Published by AST, Moscow
edizioni e/o, Rome
Bata press milenium, Macedonia
The Great Stone Bridge is one of Moscow’s most prominent sights, offering an exemplary view of the Kremlin and the whole of Russia.
At six in the evening on 3 June 1943, passers-by discover two bodies on the steps of the bridge by the House of the Government, the magnificent residential building for the nomenklatura. A girl has been killed by a shot in the back of the neck, and a boy has been seriously injured by a bullet in the temples. The boy is lying on his back, his left hand in his pocket. The militia cannot find a weapon at the scene of the crime. There are no eye-witnesses. Among the crowd gathered around the gruesome scene, a beautiful and tastefully dressed lady stands out, biting her nails in desperation.
The residents of the House of the Government identify the boy and girl as pupils at the respected School No. 175, attended by the children of government representatives. The girl is Nina Umanskaya, the 15-year-old daughter of Konstantin Umanskii, a former ambassador to the USA about to be sent to Mexico. The boy is Volodya Shakhurin, also 15, the son of the People’s Commissioner for the Aviation Industry. Both fathers are among Stalin’s favourites.
The best doctors in the USSR fight for Volodya’s life, but he dies on the morning of 5 June without saying a single word.
The Soviet Union’s top detective, Lev Shenin, is put in charge of the investigation. He soon comes to the conclusion that the boy had killed Nina in a fit of romantic pique after she left him, then killing himself. Nina was a well known beauty, had grown up and gone to school in Western Europe and was well on her way to a career as a photo model. Even President Roosevelt had noticed how attractive she was, although he was far from fond of Umanskii – the Americans suspected him of being an NKVD general, and not without reason.
Stalin’s comment on the results of the investigation is: ‘Young wolves.’ And there ends the well-known part of the story.
What few people know is that Stalin added: ‘Two lives have been destroyed. Let us not destroy a third one.’
Or that Volodya’s father, who had called for a more thorough investigation, was intimidated into silence: ‘If you want the truth you’ll be pushing a barrow in a camp.’
Or that the residents of the House of the Government were sure there had been three people on the bridge when the shots were fired, or that the cartridge cases found on the bridge did not make their way into the case files.
That a list of names was found in Volodya’s pocket but later disappeared without a trace, or that eight pupils of School No. 175 were arrested eight months after the murder, for founding a secret Nazi organisation.
Sixty years later, the case is re-opened in Moscow. Who really killed Nina Umanskaya? How are all these events linked to those that followed: the mysterious explosion of Konstantin Umanskii’s plane in Mexico in 1945 and the seven-year solitary confinement of People’s Commissioner Shakhurin. And who was the woman on the bridge, who left behind neither a photo nor a name, only the air of a femme fatale? She was invisibly linked to Nina Umanskaya’s fate, but then vanished without a trace, leaving only her initials in the notes section of a Russian-English dictionary…
A special commission is set up to research the case, which turns from a simple murder enquiry into a hearing on the Stalin era, the time of revolutionary ideals, paranoia and great purges. The commission members call themselves ‘people of truth’ – but it is not clear who they actually are. It is headed up by the novel’s first-person narrator, who shares the author’s forename and patronymic and was once an agent for the Russian secret service. Key clues for unravelling the events of sixty years ago obviously come from other secret service and militia veterans. The novel we have before us is a kind of final protocol of the investigation. The hunt for the murderer is only the first level, and like in a computer game the reader moves up from one level to the next, only to realise that the book really deals with modern-day Russia, a country suffering a severe disease related to its own past.
In today’s Russia there are portraits of Stalin on sale at every corner, with Vladimir Putin even calling him a ‘competent manager’. Where does the nostalgic fascination for this murderous era come from?
The world of Stalinist diplomacy, the early Bolshevik clans, the Kremlin elite – from Stalin’s son Vassili to the ambassadors Umanskii, Litvinov and Andrei Gromyko, from the Marshals Voroshilov and Budyonny to the residents of the Soviet intelligence service – forms the backdrop to the case of the ‘young wolves’. The witnesses who are still alive tell stories about this strange time, when a colonel was suddenly promoted to a marshal, an interpreter to a high-ranking diplomat. They and their families moved into huge apartments with swimming pools, conservatories and hosts of staff. While the Red Army fought its ‘holy war’ against Hitler’s Germany, they were rushing to live a life of luxury. They had everything the general public had to go without, plus American nylons, wardrobes full of fur coats, porcelain collections previously owned by victims of Stalin’s terror and whole ranks of foreign automobiles from Horchs to Wanderers and BMWs to Packards in their garages, they indulged themselves in lust, gluttony and arrogance.
And they lived every second in dread fear of the faceless visitors in black leather coats. Several hundred residents of the House of the Government were arrested in the Stalinist purges, most of them executed. The powerful Soviet ambassador Maxim Litvinov impressed upon his family never to knock at his bedroom door – he always kept a gun under his pillow and would shoot to kill at any knock. The Kremlin aristocracy knew that in the Lubyanka, the headquarters and central prison of the NKVD, family counted for nothing; you were alone with your pain and would betray wife and children at the drop of a hat. And friends were a thing of the past; it was not wise to trust anyone. ‘It was a time of silence, when people had forgotten how to talk to one another, write letters, keep diaries, compose memoirs.’ The ‘investigation commission’ finds next to no written evidence and has to set out in search of the last living witnesses.
But why did the red aristocrats keep silent even after being sentenced to death, when they surely had nothing more to fear? Why did they pay tribute to Stalin even in their farewell letters? Did they want to go down in history? Alexei Shakhurin, the former People’s Commissioner for the Aviation Industry – a flamboyant figure dressed in a lilac suit, snow-white shirt and fashionable tie in the midst of the war – wrote his voluminous memoirs after seven years in solitary confinement. Yet his book Wings of Victory mentions not a single word about his only son, instead listing every single statistic of aeroplane production and offering up his subservient thanks to Emperor Stalin. Konstantin Umanskii flew to Mexico the day after Nina’s murder with his wife, to take up the post of ambassador. The urn containing the ashes of his beloved daughter spent two years neglected in the crematorium, only buried along with her parents. It must take a heart of steel to sacrifice one’s own children to the Great Idea.
Power was not handed down in the Soviet Union; the children could never step out of the shadows of their all-powerful fathers. There was no place for them in this age of heroism. Stalin and their fathers had given them everything – the boys drove Harley Davidsons and the school was evacuated to Kuibishev when the fascists reached the gates of Moscow, the children flown to visit their parents in American Douglas bomber planes. Yet Stalin was bound to die some day, and their fathers would go into retirement and surreptitiously hand down their villas and cars, their money and jewels. If they were to escape this almost certain fate, they would have to seize control themselves.
In 1943, eight pupils at the elite School No. 175, boys from highly prominent families aged between 13 and 15, came together to found the organisation ‘The Fourth Reich’. This is the first time this sensational story has been told. The group included the ‘Reichsführer’ Volodya Shakhurin, one of Stalin’s nephews, the son of the deputy to NKVD head Beriya, the son of Stalin’s personal physician and the sons of Anastas Mikoyan, one of the five main leaders of the country currently fighting the fascists.
The boys read Mein Kampf and Hermann Rauschning’s Conversations with Hitler, which had been translated for the personal use of the Kremlin elite – ‘Know your enemy!’ was the motto. They were fascinated by the elegance of SS uniforms and the very sound of German fighter plane names such as Fokker, Messerschmidt and Fokke-Wulf. Yet their favourite fashion accessories were US military badges. Like the fascists with their ‘Third Reich’ and their fathers with the pan-Russian dream of a ‘Third Rome’, the boys wanted to found their own empire. The Germans were to provide the army to conquer the world, France was to be the café chantant of the new era, chic cinemas and restaurants with music and dancing would open up in Moscow; ‘and everyone would do what they want’ – that was their manifesto.
Then the boys disappeared into the Lubyanka, and none of the satraps dared to ask Stalin about the fates of their foolish sons. They were simply wiped out of their lives.
The author comments: ‘I could not understand it – sons and daughters of people’s commissioners and marshals told me that the children of arrested parents had vanished from their schools on a weekly basis, and admitted, “We knew everything and we weren’t scared, we lived a very pleasurable life.”’
On the search for the aged witnesses, the ‘investigation commission’ often comes too late, usually by a matter of days. Death is frequently faster: ‘The people who are working against us always manage to clean everything up.’ And the memories of the old people they do manage to question are as if varnished over; no cracks are to mar the beautiful pictures of the past. These interviews with the contemporary witnesses – presented here for the first time along with the hard facts of the case – are worked into the novel. The more one reads of these protocols, the more one feels as if one were sinking into quicksand – nothing is really the way it is recalled and reported. In the closing cross-examination the survivors maintain their innocence – thus admitting guilt to a collective falsification of history.
The narrator, who claims to represent the ‘interests of the dead’ and wants to believe in the immortality of the lovers, is a passionate collector of 1930s and 40s tin soldiers, which he finds and exchanges twice a week at Izmailovo market. The subconscious reason for his obsession with the flea market of history is his fear of death and being forgotten. ‘You grow invisible in old age, the girls don’t show their stomachs and knees for you any more and the advertising isn’t aimed at you. And suddenly: “I still want to live” and the terrible certainty that all that counts in life is satisfying the insatiable need. And waiting for another call. But it’s all poisoned by the knowledge that it will come to an end. Sometimes you almost come close to that first love that seemed to be forever. But every time you move a little further away, and everything gets faster and more physiological.’ Did the red aristocrats have such obsessive love lives for the same reason – using sex to quench their thirst, as Alexandra Kollontai wrote, while they waited for that knock at the door?
At one point the narrator and ‘researcher’ is asked who he works for. His terse answer: ‘For the Kremlin.’ He describes what the Kremlin means for him as such: ‘I’ve known since I was a child: you don’t get anything back. The wind ruffled the surface of the river – I looked over at the Kremlin and felt its indifference and its occupation with things that were larger than the matters of this world. I felt its poor memory – everyone always owed it something…’
The Bridge of Stone is a detailed reconstruction of the Stalinist era, with Terekhov bringing his own research together with the threads of historical study – from Trotzki’s murder and the men behind it to the machinations of Soviet diplomacy in the war coalition with the USA, all the way to preparations for revolution in Mexico. It is an attempt to resurrect a past that was never properly related or dealt with, and which tragically poisons the present of modern life in Russia. The novel is about the lives of the current and the earlier generation, about love and about Russian soil. Everything is just the way it can be seen from the Great Stone Bridge.
Alexander Terekhov on how his novel came about:
‘Why did the death of two teenagers become the pivotal moment of a book about the 1940s? I don’t choose the subjects of my books; it’s like a disease that infects me, like a passion. By pure coincidence, you end up in a situation that you can only escape from by paying a couple of years of your life to write a book.
After Ogonyok I worked for the newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno [‘Top Secret’], specialising in interviews – often with old people, former party members and KGB veterans. Old people are grateful interview partners. Their memories are all they have left. You don’t have to ask any questions, just listen and nod. As long as you don’t twist their words they recommend you to their friends as a trustworthy person, opening up more doors.
It was on the margins of these stories that I first heard about the incredibly beautiful Nina Umanskaya, the crazy young Shakhurin, the stairs of the Great Stone Bridge, the case of the “young wolves” – even the very phrase was abhorrently tasteless. The story was already complete, worked out, wrapped up for sale, and it was told to a new newspaper twice a year, never forgetting to mention Romeo and Juliet. Nina’s parents died in a plane accident in Mexico in 1945, Shakhurin’s parents are long dead too. There was nothing to unearth there; that much was clear. Even I told the story of the “young wolves”, in literally five sentences, as a well-known detail in a broader publication about the “red” families that lived first in the Kremlin, then on Granovski Street, then moving into the House of the Government behind the Great Stone Bridge.
Two weeks later I found a note on my desk, torn out of a calendar. The editorial secretary had written on it: “Nina Umanskaya’s sister tried to reach Terekhov and wants to come into the office.”
As it turned out, she was Nina’s cousin. She had been three years old when Nina died, and could just about remember the chocolates her beautiful cousin once brought her.
“I’d like you to take another look into the case. Volodya and Nina weren’t alone on the bridge. There was someone else there. Neither of the two fathers could believe Volodya had fired the shots. But they were intimidated into silence,” she told me.
I gave an understanding nod. As I worked for a newspaper that investigated disclosures, I was used to people coming in with credible proof that the Battleship Novorossiysk had been blown up by trained dolphins, Hitler had fled from occupied Berlin to the Antarctic and an underground civilisation of Nazis lived there today that sent out its scouts in flying saucers…
“That’s very interesting,” I said, “but unfortunately I don’t have much time at the moment.”
My visitor replied: “A month after the tragedy on the bridge, eight boys were arrested at Nina and Volodya’s school. And they weren’t just anybody…”
As she left, Nina’s cousin told me: “If you don’t write about it, nobody will. You know, I wanted to tell you one more thing: Ambassador Umanskii was passionately in love with a woman, but he sacrificed his love because he didn’t want to break up the family, for Nina’s sake – he loved his daughter more than anything else.”
It all seemed clear enough. Except for one thing: usually it’s the murderer’s family that tries to clear his name. In this case it was the victim’s family. And then there was this woman – an unknown woman whom Umanskii loved. I thought she must know something authentic about the case of the “young wolves”, as she too was a victim of the shots fired on the bridge. And I tried to track her down.
Three months later it seemed I was collecting material for an essay. After a year I consoled myself with the idea of writing a short documentary piece. Three years later I thought, never mind, I’ll just write a novel. Five years on I realised that this research had taken on meaning for my own life, that what I and the people assisting me were doing was reminiscent of raising the dead, something you just can’t stop because there are more voices behind every door. It was the feeling that there was a piece of the past I knew more about than anyone else. I could remind people of their childhood nicknames that they themselves had long forgotten.
That feeling is like no other. I had the impression that all those involved in this story, which began on 3 June 1943 and is still going on today, had been almost waiting for me. Finding the truth proved to be a cruel task, and that cruelty was on both sides. I would never have done it just to write a book.’