Dead of winter in Moscow, darkening skies, the day fading to night behind storm clouds. The city crackles under layers of ice and wet-packed snow as I crunch along the pathways between the pines and silver birches in Victory Park. The park is nearly empty. My breath trails behind me in lonely streamers.
I have a sense that something evil is about to hatch. Another mass grave spilling bodies, maybe, one more reminder of Stalin’s reign of terror. All these years later, the horror of those times should linger only in aged memories, yellowing documents, and sepia photographs. But rotted flesh and broken bones keep blooming from the soil to remind us that the past never ends.
A cold shiver passes through me. How many times in my life has a premonition of evil been followed by the real thing?
Ahead looms the obelisk atop Poklonnaya Hill, marking the spot where Napoleon gazed over the spiritual capital of Russia while he waited in vain for news of the Kremlin’s surrender. Moscow burned on that long-ago night, engulfed in flames before Napoleon could occupy his prize. Now in the gathering darkness the first lights of the city provide only the illusion of warmth.
I find a bench overlooking the golden domes of an Orthodox church and settle in to wait.
Nightfall comes quickly. The cold drives away all but a few of the remaining visitors. Orbs of light from the streetlamps punch yellow holes in the darkness, growing progressively larger as they march up the hill toward my spot on the high ground. A man appears in the lit cone beneath the farthest lamp, a wavering shadow that firms into a dark silhouette as he passes from one island of light to the next, head down, shoulders hunched against the chill wind spilling down the hills in waves broken by naked trees. His image hardens as he draws nearer, resolving itself
into the stooped shape of one bent by time and hardship.
The pale smudge of his face hovers between the upturned collar of his overcoat and the brown fur of his sable hat. Saggy skin, downcast eyes, pink lips visible beneath his ragged mustache. His hands buried in his pockets, he lowers himself onto the bench next to me, groaning under his breath when the bench takes his weight. The sound seems to emanate from the cloud of steam in front of his mouth.
Neither of us speaks for a long time.
“The cold aches my bones,” he says at last.
Ilya’s voice is soft. No sharp edges or inflections. A prisoner’s murmur, a low sound meant for one pair of ears, intended to fall softly from his lips to be borne away by the wind. The Gulag’s hardest lessons are never forgotten.
I finger the note in my pocket, written in pencil on brown paper torn from a grocery bag and left with the counter man at Vadim’s Café. Victory Park, the bench nearest the obelisk, tomorrow, 6 o’clock. Don’t tell the General. The letters are crooked, blurry where his shaky hand smudged the writing. Signed Ilya, the same way he signed his samizdat manuscripts fifty years ago, risking death or imprisonment by attaching his name to forbidden literature.
He shifts his weight and sighs. “You’ve been away.”
I sweep my gaze around the park, looking for moving shapes in the gloom, for a flicker of light from a camera lens or a cigarette, for anything that doesn’t belong.
“America. Los Angeles, mostly. Chasing phantoms from the Soviet days.”
On the trail of a decrypted World War II-era cable and the photo of a man who turned out to be my long missing father, a Cold War defector. I still don’t know what to make of that episode, or whether I made the right decision in the end.
“It’s warm there all the time,” I add.
Ilya nods. The movement makes his coat rustle against the rime on the back of the bench. “We don’t fit in places like that. Just as they aren’t suited to here. Cold changes a person.”
The sound of heavy footfalls and labored breathing carries to us before a woman appears on one of the paths, chugging toward us. Rumpled, bundled into several layers of clothing, old or injured by the looks of her tottering gait. She passes without a word or a glance.
A sliver of moon finds a gap in the clouds and brightens the evening gloom. I blow into my gloved hands to warm them, waiting for the woman to disappear around a bend in the path.
“Are you still writing?”
“Bah. Who is left to publish what I have to say? Worse, who will read it?”
“Novaya Gazeta might print it.”
“Not since Anna and all the others. They are afraid, like everybody else. I don’t blame them.”
A nighthawk flits overhead, chasing the moon behind a claw-shaped cloud, blacking out the silver light. I think of Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in her apartment building. And of Magomad Yevloyev, another fierce Kremlin critic whom I got to know during my years on the border of Chechnya and Ingushetia, shot in the head while “resisting arrest.” And Natalya Estemirova of the human rights group Memorial, abducted and killed outside her home in Grozny. So many others. One after another they disappear, beacons of light snuffed out by an ocean of darkness.
I turn up my collar. My nose and cheeks feel frozen. “How many dead journalists now?”
“Since Putin took power? Twenty-one. More if you count unexplained accidents. Shot, stabbed, beaten, poisoned, pushed out of windows. Who knows how many others have been bullied or harassed into silence?”
He drags a crumpled handkerchief from his pocket and uses it to wipe his nose. The handkerchief looks old, red faded to pink from many washes
“And now one more. That’s what I want to talk to you about.”
The premonition of dread I felt before hardens into an acidic lump in the pit of my stomach.
He stands with a groan. Weakly stomps his feet against the frozen path, like a small child throwing a tantrum.
“Walk with me,” he says, and I do, limping a bit as we wander slowly along the path toward the Orthodox Church, my stump grinding uncomfortably into the socket of my prosthesis. Sitting too long in cold weather does that now.
“Not only another journalist.” Ilya’s breath balloons from his mouth, lit like a mustard cloud by the overhead lamps. “Four were killed. Three of them students sent to a village called Metlino to study the geographic features there.”
I try not to react, but his gaze sharpens as he reads something in my eyes or my posture.
“You know that place?” he says.
“I heard it mentioned not long ago. Metlino has interesting geography?”
He coughs for a long time, a wet, hacking sound, waving away my offer to thump his back to clear his lungs of phlegm. Icicles of condensation glisten like slivers of light in his gray mustache by the time the fit passes.
“Maybe the students were there for another reason.” “Such as?”
“Metlino is near the site of a radiation explosion. It was one of many villages contaminated with the fallout when a nuclear plant called Mayak blew.”
My fear hardens into near certainty. I don’t have enough spit to swallow. My gaze drifts to the golden domes of the church. They remind me of the view I once had from the window of a room in the Astoria Hotel in St. Petersburg. A different dome threw golden rays through the parted drapes that night.
Ilya clears his throat. I realize he’s been staring at me. “So?”
“Yes, so is always a good question.” He offers a fatalistic Russian shrug. “Maybe I make too many connections these days. Think too much, allow events that don’t really belong together to blend into something sinister in my mind.”
He coughs again. Moist air billows in jaundiced clouds around his cupped hands. When the spasm ends he wipes his nose with the handkerchief.
“So these four, this journalist and these students, they made problems for someone. I don’t know who, but he”—Ilya knits his shaggy eyebrows while he considers the word—“or she, maybe. More than ever they are women now, like Valya, yes? The point is that somebody didn’t like them being there.”
I stop. Turn a slow circle to make sure we are still alone in the night.
“Why should I care?”
He waits until my gaze catches and holds on his. “The three students? Who knows? Perhaps just the wrong place, wrong time? But the fourth victim, she is more important to Russia, and to you.”
I know the name on his lips. But for some reason I need to hear him say it. I don’t know why. I need to hear him say her name.
So I ask. “Who?”
He wipes his nose, regarding me with an expression that borders on sympathy. His eyes are rheumy, red-lined, sad.