I was fifteen when I learned how my parents had managed to get out of Russia. I found out only because Mr. Mirsky had come to dinner. My mother and father did not usually discuss the past. While I was still a little girl, I did sometimes ask my fatherwhy he had left, but I never thought to ask how. I was sure that if you were a grownup and decided to go somewhere, there was no problem about it. You just went.
My father always answered that he had left because of Stalin’s mustache. The mustache scratched when Stalin kissed him.
“Why was Stalin kissing you?” I would demand.
“Because he was my uncle.”
“But Daddy, he wasn’t your uncle!”
“Of course he was my uncle,” my father would laugh. “In Russia, he’s everybody’s uncle. That’s why they call him ‘Uncle Joe.’”
Well, even I knew that was nonsense. Stalin never kissed my father.
Then came the war—the Second World War—and the Soviet Union became our ally. It was suddenly okay to have a Russian last name (although people were still always asking you to spell it). I even stopped wishing my parents had named me Joan or Barbara, and focused on getting the teachers at P.S. 99 to pronounce my first name correctly.
My father met Mr. Mirsky at the Marshall Chess Club about a year after the war. There must already have been early rumblings in the papers of the Cold War to come, but it wasn’t called that yet. In any event I didn’t read newspapers much. By then, I had plenty of homework from Hunter High and spent all my leftover time being hopelessly in love with Leonard Bernstein. Mr. Mirsky had emigrated from Russia earlier than my father and mother, while the Czar was still on the throne and it was easy to leave, but had gone to England, not America. (He had even flown in the Royal Air Force during World War I.) Afterwards he had married a rich Argentinian and now lived with her in Buenos Aires most of the time. He was temporarily in New York, at a small residential hotel (confided my mother), so as to make sure that his daughter, who was at Vassar, met the “right” sort of young man. He was trim, rather good-looking for an older gentleman, and had a charming English accent with a faint underlay of Russian and beautiful manners. He always kissed my mother’s hand when he arrived for one of the occasional Sunday dinners to which my father invited him, and he always brought a fifth of Haig & Haig Pinch, which he emptied mainly by himself during the course of the afternoon, after my father had had his habitual single shot and my mother her habitual single sip.
Although I was several years younger than Mr. Mirsky’s daughter, I was consumed with envy of her. Rich mother, distinguished father, Vassar, and her choice of an appropriate husband delivered on a silver platter! I therefore lingered at the table after these dinners, so as to gather every crumb of information that might fall from Mr. Mirsky’s lips about this fortunate young woman. My father was less interested in Mr. Mirsky’s problems with his daughter’s romantic life. His usual discretion and courtesy dissolved by good food and Scotch, he had a dismaying postprandial tendency to reminisce. Always hoping he would be quick about it so we could get back to Mr. Mirsky’s daughter—who after several of her father’s dinners at our house had somehow managed to become entangled with a Life photographer of whom both her parents disapproved—I would stay fixed in my chair (the alternative being greasy pans in the kitchen sink). And so, on one occasion, I heard the following story:
In 1921 my father was nineteen years old and in the third year of the engineering program at the Institute of Technology in Baku. Baku was then still part of “White” Russia. (Mr. Mirsky confirmed this with a nod.) In many of his classes, there was a slightly older, very serious student with round spectacles who never chatted with anyone and was not part of any social group my father knew of. But because they were enrolled in so many of the same lectures, they began to greet each other when they met in the halls, and once in a while they lent each other their notes when one or the other had to be absent from class. Then the Red Army completed its long southward march from Moscow and reached Baku. The solitary bespectacled student disappeared from school.
One day, two policemen rapped at the door of the apartment where my father’s family lived. He was to come at once to the Central Police Station. What had he done wrong? He told his frightened parents not to expect him back. However, after he was dragged to the station and roughly pushed into an office set off from the main room, who did he see behind the large desk in front of the windows? His missing classmate!
“Have a seat,” said the bespectacled fellow, in a not unpleasant voice. “Would you like a cigarette? A coffee?”
Such courtesy! And what’s more, an apology of sorts: The police should not have manhandled him. They were new recruits. Not yet trained. A weary sigh from Mr. Spectacles. What could he do with such peasants? “Please, have a seat,” he urged again. (My father was still standing.) “It is not, of course, a criminal matter.”
Two small cups of bitter black coffee appeared. Bottoms up together! And with the coffee, a modest confession. All the time the two of them had been attending lectures at the Institute together, Mr. Spectacles had secretly been head of the local Bolshevik party cell. With the arrival of the Red Army, there was no longer need for secrets. As my father could see, he was the new Chief of Police. (How old could he be, my father wondered. Twenty-two? Twenty-three?)
But then, enough with pleasantries! Time for business. Bringing his empty cup down on the desk with a loud clap, the young Chief of Police briskly explained that he had ordered my father brought to him because he was the only student from the Institute he knew by name. Since he was now very busy with his new responsibilities, he had no more time to go to class and would therefore appreciate it if my father could fill him in on a regular basis with what was going on there so he could sit for the exams at the end of the academic year.
“’Appreciate it!’” said my father to Mr. Mirsky. “As if I had a choice!”
And so for the rest of the academic year, my nineteen-year-old father came daily to the Central Police Station after school, trying not to see what was taking place in the main room as he passed through it. He sat nervously on the extra chair in the inner office, where he read aloud his notes of that day’s lectures while his former classmate nodded thoughtfully behind the big desk and, as my father put it, signed orders for execution by firing squad. The small cup of bitter coffee he was offered each time didn’t help.
After a while, he couldn’t stand it any more. It wasn’t just the mandatory sessions in the police station. Life under this new regime was becoming hopeless. He didn’t want to live in fear that the next time the police rapped on the door it would be a “criminal matter.” He didn’t want his family to have to share their apartment, their kitchen, their bathroom with three other families they didn’t know. He didn’t want meals to consist primarily of sandy bread and moldy potatoes, brought back from the countryside by his two sisters on their bicycles. Once he managed to scrape together enough money to buy his mother a pound of butter on the black market for her birthday. He saw the butter, paid for the butter. But what got wrapped up for him to take home was a pound block of ice that melted on the kitchen table as his mother unwrapped it.
He had to leave.
Mr. Mirsky shook his head. “1921? Too late. You needed papers for that. No more getting on the train and taking off for Paris or London.”
“Well,” said my father, “I was young. And I was stifling. There was no harm in trying. But not Europe,” he added. “I was thinking America.”
And should he bring his older brother with him? Then there was my mother, just seventeen, whom he had met a few months before. He asked if she wanted to come to America, too. She had to go ask her mother. “If you can get out, get out!” her mother told her. “There’s nothing for you here now.”
With what must have been considerable courage, my father came with three sets of the necessary papers, filled out except for the all-important signature, to his former fellow student, the new Chief of Police—who by now seemed also to be functioning as the de facto head of the provisional government in Baku—and told a brazen lie. He, his brother, and his half-sister would all very much like to study in Germany during the next semester, he said. There were some important courses there, not being offered at the Institute or the University in Baku, which they felt were necessary to their education. Would it be possible for their departure to be authorized for this limited purpose?
The Chief of Police peered over his spectacles at my father, then looked away. He did not ask anything about these very important courses, or where they were being offered, or if my father or his brother or his so-called half-sister with the different last name spoke German, or when they all planned to return. Instead, after a moment he picked up his pen and quickly signed all three sets of papers.
“Did he know you were lying and not coming back?” I asked.
“Of course he knew,” said Mr. Mirsky.
“Then why did he do it?”
“One good turn deserves another?” suggested my father. “He later rose very high, you know. Very high.” He looked meaningfully at Mr. Mirsky.
“So?” said Mr. Mirsky, leaning forward. “Who was he?”
“You can’t guess?”
Mr. Mirsky shook his head no.
“Lavrenti Beria,” said my father softly.
Mr. Mirsky examined his glass for some time. “That’s quite a story,” he said, finally.
After he left, my father came to find me in my room. “Don’t tell that story to anyone else,” he said. “I shouldn’t have let you hear it.”
“Why not?” I demanded. “Isn’t it true?”
“Of course it’s true,” said my father. “That’s why you mustn’t spread it around.”
“But it’s such a good story,” I protested. “It could even be in Reader’s Digest.”
My father sighed. “Do you know who Beria is?” he asked.
Did I know? What did he think? That I was stupid? Lavrenti Beria was Stalin’s executioner. Head of NKVD, the Soviet secret police agency that later became the KGB. He was responsible for millions and millions of deaths of innocent people. He was a bad bad man. Just looking at his face in the newsreels, you could tell he was evil. That’s what made it a story, for heaven’s sake.
“You never know what they’ll think,” my father said.
“What who will think? Who is ’they’?” He was so exasperating. “You’re not in Russia anymore, Daddy. This isn’t the Soviet Union. You’re an American citizen.”
Our voices brought my mother out of the kitchen. I could see her pale, worried face next to his. Two anxious people standing in the doorway of my room who did not want to hear from me about freedom of speech, or this being a free country, or any of the other things I had learned in Civics. Although they had managed to escape from a place where fear had darkened their lives and were now in a nice three-and-a-half room apartment with good light in Queens, they were both forever alert to gossamer threats of danger everywhere.
“Be on the safe side,” said my father. “Don’t tell.”
They were my parents.
I promised not to tell.
The brother who was supposed to come with my father to America decided at the last minute to remain behind. My mother and father never saw their families again. But they eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles, and later to Palm Springs, where they lived long and relatively tranquil lives under the California sun. By contrast, my mother’s brother and my father’s brother and two sisters in Baku all died before them—one banished to Siberia and an unknown fate during the Kirov purges (for which Lavrenti Beria was responsible), the others succumbing to various diseases after shortened lives of constricted deprivation.
I became a lawyer after college, eventually married, and had two sons—each of whom now has a baby daughter and a little son of his own. That makes seven of us, all American born, who could be said to owe our existence to Lavrenti Beria. He doesn’t get full credit, of course. However, one could make an argument that but for him, we would not exist. Which excuses nothing about his life, except that it’s interesting to think about. On the other hand, it’s highly improbable that our seven lives were foreseeable in the Central Police Station of Baku in 1921, when Beria set pen to paper on the basis of my father’s dubious explanation of his need to take leave of the better Soviet world then in birth. So if I put my professional glasses on, proximate cause just doesn’t figure into it and none of us owes Beria a thing.
What happened to Mr. Mirsky? The problem of the Life photographer soon resolved itself without his intercession; the young man was sent overseas to cover some unsavory part of the world where trouble was brewing. Several years later, when I myself was in college (although not Vassar), I learned from my mother that the daughter eventually met the scion of a publishing company (a choice apparently “right” enough for her parents) and had a very grand wedding. Her father then returned to Argentina and the rich wife and was never heard from again.
Stalin died early in 1953. Lavrenti Beria was soon afterwards either shot in his own house in June 1953 (according to his son) or executed by firing squad in December 1953 after a trial without defense counsel (according to official accounts), whereupon he began gradually to fade from popular memory. That would seem to release me now, finally and definitively, from the promise I reluctantly made my father not to tell the story I had just heard him tell Mr. Mirsky.
But after all these years it’s not, as Mr. Mirsky observed, “quite a story” any more. Not when the name in the punch line no longer inspires fear and trembling in anyone. In fact, it seems to have become quite another story—about a time when I was young and my father was alive, sitting at the dining room table, his eyes shining with pleasure as he told us what had happened when he was young, and life exciting, and the unknown future still ahead.