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Mother Russia

Mother Russia

5.0 2
by Robert Littell

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A riveting thriller about crime and punishment in Soviet-era Moscow.

Like the Arkady Renko novels of Martin Cruz Smith, Robert Littell’s masterful Mother Russia transports readers back in time and behind the Iron Curtain to experience the extremes of Soviet society. Robespierre Pravdin is a black marketeer who prowls Moscow’s streets and alleys


A riveting thriller about crime and punishment in Soviet-era Moscow.

Like the Arkady Renko novels of Martin Cruz Smith, Robert Littell’s masterful Mother Russia transports readers back in time and behind the Iron Curtain to experience the extremes of Soviet society. Robespierre Pravdin is a black marketeer who prowls Moscow’s streets and alleys hustling wristwatches. Wishing only to survive in a city suffocated by paranoia and schizophrenia, Robespierre manages to make a tidy profit and stay under the state’s radar—until, one day, he meets the woman called “Mother Russia” and becomes ensnared in the Byzantine and profoundly dangerous game of politics. This is another darkly engrossing page-turner from the bestselling author of The Sisters and The Defection of A. J. Lewinter.

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The Overlook Press
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18 Years

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Read an Excerpt


For my first readers,
Ben and Norma Barzman and Jacques Loyseau

“I’ve seen the future and it works.”

Lincoln Steffens, journalist

“I’ve seen the future and it needs work.”

Robespierre Pravdin, Homo Economicus,
hustler, gatecrasher, graffitist.

“Waak, waak, help, help.”

Vladimir Ilyich, one of Mother
Russia’s feathered friends.


Robespierre Pravdin,
pale as death …

Robespierre Pravdin, pale as death, pushes out with the primitively long, broken, badly set thumb of a Cro-Magnon (was he Homo Economicus in some previous incarnation?) the cardboard drawer and salutes the bits of wood lined up like cotton-tipped cartridges in an ammunition box.




Possibilities flicker before his eyes like frames from an old Eisenstein. (Eyeglasses shatter, the baby carriage hurtles down the steps.) He removes one of the sticks and rolls the thin shaft between his deformed thumb and forefinger. Trembling with excitement, he tilts his head and delicately inserts the tip in his ear, extracts it and peers at the orange-brown wax on the cotton. His bloodless lips move, words form but no sound emerges; he is speechless with admiration. The Q-Tip could revolutionize Russia, he feels it in the marrow of his brittle bones. Handled discreetly, it could do for the Russian proletariat what it did for the American proletariat (what it has done for him): stop them from cleaning their ears with their keys!

And he will be the one who did it! Robespierre Isayevich Pravdin, the man who brought the Q-Tip to Mother Russia. Hero of Socialist Labor! The Order of the Red Star!! The Order of the Red Banner!!! The Order of Lenin even!!!! (Pravdin wears all four already but he didn’t earn them, he found them in the melting snow.) He can almost feel Leonid Ilyich gripping his thin shoulders and pecking like a pigeon at the reddish stubble on each cheek.

It’s as plain as the comfortingly long lifeline on his enormous palm: the Q-Tip is an idea whose time has come. Before you can build communism you must construct socialism. Before socialism, an advanced industrial society. And who (the dialogue with himself is becoming animated; he waves the tiny cotton-tipped baton about in the air) ever heard of an advanced industrial society without Q-Tips!

The exquisite logic of it, the scientific inevitability of it, makes Pravdin shudder.

Thesis: hard wood.

Antithesis: soft cotton.

Synthesis: (he shouts it out in a voice raw with lust) “The Q-Tip!”

With her resources Russia could close the Q-Tip gap in a matter of months. If the planet is seven-tenths water, Russia is seven-tenths trees. And in the south, Uzbeki gold; Pravdin saw it with his own eyes when he flew down to Samarkand to pick up some bolts of silk for the wife of the Mexican ambassador and the fermented mare’s milk for the Druse: field upon field piled high with mounds (mounds nothing, mountains!) of cotton.

So what happens to a hustler with an ingenious idea whose time has come? So what happens is he runs smack into the menopausal monstrosity known as the bureaucracy, that’s what happens. Picture it: having dry-cleaned his old Eisenhower jacket for the occasion, Pravdin presents himself at the Ministry of Forestry and pulls from his worn leather briefcase his five-year Q-Tip plan: production statistics (predicated on an increase in consumption of 6 percent a week for the first fifty-two weeks), capital outlay requirements (modest: the wood is there, the cotton is there, it only remains to bring them together), and so forth and so on. Sipping mineral water through glass straws (Pravdin’s palm slaps against his high forehead: Glass straws! Why didn’t I think of that?), the Forestry people play with some figures on a Japanese pocket calculator, double-check the results on a pocket abacus, ask Pravdin if he would mind stepping outside while they kick around the idea. In the end they decide that the Q-Tipsky (as they take to calling it) is essentially a cotton product. (So that the day isn’t a total loss Pravdin sells them two guaranteed seventeen-jewel Swiss watches, with expanding tarnish-proof chrome wristbands, that register seconds, minutes, hours, months and elapsed time under water.)

A week later Pravdin (casually dropping the Druse’s name: I’m a friend of Chuvash) organizes an interview with the All-Party Cotton Combine people at the Ministry of Agriculture.

“And what is this O-shaped letter with the little line through the bottom?” inquires a bureaucrat with eyes like tarnished minors.

“The capitalists call that a Q,” Pravdin replies, pronouncing it as if he were trying to cough up a hair at the back of his throat.

“This Q,” another bureaucrat comes back to it a few minutes later, “what does it represent?” He absently explores his ear with a used Q-Tip. (Pravdin never discards.)

Pravdin’s bruised eyes (an impressionistic, not a literal, description; he has seen more than most) flicker uncertainly for an instant. “Because,” he explains, appropriately deferential, “in American, cotton begins with Q.”

Nodding noncommittally, sipping lemonade, the cotton people ask Pravdin if he objects to stepping outside while they analyze the proposal. After a while they summon him back to tell him that the cotton toothpick (as they take to calling it) is at heart a wood product.

It’s the classic comic all over again! From God knows what obscure reach of his jackpot mentality Pravdin had summoned up this brilliant idea (Hero of Socialist Labor! The Order of the Red Star!! And so forth and so on) to lure youngsters to the Russian classics. The Brothers Karamazov. Eugene Onegin. War and Peace. Doctor Zhivago even. (On second thought scratch Zhivago.) He turned up at the Artists’ Union with an eight-page, four-color pilot of Frolov’s Civil War epic, The Deep Don. Over glasses of Polish vodka, the bureaucrats pulled on Lenin-like beards and whispered among themselves and decided that the classic comic clearly came under the jurisdiction of the Writers’ Union. Over three-star Bulgarian cognac (Pravdin claims to discern a hierarchy based on what bureaucrats drink), the Writers’ Union people hemmed and hawed and blew their Roman noses into colorful Italian handkerchiefs and decided that the classic comic would more properly come under the authority of the Artists.

Contrary to published reports (see Harold Truman; Pravdin is steeped in history!), the buck never stops.

But Graffiti Pravdin (as he was known before he was expelled from Lomonosov University for antisocialist onanism) is nothing if not tenacious. (Once, in a prison camp near Moscow, he came up with an idea for making shoes from confiscated leather wristwatch straps. They said it couldn’t be done but Pravdin collected straps for two and a half years to produce a prototype.) He has a sharpness of mind that pares away extraneous facts; the more he thinks about something the purer it becomes; the purer it becomes the more persistent his pursuit. Acquaintances mistake this persistence for an obsession, especially if they should discover that the project that Pravdin is working on at any given moment has wormed its way, as it often does, into his dreams. The Q-Tips have reached this stage now. For several nights in a row he has had a recurring dream: wearing a chain-mail Eisenhower jacket with medals rattling noisily on the breast, astride an animal he is afraid to identify, he levels his long cotton-tipped lance and charges walls, windmills and in one sequence that left him sweaty and weak and wide awake, Lenin’s Tomb! Well, at least I’m a dreamer, Pravdin consoles himself as he remembers the numb feeling in the pit of his stomach when he found himself sighting on that holy of holies; most people are just sleepers.

Yawning (the result of a late night in the hard currency bar of the Hotel Moskva with two English computer technicians), Pravdin looks at his watches (Japanese, self-winding, they register seconds, minutes, hours, months, fiscal years and diurnal tides in the Philippine Sea) that he wears on top of his cuff because the expanding bands snag the hairs on his wrist. The one set to Moscow time, which has water vapor under the crystal, registers half past. (The other, which has no crystal at all, is set to Greenwich Mean Time; Pravdin feels the need for a standard in his life.) He ransacks the room for his appointment calendar, finds it under a pile of old Reader’s Digests, confirms the luncheon for the East German editors at the Slaviansky Bazaar. (Pravdin never misses an affair at the Slaviansky if he can help it; they serve Polish, not Russian, vodka, and Georgian sausages that are better than sex.) He pulls on his Eisenhower jacket and basketball sneakers, stuffs his briefcase with Swiss watches, Deutsche Grammophon LP’s, American flame-thrower cigarette lighters, Bolshoi tickets, lubricated Swedish condoms, double locks the door of his flat and starts down the wide staircase. The wooden steps creak agreeably under his feet. Count your blessings, Pravdin tells himself in what has become a morning ritual. You’re reasonably healthy, relatively wealthy and you live in the next to last wooden house in central Moscow. Touch wood. (His bony knuckles rap on the polished banister.)

Outside a crowd has gathered around a notice tacked to a tree. (A tree! Lately Pravdin has taken to looking at trees in terms of their component parts: Q-Tips.)

“Come quickly, Robespierre Isayevich,” an old woman cries tearfully, “it is the end of the world.”

(“At the end of the world, go to Bukhara,” the Druse once seriously advised him. “Everything happens fifty years later there.”)

“How is it they can do this thing?” an elderly man moans. “It is not correct.”

The old woman clutches Pravdin’s lapels in her bony fingers. “Where will I go?” she croaks. “I’ve been twenty-seven years here. I shook hands once with Stalin. Tell me, Robespierre Isayevich, what will become of me?”

“What’s all the commotion?” demands a bulky lady on her way to the store with a sack of empties.

Pravdin pushes through the crowd to read the notice. His face darkens. “Why, the sons of bitches are tearing down our house,” he groans. Everyone turns to stare at the ramshackle wooden structure sandwiched between two concrete apartment buildings.

“To construct what?” the bulky lady inquires.

“What else, to construct Socialism,” Pravdin fires back. He pulls a Western felt-tipped pen from his breast pocket and scrawls across the notice:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Setting her mouth into a tight line, the bulky lady adjusts her reading glasses. “Defacing a public notice is against the law,” she scolds. Chin elevated, eyes peering through thick lenses, she reads Pravdin’s footnote. “What language is this, Jewish?”

“Jewish is right, lady,” Pravdin stage whispers. “It’s an old Talmudic saying that means, ‘Who will watch the bosses?’ “

“Attention,” snaps the bulky lady. The empties in her sack jingle as she gestures. “Those who are not with us are considered to be against us.”

Pravdin winks slyly. “Under capitalism, man exploits man. Yes or no?”

The bulky lady nods warily. “Yes.”

“Under communism,” Pravdin assures her, “it is just the opposite!”

The bulky lady moves away uncertainly, hesitates, returns like a tide and tries to drown Pravdin in accusations. Her voice, shrill as a cat’s in heat, echoes through the alleyway. Necks crane. Heads wrapped in dust kerchiefs dart from windows. Pravdin, who was born with his inner ear tuned to proscenium wavelengths, practically dances as he denies that he is a radish-Communist (red outside, white inside). “The bosses don’t see eye to eye with me,” he concedes, “but do I hold it against them?” (“Neither for, neither against, as God is my witness,” he assured the Druse the first time they met. The Druse always has to know where a man stands politically before he will do business with him.)

The bulky woman raps her knuckles on the notice, gestures toward the house, jabs her index finger into Pravdin’s solar plexus. “It’s ones like you …”

Pravdin retreats. “Talking politics is like talking about life after death,” he murmurs. “I have thank you enough trouble with life before death.”

The crowd breaks up (reluctantly; Muscovites don’t particularly want to get where they are going). Folding himself into his dignity as if it is an old Army greatcoat, Pravdin hurries off toward the Slaviansky. On the path that runs parallel to the Moscow River he pauses alongside the Kremlin wall to light a cigarette, then quickly scribbles with a piece of chalk:

I’ve seen the future and it needs work

(L. Steffens: Pravdin never forgets a face or a phrase). His spirits buoyed, he cuts through the Kremlin with a group of German tourists, tries (unsuccessfully) to sell Bolshoi tickets to the stragglers, stops under the clock in the Kremlin tower (which is two minutes slow) to buy a lottery ticket but doesn’t find a number that suits him. Ten minutes later he is at the entrance to the Slaviansky Bazaar, a restaurant remarkable (in addition to its Polish vodka and Georgian sausages) for its prerevolutionary decor.

“Pravdin, Robespierre Isayevich,” he announces to the lady wrestler with the guest list, “at your beck and call.”

She takes in his basketball sneakers, his trousers frayed at the cuffs from walking on them, his Eisenhower jacket with the four medals overlapping above the breast pocket, his day-old growth of rust-colored beard, she runs her polished thumbnail down the P’s. “There is no Pravdin,” she says cautiously.

“But there is, ravishing lady; you have the honor of having him before your very original body.” Pravdin gives her a fleeting glimpse of a small laminated card (the menu from a Leningrad ice-cream parlor), mumbles something about representing the Second Chief Directorate of GLUBFLOT.

“Oh dear,” the woman says nervously. Pravdin smiles crookedly (according her a glimpse of stainless steel bicuspids), bows, brushes past her into the Slaviansky.

The first person he runs into is another freeloader, his old camp friend Friedemann T., a goateed painter who claims to have created abstract socialist realism. He is wearing a dark tapered suit (French), pointed shoes (Greek), a white-on-white shirt (Russian) with studs (his grandfather’s) and a light prewar overcoat (origin obscure) draped over delicately hunched shoulders.

“What are we here?” the painter whispers urgently, a glass of vodka in one hand, a Georgian sausage in the other. “Computers?”

“What we are is literary,” Pravdin whispers back, plucking a glass of vodka from a passing tray.

“Literary.” Friedemann T. takes this in. He lifts on his toes, sways as if he is putting himself into gear, raises the pitch of his voice. “What’s wonderful in a book, if you want my view, is what the author doesn’t say.” He bites into the sausage and washes it down with a mouthful of vodka.

“In my new novel,” Pravdin offers—neither bothers looking at the other—“I’m experimenting with action that has no relation at all to character.”

“Not possible,” Friedemann T. dismisses the idea out of hand. “Action is character.”

“The trouble with that,” complains Pravdin, “is there’s no way for a character to step out of character. Whatever he does, he is. My God, that’s worse than solitary confinement!” Through ventriloquist’s lips he adds:

“Where are they hiding the sausages?”

The painter motions with his head and they casually move off in that direction. “Mind you, his work is splendid,” the painter loudly confides. He nods at a famous editor, who looks back blankly. “If it has a fault it is that he doesn’t empty himself. When I work I always go to great pains to empty myself.” Friedemann T. snorts. “Quietly, it goes without saying, so as not to make waste or noise.”

“In thirty-four I think it was,” Pravdin reaches back into his memory, “Isaac Emanuilovich told the First Congress of Soviet Writers, I have invented a new genre—the genre of silence.’ “

Friedemann T. belches; his overcoat falls to the floor. Pravdin restores it to his shoulders. “The genre of silence!” the painter remarks. “I’ll bet you wish you’d said that.”

“I will,” Pravdin promises.

On their way out Friedemann T. consults his pocket calendar, reminds Pravdin about a midafternoon vernissage at the Artists’ Union and a dinner symposium of geologists at the Rossiya. “The geologists are serving chicken Kiev,” he reminds him, “and a decent Bulgarian wine.”

“It is not possible,” Pravdin tells him regretfully. “Apartment hunting is what I am obliged to do.” He explains about the notice tacked to the tree.

“They’re not going to tear down that beautiful building of yours?” Friedemann T. whistles. “Aesthetically speaking, that could qualify as a crime. There aren’t five like it left in central Moscow.”

“After this one goes there won’t be but one; mine is the next to last,” Pravdin says wistfully. “A vacant apartment by any chance you don’t know of? My requirements are modest: sunlight, space, calm, privacy and discreet neighbors.”

Friedemann T. shakes his head gloomily. “If I knew of such a place I would move in myself. Why don’t you approach the Druse?”

“No, no, for small things I don’t like to bother him,” Pravdin insists.

“Since when is an apartment a small thing?”

“For the Druse,” Pravdin assures him, “it is.”

Pravdin, twenty minutes early, is hoping to be the first on line; he is forty-first. He comforts himself by thinking of those ahead as potential clients.

“How do I know these tickets are genuine?” demands a middle-aged woman wrapped in an enormous brown shawl.

“How does she know these tickets are genuine?” Pravdin repeats innocently. “Yes or no? Under socialism, forgery is a state crime but hustling is a state necessity?”

The woman laughs self-consciously. “I’ll take two,” she says and carefully counts out eight rubles from her wallet. Pravdin folds the money away in his change purse.

Behind Pravdin two young men are playing chess on a pocket board. White advances his queen’s bishop to knight five. “If I say Schonberg,” he complains, “you say Webern; if I say chromatic equality is a built-in tenet of serialism, you opt for diatonic species.”

“I couldn’t help overhearing,” Pravdin intrudes. “What a coincidence you speak of Schonberg. I happen to have on my very person some Deutsche Grammophon discs that arrived only last night from West Germany.”

When Pravdin’s turn comes he finds himself face to face with the most expressionless human he has ever set eyes on in his life.

“Next,” the woman says, glancing up from her incredibly organized desk at a wall electric clock that has no hour hand. Like Pravdin she is extremely thin; unlike Pravdin she is thin without being frail. “Next,” she repeats tonelessly, impatiently, tapping a front tooth with a fingernail.

Pravdin hands her the form he has filled out, along with his Moscow residence permit (it cost a small fortune), his internal passport, a letter (forged) certifying he is a member in good standing of the Writers’ Union and therefore is entitled to twice the standard nine square meters of living space that is the inalienable right of every Soviet citizen, and a military certificate (the genuine article) indicating he suffers from an old war wound and therefore is entitled to live within a radius of a hundred meters of public transportation. Methodical in her movements the woman piles up the documents, begins with the internal passport, glances at the word Jew penned in alongside entry three (ethnic origin), pockets the two Bolshoi tickets Pravdin has discreetly placed in the military certificate.

The interview, Pravdin senses, is off to a reasonable start. Touch wood.

“What is the nature of your war wound?” the thin woman asks in a voice that conveys total lack of interest in the answer.

“Shrapnel in the neck,” Pravdin explains. “Pinched nerves. I lost the ability to shrug.”

“That doesn’t sound incapacitating,” comments the thin woman.

“Incapacitating is what it is,” Pravdin argues passionately. “In a workers’ paradise the inability to shrug is the ultimate wound.” Pravdin leans across the desk. “Lovely lady,” he pleads, “I have friends in high places. I could use influence, but I don’t take advantage of my name, I wait my turn like any ordinary citizen.”

The thin woman shuffles through some file cards. “I can offer you a flat in Dzerzhinsky—”

“Sooner Siberia!” blurts Pravdin.

“Dzerzhinsky is twenty-five minutes by metro from the Kremlin,” the woman continues tonelessly. “The flat is in a building with an elevator, it is eighty-five meters from a metro station, it has fourteen square meters surface, heat, hot water and kitchen privileges—”

“I’m entitled to eighteen square meters,” Pravdin whines.

The woman shrugs, writes the address on a card, stamps the card with a seal and signs her name across the seal, hands it to Pravdin, looking up at him for the first time.

“Could I trouble you,” Pravdin says with mock formality, “for the return of my Bolshoi tickets.”

“What tickets,” the thin woman asks innocently, “are you talking about?”

Pravdin paces off the distance from the metro to the front door of the gray building, six stories, one of many in a suburban project set at angles that suggest they are giving each other the cold shoulder. People stare. Pravdin concentrates, loses count, starts again, is annoyed to find the total eighty-three.

The occupants of the flat, a worn, tired man with thinning hair and his pregnant wife, are wrapping dishes in newspaper and packing them in cartons when Pravdin knocks. (A note indicates the bell is out of order.)

“You’re the new tenant then,” the man assumes. He manages a smile. “Come on, I’ll give you the royal tour.”

“First the lowdown on the building,” Pravdin demands. His eyes, darting nervously, take in the room: boxes tied and ready to go, matching overstuffed easy chairs, a grand-father clock with a sweep second hand that jerks when it passes the five, a huge television set, trunks, suitcases.

The pregnant woman straightens, her palms on the small of her back. “I have to admit it, the building has a certain charm,” she observes dryly. “Today for instance there was no cold water in the taps. You wouldn’t be interested in a kitchen table, would you? The top is genuine formica.”

Pravdin, dispirited, shakes his head, shuffles around the room, peeks into the kitchen, the toilet (both shared with another family), sniffs, screws up his face in disgust, tries to flush the toilet, has to climb on the handle to depress it. Using the tip of his sneaker he pushes up the yellowing plastic toilet seat; it is angled badly and bangs down again.

“How do you pee?” Pravdin asks absently.

“Quickly,” the man replies.

“Funny is what you’re not,” snaps Pravdin. He turns on the tap marked “cold”; rusty hot water gushes out. He looks up at the shower nozzle, which is caked with a whitish residue, and then down at the hole in the cement floor that serves as a drain.

“I suppose the facilities are like this in our space rockets,” the pregnant woman clucks her tongue sympathetically. Her husband shoots her a look and she goes back to her packing.

“The same is what it is,” Pravdin agrees, “with the possible exception that the drain holes are stainless steel.”

“Listen, it’s not all that bad,” the tired man urges. “The couple you share the kitchen with, the woman works at the hard currency store for tourists and gets the inside track on certain shipments before they’re put on sale.”

“She’s good on fur hats, leather gloves, waterproof boots,” the wife calls out.

But Pravdin is already removing his sinking heart from the flat.

There are no signs forbidding people to walk on the grass; none are needed. But Pravdin, hunched forward, absorbed in his thoughts as he cuts diagonally across Sokolniki Park, is in no mood to obey signs that aren’t there. Pigeons scatter. Emaciated squirrels claw their way up trees. An old man in civilian clothes with a chest full of medals angrily shakes his cane but Pravdin, out of earshot, hurtles on. At Khokhlovka, a district of factories and warehouses, he reaches for his chalk, scrawls in English across a billboard trumpeting how many schools have been built in the last five years:

Nothing worth knowing can be teached

(Anon: Pravdin studied English in the camps but his teacher disappeared in midcourse); Glancing fearfully at dark clouds conspiring over the rooftops, he hurries on to the warehouse that serves the Druse as a base of operations.

The small door at the rear opens before he has a chance to ring. Pravdin, shivering from a rain that has yet to fall, ducks to enter, is greeted by Zosima, a Berber with a small blue flower tattooed on her left cheek. Long plaits of silky black hair fall across her shoulders to her waist, indicating that she is not married. Her lids are painted blue; her gaze is direct, unblinking. Pravdin has seen her before; she is one of the Druse’s “nieces” and chauffeurs him around in a curtained Packard that is said to have belonged to the Cuban ambassador. (“I never drive myself,” the Druse once confided to Pravdin, “my hands are too small.”)

“Chuvash expects you,” murmurs Zosima.

“How expects me?” Pravdin is edgy. “I never called I was coming.”

Zosima only steps back, bolts the door behind him, leads the way through labyrinthian warehouse aisles stacked with busts and statues of men whose biographies have been conveniently lost: Bukharin, Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev. (“I am the day watchman at a pantheon of nonpersons,” the Druse told Pravdin the first time he visited the warehouse.)

The Druse, whose full name is Chuvash Al-hakim bi’amrillahi, greets Pravdin at the door of the room that serves the warehouse guardian as an office. Dressed in a black European suit, an embroidered skullcap set squarely on his shiny bald scalp, deeply tanned, he places his right hand on his heart, inclines his head to Pravdin. “Salaam aleikum, brother,” he says quietly.

“Shalom Aleichem back to you.” Pravdin bows awkwardly, precedes the Druse into his office which is covered, floors and walls, in oriental carpets, giving to the room the thick muffled atmosphere of an Uzbek yourta. Chuvash and Pravdin sit cross-legged on either side of a low iron table. An old beetlelike woman, her face masked by a heavy black horsehair veil, hovers. Chuvash mutters something to her in Kirghiz (one of the six Turkic dialects he speaks fluently). She moves away, neither man speaks, she returns with shallow bowls of green tea brewed in a charcoal-heated samovar and served with a delicate herb called hell. The aroma clears Pravdin’s nasal passages. The Druse offers Pravdin a plate of biscuits. He takes one, bites into it, cups his other hand underneath to catch the crumbs.

The Druse sips his tea while it is still scalding hot. Pravdin leaves his bowl on the table and blows on it until he can bear to lift it. When the bowls are empty the old woman is summoned to take them away.

“So.” Pravdin dries his lips on the sleeve of his Eisenhower jacket, clears his throat.

“Brother, it has come to me again,” Chuvash says.

Pravdin, concealing his skepticism behind a crooked smile, leans forward.

Chuvash places both hands on the iron table, palms down, speaks with his eyes closed, his back straight. “It is the reign of the last Emir of Bukhara, Said Mirmuhammed Alimkhan,” he recounts intently. “He lives in the Ark twenty meters above the level of the city. This Friday, as every Friday, carpets are laid between the Ark and the mosque. The people prostrate themselves, see only the Emir’s finely worked golden slippers as he makes his way to the mosque. Later he returns to the Ark through the twin towers, mounts the tunnel between the prison cells, pauses to say something to a dignitary just before my door. I see him through a crack in the wood. He is a slight man, absolutely beardless. When he speaks to the dignitary I become aware that he has a stutter. ‘That the executions b-b-b-b-begin/ he commands. The dignitary falls to his knees to kiss the hem of his robe. The Emir continues on to the balcony to watch the executions. This Friday there are five. They are performed with a knife. I am to be the fourth.”

“How can you be sure it’s you?” Pravdin, agitated, demands.

“In the vision I am brought to the courtyard below the balcony. They are dragging away the corpse of the man before me; he had been convicted of incest. I fall on my knees and lift my palms to the Emir for mercy. And I see on my palm the triangle of lines indicating I am a seer.” Chuvash turns up his right palm and traces the triangle with his finger. “You see, it is always the same.”

“What about the mercy?” Pravdin wants to know.

“The Emir smiles down at me and nods in a kindly, almost fatherly, way just as the executioner’s knife slices through my jugular.”

“Aiiiiiiii,” Pravdin grimaces, clutching his own throat; he has a vivid imagination and a low threshold of pain.

Chuvash smiles. “It is fascinating, is it not? If there were only a way to study this phenomenon scientifically, to confirm it—”

“How many of these incarnations have you had?” asks Pravdin.

“It is difficult for me to say. Often different visions seem to relate to the same incarnation. I count at least six, but I’m not certain. And you?” Chuvash gestures with his pinky nail, which he has allowed to grow extremely long. “I understand you don’t consider them evidence of previous incarnations as I do, but have you had any more of your dreams?”

Pravdin flashes his crooked smile. “I dreamed about a monastery cell, whitewashed. The bunk bed has no pillow, the crucifix above it has been pried off but it has left its imprint from having been there for centuries. A bearded Jew of indeterminate age leans against the imprint of the crucifix.”

“Ah,” sighs Chuvash, impressed.

“It is only a dream,” cautions Pravdin.

“Of course,” Chuvash nods. “Continue.”

“Shots ring out, a ragged volley first, then a single shot from a smooth-bored naval pistol. The Jew starts, opens his eyes, sees for the first time the imprint of the crucifix. His bloodless lips move, words form but no sound emerges; he is speechless with humiliation. A horrified expression crawls across his face like a crab. At that instant a key turns in the lock, the door swings open with a squeal.”

“Who is it?”

“Who it is I will never know,” Pravdin confesses. “Someone flushed the communal toilet, the pipes banged and I woke up.”

Zosima slips into the room, whispers to the Druse. He produces a huge gold pocket watch, sees it has stopped, taps it with his pinky nail to make it start, says a few words in Uighur. Zosima backs out of the room.

The Druse appears pressed for time. “What brings you to me, brother?” he asks politely.

Pravdin laughs nervously. “What brings me to you is a favor.”

“Only ask it,” Chuvash instructs him.

Pravdin hesitates long enough to suggest he doesn’t relish asking favors, then tells him about the tearing down of the next to last wooden house in central Moscow.

Chuvash pulls a scrap of paper from a pocket, uncaps a pen, jots a name and phone number on the paper, offers it to Pravdin. “If they are forcing you out of the next to last wooden house in central Moscow, there is only one place for you: the last wooden house in central Moscow. Call this number, ask for a man by this name, speak to no one else, say only that you are a friend of Chuvash Al-hakim bi’amrillahi.”

Stunned at the ease of it all Pravdin accepts the paper, folds it away between the bills in his change purse. “When I can do “something for you only ask,” he promises the Druse.

“When you can do something for me,” Chuvash replies evenly, “you will know it without my asking.”

Meet the Author

Robert Littell's novels include the New York Times bestseller The Company, The October Circle, Mother Russia, The Amateur, The Once and Future Spy, An Agent in Place, The Visiting Professor, and Walking Back the Cat. A former Newsweek journalist, he is an American currently living in France.

Brief Biography

Martel, France
Date of Birth:
January 8, 1935
Place of Birth:
Brooklyn, New York
B.A., Alfred University, 1956

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