An excerpt from "Offended Sensibilities"
a novel by Alisa Ganieva
Translated from the Russian by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler
Listen to Alisa Ganieva and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler in Episode 49 of the She's In Russia podcast here.
The three law enforcement men had already been clicking around the parquet of the downstairs rooms for quite a while, two citizens deputized to witness the search trudging along behind them, gaping at the fancy décor of the Lyamzin house.
“What kinda bird’s that?” the investigator inquired, jabbing a Sevres porcelain sculpture of what looked like a peacock with the tip of one fat finger.
“The Firebird. You’ll find it doesn’t have any orifices,” answered the ruffled-looking widow, sunken deep in the leather chair in the living room, wrapped in the black woolen shawl she’d recently snatched from its hanger.
“Don’t you worry, we’re not gonna go pokin’ around up its ass,” giggled one of the three. The slouching witnesses had shyly slipped off their shoes in the entryway, and Mrs. Lyamzin glared disdainfully at their stretched, worn-out socks. “The law requires two lookie-loos, so they grabbed some trash that just got locked up in the next precinct, and that’s what passes for oversight,” she thought, gathering her shawl tighter.
She just couldn’t figure out what these investigators wanted from her. The suffocating horror of falsified documents from her school being laid bare had already dulled, and now she just felt chilly and run-down. They dumped out the squat bookshelf, and little volumes, unread by anyone, tumbled to the floor like windfall nuts with a crackling of shells and a rustling of pages.
“If Sopakhin is the guilty party, what does any of this have to do with me?” Mrs. Lyamzin asked the investigator yet again.
Sopakhin was the history teacher at her school. He’d been working there for fifteen years. He never made any trouble or wheedled for a raise. He carted the kids around on field trips to the woods or the nearby lakes and helped out the winners of local contests. Well, now it turned out he was a criminal, that he’d falsified history. Her sinews knotted with indignation—how dare they drag the inconsolable widow of the esteemed Andrei Ivanovich Lyamzin out of bed over some worthless mediocrity of a teacher? The mustached investigator was being polite about it, bowing to the lady of the house and keeping his tone gentle—but he was putting the screws to her.
“Once again, Mrs. Lyamzin, I am deeply sorry for your loss, and I apologize for intruding while you are still grieving, but this can’t wait. I repeat, your teacher is under arrest, and you two slapped those scripts together yourselves. Look, that’s your signature!”
He ungallantly chucked a file in her lap—a script for a week-long national history event at her school. There were two authors—her and Sopakhin—her sprawling signature was right there, complete with a ripple of hunchbacked flourishes and the cursive “L” sprawling like a drunk accordionist, unfurling across every page.
“Sopakhin wrote all of that himself!” Mrs. Lyamzin retorted honestly.
“But you collected the extra pay together?” the investigator asked with a smile.
That damn historian! How could he have put all this hogwash on her? Not that she had any right to complain; she’d let it by her without reading it. The widow scratched her suddenly perspiring nose, recollecting that ill-fated school event. It seemed like everything had gone without a hitch. It was part of a month-long military education campaign, complete with thunderous quiz competitions like “The New Martyrs of our Lands” and “The Battle of Stalingrad,” and a roaring patriotic singing contest called “The Motherland is Calling!” The sixth- and seventh-graders sang a Soviet classic, “The March of the Artillerymen:” “Artillerymen, Stalin gave the order! Artillerymen, our fatherland is calling!” The eighth- and ninth-graders were given something a little more contemporary: “We’re with You, Uncle Vladdy:” “We would have peace on this our land, but if the commander in chief orders us into the final battle...” “We Have Not Forgotten!” shouted the posters of the present. “Arise, Great Country!” echoed the slogan of the past. The ladies from the Department of Education had praised Mrs. Lyamzin to high heaven. What on earth had gone wrong?
Without switching off that smile, the investigator sat at the little round lunch table—right under the portrait of the late Mr. Lyamzin—and ostentatiously stretched out his seemingly elongated legs, the very picture of contentment.
“Let’s take it from the top, Mrs. Lyamzin. We have in our possession a video recording of the event, which one of the parents duly presented to us upon request.”
Mrs. Lyamzin half-closed her eyes, recalling how packed the hall was, clogged with all those ludicrous little mommies and daddies. And those smartphones, like sunflowers turning on their five-fingered stalks to follow the action on the stage, where their rotten spawn were knocking around in red-starred Soviet army hats. She recalled the dancing wheat stalks representing the harvest, the display of wall newspapers, and the agitprop chant competition. Sedition had apparently wormed into some mousehole in all those festivities. But how?
“For example, consider this theatrical performance by the tenth-graders, representing the fascist invasion of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” The investigator’s voice was measured, distinctly pronouncing every syllable. “What precisely is that Sopakhin of yours saying backstage?”
“What?” asked Mrs. Lyamzin, swaying forward in alarm.
“‘After the signing of the criminal Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the secret agreement to divide Europe...’ How do you understand the word ‘criminal?’” Mrs. Lyamzin blinked uncomprehendingly, shaking a bit of fluff loose from under her gummy eyelashes.
“It means...” she said at last “that the Pact was a mistake.”
“How can you say it was a mistake?” demanded the investigator, his voice growing more serious. “You’re a historian too, and there you go, right there with Sopakhin!”
“I’m not with him!” answered the frightened Mrs. Lyamzin.
“That Pact is why we got the Baltic region and Bessarabia back—our territory, occupied by Poland! When it comes to that secret agreement, there was no plan to divide Europe. We wanted to defend Poland, but Poland wouldn’t play nice, and that’s all there is to it,” the investigator said, clearly reeling off words he had ready to hand. Meanwhile, his two assistants opened and closed the doors of a carved wooden bar where bottles of forty-year-old Dalmore, complete with the silver deer head label, were kept. The witnesses immediately started eye-fucking the trove of expensive alcohol. “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Lyamzin answered. “But I would still like to call my lawyer.”
“I was under the impression we had already addressed that issue,” said the investigator with a frown. “No lawyers during a search. The right to a lawyer is academic at the moment. Yes, you can have one present, but you have to invoke it when we formally present our warrant…which, as you’ll recall, we didn’t do.”
“But I heard—” Mrs. Lyamzin began, starting to sound like a school principal again.
“You’ve clearly heard a lot of things—but none of them matter,” the investigator interrupted, rapping on the tabletop with his fingernails. “What matters is that there are unprecedented criminal acts going on at your school, and you just let it happen—or worse... Out of respect for your loss, we’re just warning you for now. This is all preventative. So, I would advise you to meet us halfway here, Mrs. Lyamzin.”
He rubbed his shiny boot-tips together and the spots of light cast on them by the unexpectedly bright morning ran together like fresh egg yolks. The pages from Sopakhin’s file crackled loudly in his rough-skinned hands. Outside the window, the day was ripening; light was pouring in and the late Mr. Lyamzin’s widow was struck by an unbearable craving for some fried ham...fatty, dripping with butter, sprinkled with cheese crumbs, drenched in horseradish and garlic and tomato sauce, served on hot wheat bread. Who gives a damn that it would go straight to the stubborn dough on her soft hips? That the stearin pits of cellulite on her backside would just keep getting deeper and darker? That sugar would bounce into her blood and crowd her veins with plaque?
“I am a distinguished teacher,” Mrs. Lyamzin declared. “I have served as a member of the Regional Assembly. I will punish Sopakhin.”
“We’ll punish him ourselves,” the investigator said with a smirk. “In the meantime, we have a criminal case on our hands, and it’s essential to determine your role in it.”
“A criminal case?” Lyamzin repeated, as if a fat brick wall had sprouted up between his words and her comprehension.
“Article 354, Clause 1, Part 2,” explained one of the investigator’s colleagues, his skinny legs measuring out the living room like a draughtsman’s compass. “Knowing distribution of false information regarding the actions of the USSR during the Second World War. Committed in public. Involving an abuse of his position. Punishable by a rather fat fine. The confiscation of the perpetrator’s income for a period of up to three years.”
“Or up to five years of incarceration,” said the investigator, smiling pinkly again. “And a ban from working in the relevant field for a period of up to three years—the field of education, in your particular case, since you’re apparently an accomplice.”
“I’m not!” Mrs. Lyamzin screamed throatily. “I never...I always...”
She was trying to stand up, but the armchair seemed to be chewing her up in its leather maw. A little whining gnat settled in her ear and buzzed like a thin, stupefying siren. The air around her grew thick as sauna steam, smearing the room with watery spots, and the boundaries and outlines of things blurred. One of the three was suddenly beside her, lifting a cup of water towards her nose. A silver cup for champagne, yanked out of her cupboard. What were they doing digging around in there, what were they looking for? Mrs. Lyamzin loudly gulped down a few mouthfuls of water and moistened numb lips that were now alien and shameful.
“All because of the Pact?” she gasped.
The investigator’s boots were now hidden under the table, laying low, lurking down there like some newborn beast in a forest burrow.
“Who says it’s just because of the Pact?” asked the investigator, offended. “You’ve got a scene where kids played Germans freezing to death. Furthermore, according to your production, it took ten of our guys to take on two German soldiers! And in the middle of a winter storm! What were you using for snow, Styrofoam or something? White confetti?” Mrs. Lyamzin was at a loss once again. She just kept quiet and waited for this man who’d made himself so comfortable at her table to explain everything to her.
“Ma’am, don’t just look at me like a deer in the headlights!” went the investigator, losing his composure his voice speeding up like water boiling in a tea kettle. “So, according to you, it was the winter that beat the Germans? Huh?”
“No,” Mrs. Lyamzin answered—just in case—wincingly pulling the woolen shawl over her chin.
“That’s a distortion of history! What don’t you get?” continued the irate investigator. His hand slid along the smooth table, flexing, knocking the knuckles together, and rising onto its fingertips once again, like a Cossack posing in the midst of an energetic dance. “What are you and your subordinate Sopakhin teaching the children in your care? This is the next generation, the ones who will take the next watch! Are you teaching that it wasn’t the great Soviet people that beat the fascists? Oh no, not the army, not the genius of our generals, just random chance? The winter and the snowstorms. Is that it?"
“That isn’t what we meant! Nothing of the sort!” shouted Mrs. Lyamzin, catching her breath.
“You didn’t mean it, you didn’t want it, yada yada yada—our expert testimony says otherwise.”
“What testimony?” gasped Lyamzin, but one of the participants in this feckless search was already giving the investigator a soft folder wrapped in cords. He struggled with them for a moment, then quickly pulled out an important-looking sheet of paper, mottled with lines of text, and waved it in front of Lyamzin, who was half out of her mind by this point.
“This testimony!” proclaimed his little bewhiskered mouth. “You will note that one of the signatories is a university professor—a far cry from that Sopakhin of yours! At the conclusion of this document, he writes that ‘the frosts did indeed strike early, in October of 1941, but this merely served to accelerate the progress of the fascist tanks, since they were no longer confined to the roads and could move freely. As early as that summer, General Zhukov led an ingenious counterattack near Yelnya, as a result of which the Germans became bogged down on the Eastern Front…’ And so on, and so on… yeah, here it is. ‘The collapse of the Wehrmacht was a result not of the Russian winter, but rather of the heroism of the Soviet troops, the wisdom of their commanders, and the folly of Hitler’s generals, who did not think to procure winter clothing and equipment. By inculcating the opposite impression in schoolchildren, the teaching staff of this school have flagrantly contradicted historical truth, cheapening the memory of the millions of Soviet citizens who sacrificed themselves…’” At that point, the investigator stopped and neatly returned the document to its folder, and grandly surveyed the assembled people. His two colleagues were glowing with satisfaction. The witnesses, those indistinct and indistinguishable persons, started getting bored, scratching their heads and shifting from foot to foot. One of the three law enforcement men had a tight grip on the widow’s phone. They’d put her laptop in plain view, too; it slumped its grey plastic shoulders dejectedly on the daybed in anticipation of the moment when they’d steal away with it into the unknown. It was brand-new, not yet stuffed with gigabytes; the widow Lyamzin used it to talk to her far-off son four times a week.
“Alright, let’s say Sopakhin made a mess of things, I don’t dispute that. I never liked him anyway,” said Mrs. Lyamzin, and every layer of the armchair screeched plaintively beneath her. “But this is me we’re talking about! Me! When they use my school as a polling place, I run the whole show! I’ve got the best statistics in the district! Every election, I get them the right turnout for the right candidates. Those other principals get fired because they don’t know how to handle the parents, but I’ll have you know I’ve been in my position for fifteen years! I was awarded the—"
“Yeah, yeah, we know,” interrupted the investigator. “That will all be taken into consideration. Maybe it will help you. But tell us about this teacher of yours. How could you leave the kids with a guy like that? You know there are all kinds of rumblings among the schoolkids, and they’re viralling up the whole internet or whatever, listening to all kinds of loudmouth subversives from Moscow. Then all of a sudden, a teacher, a beacon of enlightenment and a pillar of the community, the one who’s supposed to pull them out of the swamp, starts playing along with a pack of traitors. And it isn’t some hired gun—he gets paid out of the government budget, he’s a guy getting fat on government pork, and he just goes ahead and…craps…”
“Shits all over his Motherland,” offered one of the trio.
“Yeah, exactly! There’s no other way to put it!” said the mustached investigator, raising his eyebrows.
Mrs. Lyamzin stared at those bushy brows with long grey hairs scattered all through them, and suddenly realized that she had deeply and irrevocably put her foot in it. How could she have opened the gates to these bogeymen? How could she have allowed strangers into her home? Upstairs, in her bedroom, in an unlocked safe, her diamonds were glimmering away, and the antique pinfire cartridge revolver hanging in her late husband’s office was worth more than many big city condos all on its own. What exactly was written in that decree of his? She was such harebrained old lady, she hadn’t even thought to look at their warrant. What if this whole thing was pure theater, a robbery masquerading as a search? She was alone, and there were five of them. They’d taken her cell phone. There was nothing to protect her—the guard that typically sat in a booth outside the house went on vacation right after Mr. Lyamzin’s funeral, and he didn’t suggest anyone to take his place. Mrs. Lyamzin had let the whole thing slip through her fingers, in one ear and out the other. As if that wasn’t enough, Tanya, the maid, had the day off.
Once again, she remembered the note she’d found on her desk at work. Was it really the maid who had contrived to slip her that hideous threat? The unknown author had warned her to “expect guests,” which meant they knew a search was coming, which meant they were rubbing their sweaty hands together in anticipation of Mrs. Lyamzin finding herself powerless. Tanya said that her first cousin once removed was a Major. Did that mean it was her?
The investigator started digging through his papers again, and his little buddies scattered into the corners of the room like frightened beetles. The hands of the clock above the bar had stopped at three-thirty yesterday, and Mrs. Lyamzin had lost any sense of time. She didn’t know how many hours these strange guests had been going from room to room, or what they were looking for. It seemed like they didn’t have a very clear idea of what might constitute evidence; their hands were just scooping up everything that crossed their path.
The mustached man shook his paper folder and pages scattered, drifting away, sloughing apart like layers of cake that had yet to be glued together with frosting. Mrs. Lyamzin involuntarily licked her chops. All she wanted now was to be left alone so she could start pigging out properly. Her innards grumbled and whined plaintively like a street dog. But this guy with the mustache was still going on and on about that damn history show.
“Do you agree that it was way out of bounds for your play to show us losing ten soldiers for every one Fritz did?”
“What?” asked Mrs. Lyamzin.
“Come on, just answer me.”
“I will only answer with my lawyer present,” the widow retorted acidly, as if talking through a toothache. The investigator exchanged looks with his colleagues and mockingly puffed out his chest.
“Well, there you have it! Only with a lawyer present. You and that lawyer of yours are gonna work up a serious sweat looking for a way to explain this!”
“It was about the strength of the Soviet army!” Mrs. Lyamzin blurted out. “There’s a lot of us! Onward for the Motherland! We’ve got the truth on our side! That’s what it was about. We overpowered them!”
“Ah, overpowered them, did we?” the investigator drawled jeeringly. “That’s not what it looked like. It looked like we just drowned the enemy in corpses. The soldiers were just meat we didn’t mind feeding to them. Oh yes, that’s the most disgusting lie our enemies spread. But you, our teachers, picked up that lie and ran with it! I must say, Mrs. Lyamzin, I’m truly concerned about your pupils. How will they see the history of their own Motherland after that event which, I’m afraid, was nothing short of sabotage? Where can they dig up any pride in their ancestors and their country? This is how you get girls twerking in front of the Eternal Flame!”
“What?” whispered Mrs. Lyamzin, feeling childlike spite awakening inside her. “Why do you keep going after me? What do you want from me? Go torture that fool Sopakhin—I’m a distinguished educator! Distinguished, I tell you! Who sicced you on me anyway?”
“What? What are you talking about? Listen, nobody’s gonna be sick on you,” the mustached investigator exclaimed, half-rising from his chair, and even extending his arms towards her, like a demigod in a renaissance fresco. “This is about basic knowledge every citizen should have. Ten to one—that’s a myth, do you hear me? It’s slander! Tell me, how many people did we lose in World War II?”
“I’m tired,” Mrs. Lyamzin answered. “This isn’t an oral exam and I’m not your student.”
“All the same,” the mustached man said with a squint, nodding to the witnesses. “Let’s have one of you gentlemen answer. How many irreplaceable losses would you say the Soviet Union suffered during World War II? They smiled shyly.
“Twenty million?” asked one of them, tapping his heel against the parquet floor.
“There!” went the investigator triumphantly, shaking his finger. “Do you hear what they’re saying? Probably former students of yours! Some people say twenty, some thirty, some forty. They believe anti-Soviet propaganda, you get me? But it’s garbage, absolute garbage!”
He jumped to his feet and started walking around the room. Mr. Lyamzin attentively observed his trajectory from the portrait. The peacock also surveyed them from above, its beak gaping in astonishment, a mottled porcelain owl hiding beside it.
“You’re just clueless. Citing those gigantic casualty figures isn’t just ignorant, my dears, it’s criminal,” the investigator pronounced, and the errant witness blinked guiltily, his eyelids hopping up and down. “The genuine figure is quite different, my clueless friends. Eight million and change, that’s all! And that’s counting everyone—those who died from wounds, disease, and accidents, those who disappeared, and those who were court-martialed and shot—everyone! And that’s the end of it. That’s the end of it.”
That apparently took a lot out of him. He sank onto the daybed beside the confiscated laptop, which jumped slightly, like a little dog. Mrs. Lyamzin loudly swallowed the stinging spit that had accumulated in her mouth. For some reason, she wrapped the end of her shawl around her fist.
“Just tell me the truth,” she said in a pained, detached voice. “Who denounced me?”
“We received complaints a long time ago,” answered one of the three. “Anonymous complaints.”
“Of course, in accordance with Law Number Fifty-Nine, On Citizen’s Petitions, we do not take anons into consideration. But this was an unusual instance. We were informed that you were not only condoning the falsification of history at your school, but that you were also…” something made the investigator hesitate before he got it out. “Planning a murder.”
After these words, silence descended in the living room, and there was only a solitary ray of sun uneasily fumbling with the windows, trying to grope its way home.