If You See Something
Before she left, Tanya’s friends and relatives warned her about pickpockets, skinheads, con artists, mob activity, HIV, regressive gender roles, rude waitstaff, long black nights. They warned her not to carry her valuables around with her, or to dress too extravagantly, or to go out alone after dark.
Her aunt, the one who had called up some old connections to get Tanya this job at the Mikhailov Institute, told her that she’d be fine as long as she kept her eyes open. Tanya wasn’t sure. She bought two Russian-English dictionaries, one big and one small, and a puffy black coat.
“I was so happy when you came back from California,” her mother said in the car to the airport, “but this, this is something much better. I always hoped you would someday return to St. Petersburg. Petersburg is my heart and my soul. Petersburg is — ”
“In my blood,” Tanya sighed. “I know, Mom.”
“I know you don’t yet understand what it feels like. When you get there, you’ll see.”
The skies were rough and grey above St. Petersburg. When the plane touched down, all the other passengers applauded. Tanya threw up in a plastic bag.
The Mikhailov Institute was located in a crumbling yellow apartment building in the oldest part of the city. The director, Aleksandra Sergeevna, met Tanya at the front door on her first day, and led her through a tangle of hallways to a little office with two wooden desks and peeling green wallpaper. An electric kettle whistled and shook on top of a rusted file cabinet.
Aleksandra Sergeevna looked like Tanya’s grandma. She poured two cups of tea and arranged some pink cookies on a little ceramic plate. “There is a lot that we do here, but let me explain about what you’ll be working on. You’ve heard about our USSR? You’ve heard about our Stalin? You’ve heard about our Kolyma, yes?
“For years the Mikhailov Institute has been collecting data and artifacts and documents and letters, all these stories and memories that should not stay hidden in this office. We wanted to build a museum to the victims of this government repression. Of course the government prohibited this. The plan is this: we are going to translate all of our material into French, German, English — that is where you come in, of course — and we’re going to put them online. An internet museum. A virtual hall of memory, as they say. You understand?” Tanya nodded. “Very good. I’ll show you to your desk.” They stood up and began walking back through the creaky hallways. “Careful, don’t get lost. The building is bigger than it looks.”
Her desk was in a tiny room at the end of a long hallway. It faced out a window to a dirty courtyard full of pigeons and white snow and rude graffiti on the yellow walls. Except for the little space heater glowing orange next to the desk, stacks of papers covered every surface of the room. Files stacked on the windowsill, on the chairs, on top of the old grey computer. Aleksandra Sergeevna pointed to a banker’s box on the ground, TANYA’S WORK written in blocky Cyrillic letters on top. “Start working through the documents in here. If you need anything, you can let me know.” She disappeared back down the hallways.
Aleksandra Sergeevna hadn’t been joking — the office was strangely expansive once you were inside. Tanya never met any other employees, though sometimes she heard their voices. Once, looking for the supply room, she opened a door into a room she hadn’t seen before, where a woman on her hands and knees scrubbed the floor like a small shriveled Cinderella. Once, looking for the bathroom, Tanya found a storage closet packed with ghostly objects — dusty and dented tin cups, broken eyeglasses, gray cotton jackets, gray cotton caps.
She translated names, dates, demographic information, death counts. She translated articles about shootings and mass graves and denunciations and strange disappearances. She translated letters that made her cry at her little desk. Aleksandra Sergeevna, in all her iron northern seriousness, did not pay much attention to Tanya, but once in a while she brought her a cup of tea.
“Your work is very good so far, and I hope you are doing okay. This history can be a shock for some people. It can get under your skin, as you say.”
Later at home, Tanya’s landlady Vera Viktorovna made stuffed cabbage for dinner and the two of them ate on the brown couch in front of the television. Her favorite movie was on, a period drama about two young lovers in Moscow in the 60’s: the young woman, a promising scientist, loses her government job due to the bureaucratic maneuvering of a rival at work, and she starts drinking. The young man is offered the chance to emigrate to America and he leaves without even saying goodbye, though he loves the young woman very much. They both live long lives, hers brutal and dark, his sparkling but empty. At the end of the film, after decades have passed and the Soviet Union no longer exists, they run into each other again. He is back in Russia for the first time, for an important business meeting and she, now forced to support herself by cleaning office buildings and apartments, is mopping the floor in the office where he is giving his presentation. She recognizes him instantly — her face lights up, and for one bright moment she looks like her old self again. He does not recognize her, and the moment passes. Still, something stirs in the man, though he does not know what, and his face clouds for a moment. Ivan Ivanovich, says his client, are you ill? The man shakes his head, and he smiles, and he gives his presentation. As he is leaving the building, the old cleaning woman chases after him. Yes? They lock eyes. You forgot your umbrella. She hands it to him, and their fingers touch, and as the man walks back out into the street in the iconic final scene, a single tear falls down his face and it starts to rain.
“What an awful story,” ventured Tanya.
“You Americans,” sighed Vera Viktorovna. “You have more than us, but I don’t think that you understand love the way we do.”
“I don’t know about that — !” objected Tanya. Vera Viktorovna patted her knee.
“It’s ok, Tanechka. You have a good warm heart.”
Tanya wasn’t sure. Do I know what it means to love? she thought, as she wandered through the quiet cold city on her days off. Do I know what it means love? she wondered in museums and cathedrals. How can I know, when I’m so good at leaving? How can I know, when I’m always walking away? She bought little pancakes and pies from street vendors and ate them fast, hands chapped, eyes open. She ignored emails from her parents, from her friends, from a man she left back in California. She walked slowly along the frozen canals and waited for something to happen.
On a grey Wednesday morning, something happened: masked and armed policemen pounded on the door of the Mikhailov Institute, and pushed their way past Tanya when she went to get the door. One of them shoved a warrant into Aleksandra Sergeevna’s hand, who stood in her doorway, ice in her eyes. The men did not speak, but their steps rang out harsh and heavy all through the building. They worked quickly. They carried out every computer in the building, then box after box of files. Tanya stood behind Aleksandra Sergeevna and watched, silent. She did not understand what anyone was saying and nobody looked at her. When the policemen left, Aleksandra Sergeevna crushed their warrant into a ball in her hands.
Tanya stayed at work for the rest of the day, though without her files she had nothing to do. She listened to Aleksandra Sergeevna shouting on the telephone. She straightened up her space, neatly stacking the few stray papers that had been left behind, getting a towel from the bathroom to wipe up the men’s snowy boot tracks. She sat at her desk and watched the cleaning woman feed pigeons out in the snowy courtyard. She walked through the empty rooms. She made a cup of tea.
When she left work, the evening air was bitter. Thick-fingered men watched her hungrily on the subway platform. Skinny red-faced men stared at her inside the train. On the walk back to her apartment, gravel-voiced men called out to her from the shadows. Stray wolf-dogs eyed her quietly. A wrinkled woman dressed in furs hissed something nasty, she thought, but she wasn’t sure.
At home, while Vera Viktorovna heated a pot of soup on the stove, Tanya tried in clumsy Russian to tell her what had happened at work. “I don’t understand,” she said, “why this is happening. The Soviet Union does not even exist anymore. I don’t understand why they want our papers.”
“You don’t understand because you’re very young, and you’re very American, so your memory is still short.” Tanya opened her mouth to object — not that young, not that American — but Vera Viktorovna cut her off. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, Tanechka. Just think about it. Come, the soup is warm and our program is about to start.”
The next day at work, Tanya dusted and wiped down the insides of empty file cabinets. She addressed a few envelopes and organized a drawer full of pens.
“Will we get our computers back?” she asked.
“Probably,” said Aleksandra Sergeevna, “though maybe not. They are saying that we have connections to violent nationalist groups. Hah! Imagine.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Tanya, come drink a cup of tea with me. I’m going to tell you a story that my grandmother used to tell me. Okay?” Tanya nodded.
“Once in a small village there lived a beautiful girl named Marusya, who loved to sing and dance and feast with her girlfriends. One day a handsome young man comes to town, and right away he and Marusya fall in love and get engaged. Marusya is so happy, the little fool. She goes home to tell her mama. And her mama says ‘Marusenka, how wonderful! What is his name?’ Marusya does not know. ‘Where does he live?’ Marusya does not know. ‘Oh Marusya, Marusya! You must find out where your young man lives.’
“The next evening, Marusya follows her young man to a church. He goes inside and she peeps in the window. There inside the church she sees a coffin, and there inside the coffin she sees a corpse, and there beside the corpse she sees her young man, feasting on the dead body. She gasps and runs away, but the young man hears her.
“The next day she sees this demon and he says ‘Marusya, did you go to the church last night?’ ‘No,’ says Marusya. ‘And did you see what I was doing?’ ‘No,’ she says. ‘Very well,’ he says, ‘tonight your mama will die.’ And what do you know but that her mother dies that very night. The same thing happens with her father, then with her brother, then her sister, then her grandfather.”
“Finally she goes to her grandmother, and the grandmother says ‘Marusya, Marusya, why do you stay silent? Tell the truth. Tell this demon what you saw at the church.’ Next time Marusya sees him, he says ‘Marusya my dear, did you go to the church?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And did you see what I was doing?’ ‘You were eating a corpse.’ ‘Aaaaaaaaaaaa,’ screams the demon.”
Aleksandra Sergeevna looked straight at Tanya. “You think he is now defeated, right?” Tanya nodded. “Wrong. He turns around three times and screams ‘Then you yourself will die.’ And he rips Marusya limb from limb and buries her in the little church yard, and a little rose bush grows in the spot where she is buried.” Aleksandra Sergeevna chewed meaningfully on a biscuit.
“You’re telling me that silence will not protect us,” said Tanya after a minute.
“I’m telling you that when a person witnesses real horror, neither silence nor speech will keep them safe. I don’t have a choice anymore, but you still do. I’ll understand if you decide that you want to leave.”
“I really want to stay,” said Tanya.
“I know, but give it some thought.”
Tanya’s aunt called her. “Listen, I’ve got a friend in New York, he works at a bank, and he needs an assistant who can speak Russian. The job’s yours if you want to come home. Think about it.”
When she announced her decision to leave, Aleksandra Sergeevna just nodded. “Thank you for your work. It was really very good.” Vera Viktorovna hugged her tight and promised to make Tanya’s favorite chicken cutlets before she left.
The sky was clear when she landed in New York. She threw up in the bathroom at the arrivals gate. An unimpressed teenager offered her a stick of gum.
Her new job was on the thirtieth floor of a sleek steel building in Midtown. She had failed a test in St Petersburg, she knew, but she couldn’t tell yet if she was sorry. Posters in the subway told her to say something, if she saw something. She stayed quiet and waited for something to happen.