This story is the first-place winner of the 2016 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest. Founded in 2000, the contest was created to recognize authors of Jewish short fiction. The 2016 stories were judged by author Nicholas Delbanco and poet and essayist Robert Pinsky. Moment Magazine and the Karma Foundation are grateful to Delbano, Pinsky and to all of the writers who took the time to submit their stories. Visit momentmag.com/fiction to learn how to submit a story to the contest.
I wanted to tell my father that the fish salad was shining, but he was asleep, calling my name in long somniloquous moans. I stood at his bedside, the shape of our room made visible by the scarce lights of the Marshal Zhukov Street. Slava! My name rose from his lungs into high tooting. Slava, it stretched and pitched before drowning in a humming mumble of dreamtime. I tapped him and he snored awake. For a moment, without blinking or breathing, he stared at me, propped by the elbow, his head suspended over the dented pillowclothes. Papa, I said, the fish salad is shining, and he sat up.
Our refrigerator had no lamp. So when my father opened the door it was easy to see where the light was coming from. There was a halo of green glow around the bowl, faint like the backlight of an old Volga speedometer. I asked him what it was, but he rubbed sleep off his face and went scrambling and groping about the kitchen until he pulled a crumpled cellophane bag from one of the wooden cupboards. I remember eating the salad the day before, spreading it over hard bread, enjoying its salty, velvety texture. My mother didn’t make it often, because besides herring and eggs, the recipe called for grated Macintosh apples, which, like most other fresh fruits, were hard to find in Kharkov past September. So it was with regret that I watched my father scoop the bowl with his hand wrapped in cellophane and empty the gooey iridescence into the plastic bag. Then, instead of placing it with the rest of our food waste, he pinched the bag in an elaborate knot and set it down next to his briefcase. I asked him why he did that, but he told me not to touch it any more. He told me to go back to sleep, that he had something to tell us in the morning. He also told me it was best to mention nothing of this to my mother.
But when you are nine years old, sleep is akin to death—or at the very least an incurable scourge of dark chasms that interrupted, with brutal regularity, all the vibrant implements of life. I was in awe of my father’s ability to give in to it so naturally, to fall back asleep as quickly and seamlessly as he did. We shared the smaller of our two rooms while my mother slept in the bigger one with my almost-two-year-old brother Garik, who she thought was still too young to sleep alone. I went back to bed, but lay awake, looking beyond our small balcony window to the contours of other 16-story Brezhnev prefabs fixed in familiar formations. They stood in troikas, shoulder to shoulder, like somber ranks of concrete soldiers, forming a perimeter around the playground, around its swings and sandboxes and the football field, extending all the way to my school. They were hulking and dark, save for the sparse constellation of windows twinkling with faint domestic mysteries, and it was as though our entire micro-district, like so many others just like it, was lowered into place already fully assembled. Panel upon concrete panel—in other parts of Kharkov, but also beyond it, in Kiev and every other city, including Moscow itself, where my father once took me for a USSR-wide X-ray metrology conference—they enclosed buzzing transformer booths and H-shaped schools, displacing land in five, nine, and 16-floor elevations, outlining the vast rectangular pattern of Soviet life. So that no matter how far you ventured across our mighty Soviet country, no matter where the work of building its future took you, everything was arranged to look and feel like home.
Rise, monsieur le comte, for you have great things to do.
These were the words Henri de Saint-Simon, a proletarian-minded French count, ordered his servant to announce each morning to his eminence as a wake-up call. They were also the words my father whispered into my ear to wake me up for school. His mustache would tickle my cheek, and the next thing I normally heard was the glassy clatter of breakfast-making, followed by my mother’s cooing to my brother and his silly exclamations. But that morning my parents’ voices were angrily hushed and indistinct. The only word I heard clearly, repeated enough times to pierce the murmur, was “sarcophagus.” I was just waking up, and in that state of half-sleep its sound induced a momentary dread. It made me think of Egyptian pyramids and slowly decomposing mummified corpses buried beneath them.
But once I got dressed and came into the kitchen, things instantly reverted to the routine. There was no mention of what had happened during the night. Instead, my father announced that in two days he was due to leave for a work trip, that Turboatom was sending him to the town of Chernobyl where a power station accident had occurred just weeks before. This wasn’t the first time I had heard of it. By then it had already occasionally escaped school chatter, particularly among older students, but seemed to especially preoccupy men and women in line at the gastronomic store on Slinko Boulevard, where my mother often ran me for fresh sour cream and bread. Still it was hard to determine the precise nature of the profanity-laced somberness that seemed to waft about the word as it was spoken—whether it had something to do with the accident, or Chernobyl itself, or with the common frustration of waiting in line to buy produce that would be sold out by the time you got to the sales counter. Until that moment, though, it had not been spoken in our home. My father said that they needed the best-trained Soviet scientists and engineers, like himself, to get the power generator back online. By burying it inside a sarcophagus? I asked, and immediately expected to be scolded for snooping on them earlier. But instead I found my father smiling—delighted, it seemed, at my childlike precociousness about his dense and unexciting work. He was about to explain what a sarcophagus was, but my mother’s face remained somber. And when I asked if I could go with him to Chernobyl, she scooped my brother off the kitchen floor and left. There was a strange silence between my parents that morning, an air of restrained commiseration.
We all have our work to do, my father said, and yours is school.
After picking reluctantly at my food, I would put on my school uniform while my father took the trolleybus to Turboatom, a factory on Moscovsky Prospect that produced steam turbines for nuclear power plants. And when the trolleybus pole-wheels slipped off the electric wires, forcing the driver to come out and shunt them back up with his hands, he would instead walk to the Tankopia bus station and take the yellow Ikarus bus with a rubber accordion in the middle. But that morning there was a car idling outside our building, a cream-colored Moskvitch, an older one, with a linear speedometer gauge and a metal horn-ring inside the steering wheel. Its engine spun with fumy intermittent clanking, and there was a young flaxen-haired man leaning casually against the fender.
Moysey Pavlovich? he beamed, addressing my father formally—the way I did my teachers—using his full patronymic. He smoked and smiled and wore a dotted short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned halfway down. And I could only think of crimson Mayday banners adorning Kharkov factories and streets, ablaze with paintings of young workers and farmers, strong and invincible, marching forth and waving to a giant likeness of Grandpa Lenin.
Zdoróva muzhik, he said and gripped my hand. His beaming face reminded me of Yuri Gagarin’s, only sharper and more weathered. Excited at his back-slapping, workingman way that put me on equal footing with a grownup, I shook it hard—Zdoróva! But my father, insisting on formal conventions between children and adults, introduced him as Valentin Stepanovich and said that I could call him Uncle Valya.
From time to time Turboatom sent them, drivers in cars from the factory motor pool, to run my father to other local industrial sites. I met a few of them, all burly simple men. Some even did favors for my father—like driving our family in the summertime to a retreat outside the city—usually in exchange for a new soldering iron or vodka or some trade commendation that would ingratiate them to Turboatom’s communist apparatchiks. But Uncle Valya must have been new, younger than the others, with a fixed smile and ruffled ways and eyes burning-blue and excited, as if there was something endlessly blinding at the end of that gaze, like the sun, or something akin to promise.
My school was within a mere walking distance, but stepping out of a car in front of other children, who trudged along strapped to their backpacks, had the makings of all the respect a third-grader could hope for. Excited, I climbed in the back seat and Uncle Valya skillfully shoved the Moskvitch into first gear. As the engine revved up and we pulled into Sadovy Passage, I noticed a scar behind his right ear—a patch of furrowed skin that ran down his neck and disappeared under his shirt collar. There was a matching scar pattern on his right forearm as well. How did you get those? I asked. From the rearview mirror I saw my father shoot me a stern look. But Uncle Valya smiled and told me that he was an avid footballer and that he played for the Turboatom factory team, and that the ground at the Hammer and Sickle stadium on Moscovsky Prospect was hard and dry, and that some years ago, when they played against the Malyshev Tank Factory, one of its players slide-tackled him while he was leading the ball, and that when he fell he scraped his neck and forearm, but that it all worked out for the better, because the referee called a penalty shot, which ended the game in their favor, and that these scars became tokens of pride for him, a permanent reminder that victory had always been hard-earned for Soviet people, and that above all, when all was said and done, turbine builders were still better football players than tank builders.
School began and ended as it did each day. But from the moment I leapt out of the car to join the queue of children headed for its maple-shaded white-brick houses, everything was colored by the few short minutes I spent riding with Uncle Valya. For he seemed to emit the kind of brilliant, unshamable effervescence about all the things my father couldn’t surmount. His hair was light and sandy, free in the wind like yellow stalks of wheat, while my father’s was a rigid heap of wiry blackness. He smoked cigarettes, had scars and knew how to drive. He played football, something my father, who stressed studies and schoolwork, never expressed much interest in. And while I didn’t care for football per se, I watched with envy as bigger, more athletic boys’ savvy on the field seemed to somehow lend itself to all other manner of excellence and respect. And where my father was tense and panicked, often about trivial things, Uncle Valya appeared daring and free.
Later that morning I would casually call him Valyók, the way I would a boy my own age, as I boastfully recounted the ride to my friend Edik. And then, just as he did each day at the main staircase, an older boy, a ninth-grader named Dontsov, would smack me over the head with a rolled-up notebook and call me a little Zhid and laugh, and I would laugh and so would Edik, and thus would commence my school day, where during the first period we still yawned under a scarlet banner. “Where does your Motherland begin?” it boldly queried from above the blackboard. “On the first page of your notebook.” Then, after a five-minute recess, a science period would follow. It would be held in another classroom where a frayed Mendeleev Table of Elements was pinned to the wall—a grid of domino-like tiles upon which Plutonium and Uranium were my favorite because they sounded like other planets—along with a row of mysteriously empty squares, which, as my father once explained, stood for elements yet to be discovered. And later that afternoon, as the torrent of children streamed to the basement cafeteria for lunch, I would sit on the windowsill with Edik, eating a sandwich with butter and lard-specked sausage that my mother packed for me every day and once again rehash the excitement of my morning car ride. And then, after the English class—during which we secretly ridiculed our towering, puffy-headed teacher for her whimpering voice—the myth of Uncle Valya would be elevated to heroic heights as both Edik and I now freely expanded his legend with our own dreams and inventions. This would in turn be followed by the period of Russian literature and language—a class no more special than the rest if not for its instructor, Lidia Petrovna, a young pencil-dressed blonde who almost never smiled but whose face was so striking that even in our boyish prepubescence she stirred something in us. And then, finally, physical education at the school gymnasium, where, on occasion, the teachers, who seemed to come and go every month, would make us do forward and backward rolls on a rubber floor mat—something I dreaded and always tried to escape by going to the bathroom or pretending to be hurt—because if you rolled with your eyes open, for a single terrifying moment, the world was upside down.
“Sit down, he pointed to the sofa and began to frantically scan the room until his eyes stopped on Garik. He then kneeled next to him and snatched the bunny from his play rug. Make a fist, he said.”
Back home, my father’s questions about school were usually confined to grades and homework. But when I returned that afternoon, he asked about my day. He was home early and busy packing while Garik sat on the floor, playing with my stuffed bunny. Before I was finished eagerly detailing the day, my father suddenly stopped packing and stood up.
What did you say he did?
I stared, waiting for him to explain.
The boy, my father said, the older one, he hit you and called you a Jew?
I tried explaining that the notebook he used was soft and that it didn’t hurt at all. And that just as often he did the same to Edik. I was on the verge of saying that in fact I looked forward to it, even enjoyed these daily rituals because I got attention from an older student—a teenager almost twice my age with an already cracked voice and beginnings of facial hair who, if not for this, would never register my existence—that it was wonderful and amusing, that we all laughed when he thumped me. But the longer my father listened, hissing in anger, the clearer it became that my reasons were childish and futile.
Sit down, he pointed to the sofa and began to frantically scan the room until his eyes stopped on Garik. He then kneeled next to him and snatched the bunny from his play rug.
Make a fist, he said and held the toy up in from of me.
I said make a fist.
You’re going to learn how to defend yourself.
It was a floppy-eared thing, a bit lopsided and bedraggled from years of play, with a soft furry surface and large button eyes that gave it the expression of perpetual bewilderment. Since he was born I had all but surrendered it to Garik, who now dragged it uselessly all over the floor by the ear. I was too old to play with it myself. But from time to time, out of some imponderable sadness, I picked up the toy and sat it neatly on the sofa where my brother couldn’t reach it to inflict more damage.
Go ahead, my father demanded, as he brought the bunny closer.
I had committed all kinds of savagery against it over the years: attacking it with my tin tanks and soldiers, even kicking it across the room. But now that it was placed in front of me by my father, condemned to be the object of my violence, I felt paralyzed by the kind of love and pity that I had scarcely felt for anything before.
Put them up like this, my father yanked my arms, now hit!
I raised my hand and pushed the bunny in the stomach with the heel of my palm.
Now in the face, my father commanded, hit him again!
I struck the bunny in the head and it snapped back and forward with the same look of helpless bafflement.
Again! my father barked. Raz-dva!
I obeyed, throwing one punch after another.
Again, raz-dva! he shouted and shoved me in the face with the soft of the toy’s belly, Fight back! Fight back!
I began beating the bunny aimlessly over my father’s count, panting and flailing my little fists, fighting back the pressure that kept building behind my eyeballs, until, one by one, the stitches that held the toy together began to tear and a gash between the bunny’s head and torso ripped open like a mouth full of foam.
Neither of us noticed that my brother had started to sniffle. By then my own face was full of tears.
He studied me with what I thought was pity and regret and said in a near-whisper, You need to learn how to defend yourself.
He gently lowered the toy back to Garik and told me that he never hit or belted me like other fathers did their sons and, because of that, I grew up weak and soft. He said that Jews were different and hated, because within us ran the blood of people who were here since before history itself began. He explained that he himself was named after a great Jewish man who lived thousands of years ago—the only man who ever saw the face of God—and led his people to the promised land but never made it there himself. I asked him if I too was named after a great Jewish man and was relieved when he said no. But then he assured me that all names meant something and that mine stood for Glory.
But unlike Edik’s sooty features or those of my parents, I didn’t look or feel different from other children, most of whom had the same light-chestnut hair and green eyes. Nor did I realize that this part of me was something to safeguard, something precious, ravenously sought after by others like fresh cherries or strawberries sold at the market for only a few warm weeks.
No matter how much you hide it they’ll always know, my father said, and warned that the only thing that’s going to keep us safe is our pencils.
Because we write with them? I asked, wiping my face with the back of my hand.
No, he said, and paused to assemble his thoughts.
But all I wanted was the brightness of the Great October Day, when Dunayevsky marches rippled across parade crowds in triumphant roars and crashes, when red balloons and “Slava KPSS!” banners were everywhere, and we forgot the past and leaped over the present, when we were one, together, and everything was soon, when I would pull my father by his callused hand into the marching flow of Kharkovians, just me and him, two scarlet photons of our Soviet future.
But then the door lock turned—my mother was back, hauling heavy mesh-sacks of beets and potatoes—and my father sprang up to help her.
The funeral for the bunny was held at the Kharkov cemetery, crowded with shrubby, decrepit graves. Everyone but my father was gathered around a small hump of land topped with colorful flora: my mother, my grandparents and Garik, who was now a grown man. Everyone was sobbing—everyone but Dontsov, who stood beside me and cackled the same way he always did after smacking me on the head with a notebook. He looked at me and called me a little Zhid. I tried to say something back to him, but no sound came out of my mouth. So I made fists and put my hands up, like my father taught me, and tried punching him in the face. But for some reason, my whole body was met with some kind of viscous resistance, as if I was swinging my way out of a neck-deep bog. I tried again and again, but no matter how desperately I struggled, my attempts to hurt him grew weaker and weaker. Zhidédnok, zhidédnok!—he laughed and laughed uncontrollably until I finally opened my eyes.
The moment I woke up I felt an absence—Henri de Saint-Simon—the room was full of daylight and my father had already left, his bed neatly made.
That morning my mother fussed over me more than usual, packing my school lunch with the nicer, softer white bread instead of the usual black. I dressed quickly, grabbed my backpack and lurched for the elevator over the barking of our neighbors’ dog. But after running out to Sadovy Passage, I stopped dead at the front steps. Propped against his Moskvitch and smoking was Uncle Valya.
Zdoróva muzhik, he beamed and waved me over.
He let me ride in the front seat and told me that for the next few weeks he was going to travel back and forth to Chernobyl, where he would continue to drive my father on important assignments. I told him about the shining fish salad in our refrigerator, but he already knew. It was all over the country, he said, shiny food from Chernobyl not suitable to eat. He also told me that he worked part-time at the Kharkov market and that in my father’s absence he would bring us fresh poultry cuts and fish and that our food would never shine again. He would also bring for me and Garik special iodine tablets, which he said were like vitamins that would help us grow big and strong. I, in turn, confided to him my father’s insistence on fighting anyone who impugned my Jewishness and asked him if he was Jewish too. He smiled and said that he wasn’t, but assured me that my father was a very respected man and that, short of fighting much older and bigger boys like Dontsov, standing up for oneself was a great Soviet virtue. Before he let me out of the car, I asked what my father meant when he said that we should arm ourselves with our pencils.
Graphite, he laughed, strong enough to encase the super-heated core of a nuclear reactor.
In the weeks and months to come—the time my father spent in Chernobyl—my body became a weapon. I never committed myself to cruelty; instead it became something I did as a simple matter of routine.
Later that afternoon I fought a boy from another class. It was lunch break and I was in the hallway unwrapping the white bread sandwich my mother had packed. I occasionally shared my food with other kids who often lost or traded their cafeteria meal tickets. But this boy I knew only by his face. He was my age, from a parallel class, with a chipped front tooth and chalk marks on his uniform. I was about to eat when he walked up to me. Don’t be a Zhid and let me get a half of that, he said and smiled.
My skull went numb with adrenaline, but I remember punching the boy in the mouth and cutting my hand on his cracked tooth. And while the initial anger was foggy and vague, the sting of pain from that small cut threw me into a frenzy. I struck him two more times in the head—raz-dva—and the boy fell backwards to the floor with his mouth agape, more stunned than hurt at the suddenness of what happened. A cluster of other children halted and ogled. But then the bell rang, sending us scattering to our classrooms.
Neither that day nor through any of my subsequent bursts of violence have I learned the essence of what made me Jewish or the precise logic on which it was based. But in the weeks and months to come—the time my father spent in Chernobyl—my body became a weapon. I never committed myself to cruelty; instead it became something I did as a simple matter of routine: I went to school, I ate, I did my homework, I took my daily iodine tablets, I listened to Rachmaninov records my mother, a music teacher, put on for me when I came home, I met with Uncle Valya who drove me to school as promised, I kept musing about him with Edik, and just as often and with the same practiced banality, I dispensed violence. The word Zhid became synonymous with hope, freedom and license to inflict pain. I waited for someone to say it to me or to simply speak it in my presence—or to say something that merely sounded like it—and when someone did (and they did frequently), I would unleash my hands with increasing skill and brutality. I never gained the reputation of a bully and most other boys were still stronger than me. But my aggression was instant and irrepressible and witnessed often enough by others to dissuade direct confrontations. This was especially true after I fought Edik, my own friend, for telling the arithmetic teacher on me and sniggering about it with a boy who sat next to him. I waited for the bell to ring. After just one blow, he fell face down on the mastic-covered parquet and began to cry.
In the weeks that followed, my wrath became tepid and controlled, but present in nearly every facet of my waking life: in school, where Dontsov seemed to have disappeared altogether, and at home, as I ran errands for my mother, played with my brother and read books by famous Soviet writers suggested by Uncle Valya—Arkady Gaidar, Boris Polevoy, Ivan Bargmut—books about brave pilots, sailors, soldiers and other heroes of the Great Patriotic War. I did my schoolwork dutifully, especially for Lidia Petrovna, who once gave us an in-class writing assignment—a composition on a topic of our choice. I thought of writing about Uncle Valya, but decided against it. I remembered Gaidar’s novel called Military Secret, and imagined that whatever words passed between us were of the highest importance to the Motherland, and that just like the boy in the novel who submitted to torture and death rather than reveal secrets of the Red Army, I could not betray Uncle Valya’s trust. So instead I wrote about my neighbors’ dog Julka. It was a small spotty mutt, and for as long as I could remember I harbored a sheepish fear of it. Its sudden barks and ratty lurking, its sharp fangy grin, always tingled my back and fingertips with panic. But everything had changed since my father left and since I met Uncle Valya. So I began to furiously scribble about its vivacious yelping and joyful tail wagging, while smirking my way through brilliant daydreams about how easily and in how many countless ways I could clasp the dog by the neck in savage hilarity and end its squealing life.
It was at that moment when I heard the word again—or thought I heard it—a mere murmur which came from the back of the classroom, where a boy named Kolya Burakov sat under a large rotating globe. He was the kind of boy my father referred to as bydlo, or cattle—derelict and disheveled, hardened by woefully alcoholic parents who equated beatings with love. I wasn’t sure if he was the one who said it, or if anyone said it at all. But when I turned around he was looking directly at me with a knowing grin. I put down my pencil, stood up and walked to the back of the classroom, past the other children who were busy working their own fantasies into cursive life. Lidia Petrovna may have called my name. But when I stopped over Kolya’s desk my silence was absolute. With metronomic exactitude, I set free a straight one-two to his head while he was still seated, and, in the same unceremonious manner, in plain view of Lidia Petrovna and the breathless class, returned to my desk and resumed writing. For almost a minute, she would flick her eyes helplessly between me and Kolya until a thin stream of blood began surging from his nose and he had to be rushed to the school nurse. I finished writing about Julka, put the notebook on Lidia Petrovna’s desk, and walked out at the sound of the bell.
The brazenness of that incident was enough to summon my mother to school. Lidia Petrovna would later fetch me in the hallway and bring me back into her empty classroom. While we sat across from each other in silence, I saw her pull my notebook from the stack and read my story about Julka. She looked up only once, when she was finished. My mother showed up just a few minutes later, her face flush with unimpeachable certainty about what awaited me at home.
Alexandra Izrailevna, please sit down, Lidia Petrovna offered, but my mother said that she preferred to stand.
Your son, she began, is showing great promise in compositional writing. He should also be properly disciplined for his behavior.
Whether or not this pacified my mother was unclear—her face stayed as determined as the moment she walked in. She told Lidia Petrovna that she wanted to speak with her, in private, and ordered me to wait outside. With my ear to the door, I strained to salvage something of their tremorous humming. But only one word escaped, that dreadful word—“sarcophagus.” But even that no longer mattered. For right before I left the classroom, Lidia Petrovna flicked me a secret smile, a pulse of light, lust-lorn, like a permanent sunburn, and at that moment I knew I outshone whatever punishment awaited me, that I transcended the walls of this school, my parents’ petty grievances, our micro-district, the entire grey spider web of Kharkov streets—that at last I had harnessed the uncarvable force that held all the parts of me together.
On the day that my father returned from Chernobyl, I had finished my homework early and was ladling the thick chocolate glaze for the cake called Little Tiger, which my mother baked only on special occasions. He wasn’t due back for at least three hours, but then we heard the clack of the door. It was around four in the afternoon when, without switching on the light, my father walked into our small dark hallway, dropped his suitcase, and wafted into the larger of our two rooms without saying a word. My cheer fading into confusion, I followed him there along with my mother only to find a man I scarcely recognized sitting and staring into some phantom distance. His face was pale like ash, sunken and unshaven, something I had never seen before. He looked thinner, too—the clothes that had fit him before he left now hanging like laundry from his collarbones. Confounded by his blankness, my mother and I took turns asking him what was wrong, shaking him gently by his knees and shoulders, but when he finally spoke, it was to the concrete wall in front of him. He said something about beauty, and then said it again, endless, brilliant, sparkling beauty. Papa, I called, what is it papa, but he was lost in his feverish song, shaking, rambling and raving, until long wailing vowels were all that was left of his words and his paroxysm of tautologies finally exhausted itself into silence. For nearly a minute, our flat on Marshal Zhukov Street stood still in wordless shock—broken at last by a tiny wet gurgle. Somewhere, at the end of the room, my brother sat up and vomited on the floor.
The morning after my father was checked into a hospital, Uncle Valya was once again waiting for me outside. In the following weeks, he would drive me to school and come back for me later. Sometimes he even showed up on weekends to take me for drives around Kharkov, showing me parts of the city I had never seen before: the Kharkov planetarium, the “Pavlusha” monument commemorating soldiers who liberated Kharkov from the Nazi occupation in 1943, even the Jewish Synagogue on Pushkinskaya Street, which he said was the largest in Ukraine. While we drove, he sometimes played music on a small cassette player fixed crudely under the dashboard. He always listened to the same musician, Vladimir Vysotsky, whose music he said was a like a miracle, something only our great Soviet nation could coax into life. Watching trees and trolleybuses stream by, I listened to the feeble crackle of the radio as Vysotsky violently strummed his guitar and rasped passionately about sirens, basements, bullets and tanks. I asked Uncle Valya what the name of that song was and he said, “The Ballad of Childhood.” Once he even took me to Turboatom, where a one-million-kilowatt turbine bound for the Zaporozhia nuclear powerplant sprawled the length of a football field across the main factory floor. It was lodged inside a colossal recess, like a surgery patient with his machine guts exposed. Uncle Valya and I stood on the balcony—overlooking dozens of workers crawling on top of it like ants over a maple twig—when he proudly pointed to a tiny web of cables on the turbine’s steel spine and told me that my father was responsible for designing that part. He introduced me to other workers who eagerly shook my hand, slapped my back, fluffed my hair and addressed me in infinite variations of muzhyk. There were bright slogans everywhere, their endless reds and crimsons covering every vertical space of Turboatom: “Glory to KPSS!” “The World Proletariat Will Triumph!” “Factory Smoke is the Breath of the Soviet Nation!” That day, outside on the factory parking lot, Uncle Valya even let me drive his Moskvitch. He showed me how to shift the car into first gear and told me to gently release the clutch. As I eased my foot off the pedal, I felt this massive machine lurch forward with an extraordinary grumble, and I knew that there had never been a place stronger or younger, one that moved faster or had more colors, that was more radiant than our proud Soviet land.
As he drove me back home, I saw the biggest slogan of them all. Written across the top of the Turboatom’s main building, spanning the length of the whole factory complex, it read “Glory to Turbobuilders!” Glory, I cried out, that’s my name! Yes, he smiled into the distant blur of rising exhaust, yes it is.
My father died of cancer resulting from the acute radiation syndrome several months before we immigrated to New York City. It was only thanks to my mother that I was spared the sight of his skeletal body in a separate hospital room, excreting the blood and mucous of what were once his organs, his hairless skull like the cupola of a crumbling church. After he died, his corpse, too toxic to be interred anywhere near densely populated areas, was wrapped in protective cellophane and taken outside of Kharkov to be buried twenty feet beneath the earth in a lead coffin. Its lid was soldered shut to prevent the radioactive contaminants of his remains from leaking into the ground water. We were never told where he was buried. But wherever it is, there he lies, somewhere outside of time, where he will be shining and dying for 20,000 years.
The last time I saw Uncle Valya was the day we left Kharkov. He drove me to the train station while my mother rode with Garik in a van loaded with everything we owned, driven by another of my father’s former coworkers. It was the first time Vysotsky wasn’t playing on his stereo, the first time he let me smoke one of his Cosmos cigarettes. Before we boarded the train for Moscow—where an airplane would take us and 400 other Soviet emigrants, most of them Jews, from Sheremetyevo to JFK—he embraced me and we both cried.
My mother, Garik and I would eventually settle in Brooklyn, where in the first few months I was attacked and brutally beaten by three older boys on the busy street right in front of my own building in Flatbush. They tore a cap off my head—which bore the name of some team from a strange sport called baseball—in an act of violence so beautifully choreographed that by the time they were done I was left bruised, bloodied, concussed and irreversibly American. It was then that I began to accept that no one would ever call me Zhid again, that my father was dead, and that I could never come home.
All this appeared seamless for Garik, who eventually went to law school and moved to Washington, DC. I, on the other hand, spent my teenage years and the years to come trying to evacuate myself of my Soviet past: Upon turning 18, I Americanized my name to Stanley, I severed contact with anyone I still knew in Kharkov, I stopped reading books in Russian, and when I eventually got married it was to a woman born in Puebla, Mexico and raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. I was even glad that the few Russian-speaking families in Flatbush, where my mother still lived, had long since moved elsewhere, making visits to her more agreeable to my refurbished American self.
It was there, in late November, during one of those visits, that my wife got hooked on a chocolate wafer cake my mother served—imported from some former Soviet republic and bought in one of the myriad Russian delis lining Brighton Beach. So it wasn’t long before I found myself on Brighton 11th Street, in a Soviet time capsule of cooked sausage and cottage cheese, waiting in line for wafer cake amid adequately nourished yet still somehow glum-faced Russian émigrés. And it was there that someone called me by a name I hadn’t heard in more than 20 years. There were a couple of bundled-up children in the store, siblings by the look of it, running giddy circles around their weary father. I thought that one of them was Slava. But when I turned, there was an old man—sagged, hunched and perfectly hairless—smiling at me with lively blue eyes and spectacular longing.
Who ever said the world does not revolve around Brighton? He chuckled and paid for a roll of bread.
I never thought I would see Uncle Valya again. I never thought I would want to. Immigration knots the cord of time in least expected places. But now that he stood before me, hardly the same but miraculously present, I had nothing but questions. He could no longer move very well on his own and held on to my elbow while we walked. As we carefully treaded toward the Brighton boardwalk, he told me that he and his wife immigrated to the United States not long after we left Kharkov, that they had no children, and that they had lived in southern Brooklyn ever since. And as the bite of frigid ocean air grew sharper, the decades separating Uncle Valya from the old man next to me somehow all compressed into an open-ended present. And while the years had taken their ruthless toll, leaving him stooped and arthritic, his peasant smile remained inconceivably vital, as if it had been orbiting him forever, a thing marooned in time. It never eluded him even as he recalled the days he spent in Chernobyl, where, he swore, if not for my father’s instructions on how to protect himself, he would have never lived to be this age, or when he told me about the old village women who refused to evacuate, how they wept over their poisoned land, how frightened they were by his face respirator while standing knee-deep in a glowing river and washing laundry with their bare hands. He smiled when he remembered being afraid of rain, and how beautiful Chernobyl was, and how the days were almost bridal-white, and how the soldiers shot and buried cats and dogs and cattle, and how they buried trees and houses and wells and even earth itself, and how irradiated birds would crash into the windshield of his truck, and how the men took off their shirts and laughed and drank and horsed around while tanning in the ionized afterglow of the ruptured reactor, because beauty was the easiest thing to believe in.
I followed him as he limped over the wooden planks, across a squawking flock of seagulls, to where a sudden blue of the Atlantic cut straight between the grey of sand and sky. We both sat down on one of those frigid benches. I wanted to hear about my father. Are you cold? I asked.
And so Valentin Stepanovich Tkachenko went all the way back to Afghanistan, where as a young officer in the Army Special Operations Forces, the “SpetsNaz,” he was recruited by the KGB—where after several intelligence-gathering missions in Kabul with the elite Alpha squad, an explosion from a stinger missile left the right side of his body scarred and nerve-damaged. His unique acuity for identifying and cultivating high-value assets, however, secured him a transfer to the Semipalatinsk Test Site in northeastern Kazakhstan, a.k.a “The Polygon,” where until 1989 close to 500 tests of Soviet nuclear and thermonuclear weapons were conducted.
That’s where he met him, my father, Moysey Pavlovich Dovelman—an engineering aspirant assigned to study structural super effects of blast-induced radiation, particularly X-rays, on steam turbines and other power-generating machinery. By then my father had witnessed and gathered data on the most powerful detonations ever set off in the earth’s atmosphere, becoming an indelible security asset to the Soviet government. Thus his cooperation with the KGB became mandatory and continued until the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. That’s when Uncle Valya was ordered to escort him to the Exclusion Zone, where my father’s task was to provide technical assistance in constructing the Shelter Object—codename “The Sarcophagus”—a massive concrete dome structure that would contain the nuclear meltdown of the affected Reactor 4.
To maintain the appearance of safety, he and other scientists were ordered to work at the construction site without radiation suits. The orders came from Uncle Valya. It was to prevent subversion, dissent and other anti-Soviet activity, he said, to ensure that the actual levels of fallout were kept secret from liquidators, the locals and the rest of the world. As a result, my father was exposed to almost 5.0 roentgens of radiation per second—nearly 200 times greater than the dose considered lethal to humans and other mammals. But the highest levels of exposure occurred during the initial stages of construction, when my father was among the small group of Soviet scientists to discover and document an unknown, intensely radioactive crystalline substance.
They found it beneath the reactor, Uncle Valya said, formed in the corium of concrete, graphite and uranium fuel, a technogenic zirconium mineral classified as Chernobylite.
No one who attempted to extract it is alive today, he choked, laughed and coughed, but they said it was spectacular!
I turned and faced him—this man, operativnik—a shriveled handler of all those interrupted lives, a secret hero of the grandest stories. A killer of my father. A living proof that I once had a childhood and home, a ravaged history all of my own.
We called it “Uranium Diamond,” he whispered, It’s still down there, you know, buried under Reactor 4.
Why? was all that I could manage.
He chuckled and turned back to the Atlantic.
My lymphoma treatments are failing, he smiled his exuberant smile. The triumph of the proletariat has finally caught up with me.
So we stayed a little longer on that windy boardwalk, where I listened to Uncle Valya while he fed the birds.
Read an interview with this year’s winner, Steven Volynets, here.