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“Botany is 98% burnouts and potheads.”
The registrar, a kindly, aging woman with a sharp Boston accent, had said that to him on the first day of orientation, handing over his class schedule. Strictly speaking, a medical doctor shouldn’t have been teaching botany at all, but there had been a blank space in his teaching schedule, and the matter of various athletes and sons (and daughters) of privilege who needed science credits. Mix in a few naive humanities majors, frightened of the harder sciences and without any older friends to warn them against it, and that about made up one of his classes. If nothing else, it made his litany of pre-med modules more bearable.
Fifteen years ago, in that first autumn semester, the dean had promised that it would only be a single time. “A one-off”, as he phrased it, hands turned upwards to mirror his supplicating smile. Venedikt Borodin hadn’t much cared. The nature of his goal was not education, and being stuck with such an undesirable course had given him something to moan about with the other, younger lecturers and professors in the science faculty, a shared burden. They were more likely to chat about their research, after that, and throw around details without care, confident that a former cardiac surgeon couldn’t comprehend more than one in three words.
He was trained to remember all of them.
If he had one prayer, or rather hope, it was that none of the science departments decided to snatch up any Finnish professors. According to his passport, he was a Finnish national, a native of Vaasa. Leningrad, more like.
Americans couldn’t seem to tell the difference, and so, fifteen years before, he had skated through customs, through purchasing an apartment, through taking up a prearranged university position. That had been a particularly good job by the Lubyanka boys. Creating a background for a non-existent Fin was hard, especially when one wanted to wedge him into one of the most recognizable educational institutions in the West, but they had figured out a solution. Some of the papers published in his ‘name’ were his own, some the products of men now locked up in padded rooms or shipped to Siberia, rifled through for the best findings by an in-house expert, all published over a seven-year period. With a publication history, and references, like his, it wasn’t difficult to see why he was so eagerly taken on.
There was a week until final examinations, until, as his students saw it, the final hurdle to a month of bliss. Christmas celebrations were largely an unfamiliar idea when he first arrived here, and only over time has he become used to the bizarre customs and rituals which permeate the season. New Year’s is their day of celebration, fittingly.
This is the last lecture, and he sits, eyeglasses perched halfway down the gentle slope of his nose, behind a battered pine desk, making a few last notes. How many of his students fear the final, and how many regard it with the same apathy that they have regarded the course, he doesn’t know. The more disturbing thing, even more disturbing than the glasses which he now needs, that painful and vague reminder of passing time, is that he cares, a bit.
His heart pounds when he watches the kids from his various pre-med classes sit their exams, thinking of all of the questions they have asked him, office hours, and offered extra study sessions spent working at making the content comprehensible, moving them towards their goal. Often they take more than one of his offered modules, and it bothers him, a little, to see that he has built up a reputation. That certain types of seniors will knowingly advise their freshmen brethren to seek him out as an instructor, because “he beats the hell out of you intellectually, but it’s worth it.” Purpose matters, where he comes from. Purpose in the system decides whether starvation is a possibility. His purpose is in the neat manila folders left in various places around the city for the Soviet residents to pick up. It is not creating American doctors.
Nor is it worrying over his botany students. Some, of course, he doesn’t give much mind to. Most, maybe. But he pities the humanities students that ended up here by accident, and try their best to give him a stellar result. Likewise with the lacrosse players and future trust fund kids, because he can see them teetering just on the edge of a goal, or of interest. Meaning is peaking through, and it feels natural to help it.
The first lesson was that these capitalist systems would make you go soft, become decadent. There is a bowl of chocolates on his desk for students to pick from as they come in, and all know that they can ask freely of his time.
Maybe it’s time to get a little more insistent with the consul about mission dates.
The name that is not his own rings through the snow brushed evening air, and he can hear the hurried rhythmic click of high heels on cobble advance on him, gusts of breath like cigarette smoke coming almost to reach his left shoulder. Elena doesn’t smoke.
She has the lecture room next to his on Thursdays, an oddity for a history professor, but they only know each other because of such oddities. When she was hired, three years ago, there hadn’t been enough room in history’s main office buildings, so she was exiled across campus, to medicine, until a solution could be found. As with the solution to his botany class, she remains in the office next to his.
Normally he would have waited for her outside of his hall, but the vodka chilling in his office (well, one of the department’s specimen refrigerators) called loud and clear. With the kids going home, and bosses to give precious little to at this next drop off, numbness sounded like a good temporary solution. The dissidents among the staff chatted often about reports of Andropov’s poor health, so perhaps his declining output will be passed over in the meat market of greater worries.
“How are you?”
Her inquiry is delivered in slightly tremulous Russian, eager for all of its minute faults.
It had been a stupid, stupid mistake. She had walked in on him one day, searching for a box of shared tea, and seen him curse in unmistakably fluent Russian at his malfunctioning typewriter, the guttural snap of his “ы”s somehow even louder than the smack of his open palm against the side of the machine.
“Good. Happy to see Christmas coming.”
As a historian of the early modern middle east, he had hoped that she wouldn’t be able to recognize the language for what it was. That had been dashed quite quickly, but what followed was more perplexing. She asked him to teach her. Admitted that, while she had gladly spent the last decade or so at Arabic, Persian, and Turkish fluency, that most important of all strategy languages always appealed. Despite her relatively easy facility with the students, she was too embarrassed, as a young associate professor, to take one of the offered language courses at the university.
“Will you go home this year?”
He was so thankful for her not asking why he knew the language, that he had agreed immediately. They met for two hours every Tuesday morning, twice a month for three on Saturdays. As she grew more fluent, he allowed their conversations to pass more and more into his native tongue. In his telling, when she had queried after the origin of his knowledge with a half proud grin at the sentence of her own making, his Russian nanny taught him as a child, and he kept at it through university.
“Yes, of course! You stayed on campus last year, won’t you return to Finland this time?”
Return. Return for him is a concept that exists at the mercy of men four thousand miles away, men who are intent to squeeze the last drop-off blood out of an operation which has become increasingly rare with the passing years. When he first began training, learning the ins and outs of operating in American culture, his instructors came with gray hair and, often, memories of a country before WWII. He realized, listening to their forceful monologues, and reading their distant eyes, that some of them wished dearly to return to the place where they trained agitators against the system decades ago. With the loosening in immigration policies, doubtless some of their sons and daughters are here now.
“Probably not. My family is largely gone.”
Though he tried at every opportunity to disentangle himself from her, it was not an easy task. Although she didn’t display the loudness or excessive cheer he’d been warned of as characteristic of her people, there was a silent, steel tenacity that clung to her actions and her personality, making her an exceptionally difficult creature to disentangle from. Why he had been singled out for such a treatment was uncertain, but it ate at his thoughts.
Vyacheslav, the KGB consulate’s resident who had lived here almost as long as him, caught them at the end of a lesson one humid Saturday the year before. The lethargy-inducing weather ensnared him into allowing her to stay past the normal three hours, and she was draped across a blanket in one of the smaller, green quads, eyes closed and stresses lazily punctuating the air, when the compact, gray-faced man appeared above her. It took far too long for his liking, with too many pleasantries exchanged, to actually get her to go. He hadn’t even needed to look at the man to know that his face would be stretched over a lecherous grin. Operatives of his tenure were encouraged to pick up native wives, to blend into the scenery of American life as faultlessly as possible.
While he didn’t understand (or, truthfully, dare examine) what the idea of using her to those ends meant, the unmistakable tug of nausea that accompanied the thought told him that he was no longer capable of effecting such a ruse. As far as Moscow’s eyes and ears went, he simply explained that she was, indeed, engaged. As far as his own mind went, he had allowed her to overstay her lesson out of sloth, not the way her slender, lightly freckled sprayed arms and shapely legs peaked shamelessly from an ink blue cotton summer.
“Leonid and Sergei haven’t got anyone to celebrate with either, perhaps you could do it together?”
Ah, yes, spend a holiday with the two old defectors. How ever could that go wrong?
She quirked an eyebrow at his shortness, the tips of her faintly fangish canines glinting beneath appropriately blood-red lips. He had heard vague tell of promotions, so that was certainly the origin of the make-up, which she neglected 364 days of the year, as far as he could tell. Dr. Hodgson had very certain, very antiquated ideas of what constituted professionalism.
Depending upon how well that had gone, he was either going to be at the receiving end of mild teasing, or abandoned.
The flowing, liquid lope of her legs drew her past him and quickly ahead. Not very well, then.
At least it was a good show.
Twice in his career he had passed along false information. The last time, half a decade before, had been when the news came, four months late, of Sergei’s wife. Nadezhda died in Kashenko Mental Hospital, the victim of sluggish schizophrenia, plagued by delusions of reform and uncomradely thoughts. No one in the West knew her name, so no one in the Soviet Union cared that she was committing slow suicide by hunger.
Having seen the diagnosis being handed out like candy in more than one hospital, and having known full well then what it could lead to, Borodin wasn’t sure why the news had filled him with such incandescent rage. Maybe it was because he had not seen, before, the way a man crumpled on hearing such news. Like watching an origami crane crushed in the hand of a careless child.
The meticulous accuracy of his intelligence was his calling card, but no one questioned the radically misconstructed formulas or scrambled instructions that arrived in that packet. Apathy was a possibility, the calculation that eventually he would make a mistake, or belief that the Americans were sloppy. Likely, they had yet to test the ideas contained within. He thought a lot of Pasternak in the week after that, and only time made the anger ebb.
Sometimes that memory flashed to the forefront of his mind, like the flickering of burnt-up projector film, when Elana waxed poetic on the lives of dissidents, and what some among her colleagues did to support their efforts. Even if, in frustration, a copy of Часть Речи had gone sailing past his head on one memorable occasion. A childish part of him, perhaps, wanted to share it, to impress her. Loyalty, and the reality of what she would do if she knew what he was, held his tongue.
He was not a heavy man, but he had lost ten pounds the month she was in Moscow the past summer, ostensibly working with Lev Gumilyov on one of her Persian problems. In reality, he found out from a chatty Sinologist who came to grab a book from her locked office, she was spending all of her free time in underground rock clubs and universities, helping to distribute samizdat. There had been a spectacular row when she returned, though hindsight said that it was indeed him who had done 95% of the yelling. He felt a bit bad for the huddle of pre-med students and history majors who stood, wide-eyed and incredulous, at the window opposite their offices, clearly wondering if they were about to end up testifying in a murder trial.
Everything had settled since, but questions of why and how long, words used sparingly in the Soviet vocabulary, had begun a steady seep in.
Hell, they really had gotten sloppy at training the new ones.
Vladimir Ivanov, a supposedly escaped 18-year-old, was placed in his new botany module after the Christmas break, an easy course to help the aspiring physicist in his transition to American educational life. Initially, he hadn’t given much attention to the almost stereotypically icy-eyed blond. It was only when he completed a drop off for Vyacheslav at a run-down cafe half a mile from the consulate, and saw, having paused for a cup of tea in an effort to waste an hour before his next course, Ivanov come in and speak to the owner as he himself had done twenty minutes before, that suspicion began to knock at the door to his thoughts.
Half a semester on, he had no doubts about what the young man was. Which did not seem to be the case for Ivanov.
Leonard Friedman was a mild-mannered, brilliant nuclear physicist, often consultant to the United States government. Borodin’s friendship with him, despite the other man’s best efforts, was as casual as he could manage, but when they chatted nowadays, it was obvious that his fascination had fallen squarely on the boy, his mentee. There was such an intellectual spark between them, he said, hands exploding like gestured fireworks through the air, that he was already intent to become his doctoral advisor, in the distant years to come.
You’re not getting a protege, you’re getting fleeced, was the first thought that swam through his mind. And the good doctor had been, for the first two months. But when Borodin took a smoke break in the half-abandoned quad a week ago, for one of his rare in-person meetings with Vyacheslav, the KGB man was in rare form. For a good 15 minutes, he spat fire about the ingratitude of the new generation, how what should have been his best performer was handing over the bare minimum of information, a solid percentage of that worthless.
“It’s clear that the new models are too soft, corruptible. We all knew this would happen. Everyone rails against Stalin, but without a man to put some well-deserved fear in their hearts, everything goes lopsided.”
As he made all of the necessary sympathetic noises, the former surgeon couldn’t help being a bit impressed. Naturally, he couldn’t parse whether the boy came to America with such a deception in mind, or rather was quickly losing his communist patina to sentimentality. Vyacheslav’s acridly delivered “he is at a critical point in his ideological struggle, far too late for his age” set his mind to work, long after the other man had fumed into the night air.
While he still took pains to avoid examining his own feelings on the matter and manner of his life, some inherent compassion for such a young man prevented him from ignoring the whole mess. He was thirty-six when he came, old enough to know what he was doing. The boy, though, deserved a choice.
“Mr. Ivanov, could you spare me a minute.”
The lecture hall was rapidly becoming empty, and the young man was poised towards the exit with the flow of his classmates, but he pivoted at his teacher’s instruction.
“Close that door, please.”
Ramrod straight, eyes fixed on the white-streaked chalkboard, he said only, softly, “What can I do for you, sir?”
“I believe you know a certain cultural attaché at the consulate, a Mr. Vyacheslav Zhudon?”
If the boy hadn’t paled instantly, he would have gotten a great deal of amusement out of using Vyacheslav’s full title. Cultural attaché to what, sleazy bars and third-floor brothels?
“No sir, I don’t know anyone there. My citizenship was stripped when I left last year.”
“I would find your story easier to believe, Mr. Ivanov, if the attaché hadn’t complained to me about the abysmally low quality of scientific intelligence he had been getting lately. I happen to know that this university has always been his stomping grounds.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Doctor.”
“Of course you don’t. How are you settling in with Dr. Friedman?”
The words were coated with perplexity, and Borodin took a moment to appreciate how his move had altered the landscape of their playing board.
“Well enough that you feel guilty feeding his findings back to your handlers?”
His palm halted the next inevitable denial.
“I don’t particularly care about what you’ve been trained to say, Vladimir. I’m only here to offer you an option.”
Confusion had burrowed even deeper into his voice.
“We both know that you know what I am. Or maybe you suspect that I’m another KGB agent, or a CIA man, come to rat you out for poor comradeship or espionage. I have nothing to offer you to prove that I’m not, except for my word. That’s probably worth as much as a ruble, but there we are. I’ve done this for fifteen years, Vladimir, and I can tell now that you aren’t suited to it. In the interest of the fatherland, I’m extending you a choice. You can keep on this course, or you can leave it behind.”
“The passport you traveled under is fake, but the Americans already know that. They’re well aware that it’s a method of escape. You’ve got citizenship because they wanted to be done with that mess. I’m certain you were debriefed by some State Department men?”
Mutely, the young man nodded.
“Excellent. One will probably have left a card. Tell him that, in fear for your life, you allowed yourself to be talked into some very amateur espionage. You regret what you’ve done, you’ve realized how great life in the West is, and you want to make amends. You’ll betray your handler, in exchange for protection, and legal immunity.”
“Why do you have such a detailed plan for this?”
“That doesn’t matter to you, Vladimir.”
Because I’ve come within a minute of doing it myself. The words ached to be said, but he pushed them down. His own freedom was not the goal here.
“I can’t tell if you’re trying to get me killed, or you want to help.”
His eyes were gilded with tears, and faint tremors pulled at his mouth, distorting what otherwise would have been crisp consonants.
“Take my KGB identification number, if that would help you. You can reveal me to the consul himself, should you like. My name is Venedikt Borodin, patronymic Wolfovitch. Sell me to the Americans, if that is your preference. I’ve given you your option.”
When all 5’2” of Leonard Friedman threw himself around Borodin the last day of the term, the heart surgeon could swear he felt palpitations. What in Brezhnev’s alcoholism was this?
“Thank you, for helping Vladimir.”
“Leonard, I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“I know, I know, I’m not supposed to know any of this, but he told me, and it would be impossible for me not to thank you. You gave him his freedom.”
According to consulate gossip, Vyacheslav had been put on a plane headed for Moscow by the chief of staff himself last month. A deal with the Americans, to avoid an international incident if they did the job of deporting the “unknown agent” and swore no knowledge of his doings. The man Borodin reported to now had no science training, and he figured it would be easy enough to keep feeding him nonsense for at least another nine months. If the things he heard about the state of the country were true, it may not matter by then.
“Have you gotten into the end of the year celebration port again?”
Somehow, the man’s eyes softened even further, and he gave a cartoonish, knowing wink to the lanky faux Fin.
“Yes, yes, just that, Tomas. I suppose I should go lie down before I make a fool of myself in front of the master’s students.”
As the man bobbed from Borodin’s office, a quiet, poorly stressed, but unmistakable “спасибо” drifted back towards him in the repulsively thick summer air.
“What was that all about?”
Jade eyes, half translucent in the light of the setting sun, peered around from the door cracked between his office and its only neighbor.
“Hasn’t anyone taught you any manners? Why are you eavesdropping on my meetings?”
“You know full well I’m an American savage. Or so that lovely customs official at Sheremetyevo told me.”
“I agree fully.”
“Just for that, you’re taking me out for an end-of-term drink.”
“This hardly seems a fair trade for your betrayal.”
She settled easily on the edge of his desk, all wolfish smiles and perfectly enunciated vowels. Lord, she really wouldn’t need him soon.
“Punish me, then. We’ll go to that awful Russian dive you seem to love so much.”
Her deceptively delicate-looking fingers caught his left wrist in a punishing grasp, and he found himself pulled to full height, following the whispering sway of that inky summer dress.
Maybe she would.Published in