Johnny America

 

Yezhovshchi­na

by

Illustration of a woman wearing a deerstalker cap.

The purges had swollen from liq­ui­dat­ing Par­ty mem­bers to re­duc­ing the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, and the in­de­fati­ga­bly com­pli­ant four-foot-eleven, forty-two-year-old Niko­lai Ivanovich Yezhov had been put in charge of the Peo­ple’s Com­mis­sari­at of In­ter­nal Af­fairs. Not long be­fore his one-way trip to the Kom­mu­nar­ka shoot­ing ground, Niko­lai Bukharin had writ­ten, “In the whole of my— now, alas, al­ready long life — I had to meet few peo­ple who, by their na­ture, were as re­pel­lent as Yezhov.” And yet Yezhov knew how to charm. On­ly a few years be­fore, Nadezh­da Man­del­stam, not yet a wid­ow, de­scribed him as a “mod­est and rather agree­able person.”

The Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary liked Yezhov for his dog-like feal­ty, his pover­ty of scru­ples and wealth of sadism, but per­haps most of all for his diminu­tive stature. Joseph Vis­sar­i­onovich him­self stood on­ly five-foot-five. At Pots­dam, Har­ry Tru­man, at five-eight, once re­ferred to him as a “lit­tle squirt.” Per­haps the day this re­mark of the Pres­i­dent was re­port­ed to Stal­in was the one the Cold War started.

On No­vem­ber 11, 1937, Nastya Mikhailov­na Plokiy­ov de­cid­ed to vis­it Com­rade Yezhov. Her hus­band Gerasim Fy­o­dor­ovich, was chief deputy to Vy­ach­eslav Molo­tov, not yet for­eign min­is­ter, but Chair­man of the Coun­cil of People’s Com­mis­sars of the USSR. Nastya Mikhailov­na, a tall, good-look­ing woman, fif­teen years younger than her ux­o­ri­ous and over­weight spouse, liked to dress fash­ion­ably. Her wardrobe, among the best in Moscow, in­clud­ed im­port­ed dress­es and high-heeled shoes which she re­ceived as gifts from the West­ern diplo­mats she mixed with at re­cep­tions and with whom she oc­ca­sion­al­ly and dis­creet­ly slept. Her opin­ion of Gerasim, whom she could bare­ly stand but knew well how to de­ceive, was much like Bukharin’s of Yezhov. 

Nastya Mikhailov­na want­ed out of her mar­riage but, be­cause of her husband’s po­si­tion, go­ing to the courts was un­think­able. Seek­ing a di­vorce would, at a min­i­mum, cost her sta­tus and pro­tec­tion. Still, the prospect of more years with Gerasim was in­tol­er­a­ble. When she came across an ar­ti­cle in Prav­da ex­tolling a twelve-year-old girl who had in­formed on her par­ents for lis­ten­ing to short-wave broad­casts, she for­mu­lat­ed a bold plan. Telling him she was study­ing Eng­lish, she asked one of her par­tic­u­lar friends, a coun­selor at the British em­bassy, for some books. He gave her three in a Harrod’s bag. He had wrapped them in thick brown pa­per tied up not with string but heavy rope. Nastya, who spoke Russ­ian like the na­tive she was, but knew no Eng­lish words ex­cept “Yes, my dear” and on­ly a few po­lite din­ner-par­ty phras­es in French, was un­able to read any of them.

On No­vem­ber 11, dressed el­e­gant­ly but de­mure­ly, she put one of the books in her hand­bag and pre­sent­ed her­self at the for­bid­ding Lubyan­ka. Tak­ing no no­tice of the swarm of armed guards, she walked straight to the re­cep­tion desk, iden­ti­fied her­self as the wife of Gerasim Plokiy­ov, and said that she wished to see the Chief on a mat­ter of ur­gency, haugh­ti­ly de­clar­ing that she would speak on­ly with Com­rade Yezhov. The two uni­formed men be­hind the desk looked her up and down. The one she had ad­dressed frowned; the oth­er looked con­fused and picked up his phone. Ev­i­dent­ly, mes­sages passed from floor to floor, al­ways up­ward, away from the dun­geons be­low. Nastya was shown in­to a small room off the lob­by. It was fur­nished with a thick Cau­casian rug, a large pot­ted plant (Mon­stera de­li­ciosa), two match­ing arm­chairs, and a leather love seat. The guard who had con­duct­ed her to the room wait­ed with her. Here she sat im­pa­tient­ly cross­ing and re­cross­ing her long legs, at which the sto­ical guard pre­tend­ed not to look. She clutched her bag to her chest. Af­ter half-an-hour, an of­fi­cial came in blow­ing his nose. He wore a bad­ly tai­lored blue suit and looked a good deal like Gerasim.

“Com­rade Yezhov has agreed to see you. Come with me.”

The of­fi­cial wheezed a good deal and strug­gled to keep up with Nastya as they mount­ed the stairs to the top floor. 

“Come,” he gasped, and walked her to the door at the back of a wide room filled with men and women typ­ing away. They all looked up furtive­ly with­out stop­ping. “You’re expected.”

Yezhov’s of­fice was as much on a grand scale as he was not. The lit­tle man, nick­named The Bloody Dwarf in whis­pers, had risen high on the corpses of peo­ple at whose mur­ders he had con­nived. He sat be­hind a colos­sal desk, dwarfed by it.

The of­fi­cial an­nounced her and Yezhov got briefly to his feet, though his head was no high­er than it had been when he was seat­ed. His face struck Nastya as rather hand­some, though the smile with which he greet­ed her looked as if it might crack an un­der­ly­ing grim­ness. He waved the Gerasimesque of­fi­cial away.

He did not ask Nastya to sit. He couldn’t have as there were no chairs oth­er than his own.

“I’m told, Nastya Mikhailov­na,” he said in a high-pitched voice, “that you’ve asked to see me on a mat­ter of ur­gency. I pre­sume this means you have knowl­edge of some dan­ger to the state.” Then he posed the two ques­tions he had asked many times be­fore. “What is it? Whom does it concern?”

Nastya did not pre­tend to be re­luc­tant to re­ply. She was as di­rect as Yezhov had been.

“It is about dis­loy­al­ty, Com­rade Yezhov, and it con­cerns my hus­band, Gerasim Fy­o­dor­ovich Plokiyov.”

“I be­lieve your hus­band oc­cu­pies a po­si­tion of trust in the of­fice of Com­rade Molotov.” 

“Mis­placed trust, Comrade.”

“Yes?”

“My hus­band is in con­tact — un­of­fi­cial­ly, you un­der­stand — with a coun­selor at the British em­bassy whom I be­lieve to be an in­tel­li­gence agent.”

“A most se­ri­ous charge. Have you proof?” Yezhov looked at her stern­ly, but Nastya didn’t flinch. 

She opened her bag and hand­ed the book to Yezhov. “He is re­ceiv­ing read­ing mat­ter from the Eng­lish­man. It could be sub­ver­sive lit­er­a­ture or, as I sus­pect, the key to a code.”

Yezhov raised his eye­brows. “A code?”

“A let­ter code. I’ve read about them.”

Yezhov paged in­dif­fer­ent­ly through the book.

“So, you think your hus­band should be ar­rest­ed and questioned?”

“I do. Yes.”

Yezhov smiled at Nastya. It was not a warm smile.

He held up the book. “Do you know what this is?” 

“I have no Eng­lish,” said Nastya proud­ly, as if her ig­no­rance was a proof of her patriotism.

“This is a col­lec­tion of sto­ries by Sir Arthur Co­nan Doble, Sher­lock Holmes sto­ries. This book was banned in 1929; how­ev­er, the First Sec­re­tary is per­son­al­ly an ad­mir­er of Doyle. He has even made copies of this book avail­able to a se­lect group of of­fi­cials, peo­ple like me. For train­ing the mind, he said.”

Nastya did not know what to say. 

“As it hap­pens,” said Yezhov cold­ly, “we have a file on your husband.”

Nastya evinced no sur­prise. No one in Rus­sia would.

“But,” said the Chief of the NKVD, “we have a far thick­er one on you.” Yezhov pushed a but­ton. Two guards, both over six feet tall, en­tered at once. Each took one of Nastya’s shape­ly arms and es­cort­ed her down all six floors to the cellars.

Filed under Fiction on July 5th, 2024

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