

How strange… It was as though she were reliving her break with Krymov. Deep down she had always thought she could make things up, that she could bring back the past. This had consoled her. But now she was being carried away by a new force; she felt frightened and tormented. Was what had happened final, irrevocable? Poor, poor Nikolay Grigorevich! What had he done to deserve all this?

'What's going to become of us all?' she asked.

'You're going to become Yevgenia Nikolaevna Novikova,' he answered.

She looked him in the face and laughed.

'But you're a stranger. You're a stranger to me. Who are you?'

'That I can't tell you. But you're Novikova, Yevgenia Nikolaevna.'

Now she was no longer somewhere up above, looking down on her life. She poured some more hot water into his cup and asked: 'More bread?'

'If anything happens to Krymov,' she began abruptly. 'If he ends up crippled or in prison, then I'll go back to him. That's something you should know.'

'Why should he end up in prison?' asked Novikov, frowning.

'Who knows?' said Yevgenia. 'He was a member of the Comintern. Trotsky knew him. He even said about one of his articles: "That's pure marble!'"

'All right then. Go back to him. He'll send you packing.'

'That's my affair.'

He told her that after the war she would be the mistress of a large beautiful house with its own garden.

Was all this final, for ever?

For some reason she wanted Novikov to understand that Krymov was extremely talented and intelligent, that she was attached to him, that she loved him. It wasn't that she consciously wanted to make him jealous, though her words did indeed have that effect. She had even told him, and him alone, what Krymov had once told her, and her alone: those words of Trotsky's. Krymov could hardly have survived the year 1937 if anyone else had known about that. Her feelings for Novikov were such that she had to trust him; she had entrusted him with the fate of the man she had wronged.

Her head was full of thoughts – about the future, about the present, about the past. She felt numb, happy, shy, anxious, sad, appalled… Dozens of people – her mother, her sister, Vera, her nephews – would be affected by this change in her life. What would Novikov find to say to Limonov? What would he think of their conversations about poetry and art…? But he wouldn't feel out of place – even if he hadn't heard of Chagall and Matisse… He was strong, strong, so strong. And she had given in to him. Soon the war would be over. Would she really never, never see Nikolay again? What had she done? It was best not to think of that now. Who knew what the future might bring?

'I've only just realized: I don't know you at all. You're a stranger-I mean it. What's all this about a house and garden? Are you being serious?'

'All right then. I'll leave the army and work on a construction site in Eastern Siberia. We can live in a hostel for married workers.'

Novikov wasn't joking.

'Perhaps not the hostel for married workers.'

'Yes,' he said emphatically. 'That's an essential part of it.'

'You must be mad. Why are you saying all this to me?' As she said this, she thought to herself: 'Kolenka.'

'What do you mean – why?' Novikov asked anxiously.

But he wasn't thinking about the past or the future. He was happy. He wasn't even frightened by the thought that he'd have to leave her in a few minutes. He was sitting next to her, looking at her… Yevgenia Nikolaevna Novikova… He was happy. It wasn't important that she was young, intelligent and beautiful. He loved her. At first he'd never even dared hope she might become his wife. Then year after year he had dreamed of nothing else. Even now, he still felt shy and timid as he waited for her smile or for some ironic comment. But he knew that something new had been born.

She watched him get ready to leave and said: 'The time has come for you to rejoin your complaining companions and cast me into the approaching waves.' [37]

As Novikov said goodbye, he began to realize that she wasn't really so very strong, that a woman was still a woman – for all the sharpness and clarity of her mind.

'There's so much I wanted to say and I haven't said any of it,' she said.

But that wasn't quite so. What really matters, whatever it is that decides people's fates, had become clearer. He loved her.

4

Novikov walked back to the station.

… Zhenya, her confused whispering, her bare feet, her tender whispering, her tears as they'd said goodbye, her power over him, her poverty and her purity, the smell of her hair, her modesty, the warmth of her body… And his own shyness at being just a worker and a soldier… And his pride at being a worker and a soldier.

As Novikov crossed the tracks, a sharp needle of fear suddenly pierced the warm blur of his thoughts. Like every soldier on a journey, he was afraid he had been left behind.

In the distance he caught sight of the open wagons, the rectangular outlines of the tanks under their tarpaulins, the sentries in their black helmets, the white curtains in the windows of the staff carriage.

A sentry corrected his stance as Novikov climbed in.

Vershkov, his orderly, was upset at not having been taken into Kuibyshev. Without a word, he placed on the table a coded message from the Stavka: they were to proceed to Saratov and then take the branch-line to Astrakhan…

General Nyeudobnov entered the compartment. Looking not at Novikov's face, but at the telegram in his hands, he said: 'They've confirmed our destination.'

'Yes, Mikhail Petrovich. More than that – they've confirmed our fate. Stalingrad…! Oh yes, greetings from Lieutenant-General Ryutin.'

'Mmm,' said Nyeudobnov. It was unclear whether this expression of indifference referred to the general's greetings or Stalingrad itself.

He was a strange man; Novikov sometimes found him quite frightening. Whenever anything had gone wrong on the journey -a delay because of a train coming in the opposite direction, a faulty axle on one of the carriages, a controller being slow to signal them on – Nyeudobnov had said with sudden excitement: 'Take down his name. That's deliberate sabotage. The swine should be arrested immediately.'

Deep down, Novikov felt indifferent towards the kulaks and saboteurs, the men who were called enemies of the people. He didn't hate them. He had never felt the least desire to have anyone flung in prison, taken before a tribunal or unmasked at a public meeting. He himself had always attributed this good-humoured indifference to a lack of political consciousness.

Nyeudobnov, on the other hand, seemed to be constantly vigilant. It was as if, whenever he met someone, he wondered suspiciously: 'And how am I to know, dear comrade, that you're not an enemy of the people yourself?' Yesterday he had told Novikov and Getmanov about the saboteur architects who had tried to convert the main Moscow boulevards into landing strips for enemy planes.

'Sounds like nonsense to me,' Novikov had said. 'It doesn't make sense technically.'

Now Nyeudobnov launched into his other favourite topic -domestic life. After testing the heating pipes in the carriage, he began to describe the central heating system he'd installed, not long before the war, on his dacha. All of a sudden Novikov found this surprisingly interesting; he asked Nyeudobnov to draw a sketch of the system, folded it up and placed it in the inside pocket of his tunic.

'Who knows? One day it might come in useful,' he said.


Soon afterwards Getmanov came in. He greeted Novikov loudly and heartily.

'So our chief's back, is he? We were beginning to think we'd have to choose a new ataman. [38] We were afraid Stenka Razin had abandoned his companions.'

He looked Novikov up and down good-humouredly. Novikov laughed, but as always, the presence of the commissar made him feel tense.

Getmanov seemed to know a great deal about Novikov, and it was always through his jokes that he allowed this to show. Just now he had even echoed Yevgenia's parting words about rejoining his companions – though that, of course, was pure coincidence.

Getmanov looked at his watch and announced: 'Well, gentlemen, if no one minds, I'll take a look round the town myself.'

'Go ahead,' said Novikov. 'We can manage to entertain ourselves without you.'

'That's for sure. You certainly know how to entertain yourself in Kuibyshev,' said Getmanov, adding from the doorway of the compartment: 'Well, Pyotr Pavlovich? How's Yevgenia Nikolaevna?'

His face was now quite serious; his eyes were no longer laughing.

'Very well, thank you,' said Novikov. 'But she's got a lot of work to do.'

To change the subject, he asked Nyeudobnov: 'Mikhail Petrovich, why don't you go into Kuibyshev yourself for an hour?'

'I've already seen all there is to see.'

They were sitting next to each other. As he listened to Nyeudobnov, Novikov went through his papers, putting them aside one by one and repeating every now and then: 'Very good… Carry on…'

All his career Novikov had reported to superior officers who had gone on looking through their papers as they repeated absent-mindedly: 'Very good… Carry on…' He had always found it very offensive and had never expected to end up doing it himself.

'Listen now,' he said. 'We need to make out a request for more maintenance mechanics. We've got plenty for the wheeled vehicles, but hardly any for the tanks.'

'I've already made one out. I think it should be addressed to the colonel-general himself. It will go to him anyway to be signed.'

'Very good,' said Novikov, signing the request. 'I want each brigade to check their anti-aircraft weapons. There's a possibility of air-attacks after Saratov.'

'I've already given instructions to that effect to the staff.'

'That's not enough. I want it to be the personal responsibility of each commanding officer. They're to report back in person not later than 1600 hours.'

'The appointment of Sazonov to the post of brigade chief of staff has been confirmed.'

'That's remarkably quick,' said Novikov.

Instead of avoiding his eyes, Nyeudobnov was smiling. He was aware of Novikov's embarrassment and irritation.

Usually Novikov lacked the courage to defend his choice of commanding officers to the end. As soon as anyone cast aspersions on their political reliability, he went sour on them. Their military abilities seemed suddenly unimportant. This time, however, he felt angry. He no longer wanted peace at any price. Looking straight at Nyeudobnov, he said:

'My mistake. I allowed more importance to be attached to a man's biographical data than to his military abilities. But that can be sorted out at the Front. To fight the Germans, you need more than a spotless background. If need be, I'll send Sazonov packing on the first day.'

Nyeudobnov shrugged his shoulders. 'Personally I've got nothing whatsoever against this Basangov. But one should always give preference to a Russian if possible. The friendship of nations is something sacred – but you must realize that there is a considerable percentage, among the national minorities, of people who are unreliable or even positively hostile.'

'We should have thought of that in 1937,' said Novikov. 'One man I knew, Mitka Yevseyev, was always strutting about and repeating: "I'm a Russian, that's all that matters!" A fat lot of good it did him – he was sent to a camp.'

'There's a time for everything,' said Nyeudobnov. 'And if this man was arrested, then he must have been an enemy of the people. People don't get arrested for nothing. Twenty-five years ago we concluded the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Germans – and that was Bolshevism. Today comrade Stalin has ordered us to annihilate the German aggressors who have invaded our Soviet homeland – and that's Bolshevism too.

'Today a Bolshevik is first and foremost a Russian patriot,' he added sententiously.

All this irritated Novikov. His own sense of Russian patriotism had been forged during the most difficult days of the war; Nyeudobnov's appeared simply to have been borrowed from some office – an office to which he himself was denied admittance.

He went on talking to Nyeudobnov, felt irritated, thought about hundreds of different things… And all the time his heart was thumping, his cheeks burning as though he had been in the wind.

It was as if a whole battalion was marching over his heart, as if thousands of boots were beating out the words: 'Zhenya, Zhenya, Zhenya.'

Vershkov looked into the compartment. By now he had forgiven Novikov and his tone of voice was conciliatory.

'Beg leave to report, comrade Colonel. The cook's giving me a hard time. He's been keeping your dinner hot for over two hours.'

'Very well then, but make it quick!'

The cook rushed in, covered in sweat. With a look of mingled suffering, resentment and happiness on his face he laid out various dishes of pickles that had been brought from the Urals.

'And I'd like a bottle of beer,' said Nyeudobnov languidly.

'Certainly, comrade Major-General,' said the cook.

Novikov suddenly felt so hungry, after his long fast, that tears came to his eyes. 'Yes, the commander has forgotten what it's like to go without meals,' he thought to himself, remembering the cold lilac.

Novikov and Nyeudobnov both looked out of the window. A policeman, a rifle hanging from his shoulder strap, was marching a drunken soldier across the tracks; the soldier was stumbling, lurching about and letting out piercing screams. He tried to hit out and break free, but the policeman just grabbed him firmly by the shoulders. Then – God knows what thoughts were passing through his befuddled mind! – he began kissing the policeman's cheek with sudden tenderness.

'Find out what the hell all that's about,' Novikov ordered Vershkov, 'and report back immediately!'

'He's a saboteur. He deserves to be shot,' said Nyeudobnov as he drew the curtain.

You could see a number of different feelings on Vershkov's usually simple face. In the first place, he was sorry that his commanding officer had had his appetite spoiled. At the same time he felt sympathy for the soldier, a sympathy that included nuances of amusement, approval, comradely admiration, fatherly tenderness, sorrow and genuine anxiety. After saluting and saying that of course he'd report back immediately, Vershkov began embroidering:

'His old mother lives here and… Well, you know what we Russians are like. He was upset, he wanted to mark his departure and he misjudged the dose.'

Novikov scratched the back of his head and pulled his plate towards him. 'Damn it, that'll be my last chance to get away on my own,' he said to himself, thinking of Zhenya.

Getmanov came back shortly before their departure, red-faced and merry. He said he didn't want supper and just asked for a bottle of fizzy orange, his favourite soft drink. He pulled off his boots with a grunt, lay down and pushed the door shut with his foot.

Then he told Novikov the news he had received from an old comrade, the secretary of an obkom, who had recently returned from Moscow; he had been received by someone who had a place on the mausoleum on public occasions in Red Square, though not, of course, at Stalin's side by the microphone. This man didn't know everything and, needless to say, hadn't told all of what he did know to the secretary of the obkom, someone he had previously known only as a raykom instructor in a small town on the Volga. The secretary of the obkom, weighing Getmanov up on some invisible chemical balance, had told him only a small part of what he had heard. And then Getmanov had passed on to Novikov only a small part of what he himself had been told.

Nevertheless, he was speaking in a particularly confidential tone he had never used before with Novikov. He seemed to take it for granted that Novikov was au fait with the secrets of the great; he talked as though Novikov must be aware that Malenkov possessed enormous executive power, that Beria and Molotov were the only people who addressed comrade Stalin as 'ty', that comrade Stalin strongly disliked unauthorized personal initiatives, that comrade Stalin liked sulguni cheese, that on account of the poor state of his teeth comrade Stalin always clipped his bread in wine, that his face, incidentally, was very pock-marked from the smallpox he had had as a child, that comrade Molotov had long ago fallen from his position as number two in the Party, that Iosif Vissarionovich had been far from well-disposed towards Nikita Sergeyevich [39] recently and had even given him a good dressing-down over the telephone…

The confidential tone of these remarks about people in positions of supreme power, about the way Stalin had joked and crossed himself during a conversation with Churchill, about Stalin's displeasure at the high-handedness of one of his Marshals – all this somehow seemed more important than Getmanov's veiled hint as to what the man with the place on the mausoleum had said. This news was something Novikov had long and eagerly expected: soon they were to launch a counter-offensive. With a stupid, self-satisfied smile he felt quite ashamed of, he thought to himself: 'Well, I seem to have become part of the nomenklatura myself!'

With no warning of any kind, the train moved off.

Novikov walked to the end of the corridor, opened the door and stared out into the darkness that now covered the city. Again he could hear marching boots beating out the words 'Zhenya, Zhenya, Zhenya.' From the front of the train, he could hear snatches of song.

The thunder of steel wheels on steel rails, the clatter of wagons carrying steel tanks to the Front, the young voices, the cold wind from the Volga, the starry sky – suddenly they all took on a different tone, different from that of a moment before, different from that of the whole of the past year. He felt an arrogant happiness, a joyful sense of his own harsh strength. It was as though the face of the war had changed, as though it no longer expressed only hatred and agony. The mournful snatches of song that were wafted out of the darkness suddenly sounded proud and threatening.

This happiness, however, did not make him feel in any way kind or forgiving. On the contrary, it aroused anger, hatred and a desire to show his own strength, to annihilate whatever stood in his way.

He went back to the compartment. Just as he had been surprised earlier by the charm of the autumn night, so he was now by the stifling closeness, the tobacco smoke, the smell of rancid butter, shoe polish and the sweat of well-fleshed staff officers. Getmanov was still stretched out across the seats; his pyjama top was open and you could see the white skin on his chest.

'Well, how about a game of dominoes? The general's willing.'

'Certainly,' said Novikov. 'Why not?'

Getmanov gave a discreet burp and said anxiously: 'I'm afraid I must have an ulcer somewhere. As soon as I have a bite to eat, I get the most terrible heartburn.'

'We shouldn't have left the medical officer behind to come on the other train,' said Novikov.

Working himself up into a rage, he said to himself: 'I decided to promote Darensky; Fyodorenko frowned and I began to lose confidence. I told Getmanov and Nyeudobnov; they said we could do without former zeks and I quite lost my nerve. I proposed Basangov; they wanted a Russian and I gave way again. Do I have a mind of my own or not?' He looked at Getmanov and thought, with deliberate absurdity: 'Today he offers me my own cognac; tomorrow, if she comes on a visit, he'll be wanting to sleep with my woman.'

Why, if he was so sure that he, and no one else, was destined to break the back of the German war machine, did he always feel so timid and weak when he talked to Getmanov and Nyeudobnov?

He could sense the anger and hatred that had been welling up for years, his resentment at the way people who were militarily illiterate -but accustomed to power, good living and the tinkle of medals – had graciously intervened to help him obtain a room in the officers' mess and perhaps given him small pats of encouragement. All this had seemed quite normal: his superiors had always been men who were ignorant of the calibres of different guns, men who were unable to read without mistakes a speech that had been written for them by someone else, men who were incapable of making sense of a map or even of speaking proper Russian. Why had he had to report to them? Their illiteracy had nothing to do with their working-class origins; his own father and grandfather had been miners, as was his brother. Sometimes he had wondered whether this ignorance of theirs was in fact their greatest strength, whether his own correct speech and interest in books was really a weakness. Before the war he had thought that these people must be endowed with more faith, more will-power than he was. But the war had shown otherwise.

Although the war had elevated him to a position of importance, he still didn't feel in charge. He still found himself submitting to a force whose presence he was constantly aware of but unable to understand. These two subordinates of his, who themselves had no right to give orders, were representatives of this force. Just now he had been purring with pleasure because Getmanov had told him a few stories about the world where this force was based. But then the war would show who Russia truly had cause to be grateful to – people like Getmanov or people like himself.

His dream had been realized; the woman he had loved for many years was to become his wife… And on the same day his tanks had been ordered to Stalingrad.

'Pyotr Pavlovich,' said Getmanov abruptly, 'while you were out and about, Mikhail Petrovich and I had a little discussion.'

He slumped back against the cushions and took a sip of beer.

'I'm a straightforward man myself and I want to talk to you frankly. We were discussing comrade Shaposhnikova. Her brother went under in 1937.' Getmanov jabbed his thumb down at the floor. 'Nyeudobnov knew him personally, and I knew her first husband -Krymov. He only survived – as the phrase goes – by a miracle. He was one of the lecturers attached to the Central Committee. Well, Nyeudobnov was saying that it was wrong of comrade Novikov to become involved with someone whose social and political background was so dubious – especially at a time when the Soviet people and comrade Stalin have expressed such great trust in him.'

'And what concern of his is my private life?' said Novikov.

'Precisely,' said Getmanov. 'That way of thinking is a hangover from 1937. We must learn to take a broader view of such matters. But please don't misunderstand me. Nyeudobnov is a remarkable man, a man of crystal purity, an unshakeable Communist in Stalin's mould. But he does have one slight fault – there are times when he fails to sense the breath of change. What matters to him are quotations from the classics. Sometimes he seems unable to learn from life itself. Sometimes he seems so full of quotations that he's unable to understand the State he's living in. But the war's taught us many things. Lieutenant-General Rokossovsky, General Gorbatov, General Pultus, General Byelov – they've all done time in a camp. And that hasn't stopped comrade Stalin from appointing them to important posts. Mitrich, the man I went to see today, told me how Rokossovsky was taken straight out of a camp and put in command of an army. He was in his barrack-hut, washing his foot-cloths, when someone came running to fetch him. The day before he'd been maltreated a little during an interrogation. He just said to himself: "Well, they might at least let me finish my washing." And then he found himself being taken straight to the Kremlin in a Douglas… Well, there are conclusions to be drawn from stories like that. But our Nyeudobnov's an enthusiast for the methods of 1937 – and nothing will make him budge. I don't know what this brother of Yevgenia Nikolaevna's did, but maybe comrade Beria would have released him too. Maybe he'd be in command of an army himself. As for Krymov – he's at the front right now. He's still a member of the Party and he's doing fine. So what's all the fuss about?'

At these last words Novikov finally exploded.

'To hell with all that!' he said, surprised at the resonance and forcefulness in his own voice. 'What do I care whether Shaposhnikov was or wasn't an enemy of the people? I've never even set eyes on the man. As for this Krymov – Trotsky himself said that one of his articles was pure marble. What do I care? If it's marble, then it's marble. Even if Trotsky, Rykov, Bukharin and Pushkin were all head over heels in love with him, what's that to me? I've never so much as looked at these marble articles of his. And what's it got to do with Yevgenia Nikolaevna? Did she work in the Comintern until 1937? Anyone can do your kind of work, dear comrades, but just try doing some real fighting! Some real work! Let me tell you – I've had enough of all this! It makes me sick!'

His cheeks were burning, his heart was pounding, his anger was bright and clear – and yet he felt full of confusion: 'Zhenya, Zhenya, Zhenya.' He had listened to his own words in astonishment. He could hardly believe it: for the first time in his life he had spoken his mind, without fear, to an important Party official. He looked at Getmanov with a sense of joy, choking back any stirrings of fear or remorse.

Getmanov suddenly leapt to his feet and flung open his arms. Addressing Novikov as 'ty', he cried: 'You're a real man, Pyotr Pavlovich! Let me embrace you!'

Now Novikov no longer knew where he was. They embraced and kissed.

'Vershkov!' Getmanov shouted down the corridor. 'Bring us some cognac! The commanding officer and his commissar are going to drink Bruderschaft.'

5

Yevgenia finished cleaning the room and said to herself with a sense of satisfaction: 'Well, now that's over and done with.' It was as though order had been brought back both to the room and to her own soul. The bed was made, the pillow-case was no longer rumpled, there were no more cigarette-ends on the edge of the bookcase, no more ash on the floor… Then she realized she was lying to herself and that there was only one thing in the world she really needed – Novikov. And she also wanted to talk to Sofya Osipovna – to her, not to Lyudmila or her mother.

'Oh Sonechka, Sonechka, my little Levinton…,' she said out loud.

Then she remembered that Marusya was dead… She realized that she just couldn't live without Novikov and banged her fist on the table in desperation. 'Damn it! Who says I need anyone anyway?' Then she knelt down where Novikov's coat had just been hanging and whispered: 'Stay alive!'

'It's all just a cheap farce,' she thought. 'I'm a bad woman.'

She wanted to hurt herself. Some sexless creature inside her head let loose a flood of cynical accusations:

'So the lady got bored, did she? She wanted a man around, did she? She's used to being spoiled a bit and these are her best years… She sent one packing – and quite right! Who needs a man like Krymov? He was on the point of being expelled from the Party. And now she's after the commanding officer of a tank corps. And what a man! Well, why not…? But how are you going to keep hold of him now? You've given him what he was after, haven't you? Well, you'll have plenty of sleepless nights now. You'll be wondering whether he's got himself killed, whether he's found some pretty little nineteen-year-old telephonist…'

This mean, cynical creature then came out with a thought that had never even occurred to Yevgenia herself:

'Never mind, you'll be able to fly out and visit him soon.'

What she couldn't understand was why she no longer loved Krymov. But then why should she understand? What mattered was that she now felt happy.

Then she said to herself that Krymov was standing in the way of her happiness. He was always standing between her and Novikov, poisoning her joy. Even now he was still ruining her life. Why all this remorse? Why this self-torture? She no longer loved him – and that was that. What did he want from her? Why did he pursue her so relentlessly? She had the right to be happy. She had the right to love the man who loved her. Why did Nikolay Grigorevich always seem so weak and helpless, so lost, so alone? He wasn't that weak. And he certainly wasn't so very kind.

She felt more and more angry with Krymov. No, no! She wasn't going to sacrifice her own happiness for him… He was cruel and narrow-minded. He was a fanatic. She never had been able to accept his indifference to human suffering. How alien it was – to her and to her mother and father. 'There can be no pity for kulaks,' he had said when tens of thousands of women and children were dying of starvation in villages all over Russia and the Ukraine. 'Innocent people don't get arrested,' he had said in the days of Yagoda and Yezhov. Alexandra Vladimirovna had once recounted an incident that had taken place in Kamyshin in 1918. Some property-owners and merchants had been put on a barge and drowned, with all their children. Some of these children had been school-friends of Marusya. Nikolay Grigorevich had just said angrily: 'Well, what would you do with people who hate the Revolution – feed them on pastries?' Why shouldn't she have the right to be happy? Why should she pity someone who had always been so pitiless himself?

For all this, she knew deep down that Nikolay Grigorevich was by no means as cruel as she was making out.

She took off her thick skirt, one she had bought by barter at the market in Kuibyshev, and put on her summer dress. It was the only dress she had left after the fire in Stalingrad. It was the dress she had worn that evening in Stalingrad when she and Novikov had gone for a walk along the banks of the Volga.

Not long before she was deported, she had asked Jenny Genri-khovna if she had ever been in love. Clearly embarrassed, she had replied: 'Yes, I was in love with a boy with golden curls and light blue eyes. He had a white collar and a velvet jacket. I was eleven years old and I knew him only by sight.'

What had happened to the boy with the curls and the velvet jacket? What had happened to Jenny Genrikhovna?

Yevgenia sat down on the bed and looked at the clock. Shargorod-sky usually came to see her around this time. No, she wasn't in the mood for intellectual conversation.

She quickly put on her coat and scarf. This was senseless – the train must have left long ago.

There was a huge crowd of people around the station, all sitting on parcels and sacks. Yevgenia walked up and down the little back-streets. One woman asked her if she had any ration coupons, another if she had any coupons for railway tickets. A few people glanced at her sleepily and suspiciously. A goods train thundered past platform number one. The station walls trembled and the glass in the windows rang. She felt as though her heart were trembling too. Then some open wagons went past; they were carrying tanks.

Yevgenia felt suddenly happy. More and more tanks came by. The soldiers sitting on them with their helmets and machine-guns looked as though they had been cast from bronze.

She walked home, swinging her arms like a little boy. She had unbuttoned her coat and she kept glancing at her summer dress. Suddenly the streets were lit up by the evening sun. This harsh, dusty city, this cold city that was now preparing for another winter, seemed suddenly bright, rosy and triumphant. She went into the house. Glafira Dmitrievna, the senior tenant, who had seen the colonel coming to visit Yevgenia, smiled ingratiatingly and said: 'There's a letter for you.'

'This is my lucky day,' thought Yevgenia as she opened the envelope. It was from her mother in Kazan.

She read the first few lines and gave a plaintive cry: 'Tolya! Tolya!'

6

Viktor's sudden inspiration, the idea that had come to him on the street that night, formed the basis of an entirely new theory. The equations he worked out over the following weeks were not an appendix to the classical, generally accepted theory; nor were they even an enlargement of it. Instead, the classical, supposedly all-embracing theory had become a particular instance included in the framework of a wider theory elaborated by Viktor.

He stopped going to the Institute for a while; Sokolov took over the supervision of the laboratory work. Viktor hardly even left the house now; he sat at his desk for hours on end or strode up and down the room. Only in the evening did he sometimes go out for a walk, choosing the deserted streets near the station so as not to meet anyone he knew. At home he behaved the same as ever – making jokes at meals, reading newspapers, listening to Soviet Information Bureau bulletins, teasing Nadya, talking to his wife, asking Alexandra Vladimirovna about her work at the factory.

Lyudmila had the feeling that Viktor was now behaving in the same way as herself: he too did everything he was supposed to, while inwardly not participating in the life of the family at all. What he did came easily to him simply because it was habitual. This similarity, however, was merely superficial and did nothing to bring Lyudmila closer to Viktor. The husband and wife had quite opposite reasons for their alienation from the life of the family – as opposite as life and death.

Uncharacteristically, Viktor had no doubts about his results. As he formulated the most important scientific discovery of his life, he felt absolute certainty as to its truth. When this idea of a system of equations that would allow a new interpretation of a wide group of physical phenomena – when this idea had first come to him, he had sensed its truth immediately, without any of his usual doubts and hesitations. Even now, as he came to the end of the complicated mathematical demonstration, checking and double-checking each step he had taken, his certainty was no greater than at that first moment of inspiration on the empty street.

Sometimes he tried to understand the path he had followed. From the outside it all seemed quite simple.

The laboratory experiments had been intended to confirm the predictions of the theory. They had failed to do this. The contradiction between the experimental results and the theory naturally led him to doubt the accuracy of the experiments. A theory that had been elaborated on the basis of decades of work by many researchers, a theory that had then explained many things in subsequent experimental results, seemed quite unshakeable. Repetition of the experiments had shown again and again that the deflections of charged particles in interaction with the nucleus still failed to correspond with what the theory predicted. Even the most generous allowance for the inaccuracy of the experiments, for the imperfection of the measuring apparatus and the emulsions used to photograph the fission of the nuclei, could in no way account for such large discrepancies.

Realizing that there could be no doubt as to the accuracy of the results, Viktor had then attempted to patch up the theory. He had postulated various arbitrary hypotheses that would reconcile the new experimental data with the theory. Everything he had done had been based on one fundamental belief: that, since the theory was itself deduced from experimental data, it was impossible for an experiment to contradict it.

An enormous amount of labour was expended in an attempt to reconcile the new data with the theory. Nevertheless, the patched-up theory still failed to account for new contradictions in the results from the laboratory. The theory remained as powerless as ever, though it still seemed unthinkable to reject it.

It was at this moment that something had shifted.

The old theory had ceased to be something fundamental and all-embracing. It didn't turn out to be a mistake or an absurd blunder, but simply a particular instance accounted for by the new theory… The purple-clad dowager had bowed her head before the new empress… All this had taken only a moment.

When Viktor thought about just how the new theory had come to him, he was struck by something quite unexpected. There appeared to be absolutely no logical connection between the theory and the experiments. The tracks he was following suddenly broke off. He couldn't understand what path he had taken.

Previously he had always thought that theories arose from experience and were engendered by it. Contradictions between an existing theory and new experimental results naturally led to a new, broader theory.

But it had all happened quite differently. Viktor was sure of this. He had succeeded at a time when he was in no way attempting to connect theory with experimental data, or vice versa.

The new theory was not derived from experience. Viktor could see this quite clearly. It had arisen in absolute freedom; it had sprung from his own head. The logic of this theory, its chain of reasoning, was quite unconnected to the experiments conducted by Markov in the laboratory. The theory had sprung from the free play of thought. It was this free play of thought – which seemed quite detached from the world of experience – that had made it possible to explain the wealth of experimental data, both old and new.

The experiments had been merely a jolt that had forced him to start thinking. They had not determined the content of his thoughts.

All this was quite extraordinary…

His head had been full of mathematical relationships, differential equations, the laws of higher algebra, number and probability theory. These mathematical relationships had an existence of their own in some void quite outside the world of atomic nuclei, stars, and electromagnetic or gravitational fields, outside space and time, outside the history of man and the geological history of the earth. And yet these relationships existed inside his own head.

And at the same time his head had been full of other laws and relationships: quantum interactions, fields of force, the constants that determined the processes undergone by nuclei, the movement of light, and the expansion and contraction of space and time. To a theoretical physicist the processes of the real world were only a reflection of laws that had been born in the desert of mathematics. It was not mathematics that reflected the world; the world itself was a projection of differential equations, a reflection of mathematics.

And his head had also been full of readings from different instruments, of dotted lines on photographic paper that showed the trajectories of particles and the fission of nuclei.

And there had even been room in his head for the rustling of leaves, the light of the moon, millet porridge with milk, the sound of flames in the stove, snatches of tunes, the barking of dogs, the Roman Senate, Soviet Information Bureau bulletins, a hatred of slavery, and a love of melon seeds.

All this was what had given birth to his theory; it had arisen from the depths where there are no mathematics, no physics, no laboratory data, no experience of life, no consciousness, only the inflammable peat of the subconscious…

And the logic of mathematics, itself quite unconnected with the world, had become reflected and embodied in a theory of physics; and this theory had fitted with divine accuracy over a complex pattern of dotted lines on photographic paper.

And Viktor, inside whose head all this had taken place, now sobbed and wiped tears of happiness from his eyes as he looked at the differential equations and photographic paper that confirmed the truth he had given birth to.

And yet, if it hadn't been for those unsuccessful experiments, if it hadn't been for the resulting chaos, he and Sokolov would have gone on trying to patch up the old theory. What a joy that that chaos had refused to yield to their demands!

This new explanation had been born from his own head, but it was indeed linked to Markov's experiments. Yes, if there were no atoms and atomic nuclei in the world, there would be none inside a man's brain. If it weren't for those famous glass-blowers the Petushkovs, if there were no power stations, no furnaces and no production of pure reactors, then there would be no mathematics inside the head of a theoretical physicist, no mathematics that could predict reality.

What Viktor found most astonishing was that he had achieved his greatest success at a time of unremitting depression and grief. How was it possible?

And why had it happened after those bold, dangerous conversations that had revived his spirits but which bore no relation to his work – why was it then that everything insoluble had so suddenly been resolved? But that was coincidence…

How could he ever make sense of all this…?

Now that it was completed, Viktor wanted to talk about his work. Previously, it hadn't even occurred to him to share his thoughts with anyone else. He wanted to see Sokolov and write to Chepyzhin; he wondered what Mandelstam, Joffe, Landau, Tamm, and Kurchatov would think of his new equations; he tried to guess what response they would evoke in his colleagues both here in the laboratory and in Leningrad. He tried to think of a title for his work. He wondered what Bohr and Fermi would think of it. Maybe Einstein himself would read it and write him a brief note. He also wondered who would oppose it and what problems it would help to resolve.

He didn't, however, feel like talking to Lyudmila. In the past he had read even the most ordinary business letter out loud to her before sending it off. If he had unexpectedly bumped into someone he knew on the street, his first thought had always been, 'Well, Lyudmila will be surprised!' If he had come out with some fine sarcasm in an argument with the director, he had thought, 'Yes, I'll tell Lyudmila how I settled him!' And he could never have imagined watching a film or sitting in a theatre without knowing that Lyudmila was there, that he could whisper in her ear, 'God, what rubbish!' He had shared his most secret anxieties with her. As a student, he had sometimes said to her, 'You know, sometimes I think I'm an idiot.'

So why didn't he say anything now? Was it that his compulsion to share his life with her had been founded on a belief that his life mattered more to her than her own, that his life was her life? And that now he was no longer sure of this? Did she no longer love him? Or did he no longer love her?

In the end, without really wanting to, he did tell his wife.

'It's a strange feeling, you know. Whatever may happen to me now, I know deep down in my heart that I haven't lived in vain. Now, for the first time, I'm not afraid of dying. Now! Now that this exists! '

He showed her a page covered in scrawls that was lying on his table.

'I'm not exaggerating. It's a new vision of the nature of the forces within the atom. A new principle. It will be the key to many doors that until now have been locked… And do you know, when I was little… No, it's as though a lily had suddenly blossomed out of still, dark waters… Oh, my God…'

'I'm very glad, Viktor. I'm very glad,' said Lyudmila with a smile.

Viktor could see that she was still wrapped up in her own thoughts, that she didn't share his joy and excitement.

Indeed, Lyudmila didn't mention any of this to Nadya or her mother. She evidently just forgot about it.

That evening, Viktor set out for the Sokolovs'. It wasn't only about his work that he wanted to talk to Sokolov. He wanted to share his feelings with him. Pyotr Lavrentyevich would understand; he was more than merely intelligent; he had a pure, kind soul.

At the same time, Viktor was afraid that Sokolov would reproach him, that he would remind him of his earlier lack of faith. Sokolov loved explaining other people's behaviour and subjecting them to long lectures.

It was a long time since he had been to the Sokolovs'. His friends had probably been there another three times since his last visit. Suddenly he glimpsed Madyarov's bulging eyes. 'Yes, he's a bold devil,' Viktor said to himself. How peculiar that, during all this time, he'd hardly given a thought to those gatherings. Now he didn't want to. There was some fear, some anxiety, some expectation of imminent doom connected with those late-night discussions. They really had let themselves go. They had croaked away like birds of ill omen – but Stalingrad still stood, the Germans had been halted, evacuees were returning to Moscow.

Last night he had told Lyudmila that he wasn't afraid of dying, not even at that very moment. And yet he was afraid of remembering the criticisms he had voiced. And as for Madyarov… That didn't bear thinking about. Karimov's suspicions were quite terrifying. What if Madyarov really were a provocateur?

'No, I'm not afraid of dying,' thought Viktor, 'but now I'm a proletarian who has more to lose than his chains.'

Sokolov, in his indoor jacket, was sitting reading a book.

'Where's Marya Ivanovna?' asked Viktor, surprised at his own surprise. He was quite taken aback not to find her at home – as though it was her he had come to talk to about theoretical physics.

Sokolov put his glasses back in their case and smiled. 'Who says Marya Ivanovna has to hang around at home all day long?'

Coughing and stammering with excitement, Viktor began expounding his ideas and showing Sokolov his equations. Sokolov was the first person he had confided in; as he spoke, he relived everything again – though with very different feelings.

'Well,' said Viktor finally, 'that's it.' His voice was shaking. He could feel Sokolov's excitement.

They sat for a while in a silence that to Viktor seemed quite wonderful. He frowned and shook his bowed head from side to side. Finally he stole a timid look at Sokolov. He thought he could see tears in his eyes.

There was a miraculous link that joined these two men – sitting in a miserable little room during a terrible war that enveloped the whole world – to everyone, however distant in space and time, whose pure mind had aspired to these exalted realms.

Viktor hoped that Sokolov would remain silent a while longer. There was something divine in this silence.

They did remain silent for a long time. Then Sokolov went up to Viktor and put his hand on his shoulder. Viktor felt his eyes fill with tears.

'It's wonderful,' said Sokolov, 'quite unbelievable. What elegance! I congratulate you with all my heart. What extraordinary power! What logic, what elegance! Even from an aesthetic point of view your reasoning is perfect.'

Still trembling with excitement, Viktor thought: 'For God's sake! This isn't a matter of elegance. This is bread for the soul.'

'Do you see now, Viktor Pavlovich,' Sokolov continued, 'how wrong you were to lose heart and try to put everything off till our return to Moscow?' Then, just like someone giving a sermon: 'You lack faith, you lack patience. This often hinders you.'

'I know, I know,' Viktor interrupted impatiently. 'But I got very depressed by the way we were so stuck. It made me feel quite ill.'

Then Sokolov began to hold forth. Though he understood the importance of Viktor's work and praised it in superlative terms, Viktor hated every word he said. To him any evaluation seemed trivial and stereotyped.

'Your work promises remarkable results.' What a stupid word! He didn't need Pyotr Lavrentyevich to know what his work promised. And anyway why 'promises results'? It was a result in itself. 'You've employed a most original method.' No, it wasn't a spatter of originality… This was bread, bread, black bread.

Viktor decided to change the subject. He began to talk about the running of the laboratory.

'By the way, Pyotr Lavrentyevich, I received a letter from the Urals. Our order's going to be delayed.'

'Well,' said Sokolov, 'that means we'll already be in Moscow when the apparatus arrives. That's not such a bad thing. We'd never have been able to set it up in Kazan anyway: we'd have been accused of failing to keep up with our schedule.'

He started to talk very pompously about matters connected with their work schedule. Although Viktor had himself initiated this change of topic, he was upset that Sokolov had gone along with it so readily.

It made Viktor feel very isolated. Surely Sokolov understood that his work was more important than the everyday affairs of the Institute? It was probably the most important of all his contributions to science; it would affect the theoretical outlook of physicists everywhere.

Sokolov realized from Victor's expression that he had done the wrong thing. 'It's interesting,' he said. 'You've produced another confirmation of that business with neutrons and a heavy nucleus. We really shall need that new apparatus now.'

'I suppose so,' said Viktor. 'But that's only a detail.'

'No,' said Sokolov. 'It's very important. You know what enormous energy is involved.'

'To hell with all that!' said Viktor. 'What interests me is that it's a new way of seeing the microforces within the atom. That may bring joy to a few hearts and save one or two people from groping around in the dark.'

'Oh yes,' said Sokolov. 'They'll be as glad as sportsmen are when someone else sets a new record.'

Viktor didn't answer. Sokolov was alluding to a recent argument in the laboratory. Savostyanov had compared scientists with athletes; he had claimed that a scientist had to undergo the same daily training as an athlete and that the tension surrounding his attempt to solve a scientific problem was no different from that surrounding an athlete's attempt to break a record. In both cases it was a matter of records.

Viktor had got quite angry with Savostyanov, Sokolov even more so. He had made a long speech and called Savostyanov a young cynic. He had spoken of science as though it were a religion, an expression of man's aspiration towards the divine.

Viktor knew that if he had lost his temper with Savostyanov, it wasn't simply because he was wrong. He too had sometimes felt that same joy, excitement and envy. He also knew, however, that envy, competitiveness and the desire to set records were not in any way fundamental to his attitude towards science.

He had never told anyone, even Lyudmila, of his true feelings about science – feelings that had been born in him when he was still young. And so he had liked the way Sokolov had argued so justly, and so exaltedly, against Savostyanov.

Why then should Pyotr Lavrentyevich himself suddenly compare scientists with sportsmen? What had made him say that? And at a moment of such special importance for Viktor?

Feeling hurt and bewildered, he burst out: 'So, Pyotr Lavrentyevich, someone else has set the record. Has my discovery upset you, then?'

At that moment Sokolov was saying to himself that Viktor's solution was so simple as to be almost self-evident; that it was already there, on the verge of expression, in his own head.

'Yes,' he admitted. 'I'm as pleased as Lawrence must have been when the equations he had established were reworked and transformed by Einstein.'

Sokolov admitted this so frankly that Viktor regretted his animosity. Then, however, Sokolov added:

'I'm joking, of course. Lawrence is neither here nor there. I don't feel anything of the sort. But all the same, I am right – even though I don't feel anything of the sort.'

'Yes,' said Viktor, 'of course, of course.'

His irritation returned. He was sure now that Sokolov did feel envy. 'How devious he is today,' he thought. 'He's as transparent as a child. You can see his insincerity straight away.'

'Pyotr Lavrentyevich,' he said. 'Are you having people round this Saturday?'

Sokolov's thick, fierce-looking nostrils flared. He seemed about to say something, but kept silent. Viktor looked at him questioningly.

'Viktor Pavlovich,' Sokolov said at last. 'Between you and me, I no longer enjoy these evenings of ours.'

Now it was his turn to look questioningly at Viktor. Viktor remained silent. In the end Sokolov went on:

'You know very well why I say that. It's no joke. Some people really let themselves go.'

'You didn't,' said Viktor. 'You kept very quiet.'

'Yes,' said Sokolov. 'And that's why I'm worried.'

'Fine! Let me be the host! I'd be only too delighted,' said Viktor.

It was quite incomprehensible. Now it was he who was being hypocritical. Why was he lying like this? Why should he argue with Sokolov when he knew he agreed with him? He too was afraid of these meetings and would prefer not to continue with them.

'What difference would that make?' asked Sokolov. 'That's not the problem. Let me be quite frank with you. I've quarrelled with Madyarov, our chief orator, my own brother-in-law.'

Viktor wanted very much to ask: 'Pyotr Lavrentyevich, are you quite sure we can trust Madyarov? Can you vouch for him?' Instead he said: 'What is all this nonsense? You've got it into your head that a few bold words somehow endanger the State. I'm sorry you've quarrelled with Madyarov. I like him. Very much.'

'It isn't right,' said Sokolov, 'for us Russians, at such a difficult time, to criticize our own country.'

Again Viktor wanted to ask: 'Pyotr Lavrentyevich, this is something very serious. Are you sure Madyarov's not an informer?' Instead he said: 'Excuse me, but things have just taken a turn for the better. Stalingrad is the beginning of spring. We've already drawn up lists of personnel to return to Moscow. Do you remember what we were thinking two months ago? The Urals, Kazakhstan, the taiga?'

'In that case,' said Sokolov, 'there's even less reason for you to carp and croak.'

'Croak?'

'That's what I said.'

'For heaven's sake, Pyotr Lavrentyevich!'

When he said goodbye to Sokolov, Viktor was feeling depressed and bewildered. Above all, he felt an unbearable loneliness. All day he had been longing to talk to Sokolov. He had thought this meeting would be very special. But almost every word of Sokolov's had seemed trivial and insincere.

And he had been equally insincere himself. That made it even worse.

He went out onto the street. By the outer door a woman's voice quietly called out his name. Viktor knew who it was.

Marya Ivanovna's face was lit up by the street-lamp; her cheeks and forehead were shining with rain. In her old coat, with a woollen scarf round her neck, the professor's wife seemed to embody the poverty of the wartime evacuee.

'She looks like a conductor on one of the trams,' thought Viktor.

'How's Lyudmila Nikolaevna?' she asked, looking questioningly into his eyes.

'The same as usual,' said Viktor, shrugging his shoulders.

'I'll come round earlier tomorrow.'

'You're her guardian angel as it is,' said Viktor. 'It's a good thing Pyotr Lavrentyevich doesn't mind. You spend so much time with Lyudmila. And he's just a child – he can hardly get by without you for even an hour.'

She was still looking at him thoughtfully. She seemed to be listening without really hearing. Then she said: 'Viktor Pavlovich, your face looks quite different today. Has something good happened?'

'What makes you think that?'

'Your eyes have changed,' she said. 'It must be your work. Your work's going well at last. There you are now – and you used to say you were no longer good for anything after all the unhappiness you've been through.'

'Lyudmila must have told her,' thought Viktor. 'Women are such chatterboxes!' At the same time, trying to hide his irritation, he asked with a smile: 'What do you see in my eyes then?'

Marya Ivanovna remained silent for a moment. When she did speak, it was in a serious tone of voice, quite unlike Viktor's.

'Your eyes are always full of suffering – but not today.'

Suddenly Viktor opened up.

'Marya Ivanovna, I don't understand it. I feel that I've done the most important thing of my life. Science is bread, bread for the soul… And this has happened at such a sad, difficult time. How strangely tangled our lives are. How I wish I could… No, there's no use in saying…'

Marya Ivanovna listened, still gazing into Viktor's eyes. Then she said very quietly: 'How I wish I could drive the sorrow out of your home.'

'Thank you, dear Marya Ivanovna,' said Viktor as they parted. He felt suddenly calm – as though it really were her he had come to see and he had now said what he wanted to say.

A minute later, walking down the dark street, Viktor had forgotten the Sokolovs. A cold draught blew from each of the dark entrances; when he came to a crossroads the wind lifted up the tail of his coat. Viktor shrugged his shoulders and frowned. Would his mother never know, would she never know what her son had just achieved?

7

Viktor called a meeting of all the laboratory staff – Markov and Savostyanov the two physicists, Anna Naumovna Weisspapier, Nozdrin the technician, and Perepelitsyn the electrician – and said that the doubts they had all had about the apparatus were quite unfounded. In fact it was the accuracy of their measurements that had led to such uniform results, despite variations in the experimental conditions.

Viktor and Sokolov were both theoreticians; it was Markov who was in charge of the experimental work in the laboratory. He had an astonishing talent for solving difficult problems and could always unerringly determine the principles of any new piece of equipment.

Viktor admired the confidence with which Markov would walk up to some new apparatus and be able, after only a few minutes and without looking at any instructions, to grasp both its essential principles and the tiniest details of its mechanism. He seemed to regard a complex apparatus as a living body; it was as though he were looking at a cat, glancing at its eyes and tail, its ears and claws, feeling its heartbeat, understanding what every part of its body was for.

As for Nozdrin, the haughty technician – he really came into his own when some new apparatus was being assembled in the laboratory. Savostyanov used to joke about Nozdrin, saying, 'When Stepan Stepanovich dies, his hands will be taken to the Brain Institute to be studied.'

Nozdrin didn't like these jokes. He tended to look down on the scientists, knowing that without his strong hands not one of them would be able to do anything at all.

The laboratory favourite was Savostyanov. He was at home in both practical and theoretical matters. Everything he did, he did quickly and effortlessly, almost light-heartedly. Even on the gloomiest of days, his bright corn-coloured hair seemed to be full of sunlight. Viktor would gaze at him admiringly, thinking that his hair reflected the brightness and clarity of his mind. Sokolov thought equally highly of him.

'Yes, he's not like us Talmudists,' Viktor once said to Sokolov. 'He's a match for you and me and Markov put together.'

As for Anna Naumovna – she had an almost superhuman patience and capacity for work; once she had spent eighteen hours on end studying photographs under the microscope.

Many of the other heads of department considered Viktor extremely lucky to have such a brilliant staff. In answer to their comments Viktor replied jokingly: 'Every head of department has the staff he deserves.'

'We have all been through a period of depression and anxiety,' he began. 'Now we can all rejoice. Professor Markov has conducted the experiments faultlessly. The credit for this, of course, also belongs to the laboratory assistants and technicians responsible for so many observations and calculations.'

Markov gave a little cough and said: 'Viktor Pavlovich, we should like you to expound your theory in as much detail as possible.' Lowering his voice, he added: 'I've heard that Kochkurov's research in a similar area holds out great practical possibilities. Apparently Moscow has been asking about his results.'

Markov usually knew all the ins and outs of everything under the sun. When the Institute was being evacuated from Moscow, he had appeared in the railway carriage with all kinds of information – about hold-ups on the line, engine changes, stops where they could get something to eat…

Savostyanov, who hadn't yet shaved that morning, said thoughtfully: 'I'll have to drink all the laboratory alcohol to celebrate.' And Anna Naumovna, who was politically very active, sighed: 'Thank God for that! At Party meetings we've already been accused of all kinds of mortal sins.'

Nozdrin remained silent, rubbing his hand over his hollow cheeks. As for Perepelitsyn, the young one-legged electrician, he just turned bright red and let his crutch fall to the floor with a bang.

It had been a good day for Viktor. Pimenov, the young director of the Institute, had telephoned him that morning and showered him with compliments. He was about to fly to Moscow; final preparations were under way for the return of almost the entire Institute.

'Viktor Pavlovich,' Pimenov had announced at the end of their conversations, 'we'll see each other in Moscow soon. I'm both proud and happy to be the director of the Institute at the time when you have brought your remarkable research to a conclusion.'

The meeting of the laboratory staff was equally agreeable.

Markov distrusted theoreticians and liked making jokes about the running of the laboratory. He was always complaining, 'We've got a brigade of doctors and professors, a battalion of research assistants and one private soldier – Nozdrin. We're like some strange pyramid with a wide top and a mere point as its base. Very unstable. What we need is a firm foundation – a whole regiment of Nozdrins.' After Viktor's talk, however, he smiled and said:

'Well, so much for all my talk about regiments and pyramids.'

And as for Savostyanov, who had compared science with sport, his eyes took on a look of extraordinary warmth and joy. This was not how a football player looks at his coach, but the way a believer looks at an evangelist. Remembering Savostyanov's argument with Sokolov and his own recent conversation with him, Viktor said to himself: 'Well, I may understand something about the forces within the atom, but I really don't have a clue about human beings.'

Towards the end of the day, Anna Naumovna came into Viktor's office.

'Viktor Pavlovich, I've just seen the list of people who are to return to Moscow. The new head of the personnel department hasn't included my name.'

'I know,' said Viktor, 'but there's nothing to get upset about. There are two separate lists. You're on the second one. You'll be coming a few weeks later, that's all.'

'But for some reason I'm the only person from our group who isn't on the first list. I've had enough of it here – I think I'm going mad. I dream of Moscow every night. And anyway how are you going to get the laboratory set up without me?'

'I know,' said Viktor. 'But the list has already been authorized. It's very difficult to change it now. Svechin from the magnetic laboratory has already had a word about Boris Israelevich. Boris is in the same position as you, but apparently it's impossible to do anything about it now. I think the best you can do is be patient.'

Then he suddenly lost patience himself.

'Heaven knows what's going on in their heads! They've included people we don't need at all and for some reason they've forgotten you. You're right – we do need you to set the place up.'

'I haven't been forgotten,' said Anna Naumovna, her eyes slowly filling with tears. 'It's worse than that.' She looked round quickly, almost furtively, at the half-open door. 'For some reason it's only Jewish names that have been crossed off the list. And I've heard from Rimma, the secretary of the personnel department, that almost all the Jews have been crossed off the list of the Ukrainian Academy at Ufa. The only ones left are the doctors.'

Viktor gaped at her in momentary astonishment, then burst out laughing.

'My dear woman, have you gone mad? We're not living under the Tsars, thank God! Why this shtetl inferiority complex? It's time you forgot all that.'

8

When he got home, Viktor saw a familiar coat hanging on the peg: Karimov had called round.

Karimov put aside his newspaper. Viktor realized that Lyudmila must have avoided making conversation with him.

'I've just come back from a kolkhoz,' he said. 'I was giving a lecture there… But please don't worry. I've been very well fed. Our people are extremely hospitable.'

So Lyudmila hadn't even offered him a cup of tea.

It was only if Viktor looked very closely at Karimov's rather crumpled face with its wide nose that he could detect any differences from the usual Slavonic mould. But at odd moments, if he turned his head in a particular way, these slight differences merged into a single pattern, changing his face into that of a Mongol.

In the same way Viktor could sometimes recognize someone with blond hair, blue eyes and a snub nose as a Jew. The signs that revealed a man's Jewish origins were often barely perceptible – a smile, the way he furrowed his brow in surprise, even the way he shrugged his shoulders.

Karimov was telling him about how he had met a wounded lieutenant who had gone back home to his village. He appeared to have come merely to tell this story.

'He was a good lad,' said Karimov. 'He talked about everything very openly.'

'In Tartar?'

'Of course.'

Viktor thought that if he were to meet a wounded Jewish lieutenant, he certainly wouldn't start talking to him in Yiddish. He only knew a dozen words and they were just pleasantries like bekitser and haloimes.

This lieutenant had been taken prisoner near Kerch in the autumn of 1941. Snow had already fallen and the Germans had sent him to harvest the remaining wheat as fodder for horses. He had waited for the right moment and then disappeared into the winter twilight. The local population, both Russians and Tartars, had helped him escape.

'I now have real hopes of seeing my wife and daughter again,' said Karimov. 'Apparently the Germans have different kinds of ration-cards just as we do. And he said that many of the Crimean Tartars have fled to the mountains – even though the Germans don't harm them.'

'When I was a student, I did some climbing in the Crimea myself,' said Viktor.

As he spoke, he remembered that it was his mother who had sent him the money for the journey.

'Did your lieutenant see any Jews?' he asked.

Just then Lyudmila looked in through the door and said: 'My mother still hasn't come back. I'm quite anxious.'

'Oh dear, I wonder what's happened to her,' said Viktor absent-mindedly. When Lyudmila had closed the door, he repeated his question:

'What did your lieutenant have to say about the Jews?'

'He said he'd seen a Jewish family being taken to be shot – an old woman and two girls.'

'My God!'

'And he said he'd heard of some camps in Poland specially for Jews. First they're killed and then their bodies are cut up – just like in a slaughterhouse. But I'm sure that's only a rumour. I asked him about the Jews because I knew you'd want to know.'

'Why just me?' Viktor said to himself. 'Isn't it going to interest anyone else?'

Karimov thought for a moment and then said:

'I forgot. He also said that the Germans ordered new-born Jewish babies to be taken to the commandant's office. Their lips are then smeared with some kind of colourless preparation and they die at once.'

'New-born babies?'

'But I'm sure that's just someone's imagination – like the camps where corpses are cut up.'

Viktor started to pace up and down the room.

'When you think about new-born babies being killed in our own lifetime,' he said, 'all the efforts of culture seem worthless. What have people learned from all our Goethes and Bachs? To kill babies?'

'Yes,' said Karimov. 'It's terrible.'

Viktor could sense Karimov's sorrow and compassion, but he was also aware of his joy. Karimov now had more hope of seeing his wife again. Whereas he, Viktor, knew only too well that he would never again see his mother.

Karimov got ready to go home. Viktor didn't want to say goodbye and decided to accompany him for part of the way.

'You know one thing,' he said as they were putting on their coats, 'Soviet scientists are very fortunate. Try and imagine the feelings of an honest German chemist or physicist who knows that his discoveries are helping Hitler! Imagine a Jewish physicist whose family are being killed off like mad dogs – imagine what he feels, when, against his will, his discovery is used to reinforce the power of Fascism! He knows that, but he can't help feeling proud of his discovery. It must be terrible!'

'Yes,' agreed Karimov. 'But a thinking person can't just stop thinking.'

They went out onto the street.

'I feel awkward about your coming with me,' said Karimov. 'The weather's terrible and you've only just got back yourself.'

'It's all right,' said Viktor. 'I'll come as far as the corner.' He looked at his friend's face and said: 'I enjoy walking down the street with you – even if the weather is terrible.'

'Soon you'll be going back to Moscow. We'll have to say goodbye. You know, these meetings have meant a lot to me.'

'Believe me,' said Viktor. 'I feel sad too.'

As Viktor was on his way back, someone called out his name. Viktor didn't hear at first. Then he saw Madyarov's dark eyes looking straight at him. The collar of his overcoat was turned up.

'What's happening?' he asked. 'Have our meetings come to an end? You've vanished off the face of the earth. Pyotr Lavrentyevich is angry with me.'

'Yes,' said Viktor, 'it's a pity. But we did both say a lot of things in the heat of the moment.'

'Yes, but no one's going to pay any attention.'

Madyarov drew closer to Viktor. His large, melancholy eyes looked even more melancholy than usual.

'Still,' he said, 'there is one good thing about our not meeting any more.'

'What do you mean?'

'I have to tell you this,' said Madyarov, almost gasping, 'I think old Karimov's an informer. Do you understand? You meet quite often, don't you?'

'That's nonsense. I don't believe a word of it.'

'Can't you see? All his friends and all the friends of his friends are just labour-camp dust. His whole circle has vanished. He's the only one left. What's more, he's flourishing. He's been granted his doctorate.'

'And what of it?' said Viktor. 'I'm a doctor myself. And so are you.'

'The same goes for us. Just think a little about our wonderful fate. You're not a child any more.'

9

'Vitya, Mother's only just got back.'

Alexandra Vladimirovna was sitting at table with a shawl round her shoulders. She moved her cup of tea closer and then pushed it away again.

'Guess what?' she said. 'I spoke to someone who saw Misha just before the war.'

Speaking in a deliberately calm, measured tone because of her excitement, she went on to say that the neighbours of a colleague of hers had had someone to stay from their home-town. The colleague had happened to mention the name Shaposhnikova and he had asked if Alexandra Vladimirovna had a relative called Dmitry.

After work, Alexandra Vladimirovna had gone to her colleague's house. There she had learned that this man had recently been released from a labour camp. He had been a proof-reader on a newspaper and had spent seven years in the camps for missing a misprint in a leading article – the typesetters had got one letter wrong in Stalin's name. Just before the war he had been transferred for an infringement of discipline from a camp in the Komi ASSR to one of the special-regime 'lake camps' in the Far East. There he had slept next to Dmitry Shaposhnikov.

'I knew from the very first word that he really had met Mitya. He said: "Mitya just lay there on the bedboards, whistling 'Little Bird Where Have You Been?'" Mitya came round shortly before he was arrested – and whatever I asked, he just smiled and whistled that same tune… This evening the man's going on by lorry to his family in Laishevo. He said Mitya was ill – scurvy and heart trouble. And he said Mitya didn't believe he'd ever get out. Mitya had told him about me and Seryozha. He had a job in the kitchen – apparently that's the best work of all.'

'Yes,' said Viktor. 'It's not for nothing he's got two degrees.'

'You never know,' said Lyudmila. 'This man might be a provocateur.'

'Why should a provocateur bother with an old woman like me?'

'All right, but there is an organization that's interested in Viktor.'

'Lyudmila, you're talking rubbish,' said Viktor impatiently.

'But why was this man released?' asked Nadya. 'Did he say?'

'The things he said are quite incredible. It seems to be a world of its own, or rather a nightmare. He was like someone from a foreign country. They've got their own customs, their own Middle Ages and modern history, their own proverbs…

'I asked why he'd been released. He seemed quite surprised. "I was written off," he said. "Don't you understand?" In the end he explained that sometimes, when they're on their last legs, "goners" are released. There are lots of different classes in the camps – "workers", [40] "trusties", "bitches" [41]… I asked him about the ten years without right of correspondence that thousands of people were sentenced to in 1937. He said he'd been in dozens of camps but he hadn't met one person with that sentence. "Then what's happened to all those people?" I asked. "I don't know," he answered, "but they're not in the camps."'

'Tree-felling. Deportees. People serving additional time… It just appals me. And Mitya's lived there. He's used those same words – "goners", "trusties", "bitches"... Apparently there's a special way of committing suicide: they don't eat for several days and just drink water from the Kolyma bogs. Then they die of oedema, of dropsy. People just say, "He was drinking water" or "He began drinking". Of course, that's when they have a bad heart already.'

Alexandra Vladimirovna looked round at Nadya's furrowed brow and Viktor's tense, gloomy face. Her head on fire and her mouth quite dry, she went on:

'He said that the journey's even worse than the camp itself. The common criminals have absolute power. They take away people's food and clothes. They even stake the lives of the "politicals" at cards. Whoever loses has to kill someone with a knife. The victim doesn't know till the last moment that his life's just been gambled away. Yes, and apparently the criminals have all the important posts in the camp.

They're the ones in charge of the huts and the work-gangs. The politicals have no rights at all. The criminals call them "ty". They even called Mitya a Fascist.'

In a loud voice, as though she were addressing a crowd, Alexandra Vladimirovna announced:

'This man was transferred from Mitya's camp to Syktyfkar. In the first year of the war a man from Moscow called Kashkotin was appointed director of the lake-camps, including Mitya's. He's been responsible for the execution of tens of thousands of prisoners.'

'Oh my God!' said Lyudmila. 'But does Stalin know of these horrors?'

'Oh my God!' said Nadya angrily, imitating her mother's voice. 'Do you still not understand? It was Stalin who gave the order for the executions.'

'Nadya!' shouted Viktor. 'Cut it out!'

He flew into a sudden rage – the rage of a man who senses that someone else knows his hidden weaknesses.

'Don't you forget,' he shouted at Nadya, 'that Stalin's the commander-in-chief of the army fighting against Fascism. Your grandmother trusted in Stalin to the last day of her life. And if we still live and breathe, it's because of Stalin and the Red Army… First learn to wipe your nose properly, then criticize Stalin – the man who's halted the fascists at Stalingrad.'

'Stalin's in Moscow,' said Nadya. 'And you know very well who has really halted the Fascists. You are peculiar. You used to come back from the Sokolovs and say just the same things yourself…'

Viktor felt a new surge of anger. He felt as though he would be angry with Nadya for the rest of his life.

'I never said anything of the kind. You're imagining things.'

'Why bring up all these horrors now?' said Lyudmila. 'Soviet children are giving their lives for the Motherland.'

It was at this moment that Nadya showed how well she understood her father's weaknesses.

'No,' she said, 'of course you didn't. Not now – not when your work's going so well and the German advance has been halted.'

'How dare you!' cried Viktor. 'How dare you accuse your own father of being dishonest? Lyudmila, did you hear what the girl said?'

Instead of giving Viktor the support he had asked for, Lyudmila just said: 'I don't know why you should be so surprised. She's picked it up from you. You've said things like that to that Karimov of yours, and that awful Madyarov. Marya Ivanovna's told me all about your conversations. And anyway you've said quite enough here at home. Oh, if only we could go back to Moscow!'

'Enough of that!' said Viktor. 'I know what you're about to say.'

Nadya was silent. Her face looked ugly and shrivelled, like an old woman's. She had turned away from Viktor; when he finally caught her eye he was surprised at the hatred he saw in it.

The air was thick and heavy, almost unbreathable. Everything that lies half-buried in almost every family, stirring up now and then only to be smoothed over by love and trust, had now come to the surface. There it had spread out to fill their lives. It was as though there were nothing between father, mother and daughter save misunderstanding, suspiciousness, resentment and anger.

Had their common fate really engendered nothing but mistrust and alienation?

'Grandmama!' cried Nadya.

Viktor and Lyudmila turned simultaneously towards Alexandra Vladimirovna. She was sitting there, her head in her hands, looking as though she had an unbearable headache.

There was something pitiful about this helplessness of hers. She and her grief were of no use to anyone. All she did was get in the way and stir up quarrels. All her life she had been strong and self-disciplined; now she was lonely and helpless.

Nadya suddenly knelt down and pressed her forehead against Alexandra Vladimirovna's legs.

'Grandmama,' she murmured. 'Dear, kind Grandmama…!'

Viktor got up and turned on the radio. The cardboard loudspeaker moaned and wheezed. It could have been the autumn weather, the wind and snow over the front line, over the burnt villages and mass graves, over Kolyma and Vorkuta, over airfields and the wet tarpaulin roofs of first-aid posts.

Viktor looked at his wife's sombre face. He went over to Alexandra Vladimirovna, took her hands and kissed them. Then he bent down to stroke Nadya's head.

To an outsider it would seem as though nothing had changed in those few moments; the same people were in the same room, oppressed by the same grief and led by the same destiny. Only they knew what an extraordinary warmth had suddenly filled their embittered hearts…

A booming voice suddenly filled the room:

'During the day our troops have engaged the enemy in the regions of Stalingrad, north-eastern Tuapse and Nalchik. On the other Fronts there has been no change.'

10

Lieutenant Peter Bach was taken to hospital after receiving a bullet-wound in the shoulder. The wound turned out not to be serious; the comrades who had accompanied him to the field-hospital congratulated him on his luck.

Even though he was still groaning with pain, Bach felt blissfully happy. Supported by an orderly, he went to take a bath.

The sensation of the warm water on his skin was a real pleasure.

'Is that better than the trenches then?' asked the orderly. Wanting to cheer up the lieutenant, he gestured towards the continual rumble of explosions. 'By the time you're released, we'll have all that sorted out.'

'Have you only just been posted here?' asked Bach.

'What makes you think that?' replied the orderly, rubbing the lieutenant's back with a flannel.

'Down there no one thinks it will be over soon. People think it will take a very long time indeed.'

The orderly looked at the naked lieutenant. Bach remembered that hospital personnel had instructions to report on the morale of the wounded. And he himself had just expressed a lack of confidence in the might of the armed forces. He said very distinctly: 'Yes, just how it will turn out is anyone's guess.'

What had made him repeat these dangerous words? No one can understand unless he himself lives in a totalitarian empire.

He had repeated these words because he was annoyed with himself for feeling frightened after saying them the first time. And also out of self-defence – to deceive a possible informer by a show of nonchalance.

Then, to dissipate any unfortunate impression he might have produced, he said: 'It's more than likely that this is the most important concentration of forces we've assembled since the beginning of the war. Believe me!'

Disgusted at the sterility of the complex game he was playing, he took refuge in a game played by children – squeezing warm soapy water inside his clenched fist. Sometimes it squirted out against the side of the bath, sometimes straight into his face.

'The principle of the flame-thrower,' he said to the orderly.

How thin he had become! Looking at his bare arms and chest, he thought of the young Russian woman who had kissed him two days before. Could he ever have imagined having an affair, in Stalingrad, with a Russian woman? Though it was hardly an affair. Just a wartime liaison. In an extraordinary, quite fantastic setting. They had met in a cellar. He had had to make his way past ruined buildings that were lit only by the flashes of shell-bursts. It was the kind of meeting that it would be good to describe in a book. He should have seen her yesterday. She probably thought he had been killed. Once he was better, he'd go and see her again. It would be interesting to see who'd taken his place. Nature abhors a vacuum…

Soon after his bath he was taken to the X-ray room. The doctor sat him down in front of the screen.

'So, Lieutenant, I hear things have been tough over there,' he said.

'Not as tough as they've been for the Russians,' Bach replied, wishing to please the doctor and be given a good diagnosis, one that would make the operation quick and painless.

The surgeon came in. The two doctors looked at the X-rays. No doubt they could see all the poisonous dissidence that had collected inside his rib-cage over the years.

The surgeon took Bach's hand and began to turn it, moving it towards and away from the screen. His concern was the splinter-wound; it was quite incidental that a young and highly educated man was attached to it.

The doctors talked to each other in a mixture of Latin and jocular curses. Bach realized he was going to be all right – he wasn't going to lose his arm after all.

'Get the lieutenant ready to be operated on,' said the surgeon. 'I'm going to take a look at this skull-wound. It's a difficult case.'

The orderly removed Bach's gown, and the surgeon's assistant, a young woman, told him to sit down on the stool.

'Heavens!' said Bach, smiling pitifully and feeling embarrassed at his nakedness. 'You should warm these stools up, Fraulein, before asking a combatant from the battle of Stalingrad to sit down on them with a bare behind.'

'That's not part of our routine,' she answered in absolute seriousness. Then she began taking out a terrifying-looking array of instruments from a glass-fronted cupboard.

The extraction of the splinter, however, proved quick and simple. Bach even felt a little resentful: the surgeon's contempt for this ridiculously simple operation seemed to extend to the patient.

The assistant asked Bach if he needed to be accompanied back to his ward.

'I'll be all right by myself.'

'Anyway, you won't need to stay here long,' she said reassuringly.

'Fine,' he answered. 'I was already beginning to feel bored.'

She smiled.

Her picture of wounded soldiers was obviously derived from newspaper articles. These were full of stories about soldiers who had quietly slipped out of hospital in order to return to their beloved companies and battalions. They apparently felt an overpowering need to be fighting – otherwise life simply wasn't worth living.

Maybe journalists really had found people like that in hospital. Bach, on the other hand, felt shamefully happy to lie on a bed with clean sheets, eat his plate of rice, take a puff at his – strictly forbidden -cigarette, and strike up a conversation with his neighbours.

There were four men in the ward – three officers serving at the Front and a civil servant with a pot belly and a hollow chest. He had been sent from the rear on a mission and had a car accident near Gumrak. When he lay on his back, his hands folded across his stomach, it looked as though someone had jokingly stuffed a football under the blanket. No doubt this was why he had been nicknamed 'the goalkeeper'.

The goalkeeper was the only one to complain about being temporarily disabled. He spoke in an exalted tone about duty, the army, the Fatherland and his pride at being wounded in Stalingrad.

The three officers were amused at his brand of patriotism. One of them, Krap, who was lying on his stomach because of a wound in the buttocks, had been in command of a detachment of scouts. He had a pale face, thick lips and staring brown eyes.

'I guess you're the kind of goalkeeper who's not content just to defend his own goal,' he said, 'but likes to send the ball into his opponent's net as well.'

Wanting to say something stinging in reply, the goalkeeper asked:

'Why are you so pale? I suppose you have to work in an office.'

'No,' said Krap. 'I'm a night bird. That's when I go hunting. Unlike you, I do my screwing during the day.'

Krap was obsessed with sex. It was his chief topic of conversation.

After this, everyone began cursing the bureaucrats who cleared out of Berlin every evening and drove back to their country homes, and those fine warriors, the quartermasters, who were awarded more medals than men serving in the front line. They talked about the sufferings undergone by soldiers' families when their houses were destroyed by bombs. They cursed the Casanovas in the rear who tried to make off with soldiers' wives. They cursed the military stores where you couldn't buy anything except eau-de-Cologne and razor-blades.

In the bed next to Bach was a Lieutenant Gerne. At first Bach had thought he was an aristocrat, but he turned out to be a peasant- one of the men brought to the fore by the National Socialists. He had been the deputy to a regimental chief of staff and had been wounded by a bomb-splinter during a night air-raid.

When the goalkeeper was taken away to be operated on, Lieutenant Fresser, a rather simple man who had the bed in the corner, said: 'People have been shooting at me since 1939, but I've never made a song and dance about my patriotism. I get my food and drink, I get clothed – and I fight. Without philosophising about it.'

'Not entirely,' said Bach. 'When front-line soldiers make fun of a man like the goalkeeper, that's already a kind of philosophy.'

'Really?' said Gerne. 'How very interesting! May I ask just what kind of philosophy?'

Bach could tell from the hostile expression in Gerne's eyes that he was one of those people with a deep hatred of the old German intelligentsia. Bach had had his fill of speeches and articles attacking the intelligentsia for their admiration of American plutocracy, their hidden sympathies for Talmudism and Hebraic abstraction, and for the Jewish styles in literature and painting. Now he felt furious. If he was prepared to bow down before the rude strength of these new men, why then should they look at him with that wolf-like suspicion? Hadn't he been bitten by as many lice as they had? Hadn't he had frost bite? Here he was, a front-line officer – and they still didn't consider him a true German! Bach closed his eyes and turned to the wall.

'Why do you ask with such venom?' he wanted to mutter angrily.

'Do you really not understand?' Gerne would reply with a smile of contemptuous superiority.

'No, I don't understand,' he would say irritably. 'I told you. But perhaps I can guess.'

Gerne, of course, would burst out laughing.

'You suspect me of duplicity,' he would shout.

'That's right! Duplicity!' Gerne would repeat brightly.

'Impotence of the will?'

At this point Fresser would begin to laugh. Krap, supporting himself on his elbows, would stare insolently at Bach.

'You're a band of degenerates!' Bach would thunder. 'And you, Gerne, are half-way between a man and a monkey!'

Numb with hatred, Bach screwed up his eyes still tighter.

'You only have to write some little pamphlet on the most trivial of questions, and you think that gives you the right to despise the men who laid the foundations of German science. You only have to publish some miserable novella, and you think you can spit on the glory of German literature. You seem to imagine the arts and sciences as a kind of Ministry where there's no room for you because the older generation won't make way. Where you and your little book are denied admittance by Koch, Nernst, Planck and Kellerman… No, the arts and sciences are a Mount Parnassus beneath an infinite sky! There's room there for every genuine talent that has appeared throughout human history… Yes, if there's no place for you and your sterile fruits, it's certainly not for lack of room! You can throw out Einstein, but you'll never take his place yourselves. Yes, Einstein may be a Jew, but-forgive me for saying this – he's a genius. There's no power in the world that could enable you to step into his shoes. Is it really worth expending so much energy destroying people whose places must remain forever unoccupied? If your impotence has made it impossible for you to follow the paths opened up by Hitler, then the fault lies with you and you alone. Police methods and hatred can never achieve anything in the realm of culture. Can't you see how profoundly Hitler and Goebbels understand this? You should learn from them. See with what love, patience and tact, they themselves cherish German science, art and literature! Follow their example! Follow the path of consolidation instead of sowing discord in the midst of our common cause!'

After delivering this imaginary speech, Bach opened his eyes again. His neighbours were all lying quietly under their blankets.

'Watch this, comrades!' said Fresser. With the sweeping gesture of a conjuror, he took out from under his pillow a litre bottle of 'Three Knaves' Italian cognac.

Gerne made a strange sound in his throat. Only a true drunkard -and a peasant drunkard at that – could gaze at a bottle with quite such rapture.

'He's not so bad after all,' thought Bach, feeling ashamed of his hysterical speech.

Fresser, hopping about on one leg, filled the glasses on their bedside tables.

'You're a lion!' said Krap with a smile.

'A true soldier!' said Gerne.

'One of the quacks spotted my bottle,' said Fresser. ' "What's that you've got wrapped up in a newspaper?" he asked. "Letters from my mother," I answered. "I carry them with me wherever I go." '

He raised his glass.

'And so, from Lieutenant Fresser, with greetings from the Front!'

They all drank.

Gerne, who immediately wanted more, said: 'Damn it! I suppose we'll have to leave some for the goalkeeper.'

'To hell with the goalkeeper!' said Krap. 'Don't you agree, Lieutenant?'

'We can have a drink – and he can carry out his duty to the Fatherland,' said Fresser. 'After all, we deserve a little fun.'

'My backside's really beginning to come to life,' said Krap. 'All I need now is a nice plump woman.'

They all felt a sense of ease and happiness.

'Well,' said Gerne, raising his glass. 'Let's have another!'

'It's a good thing we landed up in the same ward, isn't it?'

'I thought that straight away. I came in and I thought: "Yes, these are real men. They're hardened soldiers." '

'I must admit that I did have some doubts about Bach,' said Gerne. 'I thought he must be a Party member.'

'No, I've never been a member.'

They began to feel hot and removed their blankets. Their talk turned to the war.

Fresser had been on the left flank, near Okatovka. 'God knows,' he said, 'these Russians just don't know how to advance. But it's already November and we haven't moved forward either. Remember all the vodka we drank in August? All those toasts? "Here's to our continued friendship after the war! We must found an association for veterans of Stalingrad!'"

'They know how to launch an attack all right,' said Krap. He himself had been in the area of the factories. 'What they can't do is hold on. They drive us out of a building and then they just lie down and go to sleep. Or else they stuff themselves while their officers get pissed.'

'They're savages,' said Fresser with a wink. 'And we've wasted more iron on these savages from Stalingrad than on the whole of Europe.'

'And not just iron,' said Bach.

'If nothing's decided by winter,' said Gerne, 'then it will be a real stalemate. It's crazy.'

'We're preparing an offensive in the area of the factories,' said Krap very quietly. 'There's never been such a concentration of forces. Any day now they'll be unleashed. By November 20th we'll be sleeping with girls from Saratov.'

Through the curtained windows came the hum of Russian bombers and the majestic, unhurried thunder of artillery.

'There go the Russian cuckoos,' said Bach. 'They always carry out their raids around this time. Some people call them "nerve-saws".'

'At our HQ we call them "orderly sergeants",' said Gerne.

'Quiet!' said Krap, raising one finger. 'Listen! There go the heavy guns.'

'While we have a little drink in the ward for the lightly wounded,' said Fresser.

Their carefree mood returned. They began to talk about Russian women. Everyone had some experience to recount. Bach usually disliked such conversations, but suddenly he found himself telling them about the girl who lived in the cellar of a ruined house. He made a real story out of it and they all had a good laugh.

Then the orderly came in. He glanced at their bright faces and then started to take the sheets off the goalkeeper's bed.

'So has our brave defender of the Fatherland been unmasked as a malingerer?' asked Fresser.

'Say something,' said Gerne. 'We're men here. You can tell us if something's happened.'

'He's dead. Cardiac arrest.'

'That's what comes of too many patriotic speeches,' said Gerne.

'You shouldn't speak like that about a dead man,' said Bach. 'He wasn't just putting on an act. He was being sincere. No, comrades, it's not right.'

'Ah!' said Gerne. 'I wasn't so wrong after all. I thought the lieutenant would give us the Party line. I knew at once he was a true ideologue.'

11

That night Bach felt too comfortable to go to sleep. It was strange to think of his comrades and their bunker, to remember how he and Lenard had drunk coffee and smoked as they watched the sunset through the open door.

Yesterday, as he got into the field-ambulance, he had put his good arm round Lenard's shoulder; they had looked each other in the eye and burst out laughing. No, he'd certainly never have guessed he'd end up drinking with an SS officer in a Stalingrad bunker – or walking through ruins lit up by fires to visit a Russian woman.

What had happened to him was extraordinary. He had hated Hitler for many years. When he had heard grey-haired professors shamelessly claiming that Faraday, Darwin and Edison were nothing but crooks who'd plagiarized the ideas of German scientists, when he had heard them declare Hitler to be the greatest scientist of all times and all nations, he had thought savagely: 'What nonsense! But they'll be unmasked soon enough!' And he had felt the same about those improbable novels about the happiness of ideologically spotless workers and peasants, about the great educational work carried out by the all-wise Party. And as for the miserable poems printed in magazines! These had upset him most of all – as a schoolboy he had written poetry himself.

And now here he was – in Stalingrad – wanting to join the Party! As a child, when he had been afraid his father would get the better of him in an argument, he had put his hands over his ears and shouted: 'No, no, I'm not going to listen!' Well, now he had listened. And his world had been turned upside down.

He still felt as disgusted as ever by the plays and films he saw. Perhaps the people would have to go without poetry for a few years or even a decade? But it was quite possible to write the truth even now! What greater truth could there be today than the truth of the German soul? And the masters of the Renaissance had been able to express the very loftiest of spiritual values in works commissioned by bishops and princes…

Although Krap was still asleep, he was evidently still fighting some old battle; in a voice that could probably be heard on the street he screamed: 'Quick! A hand-grenade!' Obviously wanting to crawl forward, he turned over awkwardly, yelled with pain and then began to snore again.

Bach felt differently even about the extermination of the Jews. Previously it had sent shivers down his spine. Even now, if he were in power himself, he would immediately put a stop to this genocide. Nevertheless, though he had several Jewish friends himself, he had to admit that there was such a thing as a German soul and a German character – which meant that there must also be a Jewish soul and a Jewish character.

Marxism had failed! His mother and father had both been Social Democrats and this failure had been hard for him to admit. It was as though Marx were a physicist who had based a theory of the structure of matter on centrifugal forces and had felt only contempt for the universal forces of gravitational attraction. He had defined the centrifugal forces between the different classes and had succeeded more clearly than anyone in showing how they had operated throughout human history. But, like many great theoreticians, he had overestimated the importance of the forces he had discovered; he had believed that these forces alone determined the development of a society and the course of history. He had not so much as glimpsed the powerful forces that hold a nation together in spite of class differences; his social physics, based on a contempt for the universal law of national attraction, was simply absurd.

The State is not an effect; it is a cause!

The law that determines the birth of a nation-state is something miraculous and wonderful. A state is a living unity; it alone has the power to express what is most precious, what is truly immortal in millions of people – a German character, a German hearth, a German will, a German spirit of sacrifice.

Bach lay there for a while with his eyes closed. He began counting sheep – one white, one black, one white, one black, one white, one black…

The next morning, after breakfast, he wrote a letter to his mother. Knowing she wouldn't like what he was writing, he frowned and sighed. But it was important to tell her what he had now come to feel. He hadn't said anything during his last spell of leave. But she had noticed his irritability, his unwillingness to go on listening to the same old reminiscences about his father.

She would consider him an apostate from the faith of his father. But that wasn't true. Apostasy was the very thing he was renouncing.

Tired out by the morning routine, the patients were very quiet. During the night a man with serious wounds had been installed in the goalkeeper's bed. He was still unconscious and they didn't yet know what unit he was from.

How could he tell his mother that the people of this new Germany were now closer to him than friends he had known since childhood?

An orderly came in.

'Lieutenant Bach?'

'Yes?' said Bach, covering the letter with the palm of his hand.

'There's a Russian woman asking after you, Lieutenant.'

'Me?' said Bach in surprise. He realized it must be Zina. But how could she have found out where he was? She must have asked the driver of the field-ambulance. He felt touched and delighted. She must have hitched a lift during the night and then walked seven or eight kilometres. He imagined her pale face, her large eyes, her thin neck, the grey shawl she wore round her head.

Meanwhile the ward was in uproar.

'Lieutenant Bach!' said Gerne. 'I take my hat off to you. That's what I call successful work on the native population!'

Fresser waved his hands in the air, as though shaking off drops of water. 'Call her in! The lieutenant's got a good wide bed. We can marry them right now.'

'Women are like dogs,' said Krap. 'They always follow their men.'

All of a sudden Bach felt indignant. What did she think she was doing? How could she come and visit him in hospital? German officers were forbidden to have relationships with Russian women. And what if there'd been relatives of his working in the hospital, or friends of the Forsters? Even a German woman would hardly have come to visit him after such a trivial affair…

The man who'd been seriously wounded seemed to be laughing contemptuously in his sleep.

'Tell the woman I'm unable to come out to see her,' he said grimly. Not wanting to take part in the general hilarity, he picked up his pencil and read over what he'd written so far.

'The most extraordinary thing of all is that whereas for years I felt I was being suppressed by the State, I now understand that it alone can give expression to my soul. I don't wish for an easy destiny. If necessary, I'll break with my old friends. I realize those I am turning to will never consider me one of them. But I am ready to suffer for the sake of what is most important in me…'

The merriment in the ward continued.

'Sh!' said Gerne. 'Don't disturb him. He's writing to his fiancée.'

Bach began to laugh himself. There were moments when his suppressed laughter sounded like sobs; he realized he could just as easily be crying.

12

Officers who only infrequently saw General Friedrich Paulus – the commander of the Sixth Army – were unaware of any change in his state of mind. His bearing, the style of his orders, the smile with which he listened both to important reports and to trivial points of detail, all seemed to indicate that he was still in control of events.

Only the two men closest to him-his adjutant, Colonel Adam, and his chief of staff, General Schmidt – realized how much he had changed since the beginning of the battle for Stalingrad.

He could still be arrogant, condescending or charmingly witty; he could still enter warmly and intimately into the lives of his officers; he still had the power to throw whole regiments and divisions into battle, to promote and demote his men, to sign orders for decorations. He still smoked his usual cigarettes… But deep down something was changing; and this change was on the point of becoming irrevocable.

General Paulus had lost the feeling of being in control of time and events. Until recently he had only cast a quick, unworried glance over the reports furnished by his intelligence section. What did he care about the movements of the Russian reserves? What did their latest plans matter to him?

Now, however, when he looked at the file of documents and reports placed on his desk every morning by Colonel Adam, the reports of Russian troop movements during the night were the first thing he studied. Colonel Adam had noticed this; one day he had changed the order in the file so that the intelligence reports were on top. Paulus had opened the file and looked at the first page; he had then raised his eyebrows and slammed the file shut.

Surprised by the rather pathetic look that had crossed Paulus's face, Colonel Adam realized he had been tactless. A few days later, Paulus had looked through the documents and reports – now once again in their usual order – and smiled.

'You're evidently a very perceptive man, Herr innovator.'

It was a quiet autumn evening. General Schmidt was on his way to report to Paulus. He was feeling triumphant.

He walked down the silent, deserted street. In his head, beneath his heavy-peaked cap, were the plans for the most ruthless offensive yet to be launched in Stalingrad. That was how he described it when Paulus received him and asked him to sit down.

'There have indeed, in German military history, been offensives for which we have mobilized far greater quantities of men and equipment. But I for one have never been asked to organize such a dense concentration of both air and ground forces in such a limited sector of the Front.'

Paulus's attitude, as he listened to Schmidt, was not that of a commander-in-chief. His back was hunched and, as Schmidt's finger pointed to columns of figures and sectors marked on maps, his head turned quickly and obediently from side to side. Paulus himself had conceived this offensive. He had defined its parameters. But now, as he listened to Schmidt – the most brilliant chief of staff he had worked with – he felt unable to recognize his original conception. It was as though Schmidt was imposing his will on him, as though he had planned an offensive that went against his commanding officer's wishes.

'Yes,' said Paulus. 'And this concentration of forces is all the more impressive when you compare it to the void on our left flank.'

'But what can we do about that?' said Schmidt. ' Russia 's so vast. We simply don't have enough men.'

'I'm not alone in feeling worried,' said Paulus. 'Von Weichs said to me: "We didn't strike with a fist. We struck with an open hand, our fingers stretching across the infinite spaces of the East." And others are worried too. In fact there's only one man who isn't worried…'

He didn't finish the sentence.

Everything was going as it should, and yet somehow failing to go as it should. It was as if the trifling uncertainties and chance misfortunes of the last weeks were beginning to reveal something quite new – the true face of war, the face of war in all its joylessness and hopelessness.

The intelligence section obstinately continued to report a build-up of Soviet forces in the North-West. Air-attacks seemed powerless to prevent this. Von Weichs had no German reserves to cover Paulus's flanks. He was attempting to mislead the Russians by installing German radio-transmitters in zones occupied by Rumanian troops. But was this enough to turn the Rumanians into Germans?

The campaign in Africa had begun triumphantly. Fierce punishment had been meted out to the English at Dunkirk, in Norway and Greece – and yet the British Isles remained unoccupied. There had been magnificent victories in the East, they had marched thousands of miles to the Volga – and yet the Soviet armed forces had still not been smashed once and for all. It always seemed that what mattered had already been achieved; that only chance, only some trivial delay had prevented a victory from being decisive…

What did they matter, these few hundred metres that separated him from the Volga, these half-ruined factories, these burnt-out shells of buildings, compared to the vast spaces conquered during the summer offensive? But then only a few kilometres of desert had separated Rommel from his Egyptian oasis… And at Dunkirk they had been only a few kilometres, only a few hours, short of an absolute victory. It was always the same few kilometres… And there was always a lack of reserves, a gaping void in the rear of the victorious forces and at their flanks.

Summer 1942! Probably only once in a lifetime is a man allowed to live through days like those. He had felt the breath of India on his face. He had felt what an avalanche would feel – if it had feelings – as it smashes through forests and forces rivers out of their beds.

The idea had occurred to him that perhaps the German ear had grown accustomed to the name Friedrich. He had not really thought this seriously, but still…It was just then that a little grain of very hard sand had grated under his foot – or rather, against his teeth.

Headquarters had been full of a general sense of triumph and exultation. He was constantly receiving written reports, oral reports, radio reports, telephone reports, from the commanding officers of his different units. This hadn't seemed like work at all; it had been simply a symbolic expression of German triumph. And then one day the telephone had rung: 'Herr Commander-in-Chief…' Somehow this matter-of-fact voice had immediately sounded out of harmony with the peals of triumph filling the ether.

Weller, a divisional commander, had reported that in his sector the Russians had gone over to the offensive. An infantry detachment, equivalent in size to a reinforced battalion, had succeeded in breaking through to the railway station. It was with this seemingly insignificant incident that he had felt his first prickle of anxiety.

Schmidt read the plan of operations out loud. As he did so, he straightened his shoulders and raised his chin. He wanted to indicate that, in spite of the good personal relations between him and Paulus, he was aware of the formality of this meeting.

Quite unexpectedly, Paulus came out with some words that Schmidt found strange and upsetting. In a quiet voice – not that of a commander-in-chief, not that of a soldier at all – he said:

'I believe in victory. But you know what? There's something quite senseless and unnecessary about the whole struggle for this city.'

'That comes a little unexpectedly from the commander-in-chief of the armies around Stalingrad.'

'You think so? But Stalingrad no longer exists as a centre of communications or heavy industry. What do we want it for? We can cover the north-eastern flank of our Caucasian armies along the line Astrakhan-Kalach. We don't need Stalingrad for that… I'm confident of victory, Schmidt – we shall capture the Tractor Factory. But that won't help us cover our flank. The Russians are going to attack -von Weichs is quite sure. None of our bluffing will stop that.'

'The course of events changes their meaning,' said Schmidt. 'But the Fuhrer has never yet withdrawn without first attaining an objective.'

Paulus himself believed that if the most brilliant victories had failed to bear the expected fruits, this was because they hadn't been carried through with the necessary tenacity and decisiveness. At the same time, he felt that the ability to abandon an objective that had lost its meaning was a sign of strength.

He looked into Schmidt's intelligent, piercing eyes.

'It's not for us to impose our will on a great strategist.'

He picked up the order of operations and signed it.

'Four copies only, in view of its particular secrecy,' said Schmidt.

13

After his visit to Army Headquarters, Darensky went to a unit deployed along the south-eastern flank of the Stalingrad Front, in the waterless sands around the Caspian Sea.

The steppes, with their small rivers and lakes, now seemed like an earthly paradise. Feather-grass grew there, there were horses, an occasional tree…

Thousands of men – all of them used to morning dew, the rustle of hay, and humid air – had now taken up quarters in these sandy wastes. The sand cut their skin, got into their ears, found its way into their bread and gruel, grated in the mechanisms of their watches and the bolts of their rifles, penetrated their dreams… These were harsh conditions for a human body, for human throats and nostrils, for human calves and thighs. It was as though the human body were a cart that had left the road and was now creaking its way across rough ground.

All day long Darensky visited artillery positions, had discussions, jotted down notes, made sketches, inspected equipment and ammunition dumps. By evening he was exhausted; his ears buzzed and his legs, unaccustomed to these shifting sands, were aching and throbbing.

Darensky had long ago noticed that, during a retreat, generals become particularly sensitive to the needs of their subordinates; commanding officers and Members of the Military Soviet suddenly reveal themselves to be modest, self-critical and full of scepticism. Never does an army prove to be so full of intelligent, all-understanding men as during a forced retreat, when the General Staff are searching for culprits.

But here in the desert people were simply apathetic and lethargic. It was as though the officers were convinced there was nothing for them to do, nothing for them to be concerned about – after all, these sands would be exactly the same tomorrow, the following day, in a year's time…

The chief of staff of an artillery regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Bova, invited Darensky to stay the night with him. Bova was stoop-shouldered, bald and hard of hearing in one ear. His quarters were in a shack made from boards smeared with clay and manure; the floor was covered with ragged sheets of tarred roofing paper. The shack was identical in every detail to those where the other officers were quartered.

'Greetings!' said Bova, shaking Darensky energetically by the hand. 'How's this then?' he asked, gesturing at the walls. 'It looks like I'll be spending the winter in a dog-kennel smeared with shit.'

'I've seen worse lodgings,' said Darensky, surprised at the transformation of the usually quiet Bova.

Bova sat Darensky down on a crate that had once contained cans of food from America, poured out some vodka into a large dirty glass whose rim was smeared with dried toothpaste, and handed him a green pickled tomato on a piece of damp newspaper.

'Make yourself at home, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel!' he insisted. 'We've got vodka and we've got fruit.'

Darensky, who seldom drank, took a small, cautious sip and pushed his glass away. He asked Bova about the state of his troops. Bova, however, didn't want to talk shop.

'Yes, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel,' he said. 'I've had enough of work. In the old days I never took a moment off – not even when there were all those splendid women around in Kuban and the Ukraine. Heavens! And they weren't shy either – believe me! You only had to wink at them. But I just sat on my arse in the Operations Section. I didn't know what I'd missed till I was out here in the desert.'

At first Darensky was annoyed by Bova's reluctance to discuss the average density of troops per square kilometre of front, or to give his opinion on the possible advantages of mortars over artillery in desert conditions. Nevertheless, he was not uninterested by the new turn the conversation had taken.

'You can say that again!' he exclaimed. 'There are some magnificent women in the Ukraine! There's one I used to visit in 1941, when we had our HQ in Kiev… She was a real beauty – the wife of someone in the public prosecutor's office… And I'm not going to argue about Kuban either. Yes, I rate Kuban very highly indeed – the number of beautiful women there is quite remarkable.'

Darensky's words had an extraordinary effect on Bova; he started to curse and then gave a cry of despair: 'And now we have to make do with Kalmyks!'

'Wrong!' said Darensky emphatically. He then became surprisingly eloquent about the charm of these swarthy and high-cheekboned women who smelt of wormwood and the smoke of the steppes. Remembering Alla Sergeyevna, he concluded: 'You're wrong. There are women everywhere. There may be no water in the desert, but there are always women.'

Bova didn't respond – he was asleep. Only then did Darensky realize that his host was drunk.

Bova's head was hanging off the edge of the camp-bed and his snores were like the groans of a dying man. Darensky, with the special tenderness and patience that a Russian feels towards a drunkard, placed a pillow under his head and some sheets of newspaper under his legs. He then wiped the saliva off Bova's lip and began looking round for somewhere to lie down himself.

He laid his host's greatcoat on the floor, threw his own on top and put his knapsack down to serve as a pillow. When he was out on a mission, this knapsack served as his office, his food store and as a container for his washing kit.

He went outside, drank in the cold night air, and gasped as he gazed at the unearthly flames in the black Asiatic sky. He urinated, still looking at the stars, thought, 'Yes, yes, the cosmos!' and went back in.

He lay down on his host's greatcoat and covered himself with his own. Then, instead of closing his eyes, he gazed pensively and gloomily into the darkness.

What poverty he was surrounded by! Here he was, lying on the floor looking at some left-over marinated tomatoes and a cardboard suitcase that no doubt contained only a skimpy towel with a black stamp on it, some crumpled collars for a soldier's tunic, an empty holster for a revolver and a squashed soap-box.

The hut in Verkhniy-Pogromniy where he had spent the night last autumn now seemed luxurious. And in a year's time, perhaps, this present hut would seem equally luxurious; he would look back on it longingly as he went to sleep at the bottom of some empty pit.

Darensky had changed during his months on the artillery staff. His need for work – something that had once seemed as powerful as his need for food – was now satisfied. His work no longer gave him any particular satisfaction – any more than eating affords any particular satisfaction to someone well-fed.

Darensky was highly regarded by his superior officers. At first this had been a great joy to him – over the years he had become all too used to the opposite. He was probably valued even more highly on the staff of the Stalingrad Front than Novikov had been during his time on the staff of the South-Eastern Front. He had heard that whole pages of his reports were transcribed verbatim in reports addressed by important people in Moscow to still more important people. At a critical period his intelligence and his work had been discovered to be of real use and importance. Five years before the war, however, his wife had left him, considering him to be an enemy of the people who had succeeded in hiding from her the flabbiness and hypocrisy that was his true nature. He had often been turned down for jobs because of his background – he came from an aristocratic family, both on his mother's side and on his father's side. To begin with, he had been upset to learn that someone particularly stupid or ignorant had been appointed instead of him. Then he had begun to feel he really couldn't be trusted with a position of executive responsibility. His spell in camp had made him certain of his inadequacy. And now this terrible war had proved how far this was from the truth.

Darensky pulled his coat up over his shoulders, exposing his feet to the cold draught from the door. He wondered why it was that, at a time when his knowledge and abilities had finally been recognized, he should be lying on the floor in a hen-coop, listening to the piercing screams of camels, dreaming not of dachas and rest-homes but of a clean pair of pants and a decent piece of soap.

He felt proud – and at the same time annoyed – that his promotion hadn't brought him any material advantage. His high opinion of himself went hand in hand with a persistent feeling of timidity. Deep down, he felt he wasn't entitled to the good things of life. This constant lack of both self-assurance and money, this constant sense of being badly dressed, was something he had been used to since childhood, something that still hadn't left him. He was terrified at the thought of going into the Military Soviet canteen and being told by the girl behind the counter: 'Comrade Lieutenant-Colonel, I'm afraid you're only entitled to eat in the general canteen.' Then some witty general would say at a meeting: 'Well, Lieutenant-Colonel, did you enjoy the borshch in the Military Soviet canteen?' He had always been amazed at the brazenness with which not only generals but even mere photographers would eat and drink, or demand petrol, clothes and cigarettes, in places they had no right even to visit.

His father had been unable to find work for years on end; his mother, a stenographer, had been the breadwinner.

Around midnight Bova stopped snoring. Darensky felt worried by the sudden silence. Suddenly Bova asked: 'Are you still awake, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel?'

'Yes, I can't get to sleep.'

'Forgive me for not making you more comfortable,' said Bova. 'I'd had a little too much to drink. But now I feel as clear-headed as ever. And what I keep asking myself is this. What on earth did we do to end up in this godforsaken hole? Whose fault is it?'

'The Germans', of course,' said Darensky.

'You lie on the bed,' said Bova. 'I can go on the floor myself.'

'What do you mean? I'm fine as I am.'

'It's not right. In the Caucasus it's not done for a host to stay in his bed while a guest lies on the floor.'

'Never mind. We're hardly Caucasians.'

'We're not far off it. The foothills are very close. You say the Germans are responsible. But maybe we did our bit too.'

Bova must have sat up – his bed gave a loud squeak. 'Yes,' he said, drawing the word out thoughtfully.

'Yes,' said Darensky non-committally.

Bova had directed the conversation into an unusual channel. They were silent for a moment, each wondering whether he should continue such a conversation with someone he hardly knew. In the end it appeared that they had both decided against it.

Bova lit a cigarette. Darensky glimpsed his face in the light of the match. It looked somehow flabby, sullen, alien… He lit a cigarette himself. Bova glimpsed his face as he lay there, resting his head on one elbow. His face looked cold, unkind, alien… Then they went on with the conversation.

'Yes,' said Bova. This time he spoke the word sharply and decisively. 'Bureaucrats and bureaucracy – that's what's landed us in this wilderness.'

'Yes,' agreed Darensky. 'Bureaucracy's terrible. My chauffeur said that in his village before the war you couldn't even get a document out of someone without giving them half a litre of vodka.'

'It's no laughing matter,' Bova interrupted. 'In peacetime bureaucracy can be bad enough. But on the front line… I heard a story about a pilot whose plane caught fire after a scrap with a Messerschmidt. Well, he parachuted out and was quite unscathed. But his trousers were burnt. And do you know what? They wouldn't give him a new pair! The quartermaster just said: "No, you're not yet due for a new issue." And that was that. For three days he had to do without trousers. Finally the commanding officer found out.'

'Excuse me,' said Darensky, 'but you can hardly make out that we've retreated from Brest to the Caspian desert simply because of some idiot refusing to issue a new pair of trousers.'

'I never said it was because of the trousers,' said Bova sourly. 'Let me give you another example… There was an infantry detachment that had been surrounded. The men had nothing to eat. A squadron was ordered to drop them some food by parachute. And then the quartermaster refused to issue the food. He said he needed a signature on the delivery slip and how could the men down below sign for what had been dropped by parachute? And he wouldn't budge. Finally he received an order from above.'

Darensky smiled. 'All right, that's very comic but it's hardly of major importance. Just pedantry. Bureaucracy can be much more terrifying than that. Remember the order: "Not one step back"? There was one place where the Germans were mowing our men down by the hundred. All we needed to do was withdraw over the brow of the hill. Strategically, it would have made no difference – and we'd have saved our men and equipment. But the orders were "Not one step back". And so the men perished and their equipment was destroyed.'

'Yes,' said Bova. 'You're right there. In 1941 we had two colonels sent out to us from Moscow to check on the execution of that very order. They didn't have any transport themselves and during three days we retreated two hundred kilometres from Gomel. If I hadn't taken them in my truck, they'd have been captured by the Germans in no time. And there they were – being shaken about in the back like a sack of potatoes and asking what measures we'd taken to implement the order "Not one step back"! And what else could they do? They couldn't not write their report.'

Darensky took a deep breath, as though preparing to plunge still deeper. 'I'll tell you when bureaucracy really is terrible. It's when a lone machine-gunner has defended a height against seventy Germans. When he's held up the enemy's advance all on his own. When a whole army's bowed down before him after his death. And then his tubercular wife is abused by an official from the district soviet and thrown out of her flat…! It's when a man has to fill in twenty-four questionnaires and then ends up confessing at a meeting: "Comrades, I'm not one of you. I'm an alien element…" It's when a man has to say: "Yes, this is a workers' and peasants' State. My mother and father were aristocrats, parasites, degenerates. Go on, throw me out onto the street.'"

'I don't see that as bureaucracy,' said Bova. 'The State does belong to the workers and peasants. They're in control. What's wrong with that? That's as it should be. You wouldn't expect a bourgeois State to trust down-and-outs.'

Darensky was taken aback. The man he was speaking to evidently thought very differently to himself.

Bova lit a match. Instead of lighting a cigarette, he just held it up towards Darensky. Darensky screwed up his eyes; he felt like a soldier caught in the beam of an enemy searchlight.

'I'm from the purest of working-class backgrounds myself,' Bova went on. 'My father was a worker, and so was my grandfather. My background's as pure as crystal. But I was no use to anyone before the war either.'

'Why not?'

'I don't look on it as bureaucracy if a workers' and peasants' State treats aristocrats with suspicion. But why did they go for my throat? I thought I was going to end up picking potatoes or sweeping the streets. And all I'd done was criticize the bosses – from a class viewpoint. I'd said they were living in the lap of luxury. Well, I really caught it then! That's what I see as the root of bureaucracy – a worker suffering in his own State.'

Darensky had the feeling that Bova had touched on something of great importance. He felt a sudden happiness: he was unaccustomed either to talking about his own deepest preoccupations or to hearing other people talk about theirs. To do this, to speak one's mind freely and without fear, to argue uninhibitedly and without fear, seemed a great joy.

Everything felt different here: as he lay on the floor of this shack, talking to a simple soldier who had only just sobered up, sensing the invisible presence of thousands of men who had retreated from the Western Ukraine to this wilderness, Darensky knew that something had changed. Something very simple and natural, something very necessary – and at the same time quite impossible, quite unthinkable – had come about: he and another man had talked freely and sincerely.

'Yes,' said Darensky. 'But you've got one thing wrong. The bourgeoisie don't allow down-and-outs into the Senate, that's for sure. But if a down-and-out becomes a millionaire, then it's another story. The Fords started out as ordinary workers. We don't trust members of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy with positions of responsibility – and that's fair enough. But it's another matter altogether to stamp the mark of Cain on the forehead of an honest worker simply because his mother and father were kulaks or priests. That's not what I call a class viewpoint. Anyway, do you think I didn't meet workers from the Putilov factory or miners from Donetsk during my time in camp? They were there in their thousands. What's really terrifying is when you realize that bureaucracy isn't simply a growth on the body of the State. If it were only that, it could be cut off. No, bureaucracy is the very essence of the State. And in wartime people don't want to die just for the sake of the head of some personnel department. Any flunkey can stamp "Refused" on some petition. Any flunkey can kick some soldier's widow out of his office. But to kick out the Germans you have to be strong. You have to be a man.'

'That's for sure,' said Bova.

'But don't think I feel any resentment,' said Darensky. 'No, I bow down and take off my hat. I'm happy. A thousand thank-you's. What's wrong is that we had to undergo such terrible tragedies before I could be happy, before I was allowed to devote my energies to my country. If that's the price of my happiness, I'd rather be without it.'

Darensky felt that he still hadn't dug down to what really mattered, that he still hadn't been able to find the simple words that would cast a new, clear light on their lives. But he was happy to have thought and talked about what he had only very seldom thought or talked about.

'Let me say one thing. I can tell you that, whatever happens, I shall never ever regret this conversation of ours.'

14

Mikhail Mostovskoy was kept for over three weeks in the isolation ward. He was fed well, examined twice by an SS doctor, and prescribed injections of glucose.

During his first hours of confinement Mostovskoy expected to be summoned for interrogation at any moment. He felt constantly irritated with himself. Why had he talked with Ikonnikov? That holy fool had betrayed him, planting compromising papers on him just before a search.

The days passed and Mostovskoy still wasn't summoned… He went over the conversations he had had with the other prisoners about politics, wondering which of them he could recruit. At night, when he couldn't sleep, he composed a text for some leaflets and began compiling a camp phrase-book to facilitate communication between the different nationalities.

He remembered the old laws of conspiracy, intended to exclude the possibility of a total débâcle if an agent provocateur should denounce them.

Mostovskoy wanted to question Yershov and Osipov about the immediate aims of the organization. He was confident that he would be able to overcome Osipov's prejudice against Yershov.

Chernetsov, who hated Bolshevism and yet longed for the victory of the Red Army, seemed a pathetic figure. Now Mostovskoy felt quite calm about the prospect of his impending interrogation.

One night Mostovskoy had a heart attack. He lay there with his head against the wall, feeling the agony of a man left to die in a prison. For a while the pain made him lose consciousness. Then he came to. The pain had lessened, but his chest, his face and the palms of his hands were all covered in sweat. His thoughts took on a deceptive clarity.

His conversation about evil with the Italian priest became confused with a number of different memories: with the happiness he had felt as a boy when it had suddenly begun to pour with rain and he had rushed into the room where his mother was sewing; with his wife's bright eyes, wet with tears, when she had come to visit him at the time he was in exile by the Yenisey; with pale Dzerzhinsky whom he had once asked at a Party conference about the fate of a young and very kind Social Revolutionary. 'Shot,' Dzerzhinsky had answered… Major Kirillov's gloomy eyes… Draped in a sheet, the corpse of his friend was being dragged along on a sledge – he had refused to accept his offer of help during the siege of Leningrad.

A boy's dreamy head and its mop of hair… And now this large bald skull pressed against the rough boards.

These distant memories drifted away. Everything became flatter and lost its colour. He seemed to be sinking into cold water. He fell asleep – to wake up to the howl of sirens in the early-morning gloom.

In the afternoon he was taken to the sick-bay bath. He sighed as he examined his arms and his hollow chest. 'Yes, old age is here to stay,' he thought to himself.

The guard, who was rolling a cigarette between his fingers, went out for a moment, and the narrow-shouldered, pock-marked prisoner who had been mopping the cement floor sidled over to Mostovskoy.

'Yershov ordered me to tell you the news. The German offensive in Stalingrad has been beaten off. The major told me to tell you that everything is in order. And he wants you to write a leaflet and pass it on when you have your next bath.'

Mostovskoy wanted to say that he didn't have a pencil and paper, but just then the guard came in.

As he was getting dressed, Mostovskoy felt a small parcel in his pocket. It contained ten sugar lumps, some bacon fat wrapped up in a piece of rag, some white paper and a pencil stub. He felt a sudden happiness. What more could he want? How fortunate he was not to have his life drawing to an end in trivial anxieties about indigestion, heart attacks and sclerosis.

He clasped the sugar lumps and the pencil to his breast.

That night he was taken out of the sick-bay by an SS sergeant. Gusts of cold wind blew into his face. He looked round at the sleeping barracks and said to himself: 'Don't worry, lads. You can sleep in peace. Comrade Mostovskoy's got strong nerves – he won't give in.'

They went through the doors of the administration building. Here, instead of the stench of ammonia, was a cool smell of tobacco. Mostovskoy noticed a half-smoked cigarette on the floor and wanted to pick it up.

They climbed up to the second floor. The guard ordered Mostovskoy to wipe his boots on the mat and did so himself at great length. Mostovskoy was out of breath from climbing the stairs. He tried to control his breathing.

They set off down a strip of carpet that ran down the corridor. The lamps – small, semi-transparent tulips – gave a warm, calm light. They walked past a polished door with a small board saying 'Kommandant' and stopped in front of another door with a board saying 'Obersturmbannfuhrer Liss'.

Mostovskoy had heard the name 'Liss' many times: he was Himmler's representative in the camp administration. Mostovskoy was amused: General Gudz had been annoyed that he had only been interrogated by one of Liss's assistants while Osipov had been interrogated by Liss himself. Gudz had seen this as a slight to the military command.

Osipov had said that Liss had interrogated him without an interpreter; he was a German from Riga with a good knowledge of Russian.

A young officer came out, said a few words to the guard and let Mostovskoy into the office. He left the door open.

The office was almost empty. The floor was carpeted. There was a vase of flowers on the table and a picture on the wall: peasant houses by the edge of a forest, with red tiled rooves.

Mostovskoy thought it was like being in the office of the director of a slaughterhouse. Not far away were dying animals, steaming entrails and people being spattered with blood, but the office itself was peaceful and softly carpeted – only the black telephone on the desk served to remind you of the world outside.

Enemy! That word was so clear and simple. Once again he thought of Chernetsov – what a wretched fate during this time of Sturm und Drang! But then he did wear kid gloves… Mostovskoy glanced at his own hands, his own fingers.

The door opened at the far end of the office. There was a creak from the door into the corridor – the orderly must have shut it as he saw Liss come in.

Mostovskoy stood there and frowned.

'Good evening!' said the quiet voice of a short man with SS insignia on the sleeves of his grey uniform.

There was nothing repulsive about Liss's face, and for that very reason Mostovskoy found it terrible to look at. He had a snub nose, alert dark-grey eyes, a high forehead and thin pale cheeks that made him look industrious and ascetic.

Liss waited while Mostovskoy cleared his throat and then said:

'I want to talk to you.'

'But I don't want to talk to you,' answered Mostovskoy. He looked sideways into the far corner, waiting for Liss's assistants, the torturers, to emerge and give him a blow on the ear.

'I quite understand,' said Liss. 'Sit down.'

He seated Mostovskoy in the armchair and then sat down next to him.

Liss spoke in the lifeless, ash-cold language of a popular scientific pamphlet.

'Are you feeling unwell?'

Mostovskoy shrugged his shoulders and said nothing.

'Yes, yes, I know. I sent the doctor to you and he told me. I've disturbed you in the middle of the night. But I want to talk to you very badly.'

'Oh yes,' thought Mostovskoy.

'I've been summoned for interrogation,' he said out loud. 'There's nothing for us to talk about.'

'Why do you say that?' asked Liss. 'All you see is my uniform. But I wasn't born in it. The Fuhrer and the Party command; the rank and file obey. I was always a theoretician. I'm a Party member, but my real interest lies in questions of history and philosophy. Surely not all the officers in your NKVD love the Lubyanka?'

Mostovskoy watched Liss's face carefully. He thought for a moment that this pale face with the high forehead should be drawn at the very bottom of the tree of evolution; from there evolution would progress towards hairy Neanderthal man.

'If the Central Committee orders you to step up the work of the Cheka, are you in a position to refuse? You put Hegel aside and get working. Well, we've had to put Hegel aside too.'

Mostovskoy glanced at Liss. Pronounced by unclean lips, the name of Hegel sounded strange and blasphemous… A dangerous, experienced thief had come up to him in a crowded tram and started a conversation. He wasn't going to listen, he was just going to watch the thief's hands – any minute now a razor might flash out and slash him across the eyes.

But Liss just lifted up the palms of his hands, looked at them and said: 'Our hands are like yours. They love great work and they're not afraid of dirt.'

Mostovskoy frowned deeply: it was horrible to see this gesture and hear these words that so exactly mimicked his own.

Liss began to speak quickly and with enthusiasm, as though he had talked to Mostovskoy before and was glad to have the opportunity to resume the conversation. The things he said were extraordinary -terrible and absurd.

'When we look one another in the face, we're neither of us just looking at a face we hate – no, we're gazing into a mirror. That's the tragedy of our age. Do you really not recognize yourselves in us – yourselves and the strength of your will? Isn't it true that for you too the world is your will? Is there anything that can make you waver?'

His face moved closer to Mostovskoy's.

'Do you understand me? I don't know Russian well, but I very much want you to understand me. You may think you hate us, but what you really hate is yourselves – yourselves in us. It's terrible, isn't it? Do you understand me?'

Mostovskoy decided to remain silent. He musn't let Liss draw him into conversation.

But he did think for a moment that, rather than trying to deceive him, the man looking into his eyes was searching for words quite earnestly and sincerely. It was as though he were complaining, asking Mostovskoy to help him make sense of something that tormented him.

It was agonizing. It was as though someone had stuck a needle into Mostovskoy's heart.

'Do you understand me?' Liss repeated, already too excited even to see Mostovskoy. 'When we strike a blow against your army, it's ourselves that we hit. Our tanks didn't only break through your defences – they broke through our own defences at the same time. The tracks of our tanks are crushing German National Socialism. It's terrible – it's like committing suicide in one's sleep. And it might well end tragically for us. Do you understand? Yes, even if we win! As victors we would be left on our own – without you – in a world that is alien to us, a world that hates us.'

It would have been easy enough to refute all this. Liss's eyes had now drawn still closer to Mostovskoy's. But there was something even more dangerous than the words of this experienced SS provocateur. It was what stirred in Mostovskoy's own soul – his own vile, filthy doubts.

He was like a man afraid of an illness – of some malignant tumour – who won't go near a doctor, tries not to notice his indispositions and avoids talking about sickness with anyone close to him. And then suddenly someone comes up to him and says: 'Say, have you ever had such and such a pain, especially in the mornings, usually after…? Yes, yes…'

'Do you understand me, teacher?' asked Liss. 'A certain German -I'm sure you know his brilliant work – once said that Napoleon's tragedy was that he embodied the soul of England and yet in England herself found his most deadly foe.'

'If only they'd start beating me up!' thought Mostovskoy. And then: 'Ah, now he's on about Spengler.'

Liss lit a cigarette and held out his cigarette case to Mostovskoy.

'No,' said Mostovskoy abruptly.

He felt somehow calmed by the thought that all the policemen in the world – the ones who'd interrogated him forty years ago and the one talking about Hegel and Spengler right now – should use this same idiotic technique of offering their victim a cigarette. Yes, it was just that his nerves were weak – he'd been expecting to be beaten up and suddenly he'd had to listen to this horrible, absurd talk. But then even some of the Tsarist police had known a little about politics – a few of them were really quite educated, one had even read Das Kapital. But had there ever been a moment when a policeman studying Marx had wondered, deep in his heart: 'What if Marx is right?' What had the policeman felt then…? But what of it? Mostovskoy had trampled on his doubts too. Still, that was different -he was a revolutionary.

Not noticing that Mostovskoy had refused the cigarette, Liss muttered: 'Yes, that's right, it's very good tobacco.'

He then closed his cigarette case and began again. He sounded genuinely upset.

'Why do you find this conversation so surprising? What did you expect me to say? Surely you have some educated men at your Lubyanka? People who can talk to Academician Pavlov or to Oldenburg? But I'm different from them. I've got no ulterior motive. I give you my word. I'm tormented by the same anxieties as you are.' He smiled and added: 'My word of honour as a Gestapo officer. And I don't say that lightly.'

'Don't say anything,' Mostovskoy repeated to himself, 'that's the main thing. Don't enter into conversation. Don't argue.'

Liss went on talking. Once again he seemed to have forgotten about Mostovskoy.

'Two poles of one magnet! Of course! If that wasn't the case, then this terrible war wouldn't be happening. We're your deadly enemies. Yes, yes… But our victory will be your victory. Do you understand? And if you should conquer, then we shall perish only to live in your victory. It's paradoxical: through losing the war we shall win the war- and continue our development in a different form.'

Why on earth had this all-powerful Liss, instead of watching prize-winning films, drinking vodka, writing reports to Himmler, looking at books on gardening, re-reading his daughter's letters, having fun with young girls from today's transport, or even just taking something for his digestion and going to sleep in his spacious bedroom – why on earth had he decided to summon an old Russian Bolshevik who stank of the camps?

What did he have in mind? Why was he keeping his motives so secret? What was the information he wanted?

Mostovskoy wasn't afraid of torture. What did terrify him was the thought: 'What if the German isn't lying? What if he's sincere? What if he really does just want someone to talk to?'

What a horrible thought! They were both ill, both worn out by the same illness, but one of them hadn't been able to bear it and was speaking out, while the other remained silent, giving nothing away, just listening, listening…

Finally, as though answering Mostovskoy's silent question, Liss opened a file on his desk and very fastidiously, with two fingers, took out some sheets of dirty papers. Mostovskoy immediately recognized them as Ikonnikov's scribblings.

Liss evidently expected him to feel consternation at the sight of the papers planted on him by Ikonnikov… But he felt quite calm. He even felt glad to see these scribblings: once again everything was clear – as absurdly simple as every police interrogation.

Liss pushed the papers to the edge of the desk and then drew them back again. Suddenly he began to speak in German:

'I've never seen your handwriting, but I knew from the first words that you could never have written rubbish like this.'

Mostovskoy remained silent.

Liss tapped his finger against the papers. He was inviting Mostovskoy to speak, affably, insistently, with good will…

Mostovskoy remained silent.

'Have I made a mistake?' asked Liss in surprise. 'No, it's not possible. You and I can feel only disgust at what's written here. We two stand shoulder to shoulder against trash like this!'

'Come on now,' said Mostovskoy hurriedly and angrily. 'Let's get to the point. These papers? Yes, they were taken from me. You want to know who gave them to me? That's none of your business. Maybe I wrote them myself? Maybe you ordered someone to plant them on me…? All right?'

For a moment he thought Liss would accept his challenge, lose his temper and shout: 'We have ways of making you answer!'

He would have liked that so much. That would make everything so straightforward, so easy. What a clear, simple word it was – 'enemy'.

But Liss only said: 'Who cares about these wretched papers? What does it matter who wrote them? I know it was neither of us. Just think for a moment! Who do you imagine fill our camps when there's no war and no prisoners of war? Enemies of the Party, enemies of the People! Yes, and if our Reich Security Administration accepts prisoners of yours in peacetime, then we won't let them out again – your prisoners are our prisoners!'

He grinned.

'The German Communists we've sent to camps are the same ones you sent to camps in 1937. Yezhov imprisoned them: Reichsfuhrer Himmler imprisoned them… Be more of a Hegelian, teacher.'

He winked at Mostovskoy.

'I've often thought that a knowledge of foreign languages must be as useful in your camps as it is in ours. Today you're appalled by our hatred of the Jews. Tomorrow you may make use of our experience yourselves. And by the day after tomorrow we may be more tolerant again. I have been led by a great man down a long road. You too have been led by a great man; you too have travelled a long, difficult road. Did you really believe Bukharin was an agent provocateur? Only a very great man could lead people down a road like that… I knew Roehm myself; I trusted him. But that's how it had to be… What tortures me, though, is the thought that your terror killed millions -and we Germans were the only ones who could understand, the only men in the world who thought: "Yes, that's absolutely right, that's how it has to be!"

'Please try to understand me – as I understand you. This war ought to appal you. Napoleon should never have fought against England.'

Mostovskoy was struck by a new thought. He even screwed up his eyes – either because of a sudden stab of pain or to get rid of this tormenting thought. What if his doubts were not just a sign of weakness, tiredness, impotence, lack of faith, comtemptible shillyshallying? What if these doubts represented what was most pure and honourable in him…? And he just crushed them, pushed them aside, hated them! What if they contained the seed of revolutionary truth? The dynamite of freedom!

All he need do to defeat Liss, to push aside his sticky, slippery fingers, was stop hating Chernetsov, stop despising that holy fool Ikonnikov! No, no, he had to do more than that! He had to renounce everything he had stood for; he had to condemn what he had always lived by.

No, no, he had to do more than that! With all the strength of his soul, with all his revolutionary passion, he would have to hate the camps, the Lubyanka, bloodstained Yezhov, Yagoda, Beria! More than that…! He would have to hate Stalin and his dictatorship!

More than that! He would have to condemn Lenin…! This was the edge of the abyss.

Yes, this was Liss's victory – not in the war running its course on the battlefields, but in the war of snake venom, the war without gunfire he was waging against him in this office.

For a moment Mostovskoy thought he was about to go mad. Then he let out a sudden joyful sigh of relief. The thought that had horrified and blinded him had turned into dust. It was absurd and pathetic. The hallucination had lasted only a few seconds… But still, how was it that for even a second – a fraction of a second – he could have doubted the justice of a great cause?

Liss looked at him and pursed his lips.

'Do you think the world looks on us with horror and on you with hope and love?' he asked. 'No, the world looks on us both with the same horror!'

Mostovskoy was no longer afraid of anything. Now he knew where his doubts led: they didn't lead into a swamp – they led to the abyss.

Liss picked up Ikonnikov's papers.

'How can you have anything to do with people like this? Everything's been turned upside down by this accursed war… If only I could unravel this tangle!'

There is no tangle, Herr Liss. Everything's very simple and very clear. We don't need to ally ourselves with Chernetsov and Ikonnikov to overpower you. We can deal with both them and you…

Mostovskoy realized that everything dark and sinister was embodied in Liss. All rubbish heaps smelt the same; there was no difference between one lot of splintered wood and crushed brick and another. One shouldn't look to garbage and debris in order to understand similarities and differences; one should look to the thoughts, the design, of the builder.

Mostovskoy found himself gripped by a joyful, triumphant rage – against Liss and Hitler, against the English officer with the colourless eyes who had asked him about criticisms of Marxism, against the sickening speeches of the one-eyed Menshevik, against the mawkish preacher who had turned out to be a police agent. Where would these men ever find people stupid enough to believe that there was the faintest shadow of resemblance between a Socialist State and the Fascist Reich? The Gestapo officer Liss was the only consumer of their rotten goods. Now, as never before, Mostovskoy understood the inner link between Fascism and its agents.

And wasn't this the true genius of Stalin? He had hated and annihilated these people because he alone had seen the hidden brotherhood between Fascism and the Pharisees who advocated a specious freedom. This thought now seemed so obvious that he wanted to explain it – to bring home to Liss the full absurdity of his theories. But he contented himself with a smile: he'd been around a long time; he wasn't like that fool Goldenberg who'd blathered to the Public Prosecutor about the affairs of 'People's Will'. [42]

He stared straight at Liss. Then, in a voice that could probably be heard by the guard on the other side of the door, he said: 'The best advice I can offer you is to stop wasting your time on me. You can stand me against the wall! You can hang me! You can do me in however you like!'

'No one here wishes to do you in,' Liss answered hurriedly. 'Please calm down.'

'I'm quite calm,' said Mostovskoy brightly. 'I've got nothing to worry about.'

'But you do have something to worry about. You should share my sleeplessness. What is the reason for our enmity? I can't understand… Is it that the Fuhrer is a mere lackey of Stinnes and Krupp? That there's no private property in your country? That your banks and factories belong to the people? That you're internationalists and we're preachers of racial hatred? That we set things on fire and you extinguish the flames? That the world hates us – and that its hopes are centred on Stalingrad? Is that what you people say…? Nonsense! There is no divide. It's just been dreamed up. In essence we are the same – both one-party States. Our capitalists are not the masters. The State gives them their plan. The State takes their profit and all they produce. As their salary they keep six per cent of the profit. Your State also outlines a plan and takes what is produced for itself. And the people you call masters – the workers – also receive a salary from your one-party State.'

Mostovskoy watched Liss and thought to himself: 'Did this vile nonsense really confuse me for a moment? Was I really choking in this stream of poisonous, stinking dirt?'

Liss gave a despairing wave of the hand.

'A red workers' flag flies over our People's State too. We too call people to National Achievement, to Unity and Labour. We say, "The Party expresses the dream of the German worker"; you say, "Nationalism! Labour!" You know as well as we do that nationalism is the most powerful force of our century. Nationalism is the soul of our epoch. And "Socialism in One Country" is the supreme expression of nationalism.

'I don't see any reason for our enmity. But the teacher of genius, the leader of the German people, our father, the best friend of all German mothers, the brilliant and wise strategist, began this war. And I believe in Hitler. And I know that Stalin's mind is in no way clouded by pain or anger. Through all the fire and smoke of war he can see the truth. He knows his true enemy. Yes – even now when he discusses joint military strategy with him and drinks to his health. There are two great revolutionaries in the world – Stalin and our leader. It is their will that gave birth to State National Socialism.

'Brotherhood with you is more important to me than territory in the East. We are two houses that should stand side by side… Now, teacher, I want you to live for a while in quiet solitude. I want you to think, think, think before our next conversation.'

'What for? It's all just nonsense. It's absurd and senseless!' said Mostovskoy. 'And why call me "teacher" in that idiotic way?'

'There's nothing idiotic about it,' replied Liss. 'You and I both know that it's not on battlefields that the future is decided. You knew Lenin personally. He created a new type of party. He was the first to understand that only the Party and its Leader can express the spirit of the nation. He did away with the Constituent Assembly. But just as Maxwell destroyed Newton's system of mechanics while thinking he had confirmed it, so Lenin considered himself a builder of internationalism while in actual fact he was creating the great nationalism of the twentieth century… And we learnt many things from Stalin. To build Socialism in One Country, one must destroy the peasants' freedom to sow what they like and sell what they like. Stalin didn't shilly-shally – he liquidated millions of peasants. Our Hitler saw that the Jews were the enemy hindering the German National Socialist movement. And he liquidated millions of Jews. But Hitler's no mere student; he's a genius in his own right. And he's not one to be squeamish either. It was the Roehm purge that gave Stalin the idea for the purge of the Party in 1937… You must believe me. You've kept silent while I've been talking, but I know that I'm like a mirror for you

– a surgical mirror.'

'A mirror?' said Mostovskoy. 'Every word you've said from beginning to end is a lie. It's beneath me to refute your filthy, stinking, provocative blatherings. A mirror? You must be crazy. But Stalingrad will bring you back to your senses.'

Liss stood up. In painful confusion, feeling both hatred and ecstasy, Mostovskoy thought, 'Now he's going to shoot me. That's it.'

But Liss seemed not to have heard Mostovskoy. He bowed from the waist.

'Teacher,' he said, 'you will continue to teach us and continue to learn from us. We shall think together.'

Liss's face was sad and serious, but his eyes were laughing.

Once again the poisoned needle entered Mostovskoy's heart. Liss looked at his watch and said: 'Well, time will tell.'

He rang a bell and said quietly: 'You can have this back if you want it. We shall meet again soon. Gute Nacht!'

Without knowing why, Mostovskoy picked the papers up and thrust them into his pocket.

He was led out of the administration building and back out into the cold night. Cool damp air, the howl of sirens in the gloom before dawn

– how pleasant it all was after the Gestapo office and the quiet voice of the National Socialist theoretician.

A car with violet headlamps passed them as they reached the sick-bay. Mostovskoy realized that Liss was on his way home. Once again he was seized by a deep melancholy. The guard took him to his cubicle and locked the door. He sat down on the boards and thought: 'If I believed in God, I would think that terrible interrogator had been sent to me as a punishment for my sins.'

A new day was already beginning and he was unable to sleep. Leaning back against the rough, splintering planks of pine that had been knocked together into a wall, Mostovskoy began to peruse Ikonnikov's scribblings.

15

Few people ever attempt to define 'good'. What is 'good'? 'Good' for whom? Is there a common good – the same for all people, all tribes, all conditions of life? Or is my good your evil? Is what is good for my people evil for your people? Is good eternal and constant? Or is yesterday's good today's vice, yesterday's evil today's good?

When the Last Judgment approaches, not only philosophers and preachers, but everyone on earth – literate and illiterate – will ponder the nature of good and evil.

Have people advanced over the millennia in their concept of good? Is this concept something that is common to all people – both Greeks and Jews – as the Apostle supposed? To all classes, nations and States? Even to all animals, trees and mosses – as Buddha and his disciples claimed? The same Buddha who had to deny life in order to clothe it in goodness and love.

The Christian view, five centuries after Buddhism, restricted the living world to which the concept of good is applicable. Not every living thing – only human beings. The good of the first Christians, which had embraced all mankind, in turn gave way to a purely Christian good; the good of the Muslims was now distinct.

Centuries passed and the good of Christianity split up into the distinct goods of Catholicism, Protestantism and Orthodoxy. And the good of Orthodoxy gave birth to the distinct goods of the old and new beliefs.

At the same time there was the good of the poor and the good of the rich. And the goods of the whites, the blacks and the yellow races… More and more goods came into being, corresponding to each sect, race and class. Everyone outside a particular magic circle was excluded.

People began to realize how much blood had been spilt in the name of a petty, doubtful good, in the name of the struggle of this petty good against what it believed to be evil. Sometimes the very concept of good became a scourge, a greater evil than evil itself.

Good of this kind is a mere husk from which the sacred kernel has been lost. Who can reclaim the lost kernel?

But what is good? It used to be said that it is a thought and a related action which lead to the greater strength or triumph of humanity – or of a family, nation, State, class, or faith.

People struggling for their particular good always attempt to dress it up as a universal good. They say: my good coincides with the universal good; my good is essential not only to me but to everyone; in achieving my good, I serve the universal good.

And so the good of a sect, class, nation or State assumes a specious universality in order to justify its struggle against an apparent evil.

Even Herod did not shed blood in the name of evil; he shed blood in the name of his particular good. A new force had come into the world, a force that threatened to destroy him and his family, to destroy his friends and his favourites, his kingdom and his armies.

But it was not evil that had been born; it was Christianity. Humanity had never before heard such words: 'Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again… But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you… Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.'

And what did this doctrine of peace and love bring to humanity? Byzantine iconoclasticism; the tortures of the Inquisition; the struggles against heresy in France, Italy, Flanders and Germany; the conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism; the intrigues of the monastic orders; the conflict between Nikon and Avvakum; the crushing yoke that lay for centuries over science and freedom; the Christians who wiped out the heathen population of Tasmania; the scoundrels who burnt whole Negro villages in Africa. This doctrine caused more suffering than all the crimes of the people who did evil for its own sake…

In great hearts the cruelty of life gives birth to good; they then seek to carry this good back into life, hoping to make life itself accord with their inner image of good. But life never changes to accord with an image of good; instead it is the image of good that sinks into the mire of life – to lose its universality, to split into fragments and be exploited by the needs of the day. People are wrong to see life as a struggle between good and evil. Those who most wish for the good of humanity are unable to diminish evil by one jot.

Great ideas are necessary in order to dig new channels, to remove stones, to bring down cliffs and fell forests; dreams of universal good are necessary in order that great waters should flow in harmony… Yes, if the sea was able to think, then every storm would make its waters dream of happiness. Each wave breaking against the cliff would believe it was dying for the good of the sea; it would never occur to it that, like thousands of waves before and after, it had only been brought into being by the wind.

Many books have been written about the nature of good and evil and the struggle between them… There is a deep and undeniable sadness in all this: whenever we see the dawn of an eternal good that will never be overcome by evil – an evil that is itself eternal but will never succeed in overcoming good – whenever we see this dawn, the blood of old people and children is always shed. Not only men, but even God himself is powerless to lessen this evil.

'In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.'

What does a woman who has lost her children care about a philosopher's definitions of good and evil?

But what if life itself is evil?

I have seen the unshakeable strength of the idea of social good that was born in my own country. I saw this struggle during the period of general collectivization and again in 1937. I saw people being annihilated in the name of an idea of good as fine and humane as the ideal of Christianity. I saw whole villages dying of hunger; I saw peasant children dying in the snows of Siberia; I saw trains bound for Siberia with hundreds and thousands of men and women from Moscow, Leningrad and every city in Russia – men and women who had been declared enemies of a great and bright idea of social good. This idea was something fine and noble – yet it killed some without mercy, crippled the lives of others, and separated wives from husbands and children from fathers.

Now the horror of German Fascism has arisen. The air is full of the groans and cries of the condemned. The sky has turned black; the sun has been extinguished by the smoke of the gas ovens. And even these crimes, crimes never before seen in the Universe – even by Man on Earth – have been committed in the name of good.

Once, when I lived in the Northern forests, I thought that good was to be found neither in man, nor in the predatory world of animals and insects, but in the silent kingdom of the trees. Far from it! I saw the forest's slow movement, the treacherous way it battled against grass and bushes for each inch of soil… First, billions of seeds fly through the air and begin to sprout, destroying the grass and bushes. Then millions of victorious shoots wage war against one another. And it is only the survivors who enter into an alliance of equals to form the seamless canopy of the young deciduous forest. Beneath this canopy the spruces and beeches freeze to death in the twilight of penal servitude.

In time the deciduous trees become decrepit; then the heavyweight spruces burst through to the light beneath their canopy, executing the alders and the beeches. This is the life of the forest – a constant struggle of everything against everything. Only the blind conceive of the kingdom of trees and grass as the world of good… Is it that life itself is evil?

Good is to be found neither in the sermons of religious teachers and prophets, nor in the teachings of sociologists and popular leaders, nor in the ethical systems of philosophers… And yet ordinary people bear love in their hearts, are naturally full of love and pity for any living thing. At the end of the day's work they prefer the warmth of the hearth to a bonfire in the public square.

Yes, as well as this terrible Good with a capital 'G', there is everyday human kindness. The kindness of an old woman carrying a piece of bread to a prisoner, the kindness of a soldier allowing a wounded enemy to drink from his water-flask, the kindness of youth towards age, the kindness of a peasant hiding an old Jew in his loft. The kindness of a prison guard who risks his own liberty to pass on letters written by a prisoner not to his ideological comrades, but to his wife and mother.

The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good.

But if we think about it, we realize that this private, senseless, incidental kindness is in fact eternal. It is extended to everything living, even to a mouse, even to a bent branch that a man straightens as he walks by.

Even at the most terrible times, through all the mad acts carried out in the name of Universal Good and the glory of States, times when people were tossed about like branches in the wind, filling ditches and gullies like stones in an avalanche – even then this senseless, pathetic kindness remained scattered throughout life like atoms of radium.

Some Germans arrived in a village to exact vengeance for the murder of two soldiers. The women were ordered out of their huts in the evening and set to dig a pit on the edge of the forest. There was one middle-aged woman who had several soldiers quartered in her hut. Her husband had been taken to the police station together with twenty other peasants. She didn't get to sleep until morning: the Germans found a basket of onions and a jar of honey in the cellar; they lit the stove, made themselves omelettes and drank vodka. The eldest then played the harmonica while the rest of them sang and beat time with their feet. They didn't even look at their landlady – she might just as well have been a cat. When it grew light, they began checking their machine-guns; the eldest of them jerked the trigger by mistake and shot himself in the stomach. Everyone began shouting and running about. Somehow the Germans managed to bandage the wounded man and lay him down on a bed. Then they were called outside. They signed to the woman to look after the wounded man. The woman thought to herself how simple it would be to strangle him. There he was, muttering away, his eyes closed, weeping, sucking his lips… Suddenly he opened his eyes and said in very clear Russian: 'Water, Mother.' 'Damn you,' said the woman. 'What I should do is strangle you.' Instead she gave him some water. He grabbed her by the hand and signed to her to help him sit up: he couldn't breathe because of the bleeding. She pulled him up and he clasped his arms round her neck. Suddenly there was a volley of shots outside and the woman began to tremble.

Afterwards she told people what she had done. No one could understand; nor could she explain it herself.

This senseless kindness is condemned in the fable about the pilgrim who warmed a snake in his bosom. It is the kindness that has mercy on a tarantula that has bitten a child. A mad, blind, kindness. People enjoy looking in stories and fables for examples of the danger of this senseless kindness. But one shouldn't be afraid of it. One might just as well be afraid of a freshwater fish carried out by chance into the salty ocean.

The harm from time to time occasioned a society, class, race or State by this senseless kindness fades away in the light that emanates from those who are endowed with it.

This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil!

This kindness is both senseless and wordless. It is instinctive, blind. When Christianity clothed it in the teachings of the Church Fathers, it began to fade; its kernel became a husk. It remains potent only while it is dumb and senseless, hidden in the living darkness of the human heart – before it becomes a tool or commodity in the hands of preachers, before its crude ore is forged into the gilt coins of holiness. It is as simple as life itself. Even the teachings of Jesus deprived it of its strength.

But, as I lost faith in good, I began to lose faith even in kindness. It seemed as beautiful and powerless as dew. What use was it if it was not contagious?

How can one make a power of it without losing it, without turning it into a husk as the Church did? Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.

Today I can see the true power of evil. The heavens are empty. Man is alone on Earth. How can the flame of evil be put out? With small drops of living dew, with human kindness? No, not even the waters of all the clouds and seas can extinguish that flame – let alone a handful of dew gathered drop by drop from the time of the Gospels to the iron present…

Yes, after despairing of finding good either in God or in Nature, I began to despair even of kindness.

But the more I saw of the darkness of Fascism, the more clearly I realized that human qualities persist even on the edge of the grave, even at the door of the gas chamber.

My faith has been tempered in Hell. My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious teachers, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man's meaning.

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.

After he had finished reading, Mostovskoy sat there for a few minutes with his eyes half closed.

Yes, the man who had written this was unhinged. The ruin of a feeble spirit!

The preacher declares that the heavens are empty… He sees life as a war of everything against everything. And then at the end he starts tinkling the same old bells, praising the kindness of old women and hoping to extinguish a world-wide conflagration with an enema syringe. What trash!

Mostovskoy looked at the grey wall of the cell and remembered the blue armchair and his conversation with Liss. He was overwhelmed by a feeling of heaviness: it wasn't his head that ached but his heart, and he could hardly breathe. He had evidently been wrong to suspect Ikonnikov. The scribblings of this holy fool aroused the same contempt in his night-time interrogator as they did in himself. He thought once again about his own attitude towards Chernetsov, and about the hatred and contempt with which the Gestapo officer had talked about people like him. The confusion and depression that gripped him seemed heavier than any physical suffering.

16

Seryozha Shaposhnikov pointed to a book that was lying on top of a brick, beside a haversack.

'Have you read that?' he asked Katya Vengrova.

'I was looking through it again.'

'Do you like it?'

'I prefer Dickens.'

'Dickens!' said Seryozha in a tone of mockery and condescension.

'What about La Chartreuse de Parme} Do you like that?' asked Katya.

'Not much,' replied Seryozha after a moment's thought. Then he added: 'I'm going with the infantry today to clean out the Germans from the shack next door'.

Katya looked at him. Understanding the meaning of this look, Seryozha went on: 'Yes, I've been ordered to by Grekov.'

'What about Chentsov and the rest of the mortar team. Are they going?'

'No. Just me.'

They fell silent for a moment.

'Is he after you, then?' asked Seryozha.

She nodded her head.

'How do you feel about it?'

'You know very well,' she said, thinking of the tribe of Asra who die in silence when they love.

'I'm afraid they'll get me today,' said Seryozha.

'Why are you being sent with the infantry anyway? You're a mortar man.'

'Why's Grekov keeping you here, for that matter? Your wireless set's been smashed to pieces. You should have been sent back to the regiment ages ago. You should have been sent to the left bank. You're just hanging around doing nothing.'

'At least we see each other every day.'

Seryozha gave a wave of the hand and walked away.

Katya looked round and saw Bunchuk looking down from above and laughing. Seryozha must have seen him too. That was why he'd left so abruptly.

The Germans kept the building under artillery fire until evening. Three men were slightly wounded and a partition wall collapsed, blocking the exit from the cellar. They dug out the exit – only for it to be choked with rubble again after another shell smashed into the wall.

They dug their way through a second time. Antsiferov peered into the dust-filled darkness and asked: 'Hey! Comrade radio-operator! Are you still with us?'

'Yes,' answered Katya, sneezing and spitting out red dust.

'Bless you!' said Antsiferov.

When it got dark, the Germans sent up flares and opened up with their machine-guns. A plane flew over several times, dropping incendiary bombs. No one in the building slept. Grekov himself manned a machine-gun; the infantry sallied out twice to repel advancing Germans, swearing for all they were worth and shielding their faces with spades.

It was as though the Germans had foreseen the impending attack on the nearby building they had just occupied.

When the firing died down, Katya could hear the Germans calling out to one another. She could even hear their laughter. Their pronunciation was very different from that of her German teachers.

She noticed that the cat had crawled off its pile of rags. Its back legs were quite motionless; it was dragging itself along on its fore-paws, trying desperately to reach Katya. Then it came to a stop; its jaw opened and closed several times… Katya tried to raise one of its eyelids. 'So it's dead,' she thought in disgust. Then she realized that the cat must have thought of her when he realized he was about to die; that he had crawled towards her when he was half-paralysed… She put the body in a hole and covered it over with bits of brick.

The cellar was suddenly lit up by a flare. It was as though there were no longer any air, as though she were breathing some blood-coloured liquid that flowed out of the ceiling, oozing out of each little brick.

Maybe the Germans would appear any moment out of the far corners of the cellar. They would come up to her, seize her and drag her away. Or maybe they were cleaning up the first floor right now – the rattle of their tommy-guns sounded closer than ever. Maybe they were about to appear through the hole in the ceiling.

To calm herself down, she tried to picture the list of tenants on the door of her house: 'Tikhimirov -1 ring; Dzyga – 2 rings; Cheremushkin – 3 rings; Feinberg – 4 rings; Vengrova – 5 rings; Andryushenko -6 rings; Pegov – 1 long ring.' She tried to imagine the Feinbergs' big saucepan standing on the kerosene stove with its plywood cover, Anastasya's washing tub with its cover made of sacking, the Tikhimirovs' chipped enamel basin hanging from its piece of string… Now she would make her bed; where the springs were particularly sharp, she would spread out an old torn coat, a scrap of quilt and her mother's brown shawl.

Then her thoughts turned to house 6/1. Now the Germans were so close, now they were actually tunnelling their way through the ground, she no longer felt upset by the soldiers' foul language. She didn't even feel frightened by the way Grekov looked at her; previously not only her cheeks had blushed, but even her neck and shoulders. Yes, she certainly had heard some obscenities during her months in the army. There had been one particularly unpleasant conversation with a bald lieutenant-colonel who had flashed his metal fillings at her as he had explained what she must do if she wanted to stay on the left bank, at the signals centre… She remembered a mournful little song the girls used to sing under their breath:

Under a fine autumn moon The commander took her to bed. He kissed her till it was dawn And now she belongs to the men.

The first time she had seen Seryozha he had been reading poetry; she had thought to herself, 'What an idiot!' Then he had disappeared for two days. She had kept wondering if he had been killed, but had been too embarrassed to ask. Then he had suddenly reappeared during the night; she'd heard him tell Grekov how he'd left Headquarters without permission.

'Quite right,' said Grekov. 'Otherwise you wouldn't have rejoined us until the next world.'

After that he had walked straight past her without even a glance. She had felt first upset and then angry; once again she had thought, 'What an idiot!'

Soon afterwards she'd heard a discussion about who was likely to be the first man to sleep with her. Someone had said: 'Grekov – that's a certainty!'

'No, that's not for sure,' someone else had said. 'But I can tell you who's at the bottom of the list – young Seryozha. The younger a girl is, the more she needs someone with experience.'

Then she noticed that the other men had stopped joking and flirting with her. Grekov made it very clear that he didn't like anyone else making a play for her. And once Zubarev called out: 'Hey! Mrs house-manager!'

Grekov was in no hurry, but he was very sure of himself. She could feel this all too clearly. After her wireless set had been smashed, he had ordered her to make her home in one of the far corners of the cellar. And yesterday he'd said: 'I've never met a girl like you before. If I'd met you before the war, I'd have made you my wife.'

She'd wanted to reply that he'd have had to ask her view on the matter first. But she'd been too frightened to say anything at all.

He hadn't done anything wrong. He hadn't even said anything coarse or brazen. But she was frightened.

Later on in the day he'd said sadly: 'The Germans are about to launch their offensive. Probably not one of us will be left alive. This building lies right in their path.'

He had then given her a long, thoughtful look – a look that Katya found more frightening than what he'd said about the German offensive – and added: 'I'll come round some time.'

The link between this remark and what he'd said before was by no means obvious, but Katya understood it.

He was very different from any of the officers she'd seen round Kotluban. He never threatened people or shouted at them, but they obeyed him. He just sat there, smoking and chatting away like one of the soldiers. And yet his authority was immense.

She'd never really talked to Seryozha. Sometimes she thought he was in love with her – but as powerless as she herself before the man they admired and were terrified by. She knew he was weak and inexperienced, but she kept wanting to ask for his protection, to say: 'Come and sit by me.' And then there were times when she wanted to comfort him herself. Talking to him was very strange – it often seemed as though there were no war, no house 6/1 at all. Seryozha appeared to understand this and tried to adopt a coarse, soldierly manner. Once he even swore in her presence.

Now she felt that there was some terrible link between her own confused thoughts and feelings and the fact that Seryozha had been ordered to join the storming-party. Listening to the tommy-gun fire, she imagined Seryozha lying across a mound of red brick, his lifeless head and unkempt hair drooping. She felt a heart-rending sense of pity for him. Everything merged together: the many-coloured flares, her memories of her mother, her simultaneous fear and admiration of Grekov – this man who, from a few isolated ruins, was about to launch an assault on the iron-clad German divisions.

She felt ready to sacrifice everything in the world – if only she could see Seryozha again alive.

'But what if I have to choose between him and Mama?' she thought suddenly.

Then she heard footsteps; her fingers tensed against the bricks.

The shooting died down; there was a sudden silence. Her back, her shoulders, her legs all began to itch. She wanted to scratch them but was afraid of making a noise.

People had kept asking Batrakov why he was always scratching himself. He'd always answered: 'It's just nerves.' And then yesterday he'd said: 'I've just found eleven lice!' Kolomeitsev had made fun of him: 'Batrakov's been attacked by nerve-lice!'

She had been killed. Soldiers were dragging her corpse to a pit and saying: 'Poor girl! She's covered in lice!'

But perhaps it really was just her nerves? Then she saw a man coming towards her out of the darkness – and not just someone she had conjured up out of the strange noises and the flickering light.

'Who is it?' she asked.

'Don't be afraid,' said the darkness. 'It's me.'

17

'The attack's been put off till tomorrow. Today it's the Germans' turn. By the way, I wanted to tell you, I've never read La Chartreuse de Parme.''

Katya didn't answer.

Seryozha tried to make her out in the darkness; as though in answer to his wish, her face was suddenly lit up by a shell-burst. A second later it was dark again; as though by unspoken agreement they waited for another shell-burst, another flash of light. Seryozha took her by the hand and squeezed her fingers; it was the first time he had held a girl's hand.

The dirty, lice-ridden girl sat there without saying a word. Seryozha could see her white neck in the darkness.

Another flare went up and their heads drew together. He put his arms round her and she closed her eyes. They'd both of them heard the same saying at school: if you kiss with your eyes open, you're not in love.

'This is the real thing, isn't it?' asked Seryozha.

She pressed her hands against his temples and turned his head towards her.

'This is for all our lives,' he said slowly.

'How strange,' she said. 'I'm afraid somebody may come by. Until now I was only too delighted to see any of them: Lyakhov, Kolomeitsev, Zubarev…'

'Grekov,' added Seryozha.

'No,' she said firmly.

He kissed her on the neck and undid the metal button on her tunic. He pressed his lips to her thin collar-bone, but didn't touch her breasts. She stroked his wiry unwashed hair as though he were a little boy; she knew that all this was right and inevitable.

He looked at the luminous dial of his watch.

'Who's leading you tomorrow?' she asked. 'Grekov?'

'Why ask now? Who needs a leader anyway?'

He embraced her again. He felt a sudden cold in his fingers and chest, a sudden resolute excitement. She was half lying on her coat; she seemed to be hardly breathing. He felt the coarse, dusty material of her tunic and skirt, then the rough fur of her boots. He sensed the warmth of her body. She tried to sit up, but he began kissing her again. Another flash of light lit up Katya's cap – now lying on some bricks – and her face – suddenly unfamiliar, as though he'd never seen it before. Then it became dark again, very dark…

'Katya!'

'What is it?'

'Nothing. I just wanted to hear your voice. Why don't you look at me?'

He lit a match.

'Don't! Don't! Put it out!'

Once again she wondered who she loved most – him or her mother.

'Forgive me,' she said.

Failing to understand her, Seryozha said: 'It's all right. Don't be afraid. This is for life – if we live.'

'No, I was just thinking of my mother.'

'My mother's dead. I've only just realized – she was deported because of my father.'

They went to sleep in each other's arms. During the night the house-manager came and looked at them. Shaposhnikov had his head on the girl's shoulder and his arm round her back; it looked as though he were afraid of losing her. Their sleep was so quiet and so still they might have been dead.

At dawn Lyakhov looked in and shouted:

'Hey, Shaposhnikov! Vengrova! The house-manager wants you. At the double!'

In the cold, misty half-light Grekov's face looked severe and implacable. He was leaning against the wall, his tousled hair hanging over his low forehead. They stood in front of him, shifting from foot to foot, unaware they were still holding hands. Grekov flared his broad nostrils and said: 'Very well, Shaposhnikov, I'm sending you back to Regimental Headquarters.'

Seryozha could feel Katya's fingers trembling; he squeezed them.

She in turn felt his fingers trembling. He swallowed; his tongue and palate were quite dry.

The earth and the clouded sky were enveloped in silence. The soldiers lying in a huddle on their greatcoats seemed wide awake, hardly breathing, waiting. Everything was so familiar, so splendid. Seryozha thought to himself: 'We're being expelled from Paradise. He's separating us like two serfs.' He gave Grekov a look of mingled hatred and entreaty.

Grekov narrowed his eyes as he looked Katya full in the face. Seryozha felt there was something quite horrible about this look, something insolent and merciless.

'That's all,' said Grekov. 'And the radio-operator can go with you. There's no need for her to hang around here with nothing to do. You can show her the way to HQ.'

He smiled.

'And after that you'll have to find your own ways. Here, take this. I can't stand paperwork so I've just written one for the two of you. All right?'

Seryozha suddenly realized that never in all his life had he seen eyes that were so sad and so intelligent, so splendid, yet so human.

18

In the end, Regimental Commissar Pivovarov never visited house 6/1.

Radio contact had been broken off. No one knew if this was because the wireless set was out of action or because the high-handed Grekov was fed up with being ordered about by his superiors.

Chentsov, a Party member, had provided them with some information about the encircled house. He said that 'the house-manager' was corrupting the minds of his soldiers with the most appalling heresies. He didn't, however, deny either Grekov's courage or his fighting abilities.

Just when Pivovarov was about to make his way to house 6/1, Byerozkin, the commanding officer of the regiment, fell seriously ill. He was lying in his bunker; his face was burning and his eyes looked transparent and vacuous. The doctor who examined him was at a loss. He was used to dealing with shattered limbs and fractured skulls. And now here was someone who'd fallen ill all by himself.

'We need cupping-glasses,' he said. 'But where on earth can I find any?'

Pivovarov was about to inform Byerozkin's superiors when the telephone rang and the divisional commissar summoned him to headquarters.

Pivovarov twice dropped flat on his face because of nearby shell-bursts; he arrived somewhat out of breath. The divisional commissar was in conversation with a battalion commissar who had recently been sent across from the left bank. Pivovarov had heard of him before; he had given lectures to the units in the factories.

Pivovarov announced himself loudly: 'Pivovarov reporting!' Then he told him of Byerozkin's illness.

'Yes, that's a bit of a bastard,' said the divisional commissar. 'Well, you'll have to take command yourself, comrade Pivovarov.'

'What about the encircled house?'

'That matter's no longer in your hands. You wouldn't believe what a storm there's been over it. It's even reached Front Headquarters.'

He paused and held up a coded message.

'In fact, that's the very reason I called you. Comrade Krymov here has instructions from the Political Administration of the Front to get through to the encircled house, take over as commissar and establish Bolshevik order. If any problems arise, he is to take over from Grekov… Since this is in the sector covered by your regiment, you are to provide comrade Krymov with whatever help he needs to get through and remain in communication. Is that clear?'

'Certainly,' said Pivovarov. 'I'll see to it.'

Then in a conversational tone of voice, he asked Krymov: 'Comrade Battalion Commissar, have you dealt with anything like this before?'

'I have indeed,' smiled Krymov. 'In the summer of '41 I led two hundred men out of encirclement in the Ukraine. Believe me – I know a thing or two about all this partisan nonsense.'

'Very well, comrade Krymov,' said the divisional commissar. 'Get on with it and keep in touch. A State within a State is something we can do without.'

'Yes,' said Pivovarov, 'and there was also an unpleasant story about some girl who was sent as a radio-operator. Byerozkin was very worried when the transmitter went dead. Those lads are capable of anything – believe me!'

'Very well. You can sort that one out when you get there. I wish you luck,' said the divisional commissar.

19

On a cold clear evening, the day after Grekov's dismissal of Shaposh-nikov and Vengrova, Krymov, accompanied by a soldier with a tommy-gun, left Regimental HQ on his way to the notorious encircled house.

As soon as he set foot in the asphalt yard of the Tractor Factory, Krymov felt an extraordinarily acute sense of danger. At the same time he was conscious of an unaccustomed excitement and joy. The sudden message from Front Headquarters had confirmed his feeling that in Stalingrad everything was different, that the values and demands placed on people had changed. Krymov was no longer a cripple in a battalion of invalids; he was once again a Bolshevik, a fighting commissar. He wasn't in the least frightened by his difficult and dangerous task. It had been sweet indeed to read in the eyes of Pivovarov and the divisional commissar the same trust in his abilities that had once been displayed by all his comrades in the Party.

A dead soldier was lying on the ground between the remains of a mortar and some slabs of asphalt thrown up by a shell-burst. Now that Krymov was so full of hope and exaltation, he found this sight strangely upsetting. He had seen plenty of corpses in his time and had usually felt quite indifferent. This soldier, so full of his death, was lying there like a bird, quite defenceless, his legs tucked under him as though he were cold.

A political instructor in a grey mackintosh ran past, holding up a well-filled knapsack. Then a group of soldiers came past carrying some anti-tank shells on a tarpaulin, together with a few loaves of bread.

The corpse no longer needed bread or weapons; nor was he hoping for a letter from his faithful wife. His death had not made him strong – he was the weakest thing in the world, a dead sparrow that not even the moths and midges were afraid of.

Some soldiers were mounting their gun in a breach in the wall, arguing with the crew of a heavy machine-gun and cursing. From their gestures Krymov could more or less guess what they were saying.

'Do you realize how long our machine-gun's stood here? We were hard at it when you lot were still hanging about on the left bank!'

'Well, you are a bunch of cheeky buggers!'

There was a loud whine, and a shell burst in a corner of the workshop. Shrapnel rattled across the walls. Krymov's guide looked round to see if he was still there. He waited a moment and said:

'Don't worry, comrade Commissar, this isn't yet the front line. We're still way back in the rear.'

It wasn't long before Krymov realized the truth of this; the space by the wall was indeed relatively quiet.

They had to run forward, drop flat on the ground, run forward and drop to the ground again. They twice jumped into trenches occupied by the infantry. They ran through burnt-out buildings, where instead of people there was only the whine of metal… The soldier said comfortingly: 'At least there are no dive-bombers,' then added: 'Right, comrade Commissar, now we must make for that crater.'

Krymov slid down to the bottom of a bomb-crater and looked up: the blue sky was still over his head and his head was still on his shoulders. It was very strange; the only sign of other human beings was the singing and screaming death that came flying over his head from both sides. It was equally strange to feel so protected in this crater that had been dug out by the spade of death.

Before Krymov had got his breath back, the soldier said, 'Follow me!' and crawled down a dark passage leading from the bottom of the crater. Krymov squeezed in after him. Soon the passage widened, the ceiling became higher and they were in a tunnel.

They could still hear the storm raging on the earth's surface; the ceiling shook and there were repeated peals of thunder. In one place, full of lead piping and cables as thick as a man's arm, someone had written on the wall in red: 'Makhov's a donkey.' The soldier turned on his torch for a moment and whispered: 'Now the Germans are right above us.'

Soon they turned off into another narrow passage and began making their way towards a barely perceptible grey light. The light slowly grew brighter and clearer; at the same time the roar of explosions and the chatter of machine-guns became still more furious.

For a moment Krymov thought he was about to mount the scaffold. Then they reached the surface and the first thing he saw was human faces. They seemed divinely calm.

Krymov felt a sense of joy and relief. Even the raging war now seemed no more than a brief storm passing over the head of a young traveller who was full of vitality. He felt certain that he had reached an important turning-point, that his life would continue to change for the better. It was as though this still, clear daylight were a sign of his own future – once again he was to live fully, whole-heartedly, with all his will and intelligence, all his Bolshevik fervour.

This new sense of youth and confidence mingled with his regret for Yevgenia. Now, though, he no longer felt he had lost her for ever. She would return to him – just as his strength and his former life had returned to him. He was on her trail.

A fire was burning in the middle of the floor. An old man, his cap pushed forward, was standing over it, frying potato-cakes on some tin-plating. He turned them over with the point of a bayonet and stacked them in a tin hat when they were done. Spotting the soldier who had accompanied Krymov, he asked: 'Is Seryozha with you?'

'There's an officer present,' said the soldier sternly.

'How old are you, Dad?' Krymov asked.

'Sixty,' said the old man. 'I was transferred from the workers' militia.'

He turned to the soldier again. 'Is Seryozha with you?'

'No, he's not in our regiment. He must have ended up with our neighbours.'

'That's bad,' said the old man. 'God knows what will become of him there.'

Krymov greeted various people and looked round the different parts of the cellar with their half-dismantled wooden partitions. In one place there was a field-gun pointing out through a loophole cut in the wall.

'It's like a man-of-war,' said Krymov.

'Yes, except there's not much water,' said the gunner.

Further on, in niches and gaps in the wall, were the mortars. Their long-tailed bombs lay on the floor beside them. There was also an accordion lying on a tarpaulin.

'So house 6/1 is still holding out!' said Krymov, his voice ringing. 'It hasn't yielded to the Fascists. All over the world, millions of people are watching you and rejoicing.'

No one answered.

Old Polyakov walked up to him and held out the tin hat full of potato-cakes.

'Has anyone written about Polyakov's potato-cakes yet?' asked one soldier.

'Very funny,' said Polyakov. 'But our Seryozha's been thrown out.'

'Have they opened the Second Front yet?' asked another soldier. 'Have you heard anything?'

'No,' said Krymov. 'Not yet.'

'Once the heavy artillery on the left bank opened up on us,' said a soldier with his jacket unbuttoned. 'Kolomeitsev was knocked off his feet. When he got up he said: "Well, lads, there's the Second Front for you!'"

'Don't talk such rubbish,' said a young man with dark hair. 'We wouldn't be here at all if it wasn't for the artillery. The Germans would have eaten us up long ago.'

'Where's your commander?' asked Krymov.

'There he is – over there, right in the front line.'

Grekov was lying on top of a huge heap of bricks, looking at something through a pair of binoculars. When Krymov called out his name he turned his head very slowly, put his fingers to his lips and returned to his binoculars. After a few moments his shoulders started shaking; he was laughing. He crawled back down, smiled and said: 'It's worse than chess.'

Then he noticed the green bars and commissar's star on Krymov's tunic.

'Welcome to our hut, comrade Commissar! I'm Grekov, the house-manager. Did you come by the passage we just dug?'

Everything about him – the look in his eyes, his quick movements, his wide, flattened nostrils – was somehow insolent and provocative.

'Never mind,' thought Krymov. 'I'll show you.'

He started to question him. Grekov answered slowly and absent-mindedly, yawning and looking around as though these questions were distracting him from something of genuine importance.

'Would you like to be relieved?' asked Krymov.

'Don't bother,' said Grekov. 'But we could do with some cigarettes. And of course we need mortar-bombs, hand-grenades and- if you can spare it – some vodka and something to eat. You could drop it from a kukuruznik.' [43] As he spoke, Grekov counted the items off on his fingers.

'So you're not intending to quit?' said Krymov. In spite of his mounting anger at Grekov's insolence, he couldn't help but admire the man's ugly face.

For a brief moment both men were silent. Krymov managed, with difficulty, to overcome a sudden feeling that morally he was inferior to the men in the encircled building. 'Are you logging your operations?'

'I've got no paper,' answered Grekov. 'There's nothing to write on, no time, and there wouldn't be any point anyway.'

'At present you're under the command of the CO of the 176th Infantry Regiment,' said Krymov.

'Correct, comrade Battalion Commissar,' replied Grekov mockingly. 'But when the Germans cut off this entire sector, when I gathered men and weapons together in this building, when I repelled thirty enemy attacks and set eight tanks on fire, then I wasn't under anyone's command.'

'Do you know the precise number of soldiers under your command as of this morning? Do you keep a check?'

'A lot of use that would be. I don't write reports and I don't receive rations from any quartermaster. We've been living on rotten potatoes and foul water.'

'Are there any women in the building?'

'Tell me, comrade Commissar, is this an interrogation?'

'Have any men under your command been taken prisoner?'

'No.'

'Well, where is that radio-operator of yours?'

Grekov bit his lip, and his eyebrows came together in a frown.

'The girl turned out to be a German spy. She tried to recruit me. First I raped her, then I had her shot.'

He drew himself up to his full height and asked sarcastically: 'Is that the kind of answer you want from me? It's beginning to seem as though I'll end up in a penal battalion. Is that right, Sir?'

Krymov looked at him for a moment in silence.

'Grekov, you're going too far. You've lost all sense of proportion. I've been in command of a surrounded unit myself. I was interrogated afterwards too.'

After another pause, he said very deliberately:

'My orders were that, if necessary, I should demote you and take command myself. Why force me along that path?'

Grekov thought for a moment, cocked his head and said:

'It's gone quiet. The Germans are calming down.'

20

'Good,' said Krymov. 'There are still a few questions to be settled. We can talk in private.'

'Why?' asked Grekov. 'My men and I fight together. We can settle whatever needs settling together.'

Although Grekov's audacity made Krymov furious, he had to admire it. He didn't want Grekov to think of him as just a bureaucrat. He wanted to tell him about his life before the war, about how his unit had been encircled in the Ukraine. But that would be an admission of weakness. And he was here to show his strength. He wasn't an official in the Political Section, but the commissar of a fighting unit.

'And don't worry,' he said to himself, 'the commissar knows what he's doing.'

Now that things were quiet, the men were stretching out on the floor or sitting down on heaps of bricks.

'Well, I don't think the Germans will cause any more trouble today,' said Grekov. He turned to Krymov. 'Why don't we have something to eat, comrade Commissar?'

Krymov sat down next to him.

'As I look at you all,' he said, 'I keep thinking of the old saying: "Russians always beat Prussians".'

'Precisely,' agreed a quiet, lazy voice.

This 'precisely', with its condescending irony towards such hackneyed formulae, caused a ripple of mirth. These men knew at least as much as Krymov about the strength of the Russians; they themselves were the expression of that strength. But they also knew that if the Prussians had now reached the Volga, it certainly wasn't because the Russians always beat them.

Krymov was feeling confused. He felt uncomfortable when political instructors praised Russian generals of past centuries. The way these generals were constantly mentioned in articles in Red Star grated on his revolutionary spirit. He couldn't see the point of introducing the Suvorov medal, the Kutuzov medal and the Bogdan Khmelnitsky medal. The Revolution was the Revolution; the only banner its army needed was the Red Flag. So why had he himself given way to this kind of thinking – just when he was once again breathing the air of Lenin's Revolution?

That mocking 'precisely' had been very wounding.

'Well, comrades, you don't need anyone to teach you about fighting. You can give lessons in that to anyone in the world. But why do you think our superior officers have considered it necessary to send me to you? What have I come here for?'

'Was it for a bowl of soup?' asked a voice, quietly and without malice.

This timid suggestion was greeted by a peal of laughter. Krymov looked at Grekov; he was laughing as much as anyone.

'Comrades!' said Krymov, red with anger. 'Let's be serious for a moment. I've been sent to you, comrades, by the Party.'

What was all this? Was it just a passing mood? A mutiny? Perhaps the reluctance of these men to listen to their commissar came from their sense of their own strength, of their own experience? Perhaps there was nothing subversive in all this merriment? Perhaps it sprang from the general sense of equality that was such a feature of Stalingrad.

Previously, Krymov had been delighted by this sense of equality. Why did it now make him so angry? Why did he want to suppress it?

If he had failed to make contact with these men, it was certainly not because they felt crushed, because they were in any way bewildered or frightened. These were men who knew their own strength. How was it that this very consciousness had weakened their bond with Krymov, giving rise only to mutual alienation and hostility?

'There's one thing I've been wanting to ask someone from the Party for ages,' said the old man who had been frying the potato-cakes. 'I've heard people say that under Communism everyone will receive according to his needs. But won't everyone just end up getting drunk? Especially if they receive according to their needs from the moment they get up.'

Turning to the old man, Krymov saw a look of genuine concern on his face. Grekov, though, was laughing. His eyes were laughing. His flared nostrils were laughing.

A sapper, a dirty, bloodstained bandage round his head, asked:

'And what about the kolkhozes, comrade Commissar? Couldn't we have them liquidated after the war?'

'Yes,' said Grekov. 'How about a lecture on that?'

'I'm not here to give lectures,' said Krymov. 'I'm a fighting commissar. I've come here to sort out certain unacceptable partisan attitudes that have taken root in this building.'

'Very good,' said Grekov. 'But who's going to sort out the Germans?'

'Don't you worry about that. We'll find someone. And I haven't come here, as I heard someone suggest, for a bowl of soup. I'm here to give you a taste of Bolshevism.'

'Good,' said Grekov. 'Let's have a taste of it.'

Half-joking, but also half-serious, Krymov continued:

'And if necessary, comrade Grekov, we'll eat you too.'

He now felt calm and sure of himself. Any doubts he had felt about the correct course of action had passed. Grekov had to be relieved of his command.

It was clear that he was an alien and hostile element. None of the heroism displayed in this building could alter that. Krymov knew he could deal with him.

When it was dark, Krymov went up to him again.

'Grekov, I want to talk seriously. What do you want?'

'Freedom. That's what I'm fighting for.'

'We all want freedom.'

'Tell us another! You just want to sort out the Germans.'

'That's enough, comrade Grekov!' barked Krymov. 'You'd do better to explain why you allow your soldiers to give expression to such naïve and erroneous political judgements. With your authority you could put a stop to that as quickly as any commissar. But I get the impression your men say their bit and then look at you for approval. Take the man who asked about kolkhozes. What made you support him? Let me be quite frank… If you're willing, we can sort this out together. But if you're not willing, it could end badly for you.'

'Why make such a fuss about the kolkhozes} It's true. People don't like them. You know that as well as I do.'

'So you think you can change the course of history, do you?'

'And you think you can put everything back just as it was before?'

'What do you mean – everything?'

'Just that. Everything. The general coercion.'

Grekov spoke very slowly, almost reluctantly, and with heavy irony. He suddenly sat up straight and said: 'Enough of all this, comrade Commissar! I was only teasing you. I'm as loyal a Soviet citizen as you are. I resent your mistrust.'

'All right, Grekov. But let's talk seriously then. We must stamp out the evil, anti-Soviet spirit that's taken hold here. You gave birth to it -you must help me destroy it. You'll still get your chance for glory.'

'I feel like going to bed. You need some rest too. Wait till you see what things are like in the morning.'

'Fine. We'll continue tomorrow. I'm in no hurry. I'm not going anywhere.'

'We'll find some way of coming to an agreement,' said Grekov with a laugh.

'No,' thought Krymov, 'this is no time for homeopathy. I must work with a surgeon's knife. You need more than words to straighten out a political cripple.'

'There's something good in your eyes,' said Grekov unexpectedly. 'But you've suffered a lot.'

Krymov raised his hands in surprise but didn't reply. Taking this as a sign of agreement, Grekov went on: 'I've suffered too. But that's nothing. Just something personal. Not something for your report.'

That night, while he was asleep, Krymov was hit in the head by a stray bullet. The bullet tore the skin and grazed his skull. The wound wasn't dangerous, but he felt very dizzy and was unable to stand upright. He kept wanting to be sick.

At Grekov's orders, a stretcher was improvised and Krymov was carried out of the building just before dawn. His head was throbbing and spinning and there was a constant hammering at his temples. Grekov went with him as far as the mouth of the underground passage.

'You've had bad luck, comrade commissar.'

A sudden thought flashed through Krymov's head. Maybe it was Grekov who had shot him?

Towards evening his headache got worse and he began to vomit. He was kept at the divisional first-aid post for two days and then taken to the left bank and transferred to the Army hospital.

21

Commissar Pivovarov made his way into the narrow bunkers that made up the first-aid post. The wounded were lying side by side on the floor. Krymov wasn't there – he had been taken the previous night to the left bank.

'Strange he should have got wounded so quickly!' thought Pivovarov. 'He must be unlucky – or perhaps very lucky indeed!'

Pivovarov had also come to the first-aid post to see if it was worth transferring Byerozkin there. On his return to Regimental HQ – after nearly being killed on the way by a splinter from a German mortar-bomb – he told Glushkov, Byerozkin's orderly, that the conditions in the first-aid post were appalling. Everywhere you looked, there were heaps of bloodstained gauze, bandages and cotton wool – it was frightening.

'Yes, comrade Commissar,' said Glushkov. 'He's certainly better off in his own bunker.'

'No question,' said Pivovarov. 'And they don't even discriminate between a regimental commander and an ordinary soldier. They're all lying on the floor together.'

Glushkov, whose rank only entitled him to a place on the floor, said sympathetically: 'No, that's no good at all.'

'Has he said anything?'

'No,' said Glushkov. 'He hasn't even looked at the letter from his wife. It's just lying there beside him.'

'He won't even look at a letter from his wife?' said Pivovarov. 'He really must be in a bad way.'

He picked up the letter, weighed it in his hand, held it in front of Byerozkin's face and said sternly: 'Ivan Leontyevich, this is a letter from your spouse.'

He paused for a moment, then said in a very different tone: 'Vanya! Look! It's from your wife! Don't you understand? Hey, Vanya?'

Byerozkin didn't understand. His face was flushed, and his staring eyes were bright and empty.

All day long the war knocked obstinately at the door of the bunker. Almost all the telephones had gone dead during the night; Byerozkin's, however, was still working and people were constantly ringing him -Divisional HQ, Army HQ, his battalion commanders Podchufarov and Dyrkin, and his neighbour, the commander of one of Gurov's regiments.

People were constantly coming and going, the door squeaked, and the tarpaulin – hung over the entrance by Glushkov – flapped in the wind. There had been a general sense of anxiety and anticipation since early that morning. In spite of – or perhaps because of – the intermittent artillery fire, the infrequent and carelessly inaccurate air-raids, everyone felt certain that the German offensive was about to be unleashed. This certainty was equally tormenting to Chuykov, to Pivovarov, to the men in house 6/1, and to the commander of the infantry platoon who, to celebrate his birthday, had been drinking vodka all day beside the chimney of the Stalingrad Tractor Factory.

Whenever anyone in the bunker said anything interesting or amusing, everyone immediately glanced at Byerozkin – could he really not hear them?

Company commander Khrenov, in a voice hoarse from the cold, was telling Pivovarov about an incident just before dawn. He'd climbed up from the cellar where his command-post was situated, sat down on a stone and listened to see if the Germans were up to any tricks yet. Suddenly he'd heard a harsh, angry voice in the sky: 'You sod, why didn't you give us any lights?'

Khrenov had felt first amazed, then terrified. How could someone up in the sky know his name? [44] Then he had looked up and seen a kukuruznik gliding by with the engine switched off. The pilot was dropping provisions to house 6/1 and was annoyed there hadn't been any markers.

Everyone looked round to see if Byerozkin had smiled; only Glushkov imagined he could see a flicker of life in his glassy eyes. At lunchtime the bunker emptied. Byerozkin still lay there, his long-awaited letter beside him. Glushkov sighed. Pivovarov and the new chief of staff had gone out for lunch. They were tucking in to some first-class borshch and drinking their hundred grams of vodka. Glushkov himself had already been offered some of the borshch. But as the boss, the commander of the regiment, wasn't eating, all he had had was a few drops of water…

Glushkov tore open the envelope, went up to Byerozkin's bunk and, very slowly, in a quiet, clear voice, began reading:

'Hello, my Vanya, hello my dearest, hello my beloved…'

Glushkov frowned, but he didn't stop reading. This tender, sad, kind letter from Byerozkin's wife had already been read by the censors. Now it was being read out loud to the unconscious Byerozkin, the only man in the world truly able to read it.

Glushkov wasn't so very surprised when Byerozkin turned his head, stretched out his hand and said: 'Give it to me.'

The lines of handwriting trembled between his large fingers.

'Vanya, it's very beautiful here, Vanya, I miss you very much. Lyuba keeps asking where Papa's gone. We're living on the shore of a lake, the house is very warm, the landlady's got a cow, there's lots of milk, and then there's the money you sent us. When I go out in the morning, there are yellow and red maple-leaves all over the cold water, there's already snow on the ground and that makes the water even bluer, and the sky's pure blue and the yellow and red of the leaves are incredibly bright. And Lyuba keeps asking me: "Why are you crying?" Vanya, Vanya, my darling, thank you for everything, for everything, thank you for all your kindness. How can I explain why I'm crying? I'm crying because I'm alive, crying from grief that Slava's dead and I'm still alive, crying from happiness that you're alive. I cry when I think of my mother and sister, I cry because of the morning light, I cry because everything round about is so beautiful and because there's so much sadness everywhere, in everyone's life and in my own. Vanya, Vanya, my dearest, my beloved…'

And his head began to spin, everything became blurred, his fingers trembled, the letter itself trembled. Even the white-hot air was trembling.

'Glushkov,' said Byerozkin, 'you must get me back in shape today.' (That was a phrase Tamara didn't like.) 'Tell me, is the boiler still working?'

'The boiler's fine. But how do you think you're going to get better in one day? You've got a fever. Forty degrees – just like vodka. You can't expect that to vanish in a moment.'

An empty petrol-drum was rolled into the bunker with a loud rumble. It was then half-filled – by means of a teapot and a canvas bucket – with steaming-hot river water. Glushkov helped Byerozkin undress and walked him up to the drum.

'The water's very hot, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel,' he said, touching the side of the drum very gingerly with his hand. 'You'll be stewed alive. I called the comrade commissar, but he's at a meeting with the divisional commander. We should wait for him to come back.'

'What for?'

'If anything happens to you, I'll shoot myself. And if I don't have the guts, comrade Pivovarov will do it for me.'

'Give me a hand.'

'Please, let me at least call the chief of staff.'

'Come on now!' Byerozkin's voice was hoarse, he was naked and he could barely stand upright; nevertheless, Glushkov immediately stopped arguing.

As he got into the water, Byerozkin winced and let out a groan. Glushkov paced round the drum, groaning in sympathetic anxiety.

'Just like a maternity home,' he thought suddenly.

Byerozkin lost consciousness for a while. His fever and the general anxiety of war blurred together into a mist. His heart seemed to stop and he could no longer even feel the scalding hot water. Then he came to and said to Glushkov: 'You must mop the floor.'

Glushkov took no notice of the water spilling over the edge. Byerozkin's crimson face had gone suddenly white, his mouth had fallen open, and huge drops of sweat-to Glushkov they looked almost blue – had appeared on his close-shaven head. He began to lose consciousness again. But when Glushkov tried to drag him out of the water, he said very clearly: 'No, I'm not ready yet.'

He was racked by a fit of coughing. As soon as it was over, without even waiting to get his breath back, he said: 'Pour in some more water!'

At last he got out. Looking at him, Glushkov felt even more despondent. He rubbed Byerozkin dry, helped him back into bed, and covered him over with a blanket and some greatcoats. He then began piling on everything he could find – jackets, trousers, tarpaulins…

By the time Pivovarov returned everything had been tidied up -though the bunker still felt hot and damp like a bath-house. Byerozkin was sleeping peacefully. Pivovarov stood over his bed for a moment and looked at him.

'He has got a splendid face,' he thought. 'I'm sure he never wrote denunciations.'

For some reason, he had been troubled all day long by the memory of how – five years before – he had helped unmask Shmelyev, a friend and fellow-student of his, as an enemy of the people. All kinds of rubbish came into one's head during this sinister lull in the fighting. He could see Shmelyev's sad, pitiful look as his friend's denunciation was read out at the meeting.

About twelve o'clock, Chuykov himself telephoned, passing over the head of the divisional commander. He was very worried about Byerozkin's regiment – according to the latest intelligence reports the Germans had amassed a particularly heavy concentration of tanks and infantry opposite the Tractor Factory.

'Well, how are things?' he asked impatiently. 'And who's in command? Batyuk said the commanding officer had pneumonia or something. He wanted to have him taken across to the left bank.'

'I'm in command,' answered a hoarse voice. 'Lieutenant-Colonel Byerozkin. I did have something of a cold, but I'm all right now.'

'Yes, you do sound a bit hoarse,' said Chuykov almost gloatingly. 'Well, the Germans will give you some hot milk. They've got it all ready, they won't be long.'

'Yes, comrade,' said Byerozkin. 'I understand you.'

'Very good,' said Chuykov. 'But if you ever think of retreating, remember I can make you an egg-flip at least as good as the Germans' hot milk.'

22

Old Polyakov arranged for Klimov, the scout, to take him at night to Regimental HQ; he wanted to find out how things were with Seryozha.

'That's a splendid idea, old man,' said Grekov. 'You can have a bit of a rest and then come back and tell us how things are in the rear.'

'You mean with Katya?' asked Polyakov, guessing why Grekov had been so quick to agree.

'They left HQ long ago,' said Klimov. 'The commander had them both sent to the left bank. By now they've probably already visited the registry office in Akhtuba.'

'Do you want to cancel our trip then?' asked Polyakov pointedly.

Grekov looked at him sharply, but all he said was: 'Very well, then. Be off with you!'

'Very well,' thought Polyakov.

They set off down the narrow passage about four in the morning. Polyakov kept bumping his head against the supports and cursing Seryozha. He felt a little angry and embarrassed at the strength of his affection for the boy.

After a while the passage widened and they sat down for a rest. Klimov said jokingly:

'What, haven't you got a present for them?'

'To hell with the damned boy!' said Polyakov. 'I should have taken a brick so I could give him a good knock on the head!'

'I see!' said Klimov. 'That's why you wanted to come with me. That's why you're ready to swim the Volga to see him. Or is it Katya you want to see? Are you dying of jealousy?'

'Come on,' said Polyakov. 'Let's get going!'

Soon they came up to the surface and had to walk through no man's land. It was utterly silent.

'Perhaps the war's come to an end?' thought Polyakov. He could picture his own home with an extraordinary vividness: there was a plate of borshch on the table and his wife was gutting a fish he had caught. He even began to feel quite warm…

That night General Paulus gave orders for the attack on the Tractor Factory.

Two infantry divisions were to advance through the breach opened by bombers, artillery and tanks… Since midnight, cigarettes had been glowing in the soldiers' cupped hands.

The first Junkers flew over the factory an hour and a half before dawn. The ensuing bombardment was quite without respite; any gap in the unbroken wall of noise was immediately filled by the whistle of bombs tearing towards the earth with all their iron strength. The continuous roar was enough to shatter your skull or your backbone.

It began to get light, but not over the factory… It was as though the earth itself were belching out black dust, smoke, thunder, lightning…

The brunt of the attack was borne by Byerozkin's regiment and house 6/1. All over that sector half-deafened men leapt drunkenly to their feet, dimly realizing that this time the Germans really had gone berserk.

Caught in no man's land, Klimov and Polyakov rushed towards some large craters made by one-ton bombs at the end of September. Some soldiers from Podchufarov's battalion had escaped from their caved-in trenches and were running in the same direction.

The Russian and German trenches were so close together that part of the bombardment fell on the German assault-troops waiting in the front line.

To Polyakov it was as though a fierce wind from downstream was sweeping up the Volga. Several times he was knocked off his feet; he fell to the ground no longer knowing what world he lived in, whether he was old or young, what was up and what was down. But Klimov dragged him along and finally they slid to the bottom of a huge crater. Here the darkness was threefold: the darkness of night, the darkness of dust and smoke, the darkness of a deep pit.

They lay there beside one another; the same soft light, the same prayer for life filled both their heads. It was the same light, the same touching hope that glows in all heads and all hearts – in those of birds and animals as well as in those of human beings.

Klimov couldn't stop swearing at Seryozha, still somehow thinking this was all his fault. Deep down, though, he felt he was praying.

This explosion of violence seemed too extreme to continue for long. But there was no let-up; as time went by, the black cloud only thickened, linking the earth and the sky still more closely.

Klimov found the roughened hand of the old man and squeezed it; its answering warmth gave him a brief moment of comfort. An explosion nearby threw a shower of earth, stone and brick into the crater; Polyakov was hit in the back by fragments of brick. It was even worse when great chunks of earth began peeling off the walls… There they were, cowering in a pit. They would never again see the light of day. Soon the Germans up above would cover them over with earth, then level the edges of the tomb.

Usually Klimov preferred to go on reconnaissance missions alone; he would hurry off into the darkness like an experienced swimmer striking out into the open sea. Now, though, he was glad to have Polyakov beside him.

Time no longer flowed evenly. It had gone insane, tearing forward like a shock-wave, then suddenly congealing, turning back on itself like the horns of a ram.

Finally, though, the men in the pit raised their heads. The dust and smoke had been carried away by the wind and they could see a dim light. The earth quietened; the continual roar separated out into a series of distinct explosions. They felt a numb exhaustion – as though every feeling except anguish had been crushed out of their souls.

As Klimov staggered to his feet, he saw a German soldier lying beside him. Battered, covered in dust, he looked as though he had been chewed up by the war from the peak of his cap to the toes of his boots.

Klimov had no fear of Germans; he had an unshakeable confidence in his own strength, his own miraculous ability to pull a trigger, throw a grenade, strike a blow with a knife or a rifle-butt a second earlier than his opponent. Now, though, he didn't know what to do. He was amazed at the thought that, blinded and deafened as he was, he had been comforted by the presence of this German, had mistaken his hand for Polyakov's. Klimov and the German looked at one another. Each had been crushed by the same terrible force, and each was equally helpless to struggle against it.

They looked at one another in silence, two inhabitants of the war.

The perfect, faultless, automatic reflex they both possessed – the instinct to kill – failed to function.

Polyakov, a little further away, was also gazing at the stubble-covered face of the German. He didn't say anything either – though he usually found it difficult to keep his mouth shut.

Life was terrible. It was as though they could understand, as though they could read in one another's eyes, that the power which had ground them into the mud would continue – even after the war – to oppress both conquered and conquerors.

As though coming to an unspoken agreement, they began to climb to the surface, all three of them easy targets, all three of them quite sure they were safe.

Polyakov slipped; the German, who was right beside him, didn't give him a hand. The old man tumbled down to the bottom, cursing the light of day but obstinately crawling back up towards it. Klimov and the German reached the surface. They both looked round – one to the East, one to the West – to see if any of their superiors had noticed them climbing quite peaceably out of the same pit. Then, without looking back, without a word of goodbye, they set off for their respective trenches, making their way through the newly-ploughed, still smoking, hills and valleys.

'The house has gone. It's been razed to the ground,' said Klimov in a frightened voice as Polyakov hurried after him. 'My brothers, have you all been killed?'

Then the artillery and machine-guns opened fire and the German infantry began to advance. This was to be the hardest day that Stalingrad had known.

'It's all because of that damned Seryozha!' muttered Polyakov. He was unable to understand what had happened, to grasp that there was now no one left in house 6/1. Klimov's cries and sobs merely irritated him.

23

During the initial air-attack, a bomb had fallen on top of the underground pipeline that housed one of Byerozkin's battalion command-posts; Byerozkin himself, Battalion Commander Dyrkin and the telephonist had been trapped. Finding himself in complete darkness, deafened and choking with dust, Byerozkin had thought he was no longer in the land of the living. Then, in a brief moment of silence, Dyrkin had sneezed and asked: 'Are you alive, comrade Lieutenant-Colonel?'

'Yes,' Byerozkin had answered.

On hearing his commander's voice, Dyrkin had recovered his customary good humour.

'Well then, everything's fine!' he said, hawking and spitting. In fact, things seemed far from fine. Dyrkin and the telephonist were up to their necks in rubble; it was impossible for them even to check whether they had any broken bones. An iron girder above them prevented them from straightening their backs; it was this girder, however, that had saved their lives. Dyrkin turned on his torch for a moment. What they saw was quite terrifying: there were large slabs of stone hanging right over their heads, together with twisted pieces of iron, slabs of buckled concrete covered in oil, and hacked-up cables. One more bomb and all this would crash down on top of them.

For a while they huddled in silence, listening to the furious force hammering at the workshops above. Even posthumously, these workshops continued to work for the defence, thought Byerozkin; it was difficult to destroy iron and reinforced concrete.

Then they examined the walls. There was clearly no way they could get out by themselves. The telephone was intact but silent; the line must have been cut.

It was also almost impossible to talk – they were coughing constantly and their voices were drowned by the roar of explosions.

Though it was less than twenty-four hours since he had been in delirium, Byerozkin now felt full of strength. In battle, his strength imposed itself on all his subordinates. Nevertheless, there was nothing essentially military or warlike about it; it was a simple, reasonable and very human strength. Few men were able to display strength of this kind in the inferno of battle; they were the true masters of the war.

The bombardment died down. It was replaced by an iron rumble. Byerozkin wiped his nose, coughed and said: 'Now the wolves are howling. Their tanks are attacking the Tractor Factory… And we're right in their path.'

Perhaps because he couldn't imagine anything worse, Dyrkin began singing a song from a film. In a loud voice, he half-sang, half-coughed:

'What a beautiful life we lead, what a beautiful life! Things can never go wrong, never go wrong with such a wonderful chief.'

The telephonist thought Dyrkin had gone mad. All the same, coughing and spitting, he joined in:

'She'll grieve for me, she says she'll grieve for me all her life, But soon another man, another man, will make her his wife.'

Meanwhile, up in the workshop filled with dust, smoke and the roar of tanks, Glushkov was tearing the skin off his hands and fingers as he rooted up slabs of stone, iron and concrete. He was in a state of frenzy; only this allowed him to clear away heavy girders it would normally have taken ten men even to shift.

The rumble of tanks, the shell-bursts, the chatter of machine-guns grew still louder – and Byerozkin could see light again. It was a dust-laden, smoky light; but it was the light of day. Looking at it, Byerozkin thought: 'See, Tamara? You needn't have worried. I told you it wouldn't be anything terrible.' Then Glushkov embraced him with his powerful, muscular arms.

Gesturing around him, his voice choked with sobs, Dyrkin cried out: 'Comrade Lieutenant-Colonel, I'm in command of a dead battalion. And Vanya's dead. Our Vanya's dead.'

He pointed to the corpse of the battalion commissar. It was lying on its side in a dark crimson puddle of blood and machine-oil.

The regimental command-post was relatively unscathed; there was just a dusting of earth on the bed and the table.

Pivovarov leapt up, swearing happily, as Byerozkin came in. Byerozkin immediately began questioning him.

'Are we still in touch with the battalions? What about the encircled house? How's Podchufarov? Dyrkin and I got caught in a mouse-trap. We couldn't see and we lost touch with everyone. I don't know who's dead and who's alive. Where are the Germans? Where are our men? I'm completely out of touch. We've just been singing songs. Quick, give me a report!'

Pivovarov began by telling him the number of casualties. Everyone in house 6/1, including the notorious Grekov, had perished. Only the scout and one old militiaman had escaped.

But the regiment had withstood the German assault. The men still alive were still alive.

The telephone rang. From the signaller's face, they all realized it was Chuykov himself.

Byerozkin took the receiver. It was a good line; the men in the suddenly quiet bunker recognized Chuykov's low, serious voice.

'Byerozkin? The divisional commander's wounded. His second-in-command and chief of staff are dead. I order you to take command yourself.'

Then, more slowly, and with emphasis:

'You held their attack. You commanded the regiment through hellish, unheard-of conditions. Thank you, my friend. I embrace you. And I wish you luck.'

In the workshops of the Tractor Factory the battle had only just begun. Those who were alive were still alive.

House 6/1 was now silent. Not one shot could be heard from the ruins. It had evidently borne the brunt of the air-attack; the remaining walls had now collapsed and the stone mound had been flattened. The German tanks firing at Podchufarov's battalion were screened by the last remains of the building. What had once been a terrible danger to the Germans was now a place of refuge.

From a distance the heaps of red brick seemed like chunks of raw, steaming flesh. Grey-green German soldiers were buzzing excitedly around the dead building.

'You must take command of the regiment,' said Byerozkin to Pivovarov. 'Until today, my superiors have never been satisfied with me. Then, after sitting around all day singing songs, I get Chuykov's thanks and the command of a division. Well, I won't let you off the hook now.'

But the Germans were pressing forward. This was no time for pleasantries.

24

It was very cold when Viktor, Lyudmila and Nadya arrived in Moscow. Snow was falling. Alexandra Vladimirovna was still in Kazan; Viktor had promised to get her a job at the Karpov Institute, but she had wanted to stay on at the factory.

These were strange days, days of both joy and anxiety. The Germans still seemed powerful and threatening, as though they were preparing some new offensive.

There was no obvious sign that the war had reached a turning-point. Nevertheless, everyone wanted to return to Moscow. It seemed right and natural – as did the Government's decision to send back various institutions that had been evacuated.

People could sense that spring was in the air, that the worst days of the war were over. Nevertheless, the capital seemed sullen and gloomy during this second winter of the war.

Heaps of dirty snow covered the pavements. The outskirts of the city were just like the country – there were little paths linking each house with tram-stops and food stores. You often saw the iron pipes of makeshift stoves smoking away through a window; the walls of these buildings were covered in a frozen layer of yellow soot. In their short sheepskin coats and scarves, the Muscovites looked very provincial, almost like peasants.

On the way from the station Viktor looked round at Nadya's frowning face; they were both perched on top of their baggage in the back of a truck.

'So, mademoiselle,' he said, 'this isn't the Moscow you dreamed of when we were in Kazan?'

Annoyed that Viktor had guessed her feelings, Nadya didn't answer.

Viktor began to hold forth:

'Man never understands that the cities he has built are not an integral part of Nature. If he wants to defend his culture from wolves and snowstorms, if he wants to save it from being strangled by weeds, he must keep his broom, spade and rifle always at hand. If he goes to sleep, if he thinks about something else for a year or two, then everything's lost. The wolves come out of the forest, the thistles spread and everything is buried under dust and snow. Just think how many great capitals have succumbed to dust, snow and couch-grass.'

Viktor suddenly wanted Lyudmila, who was in the cab with the driver, to have the benefit of his reflections too. He leant over the side of the truck and asked through the half-open window:

'Are you comfortable, Lyuda?'

'What's all this about the death of cultures?' asked Nadya. 'It's just that the janitors haven't been clearing away the snow.'

'Don't be silly!' said Viktor. 'Just look at that ice!'

The truck gave a sudden jolt. The bundles and suitcases flew up into the air, together with Nadya and Viktor. They looked at each other and burst out laughing.

How strange it all was. How could he ever have guessed that he would do his most important work in Kazan, during a war, with all the suffering and homelessness that entailed?

He had expected them to feel only a solemn excitement as they drew near to Moscow. He had expected their sorrow over Tolya, Marusya and Anna Semyonovna, their thoughts of the victims claimed from almost every family, to blend with the joy of homecoming and fill their souls.

But it hadn't been like that at all. On the train Viktor had been upset by all kinds of trivia. He had even been annoyed with Lyudmila for sleeping so much instead of looking out over the earth that her own son had defended. She had snored very loudly; a wounded soldier passing in the corridor had heard her and exclaimed: 'There's a true soldier of the guard!'

He had been equally annoyed with Nadya: she had chosen all the most delicious-looking biscuits out of the bag and left her mother to clear up the remains of her meal. She had put on an absurd, mocking tone of voice whenever she spoke to him; he had overheard her in the next compartment saying: 'My father's a great admirer of music. Sometimes he even tinkles on the piano himself.'

The people they had shared the compartment with talked about such matters as central heating and the Moscow sewers; about people who had gaily neglected to pay their rent and so lost their right to live in Moscow; about what were the best foodstuffs to bring with them. Viktor didn't like these conversations, but in the end he too was talking about janitors and water-pipes; when he couldn't sleep at night, he wondered if the telephone had been cut off and remembered that he must get ration-cards for the Academy store.

The bad-tempered woman in charge of the coach had found a chicken-bone under Viktor's seat when she was sweeping out the compartment.

'What pigs!' she had muttered. 'And they think of themselves as intelligentsia!'

At Mourom, Viktor and Nadya had gone for a walk along the platform and run into some young men wearing long coats with Astrakhan fur collars. One of them had looked round and said: 'Look, Old Father Abraham's coming back from evacuation.'

'Yes,' laughed the other, 'he wants to get his medal for the defence of Moscow.'

At Kanash they had stopped opposite a train full of prisoners. Pressing their pale faces against the tiny barred windows, the prisoners had shouted, 'Tobacco!' or 'Give us a smoke!' The sentries patrolling up and down the train had cursed at the men as they pushed them away from the windows.

In the evening Viktor had gone to the next coach to see the Sokolovs. Marya Ivanovna, a coloured shawl round her head, was getting their bedding ready. She was sleeping in the top bunk, and Pyotr Lavrentyevich down below. Worried about whether Pyotr would be comfortable, she answered Viktor's questions quite randomly and forgot to ask after Lyudmila.

Sokolov himself had just yawned and said how exhausting he found the heat. For some reason Viktor had been offended by this lukewarm welcome.

'It's the first time in my life,' he said in an irritated tone that surprised even himself, 'that I've seen a man sleep below and make his wife climb up on top.'

'It's what we always do,' said Marya Ivanovna, kissing Sokolov on the temple. 'Pyotr Lavrentyevich gets too hot up on top – but it's all the same to me.'

'Well,' said Viktor, 'I'm off.' The Sokolovs didn't ask him to stay; once again he felt offended.

It was very hot in the carriage that night. All kinds of memories had come back to him – Kazan, Karimov, Alexandra Vladimirovna, his conversations with Madyarov, his tiny office at the university… What a charming, anxious look had come into Marya Ivanovna's eyes when Viktor had discussed politics at their evening gatherings. Very, very different from their preoccupied look just now.

'Would you believe it?' he said to himself. 'Taking the bottom bunk, where it's cool and comfortable. What a tyrant!'

Then he got angry with kind, meek Marya Ivanovna whom he liked more than any other woman he knew. 'She's a little red-nosed rabbit. But then Pyotr Lavrentyevich is a difficult man. He seems so gentle and measured, but really he's arrogant, secretive and vindictive. Yes, the poor woman has a lot to put up with.'

Viktor hadn't been able to get to sleep. He had tried to imagine the reactions of Chepyzhin and his other friends. Many of them knew about his work already. How would it all go? What would Gurevich and Chepyzhin say? He was, after all, a conquering hero…

Then he had remembered that Markov wouldn't be in Moscow for another week. He had made detailed arrangements for setting up the laboratory and it would be impossible to start work without him. It was a pity that he and Sokolov were such theoreticians, that they had such clumsy, insensitive hands.

Yes, a conquering hero…

But somehow he hadn't been able to hold on to this train of thought. He kept seeing the prisoners begging for tobacco and the young men who had called him 'Old Father Abraham'. And then there was that strange remark of Postoev's… Sokolov had been talking about a young physicist called Landesman and Postoev had said, 'Who cares about Landesman now Viktor Pavlovich has astonished the world with his discovery?' Then he had embraced Sokolov and said, 'Still, what matters is that we're both Russians.'

Would the telephone and the gas be working? And had people thought about trivia like this a hundred years ago – on their way back to Moscow after the defeat of Napoleon?

The truck came to a stop not far from their house. Once again the Shtrums saw the front door, the four windows of their flat with the blue paper crosses that had been pasted on last summer, the linden trees on the edge of the pavement, the sign saying 'Milk' and the board on the janitor's door.

'Well, I don't suppose the lift will be working,' said Lyudmila.

She turned to the driver. 'Can you help take our things up to the second floor?'

'Why not? You can pay me in bread.'

They unloaded the truck; Nadya stayed to watch over their things while Viktor and Lyudmila went up to their apartment. They went up the stairs very slowly, somehow surprised that everything had changed so little: the letter-boxes were still the same, the door on the first floor was still covered with a piece of black oil-cloth. How strange that streets, houses and things you forgot about didn't just disappear; they came back and there you were in the midst of them again.

Once, too impatient to wait for the lift, Tolya had run up to the second floor and shouted down to Viktor: 'Ha ha! I'm home already!'

'Let's stop for a moment on the landing. You're out of breath,' said Viktor.

'My God!' said Lyudmila. 'Just look at the state of the staircase! I'll have to go down tomorrow and get Vasily Ivanovich to have the place cleaned.'

There they were, husband and wife, standing once more before the door of their home.

'Perhaps you'd like to open the door,' said Viktor.

'No, you do it. You're the master of the house.'

They went inside and walked round all the rooms without taking off their coats. Lyudmila took the telephone receiver off the hook, blew into it and said: 'Well, the telephone seems to be working all right.'

Then she went into the kitchen. 'We've even got water. We can use the lavatory.' She went over to the stove and tried to turn on the gas. It had been cut off.

Lord, Lord, it was over at last. The enemy had been halted. They had returned to their home. That Saturday, 21 June, 1941, seemed only yesterday. How much – and how little – everything had changed. The people who had just entered the house were different. Their hearts had changed; their lives had changed; they were living in another epoch. Why was everything so ordinary, and yet such a source of anxiety? Why did their pre-war life, the life they had lost, seem so fine and happy? And why was the thought of tomorrow so oppressive? Ration cards, residence permits, the electricity rental, newspaper subscriptions, the state of the lift… And when they were in bed, they would hear that same old clock striking the hour.

Following at his wife's heels, Viktor suddenly remembered how he and pretty young Nina had had a drink here in the summer. The empty wine bottle was still beside the sink.

He remembered the night after he had read the letter from his mother that had been brought by Colonel Novikov; he remembered his own sudden departure to Chelyabinsk. This was where he had kissed Nina; where a pin had fallen out of her hair and they hadn't been able to find it. He felt suddenly anxious. What if the pin suddenly turned up? What if she had forgotten her powder-puff or her lipstick?

Just then the driver came in. Breathing heavily, he looked round the room and asked: 'And all this belongs to you?'

'Yes,' said Viktor guiltily.

'We've got eight square metres for the six of us,' said the driver. 'My old woman sleeps during the day when everyone's out at work. During the night she just sits on a chair.'

Viktor went over to the window. There was Nadya beside their heap of belongings, dancing about and blowing on her fingers.

Dear Nadya, dear helpless daughter, this is the house where you were born.

The driver brought up a sack of food and a hold-all full of toilet things, sat down and began rolling himself a cigarette.

He seemed to be obsessed with the question of living-space. He at once began to regale Viktor with stories about the official hygiene recommendations and the bribe-takers at the local accommodation bureau.

There was a clatter of pans from the kitchen.

'A true housewife,' said the driver, winking at Viktor.

Viktor looked out of the window again.

'A pretty kettle of fish,' said the driver. 'We'll give the Germans a good thrashing at Stalingrad, people will start coming back to Moscow, and it will be even worse. Not long ago, one of our workers came back to the factory after being wounded twice at the front. His home, of course, had been blown up, so he and his wife moved into some awful cellar. And of course his wife was pregnant and his two children had . And then the cellar got flooded – the water came right up to their knees. They put wooden boards on top of stools and used them as bridges between the stove, the table and the bed. Then he started making applications. He wrote to the Party committee, he wrote to the district committee, he even wrote to Stalin himself. In reply they just made promises. And then one night, together with his family and all his gear, he moved into a room on the fourth floor that was kept for the district Soviet. Then things really did start to happen. He was summoned by the public prosecutor. He was told he must leave the room within twenty-four hours or he'd get five years in a camp and the kids would be packed off to an orphanage. What do you think he did then? Well, he'd been decorated at the front, so he stuck his medals into his chest, right into the flesh, and tried to hang himself in the lunch-break – there in the workshop. The other lads at work found him, cut the rope and had him rushed to hospital. He got his flat straight away, before he was discharged. Yes, he did well for himself. It's not spacious, but it's got all they need.'

Nadya came in just as he finished.

'What if the baggage gets stolen? Who'll be to blame then?' the driver asked.

Nadya shrugged her shoulders and went off on a tour of the rooms, still blowing on her frozen fingers.

As soon as Nadya came into the house Viktor felt angry again.

'You might at least turn your collar down,' he said.

Nadya paid no attention and shouted towards the kitchen:

'Mama, I'm terribly hungry!'

Lyudmila was extraordinarily active that day. Viktor thought that if she had deployed this energy at the front, the Germans would already have retreated at least a hundred kilometres from Moscow.

The plumber turned on the heating; the pipes were still working, even if they weren't very hot. Getting hold of the gas man was more difficult. Lyudmila finally got the director of the gas board to send someone from the emergency brigade. She lit all the burners and placed irons on top of them. The gas was very weak, but they could at least take off their coats now. After the labours of the driver, the plumber and the gas man, the bag of bread had become extremely light.

Lyudmila carried on working until late at night. She stuck a rag on the end of a broom and started dusting the walls and ceilings. She cleaned the chandelier, took the dead flowers out to the back staircase and assembled a huge heap of rags, old papers and other junk. A grumbling Nadya had to carry three bucket-loads down to the dustbin.

Lyudmila washed all the plates from the kitchen and dining-room. She set Viktor to dry the knives, forks and plates, but refused to trust him with the tea service. She started doing the washing in the bathroom, thawed out the butter on top of the stove and sorted through the potatoes they had brought from Kazan.

Viktor tried to phone Sokolov. Marya Ivanovna answered.

'I've just put Pyotr Lavrentyevich to bed. He's worn out from the journey, but I can wake him up if it's urgent.'

'No, no, I just wanted a chat,' said Viktor.

'I'm so happy,' said Marya Ivanovna. 'I keep wanting to cry.'

'Why not come round? Are you doing anything this evening?'

'You must be mad! Surely you realize how much Lyudmila and I have to do.'

She started to ask how long it had taken to get the electricity and the plumbing sorted out. Viktor cut her short. 'I'll call Lyudmila. If you want to talk about plumbing, she can continue this discussion.'

Then he added teasingly: 'What a pity you can't come round. We could have read Flaubert's poem "Max and Maurice".'

Ignoring his joke, she said: 'I'll phone later. If I've got so much work with just the one room, I can't imagine what it's like for Lyudmila.'

Viktor realized he had offended her. Suddenly he wished he were back in Kazan. How strange people are…

Next, Viktor tried to ring Postoev, but his phone seemed to be cut off. He tried Gurevich, but was told by his neighbours that he had gone to his sister in Sokolniki. He rang Chepyzhin, but no one answered.

Suddenly the phone rang. A boyish voice asked for Nadya. She was then on one of her trips to the dustbin.

'Who is it?' asked Viktor severely.

'It doesn't matter. Just someone she knows.'

'Viktor,' called Lyudmila. 'You've been chatting long enough on the phone. Come and help me with this cupboard.'

'I'm not chatting,' said Viktor. 'No one in Moscow wants to speak to me. And you might at least give me something to eat. Sokolov's already stuffed himself and gone to bed.'

Lyudmila seemed only to have increased the chaos in the flat. There were heaps of linen everywhere; the crockery had been taken out of the cupboards and was lying all over the floor; you could hardly move in the rooms and the corridor for all the pans, bowls and sacks.

Viktor hadn't expected Lyudmila to go into Tolya's room at first, but he was wrong. Looking flushed and anxious, she said to him: 'Vitya, put the Chinese vase on Tolya's bookshelf. I've just given the room a good clean.'

The phone rang again. He heard Nadya answer.

'Hello! No, I haven't been out. Mama made me take the rubbish down.'

'Give me a hand, Vitya,' Lyudmila chivvied Viktor. 'Don't just go to sleep. There's still masses to do.'

A woman's instinct is so simple – and so strong.

By evening the chaos was vanquished. The rooms felt warmer and had begun to take on something of their pre-war appearance. They ate supper in the kitchen. Lyudmila had baked some biscuits and fried up some of the millet she had boiled in the afternoon.

'Who was that on the phone?' Viktor asked Nadya.

'Just a boy,' said Nadya and burst out laughing. 'He's been ringing for four days.'

'What, have you been writing to him?' asked Lyudmila. 'Did you tell him we were coming back?'

Nadya looked irritated and shrugged her shoulders.

'I'd be happy if even a dog phoned me,' said Viktor.

During the night Viktor woke up. Lyudmila was in her nightgown, standing outside Tolya's open door.

'Can you see, Tolya?' she was murmuring. 'I've managed to clean everything now. Little one, to look at your room now, no one would think there'd ever been a war.'

25

On their return from evacuation, the University staff met in one of the halls of the Academy of Sciences. All these people – young and old, pale or bald, with large eyes or small piercing eyes, with wide foreheads or narrow foreheads – were conscious, as they came together, of the highest poetry of all, the poetry of prose.

Damp sheets and the damp pages of books left for too long in unheated rooms, formulae noted down by frozen red fingers, lectures delivered in an overcoat with the collar turned up, salads made from slimy potatoes and a few torn cabbage leaves, the crush to get meal tickets, the tedious thought of having to write your name down for salt fish and an extra ration of oil – all this became suddenly unimportant. As people met, they greeted each other noisily.

Viktor saw Chepyzhin standing next to Academician Shishakov.

'Dmitry Petrovich! Dmitry Petrovich!' Viktor repeated, looking at the face that was so dear to him. Chepyzhin embraced him.

'Have you heard from your lads at the front?' asked Viktor.

'Yes, yes, they're fine.'

From the way Chepyzhin frowned as he said this, Viktor realized that he already knew about Tolya's death.

'Viktor Pavlovich,' Chepyzhin went on, 'give my regards to your wife. My sincerest regards. Mine and Nadezhda Fyodorovna's.'

Then he added: 'I've read your work. It's interesting. Very important – even more than it seems. Yes, it's more interesting than we can yet appreciate.'

He kissed Viktor on the forehead.

'No, no, it's nothing,' said Viktor, feeling embarrassed and happy. On his way to the meeting he had been wondering stupidly who would have read his work and what they would say about it. What if no one had read it at all…?

Now he felt certain that no one would speak of anything else.

Shishakov was still standing there. There were lots of things Viktor wanted to say, but not in the presence of a third party – and certainly not in the presence of Shishakov.

When he looked at Shishakov, Viktor was always reminded of Gleb Uspensky's phrase, 'a pyramid-shaped buffalo'. His square fleshy face, his arrogant, equally fleshy lips, his pudgy fingers with their polished nails, his thick silver-grey crewcut, all somehow oppressed Viktor. Every time he met Shishakov, he caught himself thinking, 'Will he recognize me? Will he say hello?' He would then feel angry with himself for feeling glad when Shishakov's fleshy lips slowly pronounced a few words that somehow seemed equally fleshy.

'The arrogant bull,' Viktor once said to Sokolov when Shishakov was mentioned. 'He makes me feel like a Jew from a shtetl in the presence of a cavalry colonel.'

'Just think!' said Sokolov. 'What he's most famous for is failing to recognize a positron on a photograph. All the research students know the story. They call it "Academician Shishakov's mistake".'

Sokolov very rarely spoke ill of people – whether from caution or from some pious principle that forbade him to judge his neighbours. But Shishakov irritated him beyond endurance; Sokolov couldn't help but ridicule and abuse him.

They began to talk about the war.

'The German advance has been halted on the Volga,' said Chepyzhin. 'There's the power of the Volga for you – living water, living power.'

'Stalingrad, Stalingrad,' said Shishakov. 'The triumph of our strategy and the determination of our people.'

'Aleksey Alekseyevich, are you acquainted with Viktor Pavlovich's latest work?' Chepyzhin asked suddenly.

'I know of it, of course, but I haven't yet read it.'

It was by no means clear from Shishakov's face whether he really had heard of it.

Viktor looked for a long time into Chepyzhin's eyes; he wanted his old friend and teacher to see all he had been through, all his doubts and losses. But he saw sadness, depression and the weariness of old age on Chepyzhin's face too.

Sokolov came up. Chepyzhin shook him by the hand, but Shishakov merely glanced carelessly at his rather old jacket. Then Postoev joined them and Shishakov's large fleshy face broke into a smile.

'Greetings, greetings, my friend. Now you're someone I really am glad to see.'

They asked after each other's health, and after their wives and children. As they talked about their dachas, they sounded like grand lords.

'How are you getting on?' Viktor asked Sokolov quietly. 'Is it warm in your flat?'

'It's not yet any better than Kazan,' answered Sokolov. 'Masha said I must give you her regards. She'll probably come round and see you tomorrow.'

'Splendid! We miss her. In Kazan we got used to seeing her every day.'

'Every day! It seemed more like three times a day. I even suggested she move in with you.'

Viktor laughed, but was conscious of something false in his laughter. Then Academician Leontyev entered the hall, a mathematician with a big nose, an imposing bald skull and enormous glasses with yellow frames. Once, when they had both been staying in Gaspre, they had gone on a trip together to Yalta. They had drunk a lot of wine in a shop and staggered back to the canteen in Gaspre singing a dirty song. This had alarmed the staff and amused the other holiday-makers. Seeing Viktor, Leontyev smiled. Viktor lowered his eyes, expecting Leontyev to say something about his work.

Instead, Leontyev seemed to be remembering their adventures at Gaspre. With a wave of the hand he called out: 'Well, Viktor Pavlovich, how about a song?'

A young man with dark hair came in. He was wearing a black suit. Viktor noticed that Shishakov greeted him immediately.

Suslakov also approached the young man. Suslakov was an important man on the Presidium, though the exact nature of his duties was rather obscure. But if you needed a flat, or if a lecturer needed to get from Alma-Ata to Kazan, then Suslakov could be more useful than the President himself. He had the tired face of a man who works at night and his cheeks seemed to have been kneaded from grey dough. He was the sort of man who is needed by everyone, all the time.

They were all accustomed to the way Suslakov smoked 'Palmyra' at meetings, while the Academicians smoked ordinary tobacco or shag. And he didn't get lifts home from some celebrity; no, he would offer the celebrities a ride in his Zis.

Viktor watched the conversation between Suslakov and the young man with dark hair. He could tell that it wasn't the young man who was asking a favour of Suslakov – however gracefully a man asks for a favour, you can always tell who is asking and who is being asked. On the contrary, the young man seemed quite ready to break off the conversation. And he greeted Chepyzhin coolly, with studied politeness.

'By the way, who is that young grandee?' asked Viktor.

In a low voice Postoev answered: 'He's been working for a while in the scientific section of the Central Committee.'

'Do you know,' said Viktor. 'I've got an extraordinary feeling. As though our determination at Stalingrad is the determination of Newton, the determination of Einstein. As though our victory on the Volga symbolizes the triumph of Einstein's ideas. Well, you know what I mean…'

Shishakov gave a perplexed smile and gently shook his head.

'Don't you understand me, Aleksey Alekseyevich?' said Viktor.

'It's as clear as mud,' said the young man from the scientific section, who was now standing beside Viktor. 'But I suppose the so-called theory of relativity can allow one to establish a link between the Russian Volga and Albert Einstein.'

'Why "so-called"?' asked Viktor in astonishment. He turned to the pyramid-shaped Shishakov for support, but Shishakov's quiet contempt seemed to extend to Einstein as well.

Viktor felt a rush of anger. This was the way it sometimes happened – something would needle him and he would find it very difficult to restrain himself. At home in the evening, he would finally allow himself to reply. Sometimes he quite forgot himself, shouting and gesticulating, standing up for what he loved and ridiculing his enemies. 'Papa's making a speech again,' Lyudmila would say to Nadya.

This time, it wasn't only on Einstein's behalf that he was angry. Everyone he knew should be talking about his work – he himself should be the centre of attention. He felt upset and hurt. He knew it was ridiculous to take offence like this, but he did. No one but Chepyzhin had spoken to him about his work.

He began, rather timidly, to explain.

'The Fascists have exiled the brilliant Einstein and their physics has become the physics of monkeys. But we, thank God, have halted the advance of Fascism. It all goes together: the Volga, Stalingrad, Albert Einstein – the greatest genius of our epoch – the most remote little village, an illiterate old peasant woman, and the freedom we all need. This all goes together. I may sound confused, but perhaps there isn't anything clearer than this confusion.'

'I think, Viktor Pavlovich, that your panegyric to Einstein is a trifle exaggerated,' said Shishakov.

'Yes,' said Postoev lightly. 'On the whole I would say the same.'

The young man from the scientific section just looked at Viktor sadly.

'Well, comrade Shtrum,' he began, and Viktor once again felt the malevolence in his voice. 'To you it may seem natural, at a time of such importance for our people, to couple Albert Einstein and the Volga. These days, however, have awoken other sentiments in the hearts of those who disagree with you. Still, no one has power over someone else's heart and there's nothing to argue about there. But there is room for argument as regards your evaluation of Einstein: it does seem inappropriate to regard an idealist theory as the peak of scientific achievement.'

'That's enough,' Viktor interrupted. 'Aleksey Alekseyevich,' he went on in an arrogant and didactic voice, 'contemporary physics without Einstein is the physics of monkeys. It's not for us to trifle with the names of Einstein, Galileo and Newton.'

He raised a finger to silence Shishakov and saw him blink.

A minute later Viktor was standing by the window and recounting this unexpected incident to Sokolov, partly in a whisper and partly quite loudly.

'And you were right next to me and you didn't even hear. Chepyzhin suddenly disappeared too. It was almost as though he did so on purpose.'

He frowned and fell silent. How childishly, how naively he had looked forward to today's triumph. As it turned out, it had been some young bureaucrat who had created the most stir.

'Do you know the surname of the young grandee?' Sokolov asked suddenly, as though reading Viktor's thoughts. 'Do you realize whose relative he is?'

'I've no idea.'

Sokolov leant over and whispered in Viktor's ear.

'You don't say!' exclaimed Viktor. He remembered the way both Suslakov and Shishakov had deferred to this youth. 'O-oh' he said. 'So that's what it's all about. Now I understand.'

Sokolov laughed.

'Well, you've already established a cordial relationship with the scientific section and the higher echelons of the Academy. You're like the Mark Twain hero who boasts about his income to the tax-inspector.'

Viktor didn't appreciate this witticism.

'You were standing right beside me,' he replied. 'Did you really not hear our argument? Or did you prefer not to get involved in my conversation with the tax-inspector?'

Sokolov smiled. His small eyes looked suddenly kind and beautiful.

'Don't be upset, Viktor Pavlovich. Surely you didn't really expect Shishakov to appreciate your work? My God, what a lot of nonsense all this is. But your work's different. That's real.'

In his eyes and voice Viktor sensed the warmth and seriousness he had hoped to find that autumn evening in Kazan.

The meeting began. The speakers talked about the task of science during this difficult time, about their own readiness to devote their strength to the popular cause and to help the Army in its struggle against German Fascism. They spoke about the work of the various Institutes of the Academy, about the assistance that would be given to scientists by the Central Committee of the Party, about how comrade Stalin, the leader of the Army and the People, still had time to concern himself with scientific questions, about the duty of every scientist to justify the trust placed in him by the Party and by comrade Stalin himself.

There was also mention of some organizational changes occasioned by the new set-up. The physicists learned with surprise that they themselves were dissatisfied with the projects of their Institute – too much attention, apparently, was being given to purely theoretical matters. Suslakov's words, 'The Institute is cut off from life', were whispered around the hall.

26

The position of scientific research in the country had been discussed by the Central Committee. Apparently the Party was now principally concerned with the development of physics, mathematics and chemistry. The Central Committee considered that science must move closer to industry and become more integrated with real life.

Stalin himself had attended the meeting. Apparently he had walked up and down the hall, pipe in hand, stopping now and then with a pensive look on his face – to listen either to the speaker or to his own thoughts.

There had been fierce attacks on idealism and on any tendency to underestimate Russian science and philosophy. Stalin had spoken twice. When Shcherbakov had proposed a reduction in the Academy's budget, Stalin had shaken his head and said: 'No, we're not talking about making soap. We are not going to economize on the Academy.'

And during a discussion of the danger of idealist theories and the excessive admiration of certain scientists for Western science, Stalin had nodded and said: 'Yes, but we must protect our scientists from Arakcheevs.' [45]

Having first sworn them to secrecy, the scientists present at this meeting talked about it to their friends. Within a few days, the entire scientific community in Moscow – small groups of friends and close family circles – were discussing every detail of it in hushed voices.

People whispered that Stalin had grey hair, that some of his teeth were black and decayed, that he had beautiful hands with fine fingers, that his face was pock-marked.

Any youngster who happened to be listening was warned: 'And you watch it! Keep your mouth shut or you'll be the ruin of us all.'

Everyone expected a considerable improvement in the position of scientists; Stalin's words about Arakcheev held out great hopes.

A few days later an important botanist was arrested, Chetverikov the geneticist. There were various rumours about the reason for his arrest: that he was a spy; that he had associated with Russian émigrés during his journeys abroad; that he had a German wife who had corresponded before the war with her sister in Berlin; that he had tried to instigate a famine by introducing inferior strains of wheat; that it was to do with a remark he had made about 'the finger of God'; that it was on account of a political anecdote he had told to a childhood friend.

Since the beginning of the war there had been relatively little talk of political arrests. Many people, Viktor among them, thought that they were a thing of the past. Now everyone remembered 1937: the daily roll-call of people arrested during the night; people phoning each other up with the news, 'Anna Andreevna's husband has fallen ill tonight'; people answering the phone on behalf of a neighbour who had been arrested and saying, 'He's gone on a journey, we don't know when he'll be back.' And the stories about the circumstances of these arrests: 'they came for him just as he was giving his little boy a bath'; 'they came for him at work… at the theatre… in the middle of the night'; 'the search lasted forty-eight hours, they turned everything upside down, they even took up the floorboards'; 'they hardly looked at anything at all, they just leafed through a few books for show'.

Victor remembered the names of dozens of people who had left and never returned: Academician Vavilov, Vize, Osip Mandelstam, Babel, Boris Pilnyak, Meyerhold, the bacteriologists Korshunov and Zlatogorov, Professor Pletnyov, Doctor Levin…

It wasn't important that these were famous and outstanding people; what mattered was that all those arrested-however famous or however unknown – were innocent.

Was all this going to begin again? Would one's heart sink, even after the war, when one heard footsteps or a car horn during the night?

How difficult it was to reconcile such things with the war for freedom…! Yes, they had been fools to talk so much in Kazan.

A week after Chetverikov's arrest, Chepyzhin announced that he was resigning from the Institute of Physics.

The President of the Academy had called at Chepyzhin's house; apparently Chepyzhin had been summoned by either Beria or Malenkov, but had refused to alter the Institute's research programme. In view of Chepyzhin's services to science, the authorities had been reluctant to resort to extreme measures. Pimenov, the young administrative director who was something of a liberal, was removed from his post at the same time. Shishakov was then appointed both administrative director and scientific director.

It was rumoured that, as a result of all this, Chepyzhin had had a heart attack. Viktor rang him immediately to arrange to go and see him, but the phone was answered by the housekeeper, who said that Dmitry Petrovich really had been ill during the last few days; on his doctor's advice he and Nadezhda Fyodorovna had gone to the country and would not be back for two or three weeks.

'It's like pushing a boy off a tram,' Viktor said to Lyudmila. 'And they call it defending us from Arakcheevs. What does it matter to physics whether Chepyzhin's a Marxist, a Buddhist or a Lamaist? Chepyzhin's founded his own school. Chepyzhin's a friend of Rutherford. Every street-sweeper knows Chepyzhin's equations.'

'That's putting it a bit strongly,' said Nadya.

'And you watch it,' said Viktor. 'Keep your mouth shut or you'll be the ruin of all of us.'

'I know,' said Nadya. 'Your speeches are only for domestic consumption.'

'Yes, my dear Nadya,' said Viktor meekly, 'but what can I do to change decisions taken by the Central Committee? Anyway Dmitry Petrovich himself said he wanted to resign. Even though, as we say, it was "against the wishes of the people".'

'You shouldn't get so steamed up about it,' said Lyudmila. 'Besides, you were always arguing with Dmitry Petrovich yourself.'

'There's no true friendship without discussion.'

'That's the trouble,' said Lyudmila. 'You and your discussions. You'll end up having your laboratory taken away from you.'

'That's not what worries me,' said Viktor. 'Nadya's right: my speeches are just for domestic consumption… Why don't you phone Chetverikov's wife? Or go and see her? You're a friend of hers.'

'That simply isn't done,' said Lyudmila. 'Anyway I don't know her that well. How can I help her? Why should she want to see me? Have you ever phoned anyone in that situation?'

'I think one should,' said Nadya.

Viktor frowned. It was Sokolov, not Lyudmila and Nadya, whom he really wanted to talk to about Chepyzhin's resignation. But he he stopped himself – it really wasn't something to discuss on the phone.

It was odd though. Why Shishakov? It was clear that Viktor's latest work was very important. Chepyzhin had said at the Council of Scientists that it was the most important development in Soviet theoretical physics for the last decade. And then they'd gone and put Shishakov in charge of the Institute. Was it a joke? A man who'd seen hundreds of photographs with the trajectories of electrons going off to the left, and had then been shown photographs with the same trajectories going off to the right… It was as though he'd been presented, on a silver plate, with the opportunity to discover the positron. Young Savostyanov would not have missed it. But Shishakov had just pouted and said the photographs must be defective.

What was most amazing of all was that no one was in the least surprised by this sort of thing. Somehow it all seemed quite natural. Viktor's wife and friends, even Viktor himself, all considered it the normal state of affairs. Shishakov was a suitable director, and Viktor was not.

What was it Postoev had said? 'Still, what matters is that we're both Russians.' But then it would be difficult to be more Russian than Chepyzhin.

On his way to the Institute the next morning, Viktor imagined that everyone – from doctors to laboratory assistants – would be talking only of Chepyzhin. By the main entrance to the Institute stood a Zis limousine. The chauffeur, a middle-aged man in glasses, was reading a newspaper. On the staircase Viktor met the old caretaker. That summer they'd had tea together in the laboratory.

'The new director's just arrived,' the old man announced. Then he asked sadly: 'What will become of our Dmitry Petrovich?'

The laboratory assistants were discussing how to set up the equipment that had just arrived from Kazan. There were piles of large boxes in the main hall. The new apparatus from the Urals had also arrived. Nozdrin was standing beside a huge crate. Viktor thought he looked very arrogant.

Perepelitsyn was hopping around the crate on his one leg, holding his crutch under his armpit.

'Look, Viktor Pavlovich!' said Anna Stepanovna, pointing at the boxes.

'Even a blind man could see all this,' said Perepelitsyn.

Anna Stepanovna, however, hadn't really been referring to the crates.

'I see,' said Viktor. 'Of course I see.'

'The workers will be arriving in an hour's time,' said Nozdrin. 'Professor Markov and I have made the arrangements.' He spoke in the calm, slow voice of someone who knows he's the boss. This was his hour of glory.

Viktor went into his office. Markov and Savostyanov were sitting on the sofa, Sokolov was standing by the window, and Svechin, the head of the magnetic laboratory next door, was sitting at the desk and rolling a cigarette.

He stood up as Viktor came in.

' 'This is the boss's chair.'

'No, no, sit down,' said Viktor. 'What are we discussing at the conference?'

'The special stores,' said Markov. 'Apparently Academicians will be allowed to spend fifteen hundred roubles, while us lesser mortals will only be allowed five hundred roubles – the same as People's Artists and great poets like Lebedev-Kumach.'

'We're beginning to set up the equipment,' said Viktor, 'and Dmitry Petrovich is no longer here. The house is burning, but the clock still keeps time, as the saying goes.'

No one responded to this change of subject.

'My cousin passed by yesterday on his way back from hospital to the front,' said Savostyanov. 'We wanted to celebrate, so I bought a half-litre of vodka off a neighbour for 3 50 roubles!'

'That's amazing!' said Svechin.

'We're not just talking about making soap,' said Savostyanov brightly. He saw from his colleagues' faces that his joke had fallen flat.

'The new boss is here already,' said Viktor.

'A man of great energy,' said Svechin.

'We'll be all right with Aleksey Alekseyevich,' said Markov. 'He's had tea in comrade Zhdanov 's own house.'

Markov really was remarkable. He seemed to have very few friends and yet he always knew everything. He knew that Gabrichevskaya from the next-door laboratory was pregnant, that the husband of Lida the cleaning lady was in hospital again, that Smorodintsev's doctoral thesis had been rejected…

'That's right,' said Savostyanov. 'We may laugh at Shishakov's notorious "mistake", but, all in all, he's not such a bad type. By the way, do you know the difference between a good type and a bad type? A good type is someone who behaves swinishly in spite of himself!'

'Mistake or no mistake,' said Svechin, 'they don't make someone an Academician for nothing.'

Svechin was a member of the Party bureau of the Institute. He had only joined the Party in autumn 1941 and, like many new members, was unshakeably orthodox. He carried out any task entrusted to him by the Party with an almost religious earnestness.

'There's something I want to talk to you about, Viktor Pavlovich,' Svechin went on. 'The Party bureau wants you to speak at our next meeting on the subject of our new programme.'

'A failure of leadership? The errors of Chepyzhin? Is that what you want me to talk about?' Viktor was very annoyed. The conversation hadn't taken the direction he wanted. 'I don't know if I'm a good type or a bad type myself,' he went on, 'but I'm very reluctant to behave swinishly.'

Turning to his colleagues, he asked: 'What about you, comrades? Are you happy about Chepyzhin's resignation?'

He was counting on his colleagues' support and was quite taken aback when Savostyanov gave a non-committal shrug of the shoulders and said: 'He's getting old now.'

All Svechin said was: 'Chepyzhin refused to undertake any new projects. What else could we do? Anyway, he chose to resign. Everyone wanted him to stay.'

'So an Arakcheev has been uncovered at last,' said Viktor.

'Viktor Pavlovich,' said Markov in a hushed voice, 'I've heard that Rutherford once vowed never to work on neutrons. He was afraid it would lead to the development of a colossal explosive force. Very noble, I'm sure – but that kind of squeamishness is plain senseless. Apparently Dmitry Petrovich was equally holier-than-thou.'

'Heavens!' thought Viktor. 'How on earth does he know all this?'

'Pyotr Lavrentyevich,' he said, 'it seems we're in a minority.'

Sokolov shook his head. 'In my opinion, Viktor Pavlovich, this is no time for individualism and insubordination. We're at war. Chepyzhin was wrong to think only of himself and his personal interests when his superiors asked something of him.

'You too, Brutus!' joked Viktor, trying to mask his confusion.

Curiously, however, as well as feeling confused, Viktor was almost pleased. 'Of course,' he thought, 'just what I expected.' But why 'of course'? He hadn't expected Sokolov to respond like that. And even if he had, why should he be pleased?

'You really must speak,' said Svechin. 'There's no need whatsoever to criticize Chepyzhin. Just a few words about the potential of your research in the light of the decisions taken by the Central Committee.'

Before the war Viktor had met Svechin occasionally at orchestral concerts in the Conservatory. He had heard that in Svechin's youth, when he was a student at the Faculty of Maths and Physics, he had written futurist poetry and worn a chrysanthemum in his button-hole. Now, he spoke about the decisions of the Party bureau as though they were formulations of universal truths.

Sometimes Viktor wanted to dig Svechin in the ribs, wink and say: 'Come on now, let's be frank!' He knew, though, that there was no way of talking frankly with Svechin. Now, however, amazed by Sokolov's speech, Viktor did speak his mind.

'What about Chetverikov's arrest?' he asked. 'Is that linked with our new tasks? And is that why Vavilov was sent to prison? And if I allow myself to say that I consider Dmitry Petrovich a greater authority on physics than comrade Zhdanov, the head of the scientific section of the Central Committee, or even than…'

Everyone's eyes were on Viktor, expecting him to pronounce the name of Stalin. He made a dismissive gesture and said: 'All right. Enough of that. Let's go through to the lab.'

The boxes from the Urals had already been opened. The main part of the apparatus, three quarters of a ton in weight, had been carefully teased out from a mass of wood shavings, paper and rough pieces of board. Viktor laid his hand on the polished metal surface.

A stream of particles would gush forth from this metal belly – like the Volga by the small chapel on Lake Seliger.

There was something good about the look in everyone's eyes. Yes, it was good to know the world had room for such a wonderful machine. What more could one ask for?

At the end of the day Viktor and Sokolov were left alone in the laboratory.

'Why strut about like a cock, Viktor Pavlovich?' said Sokolov. 'You lack humility. I told Masha about your success at the meeting of the Academy – how you managed, in only half an hour, to get off on the wrong foot with both the new director and the young grandee from the scientific section. Masha was terribly upset; she couldn't sleep all night. You know the times we live in. And I saw your eyes as you looked at this. Why sacrifice everything just for a few words?'

'Wait a moment,' said Viktor. 'I need room to breathe.'

'For heaven's sake!' said Sokolov. 'No one's going to interfere with your work. You can breathe as much as you like.'

'Listen, my friend,' said Viktor with a sour smile. 'You mean well by me and I thank you with all my heart. But please allow me to be equally frank. Why, for the love of God, did you have to talk like that about Dmitry Petrovich? After the freedom of thought we enjoyed in Kazan, I found that very upsetting. As for me, I'm afraid I'm not as fearless as all that. I'm no Danton – as we used to say in my student days.'

'Thank God for that! To be quite honest, I've always thought of political speechmakers as people incapable of expressing themselves in anything creative. We ourselves do have that ability.'

'I don't know,' said Viktor. 'What about that young Frenchman Galois? And what about Kibalchich?'

Sokolov pushed his chair back. 'Kibalchich, as you know very well, ended up on the scaffold. What I'm talking about is empty blather. Like Madyarov's.'

'So you're calling me a blatherer?'

Sokolov shrugged his shoulders and didn't answer.

One might have expected this quarrel to be forgotten as easily as their previous quarrels. But for some reason this particular flare-up was not forgotten. If two men's lives are in harmony, they can quarrel, be wildly unjust to one another and then forget it. But if there is some hidden discord, then any thoughtlessness, any careless word, can be a blade that severs their friendship.

Such discord often lies so deep that it never reaches the surface, never becomes conscious. One violent, empty quarrel, one unkind word, appears then to be the fateful blow that destroys years of friendship.

No, Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich did not just quarrel over a goose! [46]

27

When people talked about Kasyan Terentyevich Kovchenko, the new deputy director of the Institute, they always called him 'one of Shishakov's men'. He seemed friendly, he sprinkled his conversation with odd words of Ukrainian, and he managed to obtain both a car and a flat with remarkable speed.

Markov, who knew any number of stories about the different Academicians and senior members of staff, said that Kovchenko had been awarded a Stalin Prize for a work that he had first read through after its publication: his part had been to obtain materials that were in short supply and to smooth over various bureaucratic obstacles.

Shishakov entrusted Kovchenko with the task of filling the various positions that had fallen vacant. Applications were invited for the posts of director of the vacuum laboratory and director of the low temperature laboratory; there were also vacancies for research directors.

The War Department furnished both workers and materials; the mechanical workshop was reorganized and the main building of the Institute restored; the central power station agreed to provide an unlimited supply of electricity; special factories sent in whatever materials were in short supply. All this was arranged by Kovchenko.

Usually when a new director takes over, people say respectfully, 'He's the first to arrive at work and the last to leave.' This was said of Kovchenko. But a new director wins even more respect when people say, 'It's two weeks since he was appointed and he's only appeared once, for half an hour. He just never comes in.' This means that the director is drawing up new canons of law, that he has access to the highest circles of government. And this is what was said of Academician Shishakov.

As for Chepyzhin, he went off to his dacha, to work in what he called his laboratory hut. Professor Feinhard, the famous cardiologist, had advised him not to lift anything heavy and to avoid any sudden movements. Chepyzhin, however, chopped wood, dug ditches and felt fine. He wrote to Professor Feinhard that a strict regime suited him.

In cold, hungry Moscow the Institute seemed an oasis of warmth and luxury. When they came in to work, the members of staff took great pleasure warming their hands on the hot radiators; their flats were freezing and damp.

What they liked most of all was the new canteen in the basement. It had a buffet where you could buy yoghurt, sweet coffee and pieces of sausage. And the woman behind the counter didn't tear off the coupons for meat and fat from your ration-cards; this was particularly appreciated.

The canteen had six different menus: one for doctors of science, one for research directors, one for research assistants, one for senior laboratory assistants, one for technicians and one for service personnel. The fiercest passions were generated by the two highest-grade menus, which differed only in their desserts – stewed fruit or a jelly made from powder. Emotions also ran high over the food parcels delivered to the houses of doctors and research directors.

Savostyanov remarked that, in all probability, these parcels had stirred more passions than the theory of Copernicus.

Sometimes it seemed as though higher, more mysterious powers were involved in the arcana of rations allocation; that it did not depend merely on the Party committee and the administrators of the Institute.

'You know, your parcel came today,' Lyudmila announced one evening. 'What I can't understand is why Svechin, a nonentity in the scientific world, should get two dozen eggs, while you, for some reason, only get fifteen. I checked it on the list. You and Sokolov each get fifteen.'

'God knows what it all means,' said Viktor. 'As you are aware, there are various different classes of scientists: very great, great, famous, talented and – finally – very old. Since the very great and the great are no longer with us, they don't need eggs. The others receive varying quantities of eggs, semolina and cabbage according to rank. But then everything gets confused by other questions. Are you active in society? Do you give seminars in Marxism? Are you close to the directors? And it comes out quite crazy. The man in charge of the Academy garage gets the same as Zelinsky – twenty-five eggs. There's a very charming young lady in Svechin's laboratory who was so upset yesterday that she burst into tears and refused to eat anything at all. Like Gandhi.'

Nadya burst out laughing. 'You know, Papa, I'm amazed you're not ashamed to eat your lamb chops with the cleaning ladies right there beside you. Grandmother could never have done that.'

'Each according to his labour,' said Lyudmila. 'That's the principle of Socialism.'

'Come on!' said Viktor. 'There's no trace of Socialism in our canteen. Anyway, I don't give a damn. But do you know what Markov told me today?' he added suddenly. 'At the Institute – and even at the Institute of Mathematics and Mechanics-people are typing out copies of my work and passing them round.'

'Like Mandelstam's poems,' said Nadya.

'Don't make fun of me,' said Viktor. 'And the final-year students are even asking for special lectures on it.'

'That's nothing,' said Nadya. 'Alka Postoeva told me, "Your papa's become a genius." '

'No,' said Viktor, 'I'm not yet a genius.'

He went off to his room. A moment later, however, he came back and said: 'I just can't get this nonsense out of my head. Two dozen eggs for Svechin! It's amazing what ways they find to humiliate people.'

To Viktor's shame, what hurt him most was being put on the same level as Sokolov. 'Yes, they should have recognized my merits by allowing me at least one extra egg. They could have given Sokolov fourteen – just as a symbolic distinction.'

He tried to laugh at himself, but he couldn't get rid of his pathetic sense of irritation. He was more upset at being given the same as Sokolov than at being given less than Svechin. With Svechin everything was clear enough: he was a member of the Party bureau. This was something Viktor could accept. But with Sokolov it was a matter of relative scientific standing. That was something he couldn't ignore. He felt quite tormented; his indignation sprang from the very depths of his soul. What an absurd way for the authorities to show their appreciation of people! But what could he do? There are times when everyone behaves pathetically.

As he was getting into bed, Viktor remembered his conversation with Sokolov about Chepyzhin and said in a loud, angry voice: 'Homo lackeyus!'

'Who do you mean?' asked Lyudmila, who was already in bed, reading a book.

'Sokolov. He's a born lackey.'

Lyudmila put a finger in her book to mark the page and said, without even turning her head:

'Soon you'll be thrown out of the Institute – and all for a few fine words. You're so irritable, you're always telling everyone what to do… You've already quarrelled with everyone else and now you want to quarrel with Sokolov. Soon no one will even set foot in our house.'

'No, Lyuda darling, that's not it at all. How can I explain? Don't you understand? The same fear as before the war, the same fear over every word, the same helplessness… Chepyzhin! Lyuda, we're talking about a great man. I thought the whole Institute would be seething, but the only person who said anything was the old caretaker. And then that strange remark Postoev made to Sokolov: "What matters is that we're both Russians." Why, why on earth did he say that?'

He wanted to have a long talk with Lyudmila; he wanted to share all his thoughts with her. He was ashamed at being so preoccupied with things like rations. He had grown dull. Why? Why had he somehow become older now that they were back in Moscow? Why had these trivialities, these petty-bourgeois concerns suddenly become so important? Why had his spiritual life in Kazan been so much deeper and purer, so much more significant? Why was it that even his scientific work – and his joy in it – was now contaminated with vanity and pettiness?

'It's all very difficult, Lyuda. I'm not well. Lyuda? Why don't you say anything?'

Lyudmila was asleep. Viktor laughed quietly. It seemed amusing that one woman should lose sleep over his troubles and another fall asleep while he talked about them. He could see Marya Ivanovna's thin face before him. He repeated what he had just said to his wife.

'Don't you understand? Masha?'

'Goodness, what nonsense gets into my head!' he said to himself as he fell asleep.

What nonsense indeed.

Viktor was very clumsy with his hands. If the electric iron burnt out or the lights fused, it was nearly always Lyudmila who sorted things out. During their first years together, Lyudmila had found this helplessness of Viktor's quite endearing; now, however, she found it irritating. Once, seeing him putting an empty kettle on the burner, she snapped: 'What's the matter with you? Are your hands made of clay or something?'

While they were assembling the new apparatus in the laboratory, these words of Lyudmila's came back to him; they had upset him and made him angry.

Markov and Nozdrin now ruled the laboratory. Savostyanov was the first to sense this. At one of their meetings he announced: 'There is no God but Professor Markov, and Nozdrin is his prophet!'

Markov's reticence and arrogance had quite disappeared. Viktor was amazed at his bold thinking, delighted by the ease with which he could solve any problem as it came up. He was like a surgeon applying his scalpel to a network of blood-vessels and nerve-fibres. It was as though he were bringing some rational being to life, some creature with a quick and penetrating mind of its own. This new metallic organism, the first in the world, seemed endowed with a heart and feelings, seemed able to rejoice and suffer along with the people who had made it.

In the past Viktor had been a little amused by Markov's unshake-able conviction that his work, the apparatus he had set up, was of more importance than the works of Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky or the futile occupations of a Buddha or a Mohammed.

Tolstoy had doubted the value of his own enormous labours. Tolstoy, a genius, had been unsure whether what he did was of any use to anyone. Not so the physicists. They had no doubts. And Markov least of all.

Now, however, this assurance of Markov's no longer made Viktor laugh.

Viktor also loved to watch Nozdrin working away with a file, a screwdriver or a pair of pliers, or sorting through skeins of flex as he helped the electricians wire up the apparatus.

The floor was covered in bundles of wire and thin leaves of matt blueish lead. On a cast-iron platform in the middle of the hall stood the main part of the new apparatus, patterned with small circles and rectangles that had been punched out of the metal. There was something heart-breakingly beautiful about the apparatus, this huge slab of metal that would allow them to study the nature of matter with fantastic refinement.

In the same way, one thousand or two thousand years ago, a small group of men had gathered together on the shore of the sea to build a raft, lashing thick logs together with ropes. Their workbenches and winches had been set up on a sandy beach and pots of tar were boiling over fires. Soon they would set sail.

In the evening the builders of the raft had left; they had once again breathed in the scent of their homes, felt the warmth of their hearths and listened to the laughter and curses of their women. Sometimes they had got drawn into domestic quarrels, shouting, threatening their children and arguing with their neighbours. But in the warm darkness of night the sound of the sea had come back to them; their hearts beat faster as they dreamed of travelling into the unknown.

Sokolov usually watched the progress of the work in silence. Often Viktor caught his eye and saw the seriousness and intentness of his gaze; it seemed then that nothing had changed and that there was still something good and important between them.

He longed to talk to Sokolov. It really was very strange. All these humiliating emotions unleashed by the allocation of rations, all these petty thoughts about the exact measure of the authorities' esteem for you. But there was still room in his soul for what did not depend on the authorities, on some prize or other, on his professional recognition or lack of it.

Once again those evenings in Kazan seemed young and beautiful, almost like pre-revolutionary student gatherings. As long as Madyarov could be trusted… How peculiar, though! Karimov suspected Madyarov, and Madyarov Karimov. They were both trustworthy! Viktor was sure of it. Unless, in the words of Heine, 'They both stank'.

Sometimes he remembered a strange conversation he had once had with Chepyzhin. Why, now he was back in Moscow, were the things he recalled so trivial and insignificant? Why did he think so often of people he had no respect for? And why were the most talented people, the most trustworthy people, unable to help him?

'It is odd,' Viktor said to Sokolov. 'People come from all the different laboratories to watch the new apparatus being assembled. But Shishakov hasn't once honoured us with his presence.'

'He's very busy.'

'Of course, of course,' Viktor agreed hurriedly.

Now that they were in Moscow, it was impossible to have a sincere, friendly conversation with Sokolov. It was as though they no longer knew each other.

Viktor no longer tried to seize every pretext for an argument with Sokolov. On the contrary, he tried to avoid arguments. But this was difficult; sometimes arguments seemed to flare up of their own accord.

Once Viktor ventured:

'I've been thinking of our talks in Kazan… By the way, do you know how Madyarov is? Does he write?'

Sokolov shook his head.

'I don't know. I don't know anything about Madyarov. I told you that we stopped seeing one another. I find it increasingly unpleasant to even think of those conversations. We were so depressed that we tried to lay the blame for temporary military setbacks on entirely imaginary failings in the Soviet State itself. And what we thought of as failings have now shown themselves to be strengths.'

'Like 1937, for example?'

'Viktor Pavlovich, for some time now you've been trying to turn every conversation of ours into an argument.'

Viktor wanted to say that it was the other way round, that it was Sokolov who was always irritable and that this irritation of his made him seek every opportunity for a quarrel. Instead, he just said:

'It may well be that the fault lies in my bad character, Pyotr Lavrentyevich. It gets worse every day. Lyudmila has noticed it too.'

At the same time he thought to himself: 'How alone I am. I'm alone at home and alone with my friend.'

28

Reichsfuhrer Himmler had arranged a meeting to discuss the special measures being undertaken by the RSHA, the headquarters of the Reich Security Administration. The meeting was an important one: after it Himmler had to visit the headquarters of the Fuhrer himself.

Obersturmbannfuhrer Liss had been instructed by Berlin to report on the progress of the special building being constructed next to the camp administration centre. Before inspecting the building itself, Liss was to visit the chemical and engineering firms responsible for filling the Administration's orders. He then had to go to Berlin to report to SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Eichmann, the man responsible for organizing the meeting.

Liss was delighted to be entrusted with this mission. He was tired of the atmosphere in the camp, of constant dealings with men of a coarse, primitive mentality.

As he got into his car, he thought of Mostovskoy. Day and night, the old man must be racking his brains, trying vainly to understand why on earth Liss had summoned him. He was probably waiting anxiously and impatiently for their next meeting. And all Liss had wanted was to check out a few ideas in connection with an article he hoped to write: 'The Ideology of the Enemy and Their Leaders'.

What an interesting old man! Yes, once you get inside the nucleus of the atom, the forces of attraction begin to act on you as powerfully as the centrifugal forces.

They drove out through the camp gates and Liss forgot Mostovskoy.

Early next morning he arrived at the Voss engineering works. After breakfast, Liss talked in Voss's office with the designer, Praschke, and then with the engineers in charge of production. The commercial director gave him a cost estimate for the equipment that had been ordered. He spent several hours in the din of the workshops themselves; by the end of the day he was exhausted.

The Voss works had been entrusted with an important part of the order and Liss was satisfied with their work. The directors had devoted considerable thought to the project and were keeping precisely to the specifications. The mechanical engineers had improved the construction of the conveyors, and the thermal technicians had developed a more economical system for heating the ovens.

After his long day at the factory, the evening he spent with the Voss family was particularly agreeable.

His visit to the chemical factory, on the other hand, was a disappointment: production had reached barely 40 per cent of the scheduled quantity. Liss was irritated by the countless complaints of the personnel involved: the production of these chemicals was a complex and uncertain process; the ventilation system had been damaged during an air-raid and a large number of workers had been poisoned; the supplies of infusorial earth – with which the stabilized product had to be treated – were erratic; the hermetic containers had been held up on the railways…

The directors, however, seemed to be fully aware of the importance of the order. The chief chemist, Doctor Kirchgarten, assured Liss that the order would be completed on time. It had even been decided to delay orders placed by the Ministry of Munitions, something unprecedented since September 1939.

Liss refused an invitation to observe the experiments being conducted in the laboratory. He did, however, look through pages of records signed by various physiologists, chemists and biochemists. He also met the young researchers responsible for the experiments: a physiologist and a biochemist (both women), a specialist in pathological anatomy, a chemist who specialized in organic compounds with a low boiling-point, and Professor Fischer himself, the toxicolog-ist who was in charge of the group.

Liss found these people very impressive. Although they were obviously concerned that he should approve of their methods, they nevertheless admitted their doubts and made no attempt to conceal the weak points in their work.

On the third day Liss flew to the site itself, accompanied by an engineer from the Oberstein construction firm. He felt good; the trip was proving entertaining. The best part of it – the visit to Berlin with the technical directors of the construction work – was still to come.

The weather was foul – cold November rain. It was only with some difficulty that they managed to land at the central camp airfield – there was mist on the ground, and the wings had begun to freeze as they reached a low altitude. Snow had fallen at dawn; here and there, in spite of the rain, grey frozen patches still clung to the clay. Impregnated with the leaden rain, the brims of the engineers' felt hats had begun to droop.

A railway track had been laid down, leading directly off the main line to the construction site. The tour of inspection began with the depots alongside the railway line. First, under an awning, was the sorting depot. This was filled with component parts of a variety of machines, tubes and pipes of every diameter, unassembled conveyor belts, fans and ventilators, ball-mills for human bones, gas and electricity meters soon to be mounted on control panels, drums of cable, cement, tip-wagons, heaps of rails, and office furniture.

Non-commissioned SS officers guarded a special building studded with softly humming ventilators and air-extractors. Here were housed the supplies that were beginning to arrive from the chemical factory: cylinders with red taps and fifteen-kilogram canisters with red and blue labels that looked from a distance like pots of Bulgarian jam.

The last building was partly below ground level. As they emerged, Liss and his companions met Professor Stahlgang, the chief architect of the project, who had just arrived by train from Berlin. He was accompanied by von Reineke, the chief site engineer, a vast man in a yellow leather jacket.

Stahlgang was having difficulty breathing; the damp air had brought on an attack of asthma. The engineers began reproaching him for not taking enough care of himself; they all knew that there was an album of his work in Hitler's personal library.

The site itself was no different from that of any other gigantic construction of the mid-twentieth century. Round the excavations you could hear the whistles of sentries, the grinding of excavators, the creaking of cranes as they manoeuvred, and the bird-like hoots of the locomotives.

Liss and his companions then went up to a grey rectangular building without windows. The whole group of buildings – the red-brick furnaces, the wide-mouthed chimneys, the control-towers, the watch-towers with their glass hoods – was centred on this faceless rectangle.

The roadmen were just finishing laying asphalt over the paths. Clouds of hot grey steam rose from beneath the rollers to mingle with the cold grey mist.

Von Reineke told Liss that recent tests had revealed that the hermetic qualities of number one complex were still inadequate. Then, forgetting his asthma, Stahlgang began outlining the architectural principles of the building; his voice was hoarse and excited.

For all its apparent simplicity and small dimensions, the ordinary industrial hydro-turbine is the point of concentration of enormous masses, forces and speeds. Within its spirals the geological power of water is transformed into work.

Number one complex was constructed according to the principle of the turbine. It was capable of transforming life itself, and all forms of energy pertaining to it, into inorganic matter. This new turbine had to overcome and harness the power of psychic, nervous, respiratory, cardiac, muscular and circulatory energy. And in this building the principle of the turbine was combined with those of the slaughterhouse and the garbage incineration unit. His task had been to find a way of integrating these various factors in one architectural solution.

'Even when he's inspecting the most mundane of industrial installations,' said Stahlgang, 'our beloved Hitler, as you know, never forgets questions of architectural form.'

He lowered his voice so that only Liss could hear him.

'An excessive mysticism in the architectural realization of the camps near Warsaw – as I'm sure you know – caused our Fuhrer grave annoyance. All these things have to be taken into account.'

The interior of the building corresponded perfectly to the epoch in which it was built, the epoch of the industry of mass and speed.

Once life had entered the supply canals, it was impossible for it to stop or turn back; its speed of flow down the concrete corridor was determined by formulae analogous to that of Stokes regarding the movement of liquid down a tube (a function of its density, specific gravity, viscosity and temperature, and of the friction involved).

Electric lights, protected by thick, almost opaque glass, were set into the ceiling. The light grew brighter as you walked down the corridor; by the polished steel door that closed off the chamber, it was cold and blinding.

Here you could sense the peculiar excitement which always grips builders and fitters when a new installation is about to be tested. Some labourers were washing down the floor with hoses. A middle-aged chemist in a white coat was measuring the pressure. Reineke gave orders for the door to be opened. As they entered the vast chamber with its low concrete ceiling, several of the engineers took off their hats. The floor consisted of heavy, movable slabs in metal frames; the joints between these frames were close and perfect. A mechanism operated from the control-room allowed the slabs to be raised on end in such a way that the contents of the chamber were evacuated into a hall beneath. Here the organic matter was examined by teams of dentists who extracted any precious metals used in dental work. Next, a conveyor-belt leading to the crematoria themselves was set in motion; there the organic matter, already without thought or feeling, underwent a further process of decomposition under