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from the April 2018 issue

Stalin in Tallinn

This story by Estonian writer Maimu Berg tracks a mercurial Stalin and his cowed entourage on a spontaneous trip to Tallinn.
 

After the film ended and the lights came on, J. V. Stalin gradually turned his face toward his companions, narrowed his eyes, and made a vague expression, so that one couldn’t understand what mood he was in. The comrades tried in every way to hide their boredom, tedium and simply their sleepiness—it was way past midnight, how far past they didn’t know. In the room where the films were shown there was no clock, and it was dangerous to peep at one’s watch: Stalin didn’t like it. Anastas Ivanovich valiantly stifled an incipient yawn. He had The Great Waltz memorized. As he did Stalin’s next remark, which was repeated every time as a conscious taunt. “A woman like that, a real little kabanikha, big face, little cunning wild-boar eyes. But her voice . . .”

“Her voice was genuine crystal, liquid crystal, Comrade Stalin,” Malenkov rushed to affirm. “A marvelous voice.”

“You, Maksimilianovich, are no expert—what do you know about singers or their voices?” Stalin eyed Malenkov’s chubby feminine face, which reminded him of old village women, with a grin. Once, at a nighttime party, Stalin had given an order to fetch a Russian scarf with a rose pattern. After a bit of searching, one was actually found, hanging from Olga the cleaner’s peg. Stalin handed the scarf to Malenkov and commanded him to tie it around his own face. “How do you want it, Josif Vissarionovich—shall I tie it under the chin or do it up or put it in a bow on top of my head? Shall I leave it inside or outside of my brow?”

“What are you babbling about, Maksimilianovich?” Stalin pronounced Malenkov’s genteel patronymic with ironic relish. “Don’t you know how to put a scarf on your head? Just put the scarf on, then we’ll have a look at how it suits you best.” Malenkov put on the scarf with trembling hands, tying a knot under the chin. The scarf was pretty, with a fringe, with pink roses on a black background and bright blue forget-me-nots and yellow daisies. It suited Malenkov’s porky red cheeks, small eyes flashing under dark eyebrows, and dainty girlish mouth very well. Everyone burst out laughing, whereupon Malenkov blushed demurely. “Baba, what a baba,” laughed the father and the sun of the Soviet people, and then he suddenly turned serious, furrowing his brow. “We’ve had a laugh, that’s enough! To bed!”

Within a few minutes the room was empty. Malenkov stood perplexed in the corridor, not daring to take off the shameful scarf. He listened for a while at the door, hearing Stalin’s coughing from inside, then everything went quiet; but before Malenkov had time to hurry away, Josif Vissarionovich opened the door. Seeing Malenkov wearing the scarf, Stalin roared: “Georgi, are you thinking of keeping the scarf on? You like it, do you?”

“Not at all, Comrade Stalin,” stammered Malenkov.

“But why not?” exclaimed Stalin. “It suits you—go and look in the mirror!”

“Of course it does, Comrade Stalin.”

“Take a look,” threatened Stalin with his finger. Malenkov vanished silently, in a flash, down the long dim corridor.

But tonight he was again in his place and this time Stalin didn’t start taunting him about wearing the scarf. The Great Waltz, which the party had had to watch to the point of boredom for several evenings, finally reached its end, the last scene, in which Kabanikha appears to Strauss in his mind’s eye in close-up, trilling her highest notes, and on the screen the words The End, Konets appeared on the screen, much anticipated by the company. “Well, Potyokhin,” said Stalin, addressing Molotov by his former code name. “What are you thinking about?”

“The film, of course. Impressive, magnificent, as always,” Molotov hurried to say.

“And you, Kliment?” Stalin looked Voroshilov in the eyes. “You’re an expert on that area.”

“Oh, what expert? Budapest isn’t Vienna! And it’s been three years since I was in Hungary.”

“Austria-Hungary,” said Stalin, almost dreamily. “Nice that we have Vienna—we should visit it again. It will soon be nearly forty years since Stavros Papadopoulos’s one and only visit there.”

“Stavros Papa . . . ?”

“Ah!” Stalin clapped his hands together.

“Stalin went there under a code name, as a Greek man,” whispered Mikoyan. Stalin looked at him severely. Mikoyan fell silent and huddled up instinctively. But soon he felt ashamed of his own timidity and straightened himself up to more than his full height.

Stalin grinned. The thought of visiting Vienna had turned his mood to melancholy. He remembered the great city from before the First World War, the parks, the squares, the Opernring and the uplifting military parade on the Ringstrasse, the manly, rhythmic quiver of the cockades on the helmets, the unsheathed swords, flags, and at the top, the enthroned Austrian eagle. It was the heyday of the Vienna Jugendstil. Stalin, too, had been pleased by Hans Kalmsteiner’s simple colorful postcards, and he had bought himself a complete set. Where had they got to afterward? Somewhere there at this time poor old Hitler was hanging around, maybe even imitating Kalmsteiner with his feeble postcards, maybe even forging them, and the pictures that he, Stalin, had got might actually be the botchings of that failed architect and politician. Well, in that case their value would be a thousand times more now!

Stalin wasn’t sure that he actually wanted to visit Vienna once again, as it had obviously changed and not for the better. At least they would no longer be holding the grand military parades with the Austrian eagle there. Why would such a shabby little country, filled with Soviet bases, have such a splendid capital, magnificent castles, churches, theaters, and parks? Like a hydrocephalic head on the scrawny neck of a deformed child. Why do those submissive beggars have Schönbrunn or the “beautiful blue Danube”? If he could have gone back in time, to the Vienna where people waltzed in the streets, where the mad Johann Strauss played his violin, and women, feminine to the core, tiptoed around in wide crinolines and large hats, raising the trains of their dresses, then perhaps Vienna might have appealed to him. That town of contrasts, where between the grand buildings there mingled with the scent of fine perfume the pleasantly soothing stink of horse manure, as it had when he visited it.

Stalin glanced at the men sitting in the cinema, who were ready, on a signal from him, to raise their bottoms from the soft armchairs to fall exhausted into bed. Into a bed where a fat woman with a creamed face was snuffling, having pulled with difficulty from puffy fingers gold rings studded with dazzling diamonds by the dimly glowing light of a dull lamp and lined them up on the bedside table. Why hurry into such chambers of horrors, stinking of dust, women’s farts, and sickly creams? The men should be thankful that he offered them more reasonable activities at night.

There sat Shvernik, continually tense, like a hunting dog ready to spring, but actually a cunning tomcat who always falls on his feet. Frowning, with his eternal little mustache under his nose. His wife has already gone to fat, and lately he himself has been putting on weight. No need to be so full of yourself, Nikolay Mikhailovich, just because you were born in St. Petersburg.

Or Nikita. Pretends to be a simple-minded and good-hearted Ukrainian, though actually he was born in Kursk Governorate and he’s really the biggest bully. He won’t go home, although Nina Petrovna is already snuffling under the orange silk eiderdown. But why orange? Nikita’s actually a dangerous chap, not to be trusted. Well, let’s see, let’s see.

And what are you grinning about, Skryabin? Want to go home? To Polina Semyonovna? You didn’t want to know when I recommended you get divorced. You did right—without your smart Jewish missus you’d be a mere nothing. Your Little Pearl is starting to get old. All right, a wrinkled face, and not much sense. Friend Potyokhin, your bright star won’t shine forever—surely you’ve learned enough from life, that it’s like the sea, with peaks and troughs valleys, always with highs and lows . . .

Anastas—erect and strong, as if he were sitting at a desk. Always in the Politburo, and there you will stay, my friend. You want to get higher? You can’t, you just can’t. You must fear, you Armenian, you must live in constant terror of a Georgian. You were the one who spread the rumor about my Jewish origins, about my father. David? Mother Keke hasn’t said anything to me—but see, Anastas knows better than me, better than my mother. Maybe he knows the truth?

So who’s that nodding off and dozing in the corner? Lazar! You’ve gone slack, brother. Where have your splendid curls gone? Good old Kogan, Kaganovich, a master cobbler like Papa Vissarion. I don’t trust cobblers—they all pound spikes into heels just as dully as they do under grubby fingernails. But they’re always money-grubbing.

Lavrenti? It was he who should have had a scarf tied around his head, a real old Merkheuli woman, a Megrelian. A secretive bastard, a careerist. During the last parade I noticed how many orders and medals the esteemed Lavrenti Pavlovich had hung on his chest. Who knows what for? Well, all right, let him have a bit of a career; we’ll get his fingers jammed in the drawer if we need to. The main thing is not to let him get too full of himself, or power will go to his head. I don’t know why, but that man makes me weepy.  

Stalin got up abruptly from his armchair, and so did all the others after him. “Let’s go to Tallinn!” announced Josif Vissarionovich briskly, unexpected even to himself. The men, who had been hoping to get away easily, stared at him in astonishment. “Well, what are you looking at—so what did I say? Isn’t Tallinn the capital of one of our little constituent republics? Our own Estonian SSR?” Stalin looked from one to another. They were all silent, eyes downcast, unable to understand whether the great leader and teacher was making a bad joke or whether he meant it. Or was there something wrong with his mind? The first one to recover was Mikoyan. “Isn’t that Miliza Korjus, that Kabanikha, from Tallinn? She must be an Estonian.”

“Estonian? She’s half-Jewish,” said Stalin drily. Mikoyan blushed.

“But she hasn’t lived in Tallinn for ages,” stated Malenkov naively.

“So what?” Stalin raised an eyebrow and tapped his pipe empty on the edge of the desk. “Thinking of visiting her, were you? That’s enough for today. Off to bed! We’re not going to Tallinn today. Tomorrow we’ll have to arrange the trip. Anastas, Lavrenti, that’ll be your job!”

Mikoyan jumped up: “Comrade Stalin, do you want to go there officially, as national leader? Then there’ll have to be preparations, otherwise Karotamm will hang himself out of shock!”

“Karotamm’s already hung himself,” smirked the well-informed Beria. “They have that Kebin there now.” 

“Is Karotamm dead? Such a young man . . .”

“You could say that—removed from his post, nothing more. Some die, some are relieved.”

“So when did this happen?”

“What kind of a question is that? Short memory, or are you mixing it up with Latvia? In March.”

“By the way, this Karotamm of yours has been in Moscow since the spring.” “All the rubbish ends up getting a place in Moscow.” “What’s he doing here?” “At the academy. Writing a thesis.” “Well, I’ll be! A scholar!”

“Stop the empty chatter. The trip to Tallinn is tomorrow. Arrange it as you think fit, but without fuss. Incognito. Is that clear? You’ll report in the morning, then we’ll see.”

“But Comrade Stalin, who’s coming along?” inquired Malenkov excitedly. “Volunteers,” smirked Josif Vissarionovich. “You and Lavrenti, of course . . .”

“And me.”

“Obviously, Anastas.”

“But Comrade Stalin, who will—well—stand in for you in the Kremlin?”

“Heh-heh, what do you think? Or who will stand in for me in Tallinn?”

“In the Kremlin, I thought, this time it could be Aleksandr Simonovich.”

“Why him? Is it because one of his grandfathers was Estonian?” interjected Shvernik, who was particular about details.

“No, Nikolay Mikhailovich, it’s because of his pockmarks,” Stalin burst out with a chuckle. “Isn’t that what you were thinking, Anastas? Aleksandr Simonovich’s pockmarks are genuine!”

“Come on now, Comrade Stalin—he came to mind mainly because of his Estonian grandfather.”

                                                                          ***

The morning was gray and drab. Stalin was standing under the window, his hair still damp from washing, but the air was damp, too. “Let’s see what those blockheads have cooked up,” murmured Stalin, feeling a pleasant anxious tingling in his palms. Olga the cleaner was hurrying across the yard, with the same kind of pink-flecked black scarf on her head as Malenkov had amused the company with, a decisive, slightly scornful look on her angular face. Stalin grinned. “Tough old woman. She’d make a good camp commander. Sure to be a harder man than that fat-face Malenkov. Now where have our trip planners got to?” Straight away, as if Stalin’s thoughts had been read from behind the door, there was a knock, announcing the arrival of Mikoyan and Beria. “Well boys, is the trip going ahead?”

“The trip is going ahead, Comrade Stalin,” they replied in chorus.

“And how, then—by air? By train?”

“By the evening train to Tallinn. Aleksandr Simonovich is already here too, awaiting arrangements.”

“What arrangements is he awaiting? He’s already in charge of arrangements. Better that he stay in the office—he can sleep here for a few nights. Better to leave out consultations. We don’t need anything unexpected.”

“Very good, Comrade Stalin.”

“Is the luxury train car all ready?”

“The luxury car? But you ordered for everything to be in secret, no special measures.”

“How do you plan to keep me out of the public eye without special measures? The Estonian forests are full of bandits; enemies of the people are hiding underground in the towns.”

“Everything’s been taken care of, Comrade Stalin, trust us. Besides . . .”

“Besides?”

“Besides, the Estonian forests have been cleared of bandits, the kulaks have been sent to Siberia, honest farmers are running the kolkhozes. Narva is now populated only by our own people.”

“Our own people?”

“Russians, Comrade Stalin.”

“Remember, in the Land of the Soviets there are no ‘ours’ and ‘theirs,’ Russians or Estonians. Everyone is our own people, Soviet people. And if they aren’t, they’re in detention centers, camps, prisons, or six feet under.”

“Of course, Comrade Stalin.”

“Good, good, go and let the secretary in.”

In the afternoon a twenty-strong team left the Kremlin with worn suitcases in their hands, broad flat Caucasian caps on their heads, wearing long black thick woolen coats with the collars raised. They moved close together, side by side, toward the Metro like a flock of crows who had lost the power of flight. In the Metro they all pressed together on the escalator, first helping on an old man with glasses, also wearing a large cap and a raised collar. Inside the station they tramped in a troop onto the platform, shoving aside the people ahead of them. A couple of old ladies crossed themselves on sight of them; one drunken man protested loudly: “They come here from God knows where, with their flat caps on. Too many aliens in Moscow! No wonder our people got slaughtered in the war, but they just sat by the fire at home chomping on mandarins.”

The train had already been announced, but boarding hadn’t begun yet. The men in caps pressed around the door of a passenger car, roughly shoved aside the old ladies and sack-carriers on their way to board, and as soon as the guard came and opened the door, they pushed her aside as they rushed inside, still helping and protecting the bespectacled old man between them, and when the last of them had climbed aboard, they slammed the door on the remaining passengers. When the guard tried to protest, one of the men, a thin, shriveled Caucasian, flashed some document under her nose. “Listen, comrade, don’t wave your papers around, show me properly, so I can check who the hell you are and why I should do what you want.” The scrawny man held the document a long time under the guard’s nose. The shocked woman read it carefully, looked straight at the man, and realized with horror that there was something very familiar about his face, somehow menacingly familiar. At this the woman just nodded and stammered: “Of course, of course, understandable, everything’s in order. Would you like some tea? Shall I bring mattresses and linen and make your beds up?”

“Tea wouldn’t be bad,” said a youngish man with a fresh chubby face, separated from the party, waving his hands.

“And anything to go with the tea?”

“No need.”

One could hear people rattling the latch of the locked passenger car door, cursing and screaming. The guard, ignoring the rattlers, drew the curtains on all the windows and rushed to fetch the tea. The men took off their caps and coats, Stalin his spectacles, too. They smoothed their hair and bald heads. They opened their suitcases and took out their provisions: jars of caviar, fried chickens, onions and genuine baked Georgian tonis puri bread, lavash flatbread, and mandarins. They uncorked bottles of Khvanchkara and five-star Georgian cognac. The guard knocked at the door, bringing tea and sugar. A tall lively man went to the door, grabbed the tray of tea-glasses, and hissed: “Don’t come in here—only if you’re invited. Knock. And the toilet had better be as clean as a whistle. Is that clear?”

“All right. Shall I heat the car?”

“Obviously.”

Gradually the train started moving. Stalin was silent, taking little sips of the deep red sparkling wine. Beria took rapid slurps of black caviar and broke pieces of lavash with it. “Armenian bread,” he mumbled with his mouth full, “isn’t that ours?”

Stalin silently handed him some puri.

“Thank you, Comrade Stalin!”

“Gratitude is a disease of dogs,” said Stalin, emptying his glass and beckoning the tall man who had received the glasses of tea from the guard. They moved to the corridor of the train car. For a moment everyone in the compartment felt relief; conversation broke out, and was again buttoned up as soon as Stalin and his companion came back. Two men separated from the company and returned with bed linen. The tall man went to fetch mattresses. There weren’t enough for all of them. Stalin was silent as he most often was, just sipping wine, but the drinking made him ever gloomier and he stretched out in the place made ready for him. Gradually the others also lay down to sleep.

In the night, as the train was jerking away from some station, Stalin sat up. He felt suffocated. His side was hurting. But he was pleased that he had got this herd of nincompoops moving, doing something at least. He pulled the curtain aside, pressed his brow against the window and smiled at the night. It was pitch dark; only now and then did the sparks rising from the engine’s stack whiz past the window. Stalin drew his head instinctively between his shoulders, shifted to the edge of his mattress, and looked around the compartment. His eyes, used to the darkness, started to make out a tall male shape standing by the door. On the other side of the corridor sat his most trustworthy bodyguard, Kolessov, looking straight at Stalin. Muffled whispering could be heard from the entrance to the corridor. Stalin recognized Beria’s and Malenkov’s voices. He beckoned to Kolessov, who got up and went to the door to listen. “They’re hatching a plot,” thought Stalin indolently, and then snapped wide awake. “But what if they are plotting, what if they do throw me out of this train car, in some unknown place? Out Tver way, now Kalinin.” Mikhail Kalinin’s toadying, goateed face appeared before his eyes. “Kalinin. Wasn’t he a Chukhna? Or was his wife a Chukhna—the one he left to rot in prison camp? Silly little man, with the heart of a lamb.” And Stalin thought back to when he had last tasted lamb’s heart. The entrance door clicked, Beria and Malenkov returned into the compartment, and Kolessov, who hadn’t tried to hide the fact that he was eavesdropping, sat down beside Stalin without waiting to be told.

“They were making a bet, Comrade Stalin, on whether it was you here or Aleksandr Simonovich.”

“If they knew,” said Stalin, instinctively withdrawing his damaged hand. “What about?”

“I didn’t hear, Comrade Stalin.”

“A pity.” Stalin stretched himself out again. The train was moving steadily and calmly. Gradually sleep came over him and Josif Vissarionovich started quietly snoring.

Some light snow had fallen in the night, but the morning was sunny. At the moment, they were traveling over a river; the train was slowing down. In the distance appeared two fortresses. Beria had been quietly approaching Stalin via the corridor by the window. “Ivangorod and Hermann,” he said importantly.

Stalin was startled: “You, Lavrenti, don’t creep around like that!”

“But how else am I to do it, Comrade Stalin—that is my job.”

“As if that’s a job,” snorted Stalin scornfully, eyeing the slowly passing, somehow unreal scene. The train was stopping at Narva; Stalin stepped quickly back from the window.

“Tea, Comrade Stalin?” asked one of the tall bodyguards. Stalin didn’t reply. Tea was brought; they drank it in silence. The train started moving again, and Stalin opened the curtain slightly. Flat, peaceful countryside, covered with a delicate crust of snow like a bridal veil. Stalin recalled Kato, his first wife, in her dark dress, on her shoulders the same kind of transparent white shawl as this thin layer of snow on the dark ground. Kato amid the flowers in her wooden coffin, beside it her weeping mother and sisters, beyond it her bearded father, and he himself standing at the end, angry with death and fate, his heart hardened. He slipped his hand over his face. Had his eyes really become moist?

Stalin didn’t like this Estonia that he saw from the car window. Featureless, sad scenery, no hills or lakes, plain and glum. Little color. Clumps of forest, dark, snow-flecked muddy fields, highways. Showy little wooden houses, mostly yellow. Boring and empty. Here and there some horse was pulling a cart, old women wrapped in scarves cowered in the carts, one old guy on a grubby bicycle, two ugly red-faced girls by the roadside waving energetically at the train. And one man quite openly and unashamedly shaking his fist, as if he knew who was in this train with the others, rolling toward Tallinn.

The Tallinn station building, built of gray limestone, just as depressing and colorless as the rest of Estonia. And gray, also of limestone, was a great fortress opposite the station, the only splash of color being the red flag fluttering on the high tower. “What would they be without us? A poor little scraggy country. Miserable. Now they’re the mightiest in the world.”

The party was preparing to disembark. Caps were pressed onto heads, coats donned, Stalin put his glasses on and raised the checkered homespun woolen scarf to his chin. No one could be trusted, not even oneself. How could one trust a person who would take on such an adventure with one thing in front of him, another behind? “There are difficulties with the hotel, Comrade Stalin. Since you’re traveling incognito, so to speak, we couldn’t get places in the only decent guesthouse in the city. But we have an agreement with a local military unit . . .”

“We’ll go back this evening.” Stalin furrowed his brow and recalled Ivan Vassilievich, the great ruler Groznyy the Terrible, who had encircled the German crows’ nest somewhere around here. “I don’t see any point in spending more time in Reval. There’s nothing to do here, nothing to look at. Flat countryside, gray and muddy. A town of ruins, oh what a town, more like a village. Ugly German churches with pointed towers . . .”

“They have an Orthodox church too, Comrade Stalin.”

“You think we came here to look at churches? We’ve got more than enough of those ourselves.”

“There’s a theater here too, the Estonia, they’ve just been restoring it, it got hit during the war.”

“Are you planning to take us to the theater in the evening? Interesting—how did you get that arranged?”

“I wasn’t thinking of that exactly—we could just pop into the building.”

“And where will we have lunch?”

“We thought we’d have it at the army unit.”

“That’s enough! No army units. We’ll catch the evening train back to Moscow. Kolessov”—Stalin turned to his tall bodyguard—“arrange a passenger car for this evening and get dinner.”

“Very good, Comrade Stalin.”

“Well, let’s go and look at this theater of yours then. Anastas, you’re the smart one— what sort of institution is it?”

“An opera and ballet theater. Miliza sang there.”

“Korjus hasn’t sung there,” interjected Beria. “I checked the facts: Miliza has performed in the Soviet Union, in Leningrad and elsewhere, but she didn’t get to sing at the Estonia.”

“What are you saying? Why not?”

“She wasn’t talented enough. And her appearance left something to be desired.”

“Kabanikha. But she was good enough for Hollywood.”

“And for the Berlin Staatsoper.”

“Well, German women are horrible anyway,” Beria summarized. Stalin took no further part in the conversation and for the rest of the way they walked in silence. Stalin was regretting this adventure. The idea he had been nurturing for a while, of adding an initial S- to the name Tallinn, didn’t seem so attractive any more. This town wasn’t worthy of such an honor.

The Estonia theater was freshly plastered and painted, it was quite a fine sight from outside, and Stalin’s mood improved a bit, although, trudging along in the middle of this squad of men, he felt a bit short of breath and his legs were quietly throbbing a little. Now the men in caps shoved their way through the only open door and stopped in the foyer by the ticket office. Immediately a security guard appeared from somewhere, an angry crease between his brows. “Citizens, where are you heading—what are you after?”

“We’re looking at your theater.”

“The theater can be viewed in the evening. Put some decent clothes on, buy tickets, and come to the performance. No need to come tramping in here and muddy the floor.”

“Look what a worker we have here!” Mikoyan took his identification from his breast pocket and jabbed it under the guard’s nose. The latter wanted to snatch it away, but Mikoyan didn’t let him. So, the guard took his glasses with deliberation from his pocket, put them on, read it and stared Mikoyan in the face.

“A real genuine paper, is it?” he asked suspiciously.

“Of course. So then—”

“Yes, but you gentlemen should take your caps off, it would be polite,” the guard ventured to state. Strangely enough, everyone except Stalin took their caps off. The guard shambled closer.

“Why have these Estonians built themselves all these—fortresses and churches and opera houses,” wondered Malenkov aloud.

“The Estonians didn’t build them—it was the Germans. The Estonians were slaves,” piped up Shvernik, who had been silent until now.

“Aren’t you, Shvernik, a German yourself, with a doubtful name like yours? And you’re from Petersburg, too. Look, if the Estonians are slaves, wasn’t it the slaves who built these churches and fortresses? Why would the Germans bother to put the stones together and pile up the walls?” declared Malenkov.

“But the Germans laid the plans. And the money came from them too,” Shvernik insisted.

“And why would those slaves need operas?” asked Malenkov sincerely.

“It must have been so that they could hear slaves’ choruses,” said Mikoyan instructively.

“What slaves’ choruses?”

“There’s an opera, Nabucco, and in it there’s a chorus of Hebrew slaves,” Mikoyan explained importantly.

“What have Hebrew slaves got to do with this place?” said Malenkov, shrugging.

From some back room, with a clacking of heels, came a ravishingly pretty girl, straight toward the party arguing about slaves. She was wearing an airy bright pink dress, her dark luxuriant hair framed a lightly glowing little face, her pretty legs in black high-heeled shoes stepped femininely but energetically. Beria’s mouth dropped open and he felt his whole body trembling. The girl was coming ever closer, and before the party had time to recover, she stepped up to Stalin and ripped the cap off his head. Immediately two bodyguards grabbed the girl by the delicate wrists and twisted her arms behind her back, so that the girl only moaned. She didn’t struggle or scream, but kept her frozen stare on Stalin, who, with a smile, took off his glasses and made an awkward bow. “Stalin,” murmured the girl. “Are you Stalin?”

Stalin remembered that there was an interpreter among them, and although he guessed what the girl was saying, he still turned to the interpreter: “What’s she saying?”

“She’s asking if you’re Comrade Stalin.”

“What’s the Estonian for tovarishch?”

Seltsimees,” responded the interpreter rapidly.

“What’s your first name and patronymic?” Stalin inquired.

“Anton. Anton Nikolayevich.”

“Look, Anton Nikolayevich, I don’t speak Estonian at all, but Comrade is not what that girl called me.”

“Well, yeah, she didn’t,” agreed Anton swiftly. “She didn’t.”

“Let her go,” Stalin told the bodyguard. They released the girl’s arms, she looked downward and began cautiously massaging her wrists. “Ask her who she is, what she’s doing here, and why she took off my cap,” Stalin told the interpreter.

“I work at the Estonia,” said the girl, without waiting for the interpreter. “I’m a dancer, a ballerina. It’s a custom with us here, in the theater, or actually anywhere indoors, for men to take their caps off. I’m sorry, Comrade Stalin, I …”

“I’m not who you think I am,” replied Stalin drily, “but I understand you—I’ve been mistaken for Stalin before, we look somewhat alike. I don’t know exactly, I’ve only seen Stalin in pictures.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “Can I go now?”

“No!” shrieked Beria, “you’d better come with us, come with us to Moscow, I’ll guarantee to you—”

“Lavrenti Pavlovich,” Mikoyan interrupted him sharply, realizing too late that the unusual combination of name and patronymic might seem familiar to the girl.

“Out,” said Stalin quietly.

“Who—out?” said the bodyguard, uncomprehending; “Lavrenti Pavlovich?”

“No, take the girl away.”

“Where?”

“Am I supposed to tell you that? Take her to the security people here, the militia—I don’t care where, just take her away!”

That girl who was taken away from the foyer of the Estonia theater in the late fall of 1950 was my aunt. She only returned to Estonia in 1956. Until she retired she worked at the Kalev confectionery factory in Tallinn in the personnel department, she married, but she remained childless. She told me about her meeting with Stalin only a couple of years before she died. My aunt died in Tallinn in 1999, a few weeks before her sixty-ninth birthday. She was glad to have witnessed the return of the blue, black, and white flag and the Republic of Estonia. But my aunt would have liked to survive into the new millennium—we often chatted about that. She had never told anyone about her meeting with Stalin before, afraid that she wouldn’t be believed anyway. Looking back, she thought she recognized Beria and Mikoyan straight away.

 

From the collection Hitler Mustjalas (Hitler in Mustjala). © 2016 by Maimu Berg. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Christopher Moseley. All rights reserved.

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