Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Vanessa Manko
1913 – 1920
He arrived in the United States in 1913 on a boat named Trieste. His face open, the brow smooth, eyes with the at once earnest, at once insecure gaze of hopeful, wanting youth. He began work fast. First at the Remington Arms Company, making ammunition for the Russian Imperial Army, rising up the ranks to become an inspector of the Mosin-Nagant rif le and later working for the Hitchcock Gas Engine Company. In Bridgeport, Connecticut. His early mornings spent among the others. The hordes of men shuttling to and from factories in lines and masses of gray or black through the dim light of winter mornings and in the spring when the morning sun was like a secret, coy and sparkling, the water f lashing on the sound.
They found each other though. Through all of that, they, the Russians, found each other. They learned to spot each other through mannerisms, glances. This was later. In 1919. Then, the restrictions came at work and in the boardinghouse.
“English! You must speak English! That, or go back home,” the foreman always said.
The warehouses loomed up around the men like capes. Their windowpanes caked with dirt, small rectangles of frosted, beveled glass. Sometimes, the broken panes were replaced by colored lozenges—sea green, slate blue, dark ruby red. Austin liked to connect them, making up constellations, innumerable designs and geometries.
“English!” The foreman’s voice would resound off the tin walls, echoing off the glass, the workers all seated in rows solemn and silent, some standing. once he made the mistake of speaking Russian to a worker.
“Bolshevik! Go back to Russia and bring your revolution with you!” the foreman yelled.
In those early years he sometimes spoke Russian in his sleep and woke in a sweat, the others around him, snoring or stirring as he peeled back his covers to step out of bed, springs creaking.
“The bastard is up again.”
“Hey, Polak—can’t you sleep like a normal person?” The inaccu-acy, or the intent, of the slander—he was not sure which had been the more injurious. Cautiously, he’d slip out of the room and with overcoat on, make his way through the narrow hallways and down to the first floor, feeling for the latch underneath the stairs—its wrought iron handle cool and coarse. He’d made a deal with the proprietor. For one more dollar a month he agreed to keep Austin’s books safe—notebooks mostly. The owner wouldn’t touch them, he’d promised. And in the milky white of those winter mornings, Austin would sit at the large kitchen table working. His drafting paper spread across the table. A compass. A slide rule. Then he was obsessed with the scientist Faraday, examining his notebooks, reading his reports on electromagnetic wave theory for radio. He was fascinated with Maxwell’s question: What is light? He’d read Maxwell’s Matter and Motion, Theory of Heat.
. . .
Near the Remington Arms , mostly, and sometimes too along the streets leading to the Hitchcock Gas Company, men lay in wait to descend upon the workers, thrusting flyers, notices, newspapers into reluctant hands, running alongside them, sometimes for up to two blocks. They were a nuisance, but Austin never refused. He took what was presented and stuffed these pamphlets and papers into the deep pockets of his overcoat. At the end of a week’s time, his pockets had no room for his gloves. on Sunday mornings, early, he removed each piece of paper, unfolding, smoothing out the crumpled notices. He read them, some in Russian, others in broken English. Lecture on the History of Russian Folk; Advance in Soviet Machines; Russian Choral Recital; Speak, Read, Write: English; History of Man. Other postings and announcements filled the boardinghouse’s entrance hallway. Newsprint paper tacked to the walls in a confusing jumble resembling papier-mâché. Someone had secured a row of nails for such flyers and the papers hung off the walls folded inward as if fatigued, corners rustling when the door opened to a February, March, or June gust, causing the inevitable swirl of errant flyers. There were papers on the floor, strewn along the stairs, curled and shivering in the doorway, some escaping out to the street and away. other flyers hung from strings draped off nails, dangling mobile-like and beckoning with more elegance than their unlucky pinioned neighbors.
It was Austin’s habit that, when not in his shared boarding room, he scoured these walls, reading the advertisements and notices, choosing what he’d wanted, writing things down in his notebook. “Professor,” some chided as they passed him entering or leaving. “Bourgeois.” He didn’t listen.
The flyers and notices promised a way to “pass a pleasant evening.” The Russian Social Club, the Union of Russian Workers—it was a place to go, a way to avoid the boardinghouse where there was only room to eat and sleep. The Russian Social Club met in the basement of the Orthodox church. They held music recitals. He could belong to the chorus. They put on plays and pageant shows, organized sales and celebrated Pushkin’s name day. The union offered English classes, courses on the automobile, radio engineering. He paid his dues. He attended sponsored lectures. He received the union’s paper.
It was a brick building where bread used to be made. The ovens were now stacked with books and manuals and the pupils, all union members, sat along the old assembly-line conveyors that lay in parallel, crossing the room in broad silver bands. There was no heat in the building, just cold running water, so they sat in coats and hats. In other rooms, meetings about the state of Russia took place; these were often loud, one man’s voice distinct over others’ murmurings or grumblings. leaving his English class, Austin stood in the open door, watching the meeting in the adjacent room, listening, “workers,” “society,” “capitalists.”
“Don’t just stand there,” a man ordered. “Come in.”
“What’s this all about?”
“I’m not a worker.”
“Let me see your hands.” The man looks at Austin’s upturned palms. “You’re a worker.”
“I’m an engineer.”
“So? That means you work, don’t you?”
He walked in, stood next to the man. The room was filled, men seated, others standing three deep along the walls. They’d turned the lights out as if for a theater performance. one man stood before the gathering, candle in hand, reciting tenets from a broadsheet.
“Why are the lights off?” Austin asked.
“No one outside can see in.”
“And if they did?”
“Trouble,” the man grumbled and disappeared farther into the room, lost.
. . .
To enter a house of women is to enter a home. He’d been in the country six years before reaching the moment when he could move from the men’s rooming house to a home—a proper home, as a boarder, but still a home. Gone from those dank, stark boardinghouse hallways. Eight men to a room. Walls of cracked plaster. White chalky bits crumbling. A fine residue of white covered the splintered wood floors, gray and stripped bare, a fog of white along the windowpanes.
Seven dollars a month. For that he’d receive meals; the girls, two sisters, would do his laundry, mend his clothes, and, if needed, buy him things during their weekly shopping—paper, pencils, tooth powder, chocolate bars. Every Monday, he’d have to write out what he needed in a green ledger book that sat on a diminutive table against the stairs. Why he couldn’t ask for things outright, he never did understand except that perhaps the mother didn’t want him to get too close to her daughters. That, and they kept a careful account of his purchases.
It was a kitchen of white, save for the large table in the center of the room whose checkered red tablecloth provided the room’s only color. Two large windows at the back of the house filled the room with a gauzy white light. outside, a f lock of sparrows alighted from the small rectangular yard, fluttered and traced an arc of black across a window frame like a stroke of calligraphy. One girl stood at the stove in profile to Austin, the other reached for plates from a cabinet—high enough so that her foot came off the ground a little in the reaching. She set one plate atop another, the rattle of them sweet and delicate. He watched her—careful and deliberate with each, a significance in the placing as if the gold rims aligning the white plates held a power within the circle. He knew her hands first, the gesture of them—quiet and sure. Hands that matched her peaceful face, her calm and contained kind of beauty. She had a line of flour across her forehead. He imagined that if someone had told her she would’ve wiped it off without a thought, with no concern for her tired, spent appearance, the loose tendrils and wisps of hair framing her face. A graveness within. Quietude in her gray eyes that he, without knowing why, wanted to upset, disrupt, and cause to f lash. She reminded him of something silver—regal silver with a kind of inner poise as if she had—did have—a deep complicity with herself, had figured something out and was reluctant to part with the insight.
This was Julia.
Julia, setting out plates as thin as coins. January 12, 1919. Nearly a year later they were married.
. . .
His presence had altered the household, that Connecticut household of winter. There are scents a man brings: the dirt, the metallic, alkaline of tools, bleach of white undershirts. The pungency of sweat, the mildew of ponderous shoes. Smoke and shaving soap. It was never discussed though Austin could intuit that there had been a change. The father had died five years prior, leaving his widow and the two daughters with nothing but expenses, working as a necessity and a room to let, if needed. And now the outward signs of an alteration were visible—a household of three women once again included a man. But there was also a latent shift in tone. An anxiety assuaged. His presence allowed it to dissipate like a hand reaching out to balance an unsteady table. For them, he meant security, protection, a release from worry, almost.
He was not a man of material needs. His requests were minimal. Tooth powder and shaving cream. Rolling papers and drafting paper. That is all. He stood, in profile, hunched over a small hallway table, three-legged, its half-mooned surface f lush against the wall. The ledger is splayed open. A pencil within its spine.
His first list amid the commotion of morning. The constant creak of the floorboards as the sisters move from bedroom to hallways, through doorways, up and down stairs. one unrelenting f low of productivity. He’d wanted to write the list in private. He didn’t want anyone to see him struggle with the words. The simplest things could bring one back to the outsider’s humility—the language mostly. Had he used the right word? Was it tooth or mouth powder? He seemed to live his days then trying to decipher codes known only to others. And not simply words, but facial expressions, behaviors. He didn’t know it then, but it would become a habit of his life, his way of being. But it was better to have to write out his list in the ledger than endure the humiliation of speech.
He’d held the pencil in his hand that first day, looked to his right, then left, and bent to write, the door’s transom offering the same, and only, pale morning light. The pencil tip broke. Unusual for him, he who was so precise with any instruments for drawing, but in his nervousness, he’d pressed too hard. He used his thumbnail to peel back some of the wood, a splinter wedged beneath the nail bed. An arc of red. Wincing, he brought his thumb to his mouth and then began again. The pencil, now jagged edged, tore the tissued ledger paper.
“You understand how it works?” she’d asked. From above he heard a step on the stairs. Julia leaned over the banister. A patient smile formed, shy, her gaze pulled back slightly. “I handle this. It’s my responsibility— the ledger book, the shopping.” She hesitated before fully descending the stairs.
“I was writing some things down,” Austin said, his hand f lipping through the ledger pages.
“I do my best to get exactly what you need, but if the store is out I get the next best thing.”
“My spelling is sometimes not so good.”
“I leave your bag right under the table here,” she said. “It’s all sorted from what we buy for the household. I put it just right here.” She pressed her fingertips to the tabletop.
Soon, they had an agreement, a routine—he and Julia. Favors create a bond.
“If you get me some sugar for my tea, I’ll get you a pair of shoes,” he told her, still unsure how exactly he’d approach the man from work who patched together makeshift shoes out of collected leather scraps. It was April, the thaw begun in earnest. The days were getting longer. After dinner Julia made tea. The others, Austin included, sat in the dining room with the windows blue, turning to black. At that hour the city hushed, and it was easier to hear the trolley cars in the far distance, creeping and creaking along the streets, and far beyond that the mournful bellow of the ferryboats as they moved in broad arcs along the sound.
“Really. New shoes. It will be just between us,” he told her.
They had a system. During the pouring and passing of tea, they would find reason to be close, she pressing the stolen sugar into his hand, which he’d then curl into his fist before dropping it into his teacup. It was their secret. A minor transgression, but in a house with no privacy a “just between us” moment was something to be treasured. later, Julia told him that she was surprised by what a man could make one do.
When May and June of that first year came, they rushed from work to meet in the park. Beardsley Park. Austin waited for Julia, he always the earlier of the two because she had the longer way to walk. He paced and when he recognized her gait—fast while on the sidewalk, slowing as she stepped into the greenness expanding overnight—he took off his hat. She had once told him she liked to see his full face as she approached, stepping up to him as he extended his hand. They followed the park’s outer perimeter, always moving in the opposite direction of others. Austin wanted to see people as they came toward him. He was not at ease with the idea of someone at his back. As they strolled, sometimes holding hands, sometimes not, he would describe ideas for inventions, his voice growing low and halting just in case he could be overheard. Julia had to step closer to him then, straining to hear, which made him turn his head and lean down to her slightly, their shoes nearly scuffing, shoulders touching.
He had other ideas too. A house. In time. The implication was that it would be for them and she nodded, just barely—a dip of chin and then she smiled, a quiet delight that she seemed to savor within because she was shy at the prospect of a house; it meant other things that they had not spoken of yet. He liked to lead her to a bench halfway around the park. They held hands then, she kneading his palm like a worry stone.
A heavy thunderstorm. In early July. Austin was delayed at the factory. The force of sudden rain flooded a section of the warehouse basement and the men stayed on, trying to keep the water from damaging the machinery. In their minds, water in the gears, moss in crevices, mold within wires, and wetness causing corrosion meant days with no work and no work meant no pay. They divided into groups of five, passing buckets of water down six different lines that ran from the interior of the basement to the nearest window or door. Austin sloshed through inches of the rising water, his boots then socks absorbing the wet until he felt the chill on the soles of his feet and then the hunger too, his whole being aching for hot food. He was eager to be home, in dry warmth, but disappointment tugged at him too, sad that he wouldn’t be meeting Julia for their time alone in the park, knowing that, in this weather, she’d certainly go straight home. When he was free to leave the factory, he didn’t stay with his fellow workers who wanted to wait out the rain in the neighboring bar. Instead, he walked with shoulders curved forward, crouching away from the rain. When he entered the house, he was grateful for a moment of stillness and to have the sound of the downpour dulled as he stood in the front vestibule.
Julia was not there. Her mother sat alone under the grim kitchen light, twisting a napkin into a coil. The sister was out looking for Julia, who had not returned, the mother said expressionless, which had an anger of its own. He left at once and ran to the park, where he found her before their bench, umbrella in hand, though it hadn’t done much good because she was soaked. The rain had tapered off just enough so that the blossoms of the linden trees could give off their soap and honey scent, the ivory yellow blooms fierce and fresh against the wet leaves. He embraced her. She was shaking. He drew his arms around her. It was the first time he’d touched her so fully and she gasped.
“You need to get warm,” he said. “Come closer, I’m warm here.” He could feel her chill through her clothes, along her neck and wrists. Her cheeks were both feverish and damp and he brought his own cheek to hers.
“I waited for you,” she said.
“I should’ve come here first,” he said by way of apology.
“What happened?” she murmured into his chest.
“Flood at work. We all stayed. Had to clear four inches of water out of the basement. I thought for sure you’d go home.”
“You went back to the house?”
“Yes. Come, we’ll go now.”
“Does Mother know?” She pulled away from him, her face slick and shining white for a moment in contrast to the drab wet gravel pathway, the rain-darkened wooden benches and the trees hanging low and weighted above her.
“No. I just turned around and left as soon as I knew you weren’t home.”
“She surely suspects by now. Did you tell her where you were going?”
“I’ll go in first,” she said. “I’ll make up some excuse. You should come in later.”
“You’ll make me stay out in this? You’ll be sick as it is and then I’ll be next.”
“If we go back in around the same time she’ll guess.”
“Well, let her. We have to tell her at some point.”
“She’ll throw you out of the house, you know.”
“I don’t want you to go.”
“But it’s not going to be like this forever. We’ll have to tell them. I’ve been saving. It’ll be soon.”
“You say all this, but you know I worry about how they’ll manage without me.”
“She can let another room, get another boarder.”
“But it’s not near the amount that I make at work.”
“They can’t be your concern forever, you know. You must have your own life.”
“ You and me. We will marry,” he had told Julia a full year after he’d moved in. It was his attempt at a kind of official proposal. Till then, it had been talk around the subject—that he was saving, what his plans were, how she might fit into that picture he was drawing out for her, with the whispers of a house. Now he’d made his intentions known.
“And how are you so sure?” she had asked, teasing and falling back from him for a moment. The park growing more crowded as the weather softened into full summer and passersby had to filter between them, turning their heads at the abrupt way Julia had stopped.
“It’s inevitable,” he said. “We will give each other an oath.”
“An oath?” She was enraged. She was thrilled.
“What kind of oath?”
“An oath to live together, to be.”
“Yes. I will pass all my belongings to you. All my property.”
“You don’t own anything.” She stepped beside him then and they continued on.
“I own a typewriter.”
“And what am I going to do with that?”
“I have a farm. I will inherit a farm.”
“But that’s in Russia. What good will that do me here?”
“Will you take the oath with me or not?”
“How do we take the oath?”
“We just say it.”
For Austin, who still practiced the old customs and rituals, marriage meant kissing the icons, kneeling together, pressing lips to the Bible. Then you were husband and wife, it was merely an oath between a man and a woman. That was all. She’d agreed to it. It was a violet evening in August. The Russian Social Club’s summer dance was held in the cool basement of the stone church. She was in a lace frock, borrowed shoes with a fake rhinestone buckle; he in a navy suit and a white collarless shirt.
“A Cossack. You look like a Cossack,” friends from work and the club teased him.
The heavy light of August, the late afternoon light of summer’s last month, fell through the windows like ship portals. Some of the windows were stained glass so that here a circle of rose, there the blue of a star, the yellow of a leaf anointed the faces, the bodies moving.
“My cheeks hurt. From smiling,” she’d told him. They’d come separately. She with her sister and he with some of the men from work. When he spotted her, he watched her among the crowd and he could tell she was struggling to keep focused. She half listened, nodding as she searched the room for him. Each, though, was aware of the other’s movements— she through a handful of women gathered like a bouquet at the edge of the dance floor; he tracing the back wall to greet a just-entered friend, each smiling faintly when within each other’s gaze. “My wife, zhena,” Austin mouthed to her across the room. She blushed and turned her eyes away.
The day’s mist and light rain was like an effervescence. They were eager to move into the future days awaiting them like pristine windows strung in a long row.
. . .
January 2 , 1920. We all carry dates within us, flash cards, silver-plated, perhaps engraved. We carry them in us like the memory of those long dead, tucked like the pages of a book, dog-eared. January 2. This was Austin’s date. His days hinged here.
It started in rumors. Things one would hear. Nothing definite, just a sense to be watchful, aware and—to get rid of anything from Russia. Books. Newspapers. “They are taking Russians.” “They don’t do that here.” “Yes, but they are taking them.”
He ignored all the talk. The ones who were saying it were old. He thought they were simply prone to paranoia. But he started to hear things. Anarchy, socialism, communism, proletariat, revolt. To him, they had a clanking, rattle sound, like a chain-link fence in strong winds.
“Better throw out anything from the fatherland,” that was the advice. He removed all the Russian books from his shelves. He still had some of them—Science and Society, Aspects of Engineering.
“ They’ve rounded up other Russians.” Julia was wringing her hands. She is standing at the door as Austin walks in. The house is warm, but he brings in the cold, rubbing his hands, taking hers in his own.
“How did you hear?”
“I’ve heard them talking at work. They are holding some in Hartford, others in New York.”
“I know. I’m not involved in any of it.” He removed his hat, his coat.
“Please, do not spend these evenings out anymore. Come straight home.”
“Most of the things I go to are harmless—music, English courses, history.”
“It’s dangerous now.”
“Don’t worry yourself, Julia, my jewel. I’m not a worker. I’m more advanced. They don’t want men like me.”
“Please don’t go anymore,” she says, handing him the day’s late-edition paper. He reads the headline:
PLAN FOR RED TERROR HERE— Program of organized ‘Russian
Workers’ for Revolution Revealed —General Strike First Step—Then Armed
Revolt and Seizure of all Means of Production and Articles of Consumption Criminals to be Freed — Blowing up of Barracks, Shooting of Police, End of Religion, Parts of the Program.
He bristled, but hid it from Julia. He came home straight from work as she requested. They took walks after dinner, once, twice around the block and then back inside. He’d begun to look over his shoulder, stopped taking the newspapers from the men on corners. He didn’t stop going to the Russian Social Club though. Here, he sang in the choir, sometimes played the zither. And once or twice a treat of elderberry liquor or someone was traveling back to Russia and could send parcels, letters, postcards home. There would be no harm in going to such gatherings. He’d long ago ended his association with the Union of Russian Workers. He didn’t believe that workers and trained engineers were equal. He, with all his learning. He’d taken the courses and studied and he did not come to America to be considered equal to the mere worker, the mere assembly-men who had no design or drafting skills, no knowledge of how physics fit part to part. The workers did not know how to calibrate and compute, measure and cut to make the actual engine, gun, carburetor. Still, he read the article. The Americans were scared. He was scared. The whole country was in a panic. He practiced his English, tried to form words in his mouth without the trace of an accent. It didn’t work. He avoided speaking to strangers. He placed all his reading materials in an empty canvas bag, hiding it under the bed. Just in case.
The city in winter. 1920. A fog shrouded the warehouses and bridges, lending an ethereal quality to the night. It was opalescent almost. The mauve sky with a dark mass of clouds encroaching. It wasn’t the usual bitter, dry cold. It was damp; moisture on the air like there’d been a little bend in winter. A crack. It was snowing still. It was nice to taste the f lakes on his tongue.
Austin left the Hitchcock Company and made his way through the rows of factories that dotted the shoreline. He crossed the railroad tracks into the residential neighborhoods, with their white sidewalks and storefronts of frosted glass. Here and there he could see lights on in the apartment buildings.
He was late. He could make out the others—a blurred image through the foggy windows of the church basement, all seated around octagonal tables or leaning against walls. Austin’s eyes were on his step, the tip of his leather boot caught the light so that he could see the water droplets, the granules of slush forming like a string of beads. His footsteps were soft on the snow-covered cement stairs that led into the basement. The room was lit low, the green sconces lining the perimeter offered the only feeble light. The heat from the radiators and corner fire embraced him. There was dampness too. Mold mixed with tea leaves. A trace of incense, pine resin, and frankincense. Someone was speaking into a microphone.
“Kuchinsky, Marov, Matushko,” the secretary read off the names, “Michailoff, Nikitin, Petrenko, Romanovich, Saloff, Svezda, Vinogradov, Vorinin, Voronkov—”
They were a sorry bunch, the aliens (that’s what they’d been called) with their Russian language, all hard angles and swallowed vowels. He could see the others, their eyes sunken and gray, purple around the rims. Bruised. Some had gashes above the eye, on the brow, the bridge of the nose, blood turning black as it dried, rising over an eyebrow, along a jawline.
They were not the only ones, though he didn’t know it at the time, lined up as he was, forbidden to talk. He was in the private recesses of the mind, panicked and uncertain. But across the city and in other towns along the eastern seaboard, even the cities of the plains and far out west to places he’d never go, the police squads had come for them—the Reds. Men in overcoats, felt hats. Men in police uniforms with their clubs and blackjacks. Men in black or brown suits, men doused in bureaucracy, an officious air as if ordained. They’d raided, entered, and destroyed; rounded up men in church basements, tore into social clubs’ back rooms and mutual aid societies’ meeting halls. They broke up New Year’s Eve dances in school gyms, dances where wives in wool skirts, velvet headbands, brooches, encouraged husbands in the fox-trot—the efforts of immigrants. They stole into private parties, gatherings in boarding- houses, three to the wall. Dinner parties.
He didn’t know all this yet. He had arrived late to the Russian Social Club meeting. And then the sound. It was like the sound of a thousand raindrops, like the batting wings of a startled f lock. Austin had seen them first though—in the already snow-filled streets, through the still falling snow, the black figure was gliding. It was an image he was used to seeing. A sleigh. Snow. He did not stop to wonder at the incongruity; in America, grown men did not glide through the streets at night on a sleigh. That was a sight he was accustomed to seeing in Russia, not here. And then he saw the men dismount, a line of them running, their bodies held tight and low to the ground. The rush of boots on the stairs, like a crashing wave. They had filled the room. These men in uniforms, some in overcoats and felt hats.
“What is this?”
“No one move!”
“What is going on here?!”
“Quiet! You are under arrest.”
“What? There is a mistake!”
“You are under arrest for alien activities against the United States government.”
“We have no activities against this country.” A policeman struck the shouting man with his club. The man clutched his shoulder, falling to the ground. Chaos erupted.
“Please. Where is your reason?”
“Shut up, if you know what’s good for you.”
The sound of skin on skin was unmistakable. A blackjack to forehead, to backbone. Amid the shadows cast by the low green lights, within the staggered jumble of coats, arms, Austin could make out the coal black of guns.
The blow was hard, fast. He was on the floor. He could taste the metallic flavor of his own blood. He’d bit his tongue. Soon he was hoisted up with the others, all shackled now, wrists, ankles. A policeman led them up the cement stairs, every once in a while came another blow from a club, a blackjack. Sometimes too the firm press of a pistol. The shackles made it impossible to climb the stairs. They had to hop. Humiliation on a dark night.
Habeas corpus. To produce the body, to present the body. To draw the body out of thin air, to produce it bruised and broken. His body was not presented. His body was in a cold, damp cell of a deep January winter.
Later, he would remember those cells the most. A block of darkness that held his body incommunicado. He learned to communicate with the other prisoners using a code they had developed. It involved series of taps on the walls.
What did they want to know? If you were a Communist. If you were an anarchist. If you belonged to the Industrial Workers of the World, the United Federation of Russian Workers, the Russian Mutual Aid Society, the Russian Social Club, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party. If you read the Farewell Call, Pravda, Novi Mir.
What they wanted? Names. Confessions.
He wanted to step outside his body, his mind. He wanted to send his thoughts and words to Julia. For her, his body had vanished. That was knowledge he could not handle. A compassion for her despair. His body could not take it. He shook with rage, or cold, he couldn’t tell which.
He believed in the individual. He believed in the power of science too, that its laws could govern society, save society. He did not know that such ideas could be construed so that they aligned with a kind of anarchism. He was twenty-six years old, new to the language still. Anarchism. He hardly knew what the word meant. In later years, he would see. The idealism of his youth, his vanity, his proud nature—all of these things were traits that made him an enemy to himself.
The one thing he had not been told, the one thing he had not learned through the taps on the walls was the phrase, “I decline to answer.”
They held him for two weeks. Incommunicado. On the fifth day, they came for him. The men led him through white cinderblock corridors lined with gray metal doors. No windows. He was desperate to know the time. He’d lost track of day, of night.
His hearing would be conducted over three days. He sat in a windowless, low-ceilinged room. Small. No larger than a broom closet. He sat facing the metal desk. A blotter and a green lamp sat on the desk. The lamp’s brass chain rattled as metal doors slammed along the hallway. His ankles were shackled to the chair. His hands were cuffed.
A man who smelled like morning, like shaving soap, questioned him. Another served as a translator, though Austin wouldn’t need him. Another man sat in front of a small typewriter recording his words.
His inquisitor leaned across the desk, elbows spread to either side. He bowed his head, sighed, and something about the gesture seemed too practiced, Austin felt. It was an inherited gesture, one not his own, a stolen gesture, borrowed by a boy. Austin looked straight into this man’s eyes, the honey brown of them soft, young he’d felt. He tried to show in the gaze that he knew the man was acting.
“You understand how this works?” the man said. His voice was quiet, tired. Austin wondered if it was late in the evening rather than early morning. The man’s eyelids were puffy. Large circles.
“Do you speak English?”
“All right then. You understand how this works. I ask you a series of questions and you answer. Got it? Good.” Austin was desperate for the time. He tried to look at the man’s wristwatch, but he was not wearing one. If he knew the time he could follow Julia through the hours of her day. He could tell her in his mind that he was okay. That was a light out of this trap, he’d felt. If he could only know the time he could be in sync with her, running in parallel with her life, even if, for the time being, they were separated.
“What time is it?” Austin said.
“You don’t need to know the time,” the man said. The light vanished, any frame of reference gone. Erased.
Day 1: January 19, 192 0
Q. What is your name in Russian?
A. Ustin Voronkov.
Q. In as much as you do not believe in God, will you affirm to tell the truth?
Q. What is your address?
A. 116 locust Street, Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Q. How old are you?
A. 26 years old.
Q. Where were you born?
A. Province of Kherson, Alexandriyska, Ulesd, Bokas Volost, village of Varvarovka.
Q. Of what country are you now a subject or citizen?
A. Russian subject.
Q. Are you married or single?
Q. What is your wife’s name?
Q. Where is your wife now?
A. She lives in Bridgeport on Locust Street.
Q. Have you any children?
Q. When were you married?
A. There was no ceremony.
Q. In other words you were never married to this woman religiously or civilly?
A. There was no ceremony.
Q. How long have you lived with this woman?
A. About one and one half years.
Q. Why have you not married her according to the laws of this country?
A. Because we live with her family.
Q. Do you keep house?
Q. How many rooms do you occupy?
Q. One bed between you?
A. I occupy one room by myself.
Q. Does she sleep with you?
Q. Why did you say that you were married?
A. Because we gave an oath together.
Q. And you state that you lived with her for about one and one half years?
Q. Where does she live?
A. The same house as I live in.
Q. Does she sleep in your room?
Q. Did she ever sleep in your room?
Q. Did you ever have sexual intercourse with her?
A. Not officially.
Q. How long have you lived in the United States?
A. About six years.
Q. When did you arrive in the United States?
A. August 18, 1913.
Q. Do you remember the name of the boat you came on?
A. It was called Trieste, and came from Trieste to New York.
Q. In what month?
A. August 1913.
Q. Did you pay your passage?
Q. Since your arrival in the United States have you ever taken any steps to become a citizen of this country?
A. I intended to take out papers, but I could not speak English at the time.
Q. Do you belong to any organizations?
A. Russian Inspectors.
Q. You mean that you are employed by the Russian Commission?
A. In Bridgeport.
Q. What factory?
A. Remington Arms.
Q. What is your occupation?
A. An inspector.
Q. Of what?
Q. Did you have any preliminary work anywhere that fitted you for this position?
A. I am a mechanic and engineer there.
Q. Do you belong to any other organizations?
Q. Ever belong to the Union of Russian Workers?
A. I didn’t belong.
Q. There is such an organization as the Union of Russian Workers in
A. There was.
Q. There still is?
A. It seems they made it better, but the Union of Russian Workers has an automobile school in Bridgeport.
Q. What is the name of the automobile school?
A. The Russian automobile school.
Q. Was it known as the Soviet Automobile School?
Q. We have information that this school was run and conducted under the auspices of the Union of Russian Workers. Did you know that?
A. I don’t know anything about this. I think the soviets started it and then the pupils took it over for themselves.
Q. You mean the Union of Russian Workers started it?
A. No. The soviets of Bridgeport.
Q. What do you mean “the soviets” of Bridgeport? We have no “soviets”
in this country.
A. It was called “soviet.”
Q. Have you an automobile?
Q. Did you ever have an automobile?
Q. Why were you interested in automobiles?
A. Because I was in the automobile business.
Q. Were you financially interested in the automobile business?
A. I am interested in every kind of knowledge.
Day 2: January 20 , 1920
Q. Mr. Voronkov, you have been to meetings of the Union of Russian
Workers, haven’t you?
A. No. Only when they have lectures.
Q. You have been to business meetings?
Q. How many lectures did you attend?
A. Two or three.
Q. What did they talk about?
A. About the origin of man.
Q. They talked about the government?
A. I cannot tell.
Q. They never talked about revolution?
A. I cannot know the subject.
Q. Are you an advocate for revolution?
A. I do not know.
Q. You have no respect for the laws of man?
A. I am a man. I have respect for them.
Q. Why would you live with a woman one and a half years without marrying her if you have respect for the laws of man?
A. We gave an oath together.
Q. Are you an advocate of free love?
A. Yes. We gave an oath.
Q. You say you are an advocate of free love, that is not respect for the laws of man?
A. I say, if we gave an oath—we will live together; get married.
Q. You know about the laws in regards to marriage?
A. Which ones? I would marry her by these laws at any time she demanded.
Q. Are you an anarchist?
Q. Are you opposed to the government of the United States?
Q. Are your organizations opposed to any organized form of government?
A. I am not opposed to government.
Q. You don’t believe in laws, do you?
A. It depends on what kind of laws.
Q. The laws of the United States.
A. I’ve lived here six or seven years.
Q. You didn’t pay much attention to the laws though?
A. If I didn’t pay attention to the laws it would be a different thing.
Q. What attention did you pay to the laws when you lived with a woman for one and one half years without being married to her?
A. We gave an oath.
Q. What have you to show for it?
A. I passed to her my property.
Q. Is this “oath” written anywhere?
Q. Does this woman have anything to show that she has a claim on you?
A. If she won’t marry me, then I will see her corpse.
Q. What is her name?
Q. And you are here saying that she is your wife?
Q. Have you anything against this country?
Day3: January 21 ,1920
Q. You understand, Mr. Voronkov, this is a continuation of your hearing commenced on January 19th, 1920?
A. Yes. I do.
Q. Do you affirm at this time to continue to tell the truth?
A. Yes I do.
Q. Are you an anarchist?
Q. Are you a Communist?
A. I am not an anarchist, neither am I a Communist.
Q. I show you a letter addressed to 116 Locust Street, Bridgeport, Conn., dated January 17, 1920. Did you write this letter?
Q. I will mark this letter together with translation of it Exhibit (1) and introduce it as evidence in your case. I show you another letter addressed to the same party, did you write this letter?
A. Yes, I did.
Q. I will mark this letter together with a translation of it Exhibit (2) and introduce it as evidence in your case. There is a sentence in this letter that you have written to this young woman reading as follows:
“But there is possibility to come together although through difficult obstacles, so that we should care a fig for that
dirty and stinking ceremony of marriage.”
A. I wrote it. I was not feeling well. I was cross when I wrote it.
Q. Then you were feeling cross because this young woman, when she
found out that you’ d be deported, refused to go back to Russia with you without being married?
A. I offered to marry her any way I could if I could get out of jail somehow.
Q. It goes on to say in this letter:
“But there is nothing in the world stronger than love of heart and soul for only in it there is life and happiness, and not in that dirty marriage.”
A. Yes I wrote that. What about it?
Q. It goes on to say: “If you, yes, love me, as much as I love you, then you would spit upon all these disgustful calumnies.” Did you write that?
A. Yes. I wrote that, alas. I wrote to my lover. I did not feel very well. I know that our love was broken and in that condition I wrote it. I always offered her marriage, any kind of marriage she wants. You will find it in the letters that I offered her that. But she is my wife, you ask her. We gave an oath. She is my zhena.
Q. Are you a member of the Union of Russian Workers of Bridgeport?
A. I was formerly a member.
Q. When were you a member?
A. Four or five months ago?
Q. When did you join?
A. July 15th, 1919.
Q. Are you still a member of the organization?
A. No. I did not care for them. I quit.
Q. When did you leave the organization?
A. I stayed two months and then I left it.
Q. On what points did you disagree with them?
A. Because they hold on the same level workers and engineers, that is, skilled workers—this is why I gave it up.
Q. The Union of Russian Workers is an Anarchist organization, isn’t it?
A. I cannot tell you. I could not understand them.
Q. A man of your intelligence certainly knew enough to read the basic principles of an organization before he joined it.
A. I joined it because there were many Russians.
Q. Don’t you know or didn’t you read the principles of what the organization stands for?
Q. You know that if you are found guilty of the charge or part of the charges against you that you will be deported back to Russia?
A. Yes. I do.
Q. You said that you were a member of the Union of Russian Workers?
Q. You stated also that you resigned as a member of the Union of
A. Yes. I did.
Q. Can you tell me why?
A. Yes, according to my convictions as I looked at it, I did not believe in their ideas.
Q. Do you agree with government as it exists?
Q. What is your opinion of the system of government you would like to see in existence?
A. By name of science to obtain society.
Q. Without government?
A. Yes. Without government. People would be masters of themselves.
Q. Without State?
A. Yes. I believe it should be.
Q. Supposing I would tell you that these views of yours are Anarchist, would you then call yourself an Anarchist?
A. No. I do not consent to have any name, but if you want to call me that—.
Q. In other words you are frank in stating your opinion about society, but you do not know exactly the name for it?
A. I cannot tell what the name would be, but the form, if changed, would mean the liberation of the workers themselves by means of science and they will improve themselves and be masters of themselves.
Q. Your views of society are that there ought to be no government, a stateless form of society?
A. Yes. According to my opinion, yes. There must be no government or master who will say what must be done. Only science.
Q. These views of yours could be called anarchistic.
A. Well, my opinions are such. Let them call me an Anarchist.
Q. How would this condition of affairs without government, without state be brought about?
A. By means of science you can give your affairs to the people to govern themselves.
Q. Do you believe in the use of force or violence to bring this about if necessary?
A. No. I don’t believe in force. Science is stronger than force.
Q. Do you believe that the present form of government in the United
States should be overthrown?
A. Yes, very plainly, when the people will understand it can be done.
Q. How will it be done?
A. By means of science when the people will understand that they need no commander.
Q. And no laws?
A. I do not know how you can call them laws. They are just simply agreements.
Q. You know we have people in the world whom we call Anarchists.
A. Yes, but I don’t know what their ideas are.
Q. They have views similar to these you have expressed here this afternoon.
A. I said I did not know their program, my opinions are just such.
Q. Would you think it fair from your expressions or views here this afternoon for us to call you an Anarchist?
A. If you compare what I said with what you think Anarchists are, then, okay, I consent to that.
Q. I will ask you again. Are you an Anarchist?
A. It is so. I am an Anarchist.
Q. Have you anything further you wish to state at this time as to why you should not be deported in conformity with the law?
A. I have nothing to say. Let them deport me. But let me take my wife.
. . .
They were married— officially—at Ellis Island. Two-sentence vows. Austin and Julia held hands solemnly speaking. The justice of the peace read in a monotone voice, all the while smoking a cigar that created a cloud of milk white around them. They would be leaving in one hour. He was taking her from everything she’d known and loved. She’d renounced her family, her country, she’d given up her U.S. citizenship. It did not matter. Then, they were not willing to be separated.
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the pier amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men’s conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day’s hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he’d sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he’d sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country’s light. Years later he would learn that there were to have been, in total, three other major raids—the Palmer Raids, ordered by Attorney General Palmer after a lone anarchist planted a bomb at the foot of his front door. The raids would be a series of roundups of supposed anarchists or Communists, men and women deemed a threat to the American way of life, men and women who may strike again—more homemade bombs, subversive articles in newspapers, party meetings. They were plotting to take over the country. Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
. . .