Polina Dashkova  <<

A Russian Orchid 

Moscow, Fall, 1998: The TV reporter Artem Butejko, famous for his coverage of scandals, is shot full of holes in the entryway to an apartment building. An unconscious drunk is found a few meters away from the body. His fingerprints are on the murder weapon. There is a clear motive. It’s an open and shut case. But that is exactly what makes police inspector Borodin—known to his colleagues as “Pinkerton”—suspicious. The suspect, Alexander Anisimov (a classmate of Butejko’s), appears not to remember anything. His blood work shows a high concentration of narcotics. Anisimov’s wife claims that the pistol was missing from their apartment on the day before the murder. Artem Butejko had a number of enemies, including the famous TV political commentator Elizaveta Belajeva.

A gold mine in the Urals, 1880: Pavel, the son of a farmer, is run over by a team of horses, and taken to the Estate of the Count Peauriet. In a bag hung on a cord around the young man’s neck, they find a diamond of the highest purity. The Countess names the stone “the Pavel Diamond,” and has it made into a brooch in the shape of an orchid, which she plans to present to the future wife of her beloved grandson Michel.

Montreal, Fall, 1998: Elizaveta Belajeva—a woman with a spotless reputation, a faithful wife and exemplary mother— is at an international conference. It seems that there is no place in her life for unpremeditated emotions. But the former KGB officer and interrogation expert, the handsome Anatolij Krasavchenko is counting on precisely that. Even his charms fail to work on her, so he decides to use psychotropic drugs.

Moscow, Fall, 1998: Like she has done every night, Varya tolerates the suffering of the waterbed. An elephant herd tramples all over her reclining body for forty minutes. But lately, this unimaginative man has begun to kiss her every now and again in thanks. That means that everything will be alright. One of the most wealthy and influential men in the new Russia, the Deputy Finance Minister, Dmitrij Malzev, is going to marry her. As always, there is a portrait of a young woman hanging on the wall. She looks amazingly like Varya. She is wearing a plain white blouse with a brooch in the shape of an orchid. Finally, Varya can go take a shower, but she stops just inside the door to listen to a conversation between Malzev and his brother Pavel, who has gone to Montreal.

An Estate just outside Moscow, circa 1900: Count Peauriet has fallen under the spell of games of chance, and his son Michel is facing ruin. Michel is forced to marry a fat, rich merchant’s daughter, and the brooch remains ownerless. His jealous wife forces him to abandon city life, and to come live on the Estate. Michel would have taken to drink, if it had not been for his neighbor Baturin. With his encouragement, Michel takes up landscape painting.

Montreal, Fall, 1998: Krasavchenko is unable to discover anything useable. Elizaveta Belajeva has only been at her country house in the village of Baturino one time in the last twenty years, and that was to bury her dog there. Krasavchenko has been wondering who his client is for a long time. The client obviously doesn’t have to count pennies, and Krasavchenko decides to work a double-edged extortion scheme. Quite by accident, he’s learned that Elizaveta Belajeva had a lover. To keep her secret, she has to invite Krasavchenko to be a guest on her program. The things that he says on camera covertly give his client to understand that Krasavchenko also has something on him. What Krasavchenko does not know is that his middleman in Montreal is the brother of the client, the Deputy Finance Minister Malzev.

Moscow: Fall, 1998: Mrs. Butejko, the mother of the murdered reporter, is behaving very strangely. She refuses to answer even inspector Borodin’s simplest questions. Anisimov, the suspected murderer, says that years ago Butejko brought a brooch to school and tried to convince everyone that it was an old, valuable diamond. Butejko’s apartment, on the other hand, gives off an overwhelming sense of poverty.

Baturino, 1917: On the eve of the Russian Revolution, Michel Peauriet falls madly in love with Sonya Baturina, his neighbor’s daughter. He paints a portrait of her in a white blouse with a brooch in the shape of an orchid. His wife mixes arsenic with his food. Before his painful death, however, Sonya confides in him that she is expecting his child. Michel tells her where the brooch is hidden, but that very night Sonya and her father have to flee the Estate ahead of the advancing Red Guards. Their son is born during the crossing to Constantinople. She calls him Michel. The brooch remains buried at Baturino.

Moscow, Fall, 1998: There is only one thing that Varya really fears: water. When she was seventeen, this raven-haired beauty with blazing blue eyes had dreamed of a career in the movies. And she did catch the eye of a real movie director who invited her to his home for a screen test. It was only months later that she was finally able to free herself from the clutches of this dreadful psychopath, who was convicted on the basis of her testimony in a high-profile trial. But now she had the tabloid press on her back. They wouldn’t leave her alone, especially Artem Butejko, who kept mercilessly to her trail, intruding into her private life. Varya was at a loss, and threw herself into the river Moscow, but she was rescued by a policeman: Vasillij Sokolov.

Montreal, Fall, 1998: Krasavchenko’s extortion plan doesn’t go through. He has a compromising porno-video fabricated that could cost Elizaveta Belajava her job and her family.

Naturally, that is far from everything about the novel. It’s practically impossible to describe Dashkova’s novels in a word or two. Therefore, this is simply an attempt to provide a taste of how they are put together. In “On the Air,” every ten to fifteen pages, there’s another locale, another atmosphere: behind the scenes of Russian TV, a pre-Revolutionary Estate, the chic restaurants frequented by the new Russians, etc. She is able to create an atmosphere with a few simple brush strokes, but they are very much on target and organically a part of the story line. Another one of her strong points is her characterizations of the personalities in the novel. The female characters are, as always, highly differentiated and very different: the business-lady Elizaveta Belajeva, who experienced her first love at forty, and didn’t know how to stop herself, or Varya, whose beauty only brought her unhappiness in her youth, but who had now learned how to target it to get what she wanted.

It’s not until the end that the reader learns who the murderer is and where the brooch is hidden, leaving plenty of room along the way for speculation. Varya looks very much like Michel’s lover, Elizaveta Belajeva hated Artem Butejko, because he had exposed her mother as an alcoholic on television … This is one of those novels that you just can’t put down. The ending is surprising. It turns out that it’s the “naïve” Varya who discovers where to look for the brooch. She trades this information to a criminal in exchange for the life of the man who held her prisoner. Justice wins in the end, even though it is not the justice of law, but what other law could there be in Russia?