He nearly hadn't come to Russia. That was the joke of it. He knew well enough what it would be like: the bad food, the stale gossip, the sheer bloody tedium of academic life--of more and more being said about less and less. That was one reason why he had chucked Oxford and gone to live in New York. But somehow the books he was supposed to write had not quite materialized. And besides, he never could resist the lure of Moscow. Even now, sitting on a stale bus in the Wednesday rush hour, he could feel the charge of history beyond the muddy glass: in the dark and renamed streets, the vast apartment blocks, the toppled statues. It was stronger here than anywhere he knew, stronger even than in Berlin. That was what always drew him back to Moscow--the way history hung in the air between the blackened buildings like sulfur after a lightning strike.
"You think you know it all about Comrade Stalin, don't you, boy? Well, let me tell you: You don't know fuck."
Kelso had already delivered his short paper, on Stalin and the archives, at the end of the previous day: delivered it in his trademark style--without notes, with one hand in his pocket, extempore, provocative. His Russian hosts had looked gratifyingly shifty. A couple of people had even walked out. So, all in all, a triumph.
Afterward, finding himself predictably alone, he had decided to walk back to the Ukraina. It was a long walk and it was getting dark, but he needed the air. And at some point--he couldn't remember where; maybe it was in one of the back streets behind the Institute or maybe it was later, along the Noviy Arbat--but at some point he had realized he was being followed. It was nothing tangible, just a fleeting impression of something seen too often--the flash of a coat, perhaps, or the shape of a head--but Kelso had been in Moscow often enough in the bad old days to know that you were seldom wrong about these things. You always knew if a film was out of synch, however fractionally; you always knew if someone fancied you, however improbably; and you always knew when someone was on your tail.
He had just stepped into his hotel room and was contemplating some primary research in the minibar when the front desk had called up to say there was a man in the lobby who wanted to see him. Who? He wouldn't give his name, sir. But he was most insistent and he wouldn't leave. So Kelso had gone down, reluctantly, and found Papu Rapava sitting on one of the Ukraina's imitation-leather sofas, staring straight ahead, in his papery blue suit, his wrists and ankles sticking out as thin as broomsticks.
"You think you know it all about Comrade Stalin, don't you, boy?" Those had been his opening words.
And that was the moment when Kelso had realized where he had first seen the old man--at the symposium, in the front row of the public seats, listening intently to the simultaneous translation over his headphones, muttering in violent disagreement at any hostile mention of J. V. Stalin.
Who are you? thought Kelso, staring out of the grimy window. Fantasist? Con man? The answer to a prayer?
The symposium was scheduled to last only one more day--for which relief, in Kelso's view, much thanks. It was being held in the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, an orthodox temple of gray concrete, consecrated in the Brezhnev years, with Marx, Engels, and Lenin in gigantic bas-relief above the pillared entrance. The ground floor had been leased to a private bank, since gone bust, which added to the air of dereliction.
On the opposite side of the street, watched by a couple of bored-looking militiamen, a small demonstration was in progress--maybe a hundred people, mostly elderly, but with a few youths in black berets and leather jackets. It was the usual mixture of fanatics and grudge holders--Marxists, nationalists, anti-Semites. Crimson flags bearing the hammer and sickle hung beside black flags embroidered with the czarist eagle. One old lady carried a picture of Stalin; another sold cassettes of SS marching songs. An elderly man with an umbrella held over him was addressing the crowd through a bullhorn, his voice a distorted, metallic rant. Stewards were handing out a free newspaper called Aurora.
Excerpted from Archangel by Robert Harris. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing.
Blood at the Root
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