The Black Maria – extract

The students had been told to take their places in the main lecturing theatre at the end of classes. Rosa, Ella and Claudia arrived early, determined to sit towards the back and melt into the anonymity of faces. The wooden floor echoed with the sound of slow footsteps as the students and lecturers came in silently to take their places. Extra chairs had been brought in and arranged in a huge square; in the centre of which stood the temporary platform: a large table covered in a white cloth, decked with a lamp, glasses and jugs of water, and behind which were three unoccupied chairs. And on the other side of the table, another chair, conspicuous by its solitary presence. On the table lay a large pile of folders, held together by a thick, red ribbon.

Rosa shivered. The main hall was always cold – it was too large and the ceiling too high to maintain any warmth. But, today, it was the foreboding pile of folders that had made her tremble. Each folder represented a student or lecturer, each one filled with testimonies, histories and written accusations against the name on the front cover. Was her name among them? It was rumoured that there were spies in every classroom, invisible informants at every turn. One’s student life, and private, family and political lives, were held within those sheaves of paper; every aspect of one’s existence. But, Rosa reminded herself, she had nothing to fear; after all, she loved her country, she loved her leader, she worked hard, and her lecturers thought highly of her. But was that enough? Rosa wasn’t a spy; she had never denounced anyone. But perhaps she should have. Was it something they could use against her? Had her failure to denounce others implied complicity? The table also had upon it a bust of Stalin and a vase of flowers. Somehow, thought Rosa, the flowers looked out of place. Flowers signified hope, a new beginning. But the atmosphere was not of hope but of dread. One could see it in every single face – the silent dread of what lay ahead. The best one could hope for was survival. It was either survival or condemnation. And Rosa knew only too well the meaning of condemnation – she had seen it for herself when they came and took away her father in their Black Maria. Condemnation meant expulsion from the Party, arrest and incarceration – it didn’t bear thinking about.

Rosa glanced at her two friends but they were both too focussed upon themselves. Rosa knew what was going through their minds. Could Ella be a spy? Claudia? It was too absurd to contemplate. She had already rehearsed her story numerous times but the fear was still a continual presence. However much she tried to remember her past, there was always a chance of a forgotten conversation, a misconstrued word, a false impression. She loved Stalin just as a priest loved his own God, but that in itself wasn’t enough to ensure her survival. Had she caused anyone to bear a grudge against her; was there anything about her that might cause envy? She knew, they all knew, that they had as much to fear from their friends as from their enemies. In this oppressive environment, one was very much alone.

She scanned the students sitting around her. Two rows in front and to the left, sat Boris, wearing in his customary jacket. She wondered whether he might have replaced the missing button in honour of the occasion. Perhaps he felt the intensity of her gaze, for he turned around and caught her eye. His size of his pupils seemed more exaggerated than ever behind his glasses. There was a brief acknowledgement in his expression before he returned his attention, like everyone else, to the platform at the centre of the hall.

The whole college seemed to be present, every chair was occupied. But amongst all these people, there was no sound, just a hushed silence, the shuffling of bottoms on chairs, the occasional cough. But, thought Rosa, one could also hear every heart beating, sense the churning stomachs, the wringing of hands. She could see it in all the faces – the etched expression of fear. And she knew that their faces merely reflected her own.

In the midst of the silence, came the sound of more footsteps. Immediately, Rosa knew it was them. Their footsteps were too self-assured to belong to one of the students or staff. Into the hall, came three sombre-looking men, the judge and jury. They took their places at the platform and sat down. Rosa watched the middle man as he adjusted the lamp and poured himself a glass of water. He didn’t look particularly threatening – he was younger than she’d expected and seemed to lack the air of arrogance she normally associated with those in authority. He had a head of dark, curly hair and a small pencil-thin moustache. The men either side of him were more of what she expected – older men with stern, determined expressions. The middle man shuffled a few leaves of paper, took a sip of water and finally, stood up. The time had come.

At first, he didn’t say anything and simply stood still, staring down at a piece of paper on the table. For a moment, Rosa thought he looked ill at ease. But then he looked up, narrowed his eyes and scanned the rows of people in front of him, as if calculating the amount of time and the degree of work that lay ahead of him. Rosa realised that despite his youth, his face had the hardened look of determination. This was a man who had a job to do and do it he would.

‘There are some among us who are enemies of the people,’ he said without introduction, his voice surprisingly deep, slightly guttural. ‘In our very midst, there are deviationists, spies, double-faced opportunists, class aliens. Look around you, do you know whether your neighbour is true to the cause of socialism or a state enemy?’ He paused and the whole auditorium became shrouded in suspicion while everyone thought disparaging thoughts about their neighbours. ‘It is our duty tonight and all this week to ferret out these people who hide behind their masks; to oust these plotters, these supporters of Trotsky and his rabble. If you have a cancer, what do you do? Forgive it, try to convert it, give it a second chance?’ He slammed his fist against the table, ‘No,’ he yelled. ‘You cut it out. You cut-it-out!’ A murmuring of approval echoed through the hall. Rosa nodded her head in agreement while trying to conjure up faces of potential plotters among the people she knew. But the only face that kept returning to her again and again was that of her father.

The Chairman continued. ‘Our job here is to rid this college of unsuitable elements, to purge the cancer. We shall not hesitate, for our socialist future depends on it. We can never rest until the work is entirely done. This is war, and you would all do well to remember that. But in this war, the enemy doesn’t come at you in convenient uniforms, there is no ‘them and us’; no, for they are among us. The enemy is the man next to you on the bus, the woman at the head of the food queue, the person sitting right next to you at this very moment, your kindly neighbour, even the person you share your dinner with. They will not hesitate, and nor should you. We must protect our future and we have a duty to protect our glorious divine leader, Comrade Stalin…’ The name was lost in the spontaneous applause that erupted throughout the hall. Every pair of hands clapped enthusiastically, feet stamped, faces grinned. After three minutes, Rosa realised her hands were tiring. They’d made their point, she thought, but she felt as though she couldn’t be the first to stop, so she continued. Fortunately, the Chairman raised a hand and his audience was allowed, mercifully, to stop.

The Chairman introduced his two stern-faced colleagues and introduced himself as Comrade Pletnev of the Party’s Central Purge Commission. He sat down and untied the ribbon from the pile of folders. Rosa glanced at Ella on her left and winked at her friend. She knew Ella was silently beseeching her not to mention her darkest secret, the abortion undertaken, not on medical grounds, but for the sake of self-advancement. Pletnev opened the top folder, scanned the pages within and called the name of Comrade Breshkovskaya. Rosa looked round and saw Breshkovskaya rise and make her way towards the platform. She was an older student, perhaps thirty, with a round face, bobbed hair and flushed cheeks. She must have been conscious of every pair of eyes on her, thought Rosa.

Breshkovskaya took her seat in front of the three men and handed her party card to the Chairman. When prompted, she recounted her personal history, while the two men, either side of the Chairman, wrote notes. She spoke in a flat tone and told the panel of her parents’ occupations, her upbringing and her career to date. There was an error in her past, she admitted, for which she had already acknowledged and been forgiven. A little misdemeanour, the folly of youth and inexperience. It was a trifling of a thing, a mere nothing. Pletnev nodded in agreement. Breshkovskaya was doing fine; she had passed the awkward part. Rosa realised what Breshkovskaya was doing – far better to confess than try to hide and then be accused. She remembered only too well the day she decided to stand up at school and denounce her father as a class enemy. And she remembered also the feeling of relief afterwards.

The panel each asked Breshkovskaya a couple of questions and then invited questions or comments from the students. Someone spoke up for her, said what a unblemished life she had led and a second voice commented on what a fine example she was to the younger students. The Chairman, satisfied, thanked Breshkovskaya and handed her back her card. Rosa watched her as she returned to her seat, her cheeks now totally red but with an unbridled grin on her face. A couple of colleagues patted her on the back or shook her hand. She had survived.

Rosa watched and listened as three more students took their turn in front of the Commission, and returned to their seats, clutching their Party cards, their proof of allegiance still safely in their hands.

Chairman Pletnev picked-up the next folder. ‘Comrade Kalinikov,’ he said. Rosa’s lecturer took his place in front of the committee and ran his hand through his receding hairline.

‘Tell us about yourself,’ said Pletnev, without looking up from his papers.

Kalinikov cleared his throat and launched into his pre-prepared personal history. He had been a soldier and a revolutionary, and had fought against the Whites during the Civil War earning a reputation for bravery and selflessness. A stomach wound ended his military career and that was when he began teaching, moving from one college to another, before settling in this college five years previously.

Pletnev nodded and scribbled a few notes. ‘Hmm, interesting. Are you married, Comrade Kalinikov?’

‘Yes, Comrade Chairman, three years.’

‘Second marriage?’

‘Yes, my first wife –’

‘Happily married?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Children?’

Rosa smiled, this was turning into a polite exchange of conversation, Kalinikov was safe, the audience was bored. Rosa was pleased for him, his lectures may have been dull, but she wouldn’t want to see him come to any harm. ‘A small boy, eighteen months,’ replied Kalinikov.

‘Are you a religious man, Comrade Kalinikov?’

Kalinikov shuffled in his seat. ‘No, Comrade Chairman, I have no time for such comedy.’

The Chairman slammed his palms onto the table. ‘Don’t mess with me, Kalinikov, I ask you again, are you a religious man?’ The audience waited for his answer. The Chairman knew something and Kalinikov had to be careful not to confess to something the Chairman didn’t know.

Kalinikov’s face flushed. ‘N-no, but my wife, I mean, my parents are, I mean they used to be. They – they insisted.’

‘Insisted? Insisted on what exactly?’

Kalinikov cast his eyes down. ‘The – the christening.’ Some of the audience laughed. ‘I didn’t want it, believe me, I argued long and hard against it, said there was no point, but old habits die hard, they insisted –’

‘So you said. Anyone like to comment?’ he asked addressing the auditorium.

‘I was there!’ said a voice from behind Rosa. She strained her neck to see Comrade Ossipovna, one of Kalinikov’s fellow lecturers, rising to her feet. ‘And he’s lying. There was no hesitation, you never saw a prouder parent.’

‘No! This is not true, I hated every minute of the ceremony,’ screamed Kalinikov. ‘It is she who is lying – ’

‘Chuck him out,’ said an anonymous voice from the far side of the auditorium.

‘Believer,’ shouted another.

Comrade Ossipovna remained on her feet. ‘He took his oaths with great seriousness. He’s a believer, all right. And what’s more, he still is, he just hides it well.’

The chairman spoke: ‘And what, may I ask, madam, were you doing at this religious ceremony?’

She sat down as if the ground had suddenly given way under her feet. The hall roared with laughter, and Rosa also found herself laughing at the absurdity of the woman’s self-implicating accusation.

The chairman continued. ‘You are a believer, Kalinikov, a superstitious renegade. That in itself is bad enough but then you are naïve to believe you can cover your heinous claptrap. You cannot have two ideologies – ’

‘No,’ cried Kalinikov. ‘Stalin is my only ideology. I fought for the revolution. Is this how you treat old revolutionaries?’

‘Old revolutionaries are not lackeys of the church.’

‘Forgive me, Comrade Chairman, it was a mistake, my wife, my parents, they all made me go through with it. I’ll do anything, just don’t – don’t expel me, I have a child –’

‘A child baptised. You dare ask for forgiveness when you lie, cover the innocent under a cloak of superstition and then have the gall to try blame your wife and your parents. What sort of man are you?’

The audience clapped and stamped their feet in slow rhythmic time. Rosa rubbed her eyes, Kalinikov didn’t deserve this. But Ella nudged her in the ribs, Rosa had no choice, she had to join in or people would notice and remember. She started stamping the wooden floor with her flat heels but closed her eyes; she couldn’t face watching the tears streaming down Kalinikov’s cheeks. Above the dim, Pletnev continued, his voice raised, making no attempt to quieten the baying hordes. ‘I’ll tell you what sort of man you are – you’re a snivelling, lying snake and the Party and our beloved Leader –’ His audience erupted into rapturous applause and cheers, and Pletnev’s words were lost.

Kalinikov rose wearily from his seat and looked resigned to his fate, but then he straightened his back, clenched his fist and spoke in such a loud, authoritative voice, the whole auditorium fell silent. ‘I fought the Whites for the likes of you, I have the wounds to show it, wounds I carry with pride for what I did for my country, the country I love. My generation didn’t shed their blood to be thrown to the wall by bureaucrats like you. And then fifteen years teaching, fighting the war against illiteracy, preparing the children of the revolution for their tomorrow. But there is no tomorrow when we live under a tyranny worse then ever before –’

‘Enough!’ bellowed Pletnev, clicking his fingers at a uniformed guard. ‘Take him away, take him away, I can’t bear to listen to this any more.’

The guard took Kalinikov’s arm and pushed him forward. At one point, his legs gave way and the guard had to haul him up. There, thought Rosa, was the end of a career. Even if he survived arrest, he and his family would forever be labelled. Friends would avoid them, no one would risk offering him employment and he’d be thrown out of his lodgings. Rosa knew only too well. For some reason, she had Kalinikov’s address written in her address book, not that she had ever used it, but, she thought, she’d better erase it. If anyone ever looked through it, it wouldn’t look good to have his name among her personal effects.

With Kalinikov’s exit, the hall took a few minutes to calm itself and settle back into obedient silence. Pletnev reached for the next folder and looked at the name on top. Rosa’s heart fluttered; it could be anyone’s turn next, it could be hers. The name, when it came, made her jump as surely as if it had been her own.

‘Comrade Pavlovna.’ In a single moment, Ella’s face was void of colour. Instinctively, both Claudia and Rosa grasped her hands. She had her secret and, as her friends, they knew it. Ella looked at each of them, looking into their eyes for their support while knowing her friends were the very ones who could secure her downfall. What was friendship when measured against duty?

Rosa, at least, had remained faithful to her friend, but she knew that in her knowledge, she was as damnable as her. Would the Commission know about the abortion? If they didn’t and Ella confessed it, would they condemn her or applaud her honesty? ‘Comrade Pavlovna?’ Ella rose to her feet, still gripping her friends’ hands. As she embarked on the long walk to centre stage, Rosa noticed the imprint that Ella’s fingers had made on her own. She’s got to tell them, thought Rosa, they’ll know, they always do.

‘Party card,’ snapped Pletnev. ‘Confirm you name.’

‘Ella Pavlovna.’

‘Age?’

‘Nineteen.’

‘Tell us about yourself, Comrade Pavlovna.’

Ella swallowed. ‘I was born on the outskirts of Moscow. My father was a technical engineer and –’

‘Was?’

‘I mean, he is. He now works at the Kharkov Technological Institute, as a deputy in the metallurgical division. He was a young man during the Great War and fought against the Germans but he deserted – he didn’t want to fight any more for the Imperialists. During the revolution, he was with the Bolsheviks but I don’t really know what he did. My mother worked in a shoe factory but they divorced two years ago.’ She stopped. Go on, thought Rosa, tell him, you have to tell him.

‘OK, that’s fine. So, what, Comrade Pavlovna, is your view of collectivisation?’

‘Well, I agree with it, of course – wholeheartedly.’

‘Why?’

‘Because, because otherwise there is exploitation of labour.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Well…’

‘Is that all your education teaches you? We expect our students to be fully versed in their politics. Platitudes have no place in our society. It is your duty to know the great achievements made in the name of socialism.’

‘Well, it’s also because –’

‘All right, let’s move on,’ said Pletnev. Rosa swallowed. ‘Do you have children?’ Oh God, thought Rosa, this is it. Ella knew it too; she slunk in her chair and looked sick.

‘No, Comrade Chairman.’

Pletnev wrote a note on his paper. ‘And what are your plans after college?’ He hadn’t pursued it, thought Rosa. Was it a ruse, would he come back to it? Maybe not, maybe he didn’t know, perhaps no one had informed on her. She allowed herself a sideways look at Claudia and her friend caught her eye for a moment before turning away as if frightened that a mere glance might reveal their shared secret. Ella spoke but Rosa was unable to hear her words for the pounding of her heart. But Ella had survived. Pletnev stamped her Party card and held it out for Ella to retrieve. At least, thought Rosa, she won’t have to scrub Ella’s name from her address book.

Pletnev spoke. ‘We’ll call it a day for now but the session will reconvene at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.’

The audience fidgeted while Ella returned to her seat, her face shining with sweat and relief. She was still shaking as she sat down.

‘Well done,’ whispered Claudia as she leant over and kissed Ella on the cheek.

Ella tried to catch her breath. ‘I feel sick,’ she said.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Claudia. ‘It’s over, you’re still with us.’

Rosa noticed that Boris had turned around and was smiling at Ella. But his face was struck with terror at the sound of his name echoing across the hall. ‘Boris Gershberg – you will be first in line tomorrow morning,’ announced Pletnev.

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