Tales from a Far Country Ch. 04-25byfreddie_clegg©
CHAPTER 4 : THE AMBITIONS OF POPOVA
It is October 1984. Ludmila Ivanovna Popova is ushered in by a nurse. She sees the gynaecologist sitting at his desk, the autumn sky through the window behind and notices that he glances away she walks across to him.
"Please - sit down, Comrade Popova."
Popova expects this to be a difficult meeting and she has come in her uniform, the uniform of a Colonel in the KGB. It has a desirable effect. Doors are opened for her. People speak respectfully. The gynaecologist is on edge .... She will have the truth from him!
"You have the information from your investigations?"
"Yes, Comrade, I have."
"And you have an opinion?"
"Yes, Comrade, I do"
The doctor avoids her gaze once more as he begins. At that point, Popova knows the news is bad, almost without the need for him to say anything further.
"Ah, I am sorry Comrade. I have no good news. The lesion is cancerous. The histology shows it to be aggressive. The prognosis for ovarian carcinoma is difficult -- but there are options."
"Well, it would be resection followed by radiotherapy. We can control the growth locally and many patients have significant remissions."
How long? The question on the lips of every patient but the Colonel is a brave woman and practical, too.
"I am sorry, Comrade. I cannot tell you that with any certainty. We have to rely on statistics, specifically the survival at five years."
"Fifty percent of patients will survive five years but if the cancer has spread into the abdominal cavity, only 20 percent of patients will survive. Then there is the aggressiveness of the lesion to consider... Your histology was discouraging ...."
Popova tells her driver to take her to Sokolniki. (1) As she walks through the park, her uniform has, once again, its usual intimidating effect on passers-by. She is able to walk alone, in peace, in this oasis from the bustle of the city; able to give herself an opportunity to reflect on the passing of time and the fragility of life.
She should feel some form of gratitude, she tells herself. To be spared the decrepitude of old age, that slow, downwards descent into incapacity as bit by bit, her body surrenders to infirmity and decay. But how should she to spend her last few years - or perhaps months? What ambitions remained unfulfilled? What achievements could be her memorial? She has no husband, no family and her friends are largely people connected with the Service. She has given her life to her country, to the advancement of socialism. The Service has been her family. What is the most important work still left undone?
Popova considers her options: how would she know her career had been crowned by success? She would have to rely on the opinions of others, to some extent. Suppose she were to be promoted to General? That would be a confirmation ...
She considers further. To die in vigorous middle age, as a General of the KGB. A life dedicated to the welfare of her country and socialism would be a life well-lived. It would be a good epitaph. And so it will be! That will be how she will spend her final days. To secure promotion to General in the KGB ....
But how could it be achieved? She has the confidence of her superiors. She has a capable team at her command. The international situation is challenging; the new, aggressive, American President, Regan and the strident British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Then of course, there is Afghanistan and the efforts to support the socialist government.
Clearly, there is much to do ...
Colonel Popova opens the file on Svetlana Nikitechna Naidenova; the foundling. The young girl had been brought up an orphan, succeeded at school and university, joined the Red Army and seconded to the KGB as her considerable abilities were recognised. The girl had become involved with the son of General Sergey Kustensky, Hero of the Soviet Union. He was what one might call "Soviet Aristocracy"; his son, less politically engaged commentators might call dashing. Much is expected from the son, Anatoly and he is fulfilling expectations - and more.
But he has made a mistake. It seemed he has got the foundling pregnant, just before he is to take up a post at the Soviet Embassy in London. He will need to keep his mind focused on his duties, just as Svetlana Naidenova is required to concentrate on hers. Especially by Popova. Especially at this crucial phase of her campaign. With the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating, the CIA arming the Afghan tribes, this is a very inconvenient time for key workers to be distracted by the physical and psychological burdens of an unplanned pregnancy! And Popova has also begun to notice that she is occasionally in pain. It is nothing that she cannot bear but it is a sign that time is short, for her.
It is late on the morning of Tuesday. Sveta receives the summons to attend the private office of her section chief, Colonel Popova. This is not unusual and in any case, there were several "issues" facing the Service at present, but right now, Sveta feels she can do anything! She is pregnant with Anatoly's child! At last, she would be part of a family. She will have a family of her own.
The delicate issue, which needs to be approached with some caution, is how to explain to the Colonel that she will need some time away from the Lubyanka(2) in the weeks before her baby is born and for some time afterwards. And then there was her marriage to Anatoly to plan. She would be part of a family at last. A real biological family! With her mind suffused with confidence, she knows she can tackle any situation. Sveta goes happily to her meeting with the Colonel.
"Comrade Naidenova? Sit down."
The Colonel does not look at her as she enters. Sveta knows at once that something serious is wrong.
Colonel Popova sits at her desk, her secretary at her side and a man in a suit. Sveta has never seen him before.
"You have something to tell me Comrade?" the Colonel begins.
"Er ..." Sveta replies as she tries to read what is going on. She has been caught off guard. She rapidly runs through the progress of the various tasks she has been given but none of them seem to be in a condition to cause concern ....
"You are aware of the South Asia situation report? You are aware of how the Soviet Union is fighting valiantly to secure the onward march of Socialism?" Popova peers over her spectacles at Sveta.
"Yes, of course, Colonel"
"And the political challenges being set us by the United States and their allies?"
Sveta glances down at Colonel Popova's desk: she can see a photograph peeping from a sheaf of papers: the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher glares at her from the picture, raising her arm in an accusatory gesture.
"And you remember the heroic sacrifices made by workers and soldiers in the Great Patriotic War Against Fascism?(3) You are aware that all loyal citizens are expected to emulate their commitment to the cause and to spare no effort to further the interests of the Motherland in these difficult times?"
"Of course, Comrade Colonel. My loyalty to the State is unswerving."
"Unswerving?" Colonel Popova reflects the word back to Sveta, slowly, sceptically.
"Of course, Colonel. Unswerving", but Sveta is beginning to feel sick with fear. Surely, surely her loyalty and commitment are not in question? Has she been informed against? But what is there to inform about? Yet does there need to be a reason?
"And no sacrifice would be too great?"
"Of course not." Sveta would now make any commitment to survive this interview ...
"Then why do I have to point out that in these difficult times, you have formed an irregular liaison with another member of the Service, someone who is being sent abroad on important work and when you, yourself, are handling vital responsibilities and yet you have allowed yourself to become pregnant? (Popova takes special care to spit out the word 'Pregnant') You have taken absolutely no steps to deal with the situation, have you?"
"But Colonel ... I ... we"
"You are a disgrace! I am ashamed of you! You have been brought up by the State. Fed by the State. Clothed. Nurtured. Educated. You now show your gratitude by forming this ridiculous relationship and without any effort to control your biological urges, you put the work of your comrade and this Department at considerable risk. Let me tell you, such disloyal carelessness will not be tolerated. Do I make myself clear, Comrade Naidenova?"
Colonel Popova is pleased to see that the Naidenova girl is now wracked with tears, shaking, unable to look at her. Popova redoubles her onslaught:
"Comrade Naidenova, you have just told me that no sacrifice for the good of the Soviet Union is too great for you to make, have you not?"
"No, Colonel, I mean yes, no sacrifice is too great for loyal citizens."
The girl is shaking her head, her sobs out of control.
"Then here is your opportunity to show me and the rest of your comrades just how much you mean the words you say.
"This pregnancy ... will be terminated. Do you hear? Terminated. Arrangements have been made. You will accompany Dr Andropov. Your duties for the remainder of today, tomorrow and Thursday have been attended to. On Friday, we will meet here and you will resume your responsibilities. This enforced absence from duty will be reclaimed from your annual leave.
"Dr Andropov: you will conduct Comrade Naidenova to the clinic at once and deal with her. Comrade Naidenova? You are dismissed."
As she says 'dismissed', the Colonel curls her lip. Svetlana Naidenova is left in no doubt whatsoever about the Colonel's opinion of her and by implication, the opinion of everyone else at the Lubyanka.
In years to come, Sveta finds her memory of the subsequent events elusive. They call to her sporadically as she encounters a smell or sound or some other sensation which echoes the Termination. The sight of a cream painted wall, the black rubber wheels of a medical trolley, The stab of a hypodermic needle, the pain and bleeding of her monthly periods, reminding her of another episode of pain and bleeding. They all remind her of one winter afternoon on a Tuesday when she awoke, her head intoxicated, swimming with post-anaesthetic nausea, her womb empty, once more an orphan, once more all alone.
Whilst Sveta finds the medical details hard to recall, she is overshadowed by the emotional trauma of her abortion. In the months immediately afterwards, she tries to lose herself in work, trying to justify what she has allowed by submerging herself in the Higher Cause she agreed to serve. Agreed. Agreed? The Higher Cause she acquiesced to, she was unable to resist, she was terrified by. The Higher Cause of the welfare and interests of her Motherland or was it merely the Ambitions of Popova? Sveta works and drinks to distract herself from the pain of her empty womb. The promise of intimacy when Anatoly should one day return, holds no attraction for her. After all, to what did it lead? Terror, pain, guilt and shame. When Sveta sees a mother with her baby in the street, she hides her face and runs from the scene. The young KGB officer driven to tears by the thin cry of a little child.
Presently, Anatoly returns from London and afterwards, a marriage takes place. Sveta and Anatoly declare their love and loyalty to one another and begin to walk through life together, hand in hand as it were, but not far behind, just a step away or so it seems, there is Sveta's secret memory of the shattered body of an unborn child, the cruel sacrifice to a State and a cause which themselves have passed away ....
Sveta finds it hard to conceive again and when she is finally pregnant once more, she loses the child to miscarriage -- and then one more, and then one more again. She has not been brought up to be religious - after all, she is a child of the Soviet Union -- but she cannot help but wonder if she is being punished for her cowardice in the face of a desperate middle aged woman, one cold afternoon in winter, years ago?
Sveta then takes an irrational step. She visits the Cathedral of the Annunciation which stands within the precincts of the Kremlin, a stone's throw from the offices where Stalin planned and executed The Terror.(4)
Close by her in the church, the Icons keep their unending watch, the place where the faithful can peep into Heaven, or is it really the place where Heaven turns its burning eye and watches them? She lights two tapers. One for an unborn child and one for a child yet to be conceived. Within the year, she has given birth to Alana and at last, Sveta is a mother and has a real family all her own. At last, in her secret place an unquiet ghost begins to slumber -- for a little while.
1 A famous park in Moscow: http://www.moscow.info/parks/sokolniki-park.aspx
2 The notorious head quarters of the KGB, the Soviet Secret Police. Actually, the HQ is a large yellow painted building on one side of Lubyanka Square, not far from the Kremlin. Nowadays Lubyanka Square is a very busy with a constant stream of traffic pouring past the building in question, which is now occupied by the FSB, the Russian Security Service.
3 The Soviet name for the Second World War
4 The Great Purge of political opponents and potential rivals and in fact anyone who fell under Stalin's paranoid suspicion in the Soviet Union in the 1930's
5 You might think that the events in this chapter -- a young person browbeaten into having a termination of pregnancy for the convenience of others -- are something which could only have happened in the old Soviet Union. Unfortunately this still happens nowadays. If our story line has opened old wounds for you we offer our condolences. CHAPTER 5 : A QUESTION OF ATTRIBUTION THE VOICE
They take me from my cell. When I was at Inward Bound, I was embarrassed to call the room, "my cell". There's no embarrassment now because this is not playing. I really am a prisoner.
We enter another similar room. It's just next to mine in a long corridor; just another featureless white square cell; empty, except for a mat on the floor.
The guard motions me to kneel on the mat. There's no point in resisting, so I kneel. He leaves. Silence.
Then there is the voice: Soft; firm; feminine; self-assured; confident; business-like. "Stand ..."
I stand -- actually, kneeling was getting uncomfortable -- but the disembodied voice is unsettling. It seems to come from far away. It comes to me from nowhere: no loudspeaker: no sign of anyone speaking personally.
"Turn around ..."
I kneel again.
"Tell me about yourself ...."
"No thank you."
"My advice is that you should answer promptly and honestly."
"Why should I? Who are you? I demand that you let me go immediately!"
This sounds thin and unrealistic even to my ears. I can hear the amusement in the softly accented voice: "You will be here as long as I wish - and you should answer the questions."
I remember my CIA interrogation by Connie almost with regret. At least on that occasion, there was a real person to react to. This time, I could be talking to a machine. The idea makes me feel cold. The whole room is beginning to feel cold and damp. I start to shiver.
"Tell me about yourself, Vyera."
"I'm not Vay -- what you said. I'm Jennifer McEwan. Please call me by my right name. My name is Jennifer Karin McEwan."
I'm panicking. I can hear it in my own voice. Perhaps they have the wrong person. Of course they have the wrong person! Perhaps if I can convince them that I'm Jenny McEwan they will send me home?
"Tell me about yourself. As long ago as you can remember."
This seems to be an opportunity to persuade them. I start to speak. It feels comforting to hear myself speaking of familiar things into the white, cold, empty, unfamiliar, room. I say more than I intend to. I talk about Ely, Cambridge, parents, university, friends, my job. I talk about Joe .....
I'm desperate to show that I'm Jenny McEwan. I am doing it to show them that I am not this "Vyera".
The voice asks about my brothers and sisters:
How many? How old? Do I see them? Do I hear from them? Do I like them? Do I love them? Would I like children one day?
The voice asks about Joe: How do I manage when he is away? How often is he away? Do I miss him? Do I have friends? Are they boy friends? Are they girl friends? Are they just friends?
The questioning goes on and on and I'm getting more and more uncomfortable. I'm cold, I'm disconcerted by what I'm being asked, I'm very sore from kneeling and I'm desperate to relieve myself.
"I'm sorry," I say, "I have to pee. Can I go? Please?"
"Of course," says the voice.
"But I ... but there is no ...." I cast my eyes desperately round the cell and notice a floor drain. I know what this means; the same games that they played with me when I first went to Inward Bound. It feels every bit as humiliating as the first time I had to do this. I walk over to the drain and just let go. I seem to pee for ages and ages and the longer it goes on the more my face burns with shame.
"Kneel", says the voice.
I kneel again. My thighs feel damp, splashed with my own urine.
"Thank you, Vyera."
"I am not Vyera, I'm Jenny!"
"You are Vyera", replies the voice. The voice is soft, reasonable, unswerving, patient, implacable. The voice insists on what will be and I have nothing to resist with. Nothing to hold on to. "Your name is Vyera ...."
Deep in my memory, there is a little girl, just three years old. She is hiding under her parents bed, pulling a blanket over herself and laying very still, undiscovered by her brothers who are searching for her. I fly back across the years to my old home. The little girl runs up the stairs. She slips inside the bedroom and under the bed. She covers herself with a quilt and lays quiet, still. One restless move and the Voice might hear her, might see her, might prize her out of hiding .....
"Your future," the voice gently, insistently, implacably tells me, "is Vyera ...." SOME PRELIMINARY OBSERVATIONS
"Well, what do you think? Will she do?"
Anatoly leans over Sveta's shoulder as the both watch Jenny's image on the computer screen.
Sveta turns the microphone off, and spends a few moments more studying the image of a young naked woman on the computer screen.
"Well, Tolya, she is a nice kid. I think she might do well as a nanny. Her answers corresponded to your background information and she is ... has a nice personality as far as I can tell at the moment. I like her. Her tattoo is nice .... but that's not the point. The point is, is she the right person to be our nanny? The right nanny to help Alana?"
"So what do you think, Sveta? "
"I think she has absolutely no technical knowledge or family experience to draw on, so she would be useless in the period just after Alana's baby is born except to help with the routine housework. After that .... I just do not know. Maybe. Maybe not."
This is clearly not the answer Anatoly was hoping for but Sveta is not going to be over optimistic or unrealistic just to make him feel better.
"Tolya, go get her trained and let's see how she gets on. By the way, she is going to needs a regular shaving if she is going to stay as smooth as she is now. Maybe ... maybe we ought to have her hair lasered? It looks as if her natural hair colour was brown, so that will make the hair removal particularly effective and that will mean she has a lot less maintenance to do. More time for her to concentrate on her work. Maybe start on her legs and work gradually up."(1)