Lazarus Trubman : The Healing Air of Freedom : January 2020

Southern Legitimacy Statement: My momma and papa, both teachers, brought me into this world in a small town in the ancient land of Bessarabia, and they always wanted me to be a…teacher! So, I became one, which got me in so much trouble during the Soviet time, that I eventually ended up in a labor camp in Northern Russia. Four long years later, alive but barely breathing, I immigrated to America and was assigned to North Carolina, where I taught Linguistics and Roman languages for twenty-two years. In 2017, I retired to devote my time to writing. Since then, a whole bunch of publications were brave enough to publish my fiction and nonfiction, for which I’m forever grateful! Camp time could someday be very useful! Be healthy and loved, y’all!

The Healing Air of Freedom

My wife always thought that someday I’d be a big success. I taught Russian literature and Linguistics at Alecu Russo State University of Beltsy, a mid-size city located in the northern part of Moldavia, within the historical region of Bessarabia with which the city’s own history is closely intertwined. Then came the Seventies, Brezhnev’s time, deadly like a marsh, when everybody had to make a choice, and mine wasn’t the wisest one. Despite my reputation as a recluse, I still held regular gatherings in my apartment to entertain close friends and colleagues. The guests enjoyed slow dancing and drinks and didn’t notice that I, who was usually in the center of every discussion, was not talking much. They still had a good time. Only my wife seemed unhappy. “You used to be witty and cheerful, my love,” she said once. “Now you don’t say a word, as though you’re afraid of your plain language.” I didn’t deny it. Of course, I could make an effort to be smart and funny; it’s just I had the feeling I had said it all before and the things I really wanted to discuss were dangerous and forbidden. 

I was in my late twenties then, healthy and still ambitious. 

Time kept going, and I kept teaching Russian literature in the spirit of the socialistic realism. I met plenty of people every day, killers and those who ordered the killings: you can’t tell by looking at them! All sorts of things happened around me, colleagues taken away in the middle of a lecture, neighbors disappearing, close friends no longer answering their phones, but as soon as I stepped onto the porch of my apartment, I didn’t feel like talking about it. 

More than once I thanked God for television.

In 1980 I began conducting underground readings of forbidden poetry and prose and attending gatherings, organized by two Jewish professors, where we discussed the latest news channeled to them from Great Britain, America and Israel. In the fall of 1982, I flew to Moscow and met with a few of my colleagues from the state university. The meeting took place in a dacha near the Russia’s capital. We talked about the dead friends and those who will die in the nearest future, as well as about the need of a printing shop somewhere in Moldavia or Ukraine, preferably in Moldavia. That was dangerous, could’ve cost me more than professorship or advancement opportunities, but everything went fine.  

When a month after my return home I was invited by the local KGB office for a chat, it was a shock: KGB? I didn’t know what to think, but this wasn’t an institution I could ignore. In the lobby I was met by a young lieutenant, who escorted me to a Spartan room and left, wishing me a nice chat. The wait wasn’t long. The operative who soon walked in, greeted me with a smile and introduced himself as Major Anatoly Orlov. He turned out to be a well-spoken, educated man in his early thirties, polite and a good listener. His smile disarmed me. He knew a lot about my work, personal life, hobbies, but talked about it casually. Everything seemed normal, somewhat uneventful. Checking something in a tiny notepad, Anatoly assured me that I’ve done nothing wrong, and the reason for the invitation is rather prosaic: his department had been informed recently that some students from the university I worked for were distributing printouts of BBC’s radio transmissions. All they’re missing were the names of those students. 

“This is like a mountain off my shoulders, Comrade Major,” I said.  

“So, you don’t know anyone?” 

“None of my students is capable of such a thing. They’re just not brave enough!”

“Great!” he said and glanced at his watch: “Look at that: almost noon!” 

Then he suggested lunch at the nearby café, and I told myself that to break a bread with a KGB Major in a public eatery doesn’t seem like a wise idea, but couldn’t refuse. After all, lunch is lunch, a harmless thing. I ordered a beef-stroganoff, and for the next forty minutes there was just a casual chat about nothing. Then we shook hands. Sunny day, everybody in white shirts. Anatoly called again a week later to request another meeting, this time outside of his chatting room. 

“A park perhaps?” I said. “There is one right next to the university…” 

“I have a better idea: the residential complex on Garden Street, right behind the bookstore, apartment 603, at ten o’clock next Tuesday.” 

“Next Tuesday?” I asked. “I need to check my schedule…” 

“I’ve taken the liberty: your first class doesn’t start until 11:45 a.m.” 

“It won’t be about my careless students I recon?” 

“Not anymore, my friend: it’ll be much more productive actually.” 

We chatted for another few minutes; then the line went dead. I stood motionless in the hallway, with the receiver still attached to my ear, unsure suddenly of how to live my life, how to go back into the living-room and entertain my family as if nothing happened.

                                                                         ***

It was a nine-story apartment complex behind the very popular bookstore; it had two elevators, but I took the stairs, as though afraid of meeting a familiar face. My hands were sweaty; I wiped them with a handkerchief. I reached the sixth floor and stopped: remembered suddenly Anatoly’s remark before he disconnected the line. “The mill-stones of history never stop,” he said. “That’s why it is very important not to get between them. In your case though it’s a bit too late, my friend: your hands were already caught when I got you.” And I understood: that’s all they needed, a hand, even a finger, then it was only a matter of time to get my body and mind squeezed between the mill-stones to transform me into a flat, blind, obedient human being. Just one fucking finger! I pushed the red button. 

The door was unlocked by a tall woman of satanic calm and undistinguishable age.

“Please, come in,” she said holding the door open. “Major Orlov is waiting for you.”

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled, “is this…”

“You’re not lost!” she assured softly and accompanied me into the living-room.

Anatoly stood next to wall-to-wall bookshelves with an unlit cigar in his hand, said as though reading my mind: “Her name is Iraida Borisovna Borodina. She’s a retired schoolteacher, a great hostess and a widow: her husband, General…”

“A great hostess?” I dared to interrupt.

“Sit down, please!” interrupted Anatoly, ignoring my question.

And I understood: the casual time was over. 

We were about the same age, Anatoly just a few months older, with a typical – milky-buttery – Russian face. A graduate from Leningrad State University, where he studied literature and Russian language, he was recruited by the KGB as soon as he completed his first two years of education. He possessed a practical mind, a good memory, and loved to talk about modern poetry and prose as long as the conversation didn’t veer toward forbidden themes. 

“A cigar?” he offered.

“I actually quit,” I said hurriedly. “About a year ago.”

“I’ll take it as a no, but don’t ever lie to me again!” he said in a slightly raised tone of voice, pulled a tape-recorder out of his chest pocket, and for the next half an hour I listened to my underground readings and the discussions I had with my colleagues at that dacha near Moscow. Then he turned the recorder off and said as if nothing happened: “The purpose of today’s meeting is to offer you a job, to point out the advantages and explain the privileges…” At that moment, Iraida Borisovna came into the living-room with two cups of steaming tea and a small sponge cake on a silver tray, placed everything on the table and walked away. In silence.

“Please, help yourself,” said Anatoly. “It’s an herbal green tea from China – very healthy. Does wonders to a man’s sex drive, I’ve been told.”

I took a sip of tea, and asked: “Simply say: you’re offering me to betray my own people?”

“Try a piece of our hostess’ sponge cake,” said Anatoly, ‘and let’s talk seriously: you’re not betraying anybody, not necessarily; at least for now, you’re a Soviet citizen, aren’t you? To defend the interests of your country was never considered a betrayal. I’m not asking you to kill people…”

“Don’t see any difference!”

“…to poison them, to knock out their teeth. Your name will never appear in any documents or pronounced in the interrogation room. If it makes you feel better, you will never know what happened to them, how they were punished or if they were punished at all. As far as I see it, you’ll be a ghost, my friend, an invisible man. Our organization is searching for men and women of certain qualities, and you possess those qualities. We’re also very interested in a circle of your colleagues and friends, Jewish in particular, with whom you have established a lasting relationship. The information about their plans, thoughts, and the contents of letters that are constantly channeled to them from around the world, especially from United States and Israel, are just a few examples of what can be used…”

“A risk-free job, isn’t it?”

“Nothing is completely risk-free, professor, even this healthy herbal tea…”

“I’m actually a college lecturer…”

“Not for long… Any interest in advantages and privileges?”

“Not today, no.”

“Finish your tea then.”

“Do I have a choice?”

“To avoid punishment? Not really, but that would be something to talk about in details at our next meeting on Monday. For now, I just want to remind you that everything I’ve said is strictly confidential and not for public discussion.”

“My family?”

“It’s for your own good, believe me.”

It still seemed like a game, sounded like one. I sat on the other side of the table and looked straight into Anatoly’s eyes, trying to understand why a young man of his abilities would dedicate his one and only life to a system that is hated by every civilized country? Is it the money or the power to manipulate people’s lives? Or both?

“Don’t judge me and don’t try to understand me,” he read my mind. “I’ve chosen this life and I’ll never regret it. Regarding my offer: I can do a few things for you if you decide to accept it. If not…well, let’s just say that your life and the lives of your close ones will change forever…and not for the better.”

I kept silent.

“Until next Monday then?” he said shaking my hand. 

I kept silent.

“Is it Monday or Tuesday?” he asked.

“It’s Monday,” I said.

“Very good.”

Out of the building, I went to the nearby park and played a couple of timed chess games before my first class of the week.

                                                                       ***

Next Monday I awoke early and took a long shower. A door slammed, then another: my wife and kids were gone, so it was 7:45 a.m. I had a little over two hours to make a decision, hopefully the right one. I shaved, combed my hair, breakfasted. At 8:45 a.m. I was ready. I stood in front of a mirror trying to find any doubts in my tired blue eyes and couldn’t. It was my opportunity, I told myself, to make something out of my miserable life. Anatoly was right: in a few years no one will remember: time, like a miracle doctor, will erase from peoples’ memories the good deeds and the bad deeds. Anatoly was right: if not I – then it’s someone else, younger, more decisive, and braver. Survival is the name of the game.  

I finally left the apartment.

Cloudy sky as usual, freshness in the air, magic of chlorophyll.

I went on foot and soon was at the bookstore. Once inside, I asked for a telephone.    

“Please be quick,” said the young freckled clerk.

“I will,” I assured her and dialed the number. 

“Borodin’s residence,” answered Iraida Borisovna.

“Anatoly please,” I said after a pause: I wasn’t ready to talk to the wife of a dead war hero.

“I’m listening,” Anatoly appeared on the line.

“It’s me,” I said. “I’m not coming.”

“You shouldn’t be calling from the bookstore.”

“I know… I’m sorry.”

“It’s very understandable.”

“Hopefully, we’ll have another lunch someday,” I said: I didn’t really know how to end this conversation. “It’ll be on my then…”

“I doubt it,” interrupted Anatoly, and the line went dead.

I thanked the freckled clerk and left the bookstore. A huge cloud above the nearby park finally gave birth to a light cool rain. I inhaled deeply and began walking down the boulevard, an unknown creature in a gray raincoat whose life had just changed forever. 

                                                                          ***

A month had passed. On Friday, as soon as we finished watching the late-night movie, my wife was ready to go to bed, and I promised to join her after a quick cigarette.

“Are you alright, honey?” she asked.

“As alright as I can be.”

“I can change that for the better in a heartbeat,” she said touching my arm.

“I know, love,” I said. “How about a rain-check?”

“A rain-check it is… don’t take too many though.”

On the balcony, with a cigarette in one hand and a glass of Feteasca Neagra in the other, I tried to understand why I felt restless all of a sudden. It wasn’t the movie and it wasn’t the food. What then? I glanced at my wristwatch: almost midnight. A black “Volga” attracted my attention because it appeared suddenly and stopped under a streetlight. Three tall men in shiny leather raincoats got out and walked briskly to the entrance of my apartment building. 

I finished my wine and put out the cigarette. A few minutes later I heard the impatient ringing of the doorbell, followed by loud knocks.

They came for me…                                                

“We’re here!” the driver brought me back to earth. “Twenty-three minutes on the dot.”

“You’ve earned your reward,” I said. “What’s the charge?”

“Seventeen rubles and sixty kopeks.”

“Here’s thirty, my friend, and don’t ask me why,” I said, got out of the car and began walking 

toward the conference hall and saw him waving and smiling…  

                                                                         ***

It’s all in the past now, but not forgotten: arrest, interrogations, four years in the labor camp in Northern Russia; my survival. On December 4th, 1990 I and my family, my wife and our two daughters, boarded the shiny Boeing-747 bound for New York. 

And today, 29 years later, my dreams and hopes are fulfilled, I’m breathing the healing air of freedom. 

My interrogators and torturers? I forgave them. God won’t.