End of the carnival

Issue 4/1991 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extract from the novel Ottopoika (‘Otto the adopted’: Otava, 1991). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

Verily, verily, keep peace with your God!

The way people are arranged in the courtroom means that Joseph Vissarionovich finds himself in the dock. All right, never mind, if they want to play games with Stalin: they’ll soon find out who comes off second best, very much second best.

The former politburo, led by Trotsky, has occupied the right wing of the front bench. Tanya, the girl from Petersburg, is sitting by Rykov, with her artificial leg under her arm, stuffing her pigtail in her mouth; she giggles and tries to stuff the other pigtail into Rykov’s mouth. Not succeeding, she spits in his face and pulls her skirt over her ears, revealing a small reddish quim. The 1925 politburo appears unmoved, but Trotsky jerks round enough for Stalin to see the axe sticking out of the back of his neck. Meanwhile, a susurrus of tut-tuttings goes round the courtroom.

‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ It’s a didactic bass voice coming out of the darkest corner – from the sort of citizen you find in every village: a loud­mouthed know-all immediately recognisable as having missed the boat long ago, but still going strong and not yet told – because of his shoulders, fists or other manly qualities, or out of fear, or perhaps sheer consideration – to pipe down, just for once, puddinghead. Even Stalin is powerless against him, for the man’s always on his side, always and in every way.

There are sounds of scuffling from a black screen by the side wall. A naked woman is shoving other similarly naked women back behind a curtain; and a ballet-girl with red fuzz near up to her navel stalks into the jury box with theatrical poise and tries to whip on a Ukrainian national costume hemmed with tiny bells; she somehow tinkles the thing on, takes some knitting out of the shoulder bag that goes with it and gives the whole outfit a jingle; then she sits, back straight, stretching her muscled, quietly tinkling shanks skyward to remind the peasantry that she’s a classically trained ballerina from the Kirov Ballet, as well as a distinguished state artist and party member.

In spite of her icy look of refinement, a tenor from the Red Army Choir sidles up to her, holding a ball under his arm; then the choirmaster, wearing a red eye-patch, and with a horsewhip in his boot, presses a luxuriant, comradely, all-state-artists­ together flourish of a kiss on the ballerina’s cheek. Squatting into a crouching position like a government service general of Nicholas’s era, he crosses one knee over the other and folds his arms. He’s slightly knocked off kilter for a moment when the tenor bounces the ball on top of his head, puts it to his ear and pretends to crow an A. The choirmaster nods amiably; there’s not much else he can do.

Everyone else sits gravely, even the eternally smiling Bukharin. Rykov strokes little Tanya’s tightly plaited hair with the cup of his hand and mumbles on so long about children’s rights in the Soviet Union that Tanya gives him a bang with her large though lightly constructed artificial leg. The courtroom is abuzz with disapproval – odd remarks surface, like ‘what she wants is a good hiding, a good thrashing’, ‘ought to be sent back to school’, ‘what kind of parents has she had?’

‘We ate them during the siege,’ Tanya says in measured and audible tones. Silence falls in the hall till the schoolmaster roars:

‘Convict the Germans!’ The cry is taken up and accompanied by clapping. Some start on a song – ‘Dear City of Mists’ – but a turnip transmogrified into Lenin hammers slowly with his gavel: bang bang bang; and the very last fragment of song is choked off when he gives the table such a bang that his turnip-root whiskers blow out like a seagull from a flourbin. The sound goes on echoing round the room, some ventriloquist perhaps seizing this opportunity. Nevertheless, no one dares laugh; Rykov alone ventures to speak; he recalls the pet seagull on the battleship Aurora: how, just before the attack on the Winter Palace, the drunken cadets fed gunpowder to it, stuffed in herring – thus signing their own death-warrant: for the revolutionary bluejackets carried out the sentence, pouring lead from the cadets’ own molten bullets down the throats of these animal-torturers and lackeys, armed supporters of the rich.

‘You can’t tame seagulls, the story’s a spoof,’ Trotsky comments laconically, with Trotskyite arrogance. Zinoviev and Kamenev glance at Lenin and exclaim disbelievingly; Bukharin openly guffaws, joined by many sitting in the second and third rows. Stalin nods evenly: this will proceed under its own momentum to the hoped-for conclusion: they’re snagged on their own hooks with their sham vociferations: ignorant and indecisive as usual. The buzz of conversation swarms round the courtroom, but, after giving Stalin a prolonged stare, Lenin achieves a return of silence with the curt remark:

‘Cadet-waffle – seagulls aren’t tamed like that.’ But Tanya, sticking out her tongue at Stalin, goes on to warble a snatch of song: ‘And cruelly smiling, he flew to the mountains… ‘

‘Flew?’ enquires Zinoviev, crowing in his shrill voice.

‘Left,’ says Lenin, correcting Tanya, and adds didactically: ‘The lines are about a hunter, not a bird.’

During the expectant hush, Vyshinsky clears his throat, digs a thick wad of papers out of his briefcase – which in its pre-revolutionary career belonged to General Wrangel, the chief of staff, said to have waged war powered by brandy alone. It was left behind in Sebastopol when the Whites fled to Turkey via the Black Sea. Rumour had it that a close relative of Vyshinsky came across it full of gold and told his relative, the revolutionary law student. Vyshinsky, threatening denunciation, forced the finder to report his discovery to the party, which resulted in the unique career of Vyshinsky as a Soviet jurist, party member, and leading Soviet patriot. No one but the Supreme Soviet Prosecuting Authority’s old mum was heard calling him a fool and worse, but her burblings were ignored. A certain young and enthusiastic komsomol, who had also exposed his whole family as kulaks, denounced the old lady in some detail. That was the end of him: no more was heard of the young man.

After the squabble about the pet seagull, Lenin, now looking somewhat sourer, growls:

‘Is the prosecutor ready to initiate the state trial?’

In reply Vyshinsky adjusts his glasses. Judging from the thickness of the pile of papers, the reading of the indictment will take some considerable time, but Vyshinsky appears in no hurry to start, clears his throat and takes so long straightening his tie that Lenin makes two obscene gestures – one being a grab of his right wrist in his left hand. Laughter immediately explodes in the courtroom, outright guffawing, but Vyshinsky seems not to hear: he busies himself even more, adjusting the papers carefully enough on the edge of the table to be able to insert a match through the file­holes. Lenin gives him a sideways look, stirring his whiskers from time to time as if about to say something, but when the match has been inserted cleanly through both holes he nods with comradely encouragement and, without a word, offers Vyshinsky a pea. Then he indicates his meaning by making a hole with the left thumb and forefinger of his right hand and poking his left forefinger into it above the pile of papers. He winks and moves his finger backwards and forwards.

Again a buzz of hilarious laughter goes round the courtroom, but slightly more tentative this time: gestures like these are not expected from Vladimir Ilyich.

Translated by Herbert Lomas


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