The ProsenPeople

Excerpt: The Château

Monday, February 12, 2018 | Permalink

The following is from Paul Goldberg's novel, The Château. Goldberg's debut novel The Yid was published in 2016 to widespread acclaim and named a finalist for both the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the National Jewish Book Award's Goldberg Prize for Debut Fiction.

 
 

Bill passes the security gate at 6:17 a.m.

He is not the first inhabitant of the Château to step out into darkness.

Three others—sad-faced men circa seventy-five, plus/minus ten—stand outside the building, waiting patiently as their little white dogs contemplate emptying their tiny bladders and bowels.

There is a joke about such men:

Why do Jewish men die before their wives? Because they want to.

It’s possible that these men are goyim, but the joke still stands. Goyim are people. This is about dogs. These dogs aren’t dogs. All three—no, wait, there are four . . . All four are well under the weight limit of fifteen pounds specified in the condo “dos and don’ts” Bill noticed on the Web site. He happened to click on “pets”; he has no idea why.

These dogs don’t apprehend tiny bad guys, they don’t sniff out little explosives or baby cadavers, but they do have a mission: they substitute for the grandchildren who don’t come to visit.

They aren’t especially good at breathing, which is why they sometimes ride in baby strollers. They spend their days listening to complaints, about “mommy,” about “daddy,” about the sadly deteriorating physical and (allegedly) mental health of both, about doctors who overcharge while failing to acknowledge the obvious signs of mini-strokes and myelodysplastic syndrome, about Obamacare, about unappreciative, rude family members, and, of course, about crooked condo boards. Svolochi . . .

The dogs listen and they wheeze. If they could kill themselves, they would. When you are smaller than a cat and lack opposable thumbs, it’s hard to pull the trigger.

Why do these dogs get Prozac? Because they need it.


Bill runs past the silent, scooper-wielding sentries at the Château’s gates and heads north on Ocean Drive.

It seems all the buildings around him are shedding their balconies. Steel rebar protrudes from their sides, awaiting encasement in concrete.

Imagine replacing all the balconies on one of these forty-year-old high-rises. You don’t do it through competitive bids. You do it pursuant to local customs. Deals are concluded on chartered boats 12.1 miles offshore, outside U.S. territorial waters.

Bill has done his homework. He has enhanced his considerable prior knowledge with assistance from Messrs. Google and Kozachok. He has read up on local business practices and, what do you know, Melsor’s stories check out. Out there, in open sea, with only Flipper as their witness, contractors harmonize to make a $2 million job into a $6 million job with another $3.7 million hiding in change orders. You can make a lot on the main job, but don’t neglect the change orders. You don’t bid out those; they are a layer of cream on the pasteurized dullness of milk.

New balconies that have replaced the old shine with chrome and glass—airborne aquaria. The logistics and, for that matter, economics—and let’s not forget political economy—of balcony replacement are transparency itself.

You knock down the old balcony, you jackhammer the floor inside the apartment to bury new rebar, you leave it up to the folks inside to refloor—if that’s a word. The windows get pitched. Time to refenestrate. The storm screens get shit-canned, too. Half of them don’t work anyway. With this simple maneuver, you have just spent $80,000 on the balcony and forced the poor bastards in every apartment to spend at least another $40,000 on floors and windows.

With the subprime credit line the condo board took out (without anyone’s approval) from a friend at a local bank, the out-of- pocket for each apartment is $150,000, depending on how long the board decides to keep the credit line gushing—and how much it wants to spew out.

With all the multipliers accounted for, with all the line items considered, Bill has just run past a couple billion dollars’ worth of economic activity spread over less than a linear mile of Ocean Drive.

Let’s say you devoted your life to screwing other people. You break no more laws than you have to. You avoid being disgorged. You build up a goodly stash. You move to Florida. You get fucked by your condo’s BOD. Your stash gets drawn down. You try a new fraud, but it fails. The world is changing; you are losing your touch. You move on to a lesser place, or you start whacking people across their backs with your crooked cane until Dzhuyka carts you away. You might die in the middle of it. You might want to.

You will make room for fresh, idealistic sixty-seven-year-olds to take their turn at the good life by the sea.


Sunrise this morning makes the ocean purple. It’s orderly, well-behaved, a good boy, waiting in its proper place, separated from the Broadwalk by one hundred feet of sand.

A tractor drags a sand plow to groom the beach much like one brushes the little white dogs Bill just saw ambulating, wheezing. The Broadwalk lies a foot above sea level, maybe two. One big wave and this Hollywood Health Spa, which happens to be a Russian bathhouse; this Hollywood Grill, an Armenian restaurant that actually looks intriguing; and this Italian joint called Sapore di Mare, will wash away into said mare.

Bill tries not to blame the glum-faced people around him for having triggered a host of political disasters, the most recent of which is the rise of King Donal’d I, who tomorrow will be crowned. Forget xenophobia, forget the wall, forget making fun of the handicapped, forget the FSB prostitutes, forget the golden showers, whether or not they flowed! Here is the biggest incongruence: Floridians voting for a climate change denier are akin to concentration camp inmates embracing the ideal of racial hygiene. At least that’s what Bill thinks, and his beliefs and his speech are protected by the First Amendment.

Massive towers are rising along the oceanfront, some bearing the Trump name. Twenty-story buildings like the Château were once thought to be tall; now, forty floors is about right. These towers contain apartments costing tens of millions, money that seems disposable to so many people. Do they recognize that they are building in the path of something far more ominous than the biblical flood?

That flood came and went. This one will come and stay.

There was a story Bill read in The New Yorker a bit more than a year earlier, in December 2015. The point: Florida is Ground Zero of global flooding. It sits as low as Kansas—about six feet above sea level. A drained swamp, it is cursed with a high water table. Its buildings, big and small, sit atop water-soaked limestone, and it takes pumps to keep this territory from drowning.

Bill read this piece in Washington. He read it the way most of his elitist friends read it, all of whom reached the same conclusion: let the fucker sink. With their chads hanging, they gave us George W. Bush, who gave us the invasion of Iraq in search of imaginary weapons of mass destruction. That was before this thing, this Donal’d F. Tramp. Let the waters come down, God, flood the place at your earliest. Maybe swimming with the fishes will make these kakers realize what they have done. Make sure you extract proper repentances before they drown. Oh Lord!

But now Bill is here, in Hollywood, running on this preposterously named Broadwalk. Should he hate the people who are starting to show up in this under-caffeinated darkness? Can he hate the red-haired grandmother who shouts in Russian into her cell phone? That word again: “Svolochi!” It’s omnipresent. Might as well make it English.

Can Bill hate this life-battered, middle-aged couple emerging from the place Melsor calls Margarita Will? They were born Caucasian, presumably, but their skin has acquired the texture of distressed cordovan leather. They stand silently, staring at the ocean, dragging on their Camels, getting their early-morning pick-me-up, saying nothing. They are a bit older than Bill, or at least they seem to be. Theirs was a one-night stand or a thirty-five-year marriage; either way, nothing to talk about. If they couldn’t drink, they would all go insane.

And here comes an overweight gentleman on a rusted, squeaking, folding bike with little wheels!

In the past, people came to Florida to die. They still do, but now they insist on stuffing the planet into the coffin with them. If death is boring, the end of the world is the most boring thing imaginable.

Bill is unable to blame these people for getting distracted by something else, anything else, even this Donal’d Tramp.

Excerpted from The Château: A Novel by Paul Goldberg. Published by Picador. Copyright © 2018 by Paul Goldberg. All rights reserved.

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Paul Goldberg

Wednesday, May 03, 2017 | Permalink

Jewish Book Council is proud to introduce readers to the five emerging fiction authors named as finalists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Today, we invite you to learn more about Paul Goldberg and his book, The Yid, a novel about the hijinks of a troupe of Russian Jews plotting to assassinate Stalin in February, 1953.

A warm congratulations to Paul and the other four finalists: Idra Novey, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, Rebecca Schiff, and Daniel Torday. Join Jewish Book Council on May 3, 2017 at The Jewish Museum for a discussion with the authors and announcement of the recipient of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Register for free tickets here »

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I have a full-time job- as a reporter. It's heavy-duty investigative reporting. Plus, I run and write for The Cancer. The most challenging aspect for writing fiction is clearing the brain space to sit down and do it. Please don't mistake this for whining: having to fight to find the time and space to write, generates a sense of urgency. You can't fake that—it has to be real.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I learned as a kid in Moscow in the 1960s that books have power, and writers who are willing to tell the truth run the risk of getting arrested. I remember Moscow being abuzz about publication of Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, the arrests and trial of Daniel' and Sinyavski, the trial of Iosif Brodski, and, of course, Solzhenitsyn's battles with the authorities. Fiction allows you to tell the truth—and that's the ultimate privilege.

Who is your intended audience?

I try not to think about that. My job is to tell the story.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I have just turned in my next novel, The Chateau. It's scheduled for publication in February 2018. The Chateau is set in South Florida. It's about a building full of Trump-supporting former Soviet Jews. Would anyone be surprised to learn that the Board of Directors of the Chateau is full of crooks?

What are you reading now?

Everything Brecht. I am going through every play. This is a great time for Brecht.

Top 5 favorite books

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgokov

Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Evgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was a child in Moscow. My father is a journalist and a poet, so since the day I was born I knew that it's possible to write and knew many people who did. Journalism is great—my job is a privilege—but a novelist can drill deeper into the truth and its inverse.

What is the mountaintop for you—how do you define success?

I am happy where I am.

How do you write—what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I love running away to Vermont for a month in the summer and a month in the winter. I end up telecommuting, so I am working full time in my day job. I am much more productive in Vermont. In the summer, it has something to do with picking mushrooms—a great Russian pastime. And I am a fiend on my bicycles. In the winter, it's about cross-country skiing, being alone in the woods, or watching my dogs run ahead. It's a happy place, like Russia with mountains and without kleptocracy. I finished three of my most recent books in Vermont.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

As a novelist, I write about the intelligentsia and fascism, and how the two clash. I treat fascism as a polarity rather than an isolated historical event. It's been with us for centuries, and it has not gone away. The other part of it is my obsession with people who have the nobility of the spirit to stand up for the truth. This is my material.

Paul Goldberg first heard a Moscow version of the myth about Jews using blood for religious rituals when he was ten, in 1969. By the time he emigrated to the US in 1973, he had collected the Moscow stories that underpin The Yid. As a reporter, Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an expose of the U.S. healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.


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New Book Reviews February 19, 2016

Friday, February 19, 2016 | Permalink

This week's new reviews at Jewish Book Council:

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Po-wer-ful: Fashioning the Character of Joseph Stalin

Thursday, February 18, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Paul Goldberg wrote about the family stories that sparked The Yid and the popularity of King Lear in midcentury Moscow and Yiddish theater. With the release of his first novel, Paul has been guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.

My novel The Yid is about a plot to assassinate Iosif Stalin before he launches the largest purge of his 29-year rule.

Stalin absolutely had to figure in my novel directly. I needed his physicality, his spiritual being. I had to get inside his skull, to taste his paranoia, his dementia. This task was an anathema of historical research. It’s impressionistic, existential. I was grasping for telling details that provided windows into the tyrant’s final hours. Does he believe the end is near? Does he believe that there can be no such thing as the world without Stalin? How does it feel to experience his brand of dementia, his brand of paranoia?

I scoured many volumes, looking for details, finally making a surprising finding: telling details are largely determined by the teller. For example, in a book called The Unquiet Ghost, Adam Hochschild describes traveling through Gorbachev’s Russia as it struggles to reconcile with its Stalin-era past. Hochschild asks the same questions I ask as a novelist, looking for the same insight into the tyrant’s mind.

At Stalin’s dacha in Sochi, Hochschild describes the beautifully restrained Art Deco décor. Stalin’s other dacha in Kuntsevo, outside Moscow, is similarly elegant. Stalin-era architecture projects opulence. There are colossal sculptures, big columns. It’s the opposite of the modernist structures of the twenties and thirties and is eerily reminiscent of the Nazi Gothic style of architecture. From Hochschild’s reliable depictions, I was able to pick up on this strange inconsistency and the question it demands:

Why does this brigand choose to live in an environment so clearly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright? Stalin’s interiors look like the sort of places where an American captain of industry—I am thinking of Nelson Rockefeller—would have been quite at home. Could it be that he is not as uncouth as we would like to believe? Does this choice of architecture come from within this man or does it just happen?

Another telling detail came from Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. In her memoir 20 Letters to a Friend she recalls discovering that the old man hung photos of children on the wall of his study, cutouts from Soviet magazines. Svetlana attributes this to Stalin’s efforts to substitute fictional children for the grandchildren with whom he had no contact.

I trust Svetlana’s story, but not her explanation. What if the children are a part of the old man’s dementia? What if they are the nucleus of the world as he experiences it in the winter of 1953? What if they are the inspiration for his plans? Stalin doesn’t sleep much. He waits for children to step off the illustrations pinned to the walnut panels of Frank Lloyd Wright-esque rooms. How will the world exist without Stalin? The old man hates doctors, negates the very existence of disease. Will children come to his defense? Are they his guardians or harbingers of his death?

Images tell the story, too. Stalin is a little man with a crooked left arm. The arm has petrified, turned into granite, hard as a statue, which would be fitting, except the fingers curl. If you can part them with your right hand, a cigarette can be inserted. Or part them further and fold in a pipe. The elbow moves forward, then back again, but not the arm. It hangs at an obtuse angle. And pain is close, lurking in the left shoulder.

I had the set and Stalin’s physical characteristics.

From there, it would have been a cop-out to describe a demonic presence. I needed to know from someone I trusted what it was like to converse with the man.

Here, I made use of the memoir of the Jugoslav Communist Milovan Djilas. It’s titled Conversations with Stalin and tells the story of his three brief meetings with Stalin. It works so well because the narrator doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive or objective. Svetlana isn’t separate enough from her father to provide the sort of telling details I needed as a novelist. (Nikita Khruschev, another notable memoirist, was a part of the same stratum.) By contrast, Djilas is an outsider, an intellectual, and he stays in the frame at all times, providing one telling detail after another.

In one of these meetings, a scene that “might be found only in Shakespeare’s plays,” Djilas registers a complaint about Red Army soldiers raping and murdering women in areas they had liberated. The comment infuriates Stalin: The Red Army has fought for thousands of kilometers before marching into Belgrade in 1944, he objects, “And such an army was insulted by no one else by Djilas! Djilas, of whom I could least have expected such a thing, a man whom I received so well!” Stalin rages. “And an army which didn’t spare its blood for you! Does Djilas, who is himself a writer, not know what human suffering and the human heart are? Can’t he understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?”

Later in the feast, Stalin kisses Djilas’s wife, noting that he made this loving gesture at the risk of being charged with rape.

Dijlas’s final meeting with Stalin portends the latter man’s advancing dementia. “There was something both tragic and ugly in his senility,” Djilas observes. “The tragic was invisible—these were the reflections in my head regarding the inevitability of decline in even so great a personality. The ugly kept cropping up all the time. Though he had always enjoyed eating well, Stalin now exhibited gluttony, as though he feared that there would not be enough of the desired food left for him. On the other hand, he drank less…

“He laughed at inanities and shallow jokes… In one thing, though, he was the Stalin of old: stubborn, sharp, suspicious whenever anyone disagreed with him.”

At one point in this last conversation, Stalin opines about the atom bomb: “That is a powerful thing, pow-er-ful!” I don’t know the precise Russian words, but I think they would be: “Moschnaya shtuka, moshch-na-ya!”

This is the “mountain man of the Kremlin” described by Mandelshtam:

His fat fingers are blacker than worms,
His words weighing a pood—16-kilo.
Roach mustache emits a thick laugh,
And a glow emanates from his boots.

This is the Stalin I wanted my conspirators to encounter on March 1, 1953: crass, taunting, inane, demented, yet still as “pow-er-ful” as the weapons of hellish destruction he has in his arsenal.

Paul Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an exposé of the American healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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We Don't Get to Choose Our Material

Tuesday, February 16, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, author Paul Goldberg wrote about the popularity of King Lear in midcentury Moscow and Yiddish theater. With the release of his novel The Yid, Paul is guest blogging as a Visiting Scribe all week here on The ProsenPeople.

As a journalist, I separate fact from fable. As a novelist, I go through the same process, but keep the fable. You need facts to ground a story; you need fables make it soar.

The Yid is a continuation of my dialogue with my grandfather. His name was Moisey Semyonovich Rabinovich. He served in the Red Army during the civil war and was a pharmacist at field hospitals during World War II.

He was an accomplished professional and a heroic character in his own right, but for my entertainment, he made up stories of fighting Nazis in the woods of Belarus and marching to Berlin, even blasting through the walls of Hitler’s bunker. These tales were all fictional, but all these years later I remember them better than his true stories.

My grandfather turned me into a collector of legends, and I thank him in The Yid by making him into a fictional character. He is the fierce Rabinovich, the Bundist who is not through with combat—the sort of guy you want on your side.

I was born in 1959, six years after Stalin’s death. To make this story real, I needed to create the set for the novel. I started with my parents’ apartment, a communal cold-water flat in central Moscow. My principal character, Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, set up residence in what was once our room—the single compartment that housed all three of us.

Levinson’s sidekick, Kogan, resides not far from Levinson, in a building overlooking my school. The dacha that my conspirators use to dump bodies actually belonged to my grandmother. I used real addresses. In the tightly-braided world that is Moscow, Shmuel Halkin—the poet who translated King Lear into Yiddish—lived across the street from my grandmother. Several of Halkin’s plays, and indeed Halkin himself, figure in The Yid, and as I write this an autographed copy of his book lies in front of me.

Visually, the streets of Moscow of my childhood haven’t changed much since 1953. In The Yid, I wanted to speak about that time and my city in an entirely different way. The biggest challenge was to keep the novel from sounding like homage to Bulgakov, who so brilliantly captured the soul of Moscow and, for that matter, Stalinism. In addition to strangling my inner Bulgakov, I refrained from reading writers who explored the same world. I wanted The Yid to be different.

My grandfather’s stories laid down the foundation of the book. His friends expanded this narrative. These were old Jews, mostly Bolsheviks who had been through the twentieth century’s biggest bonfires. They sat on benches at the Bauman Garden in central Moscow, telling stories of heroism in World War II. Most of them carried rolled up copies of the Red Star, Krasnaya Zvezda, the newspaper of the Soviet military.

I listened. I don’t remember their names, but their stories feed the narrative I wrote. We don’t get to choose our material, and this is mine:

Since childhood, I knew that in 1953 Stalin was preparing to deport all Jews to settlements and prison camps, and that residential offices were preparing lists of Jews for deportation. By extension, this meant that the names of everyone I knew—including my parents and grandparents—were on these lists.

I also knew that there was once a Yiddish theater in Moscow. I asked my aunt, Ulyana Dobrushina, to tell me about going to performances there, about spending the war years with the Yiddish theater as it waited out the war in Uzbekistan, about Solomon Mikhoels, and about her uncle, Eliel Dobrushin, a playwright at the theater and a member of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. I also spoke with Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a longtime human rights activist, and benefitted tremendously from understanding her intellectual journey, which begins in Moscow of the 1930s.

One of the characters, Dr. Kogan, the surgeon, starts to feel a spiritual connection with the body parts he sees floating in formaldehyde, waiting to be dissected by medical students. He had seen many a corpse and was a few steps removed from becoming a cadaver. I could never have made this story up. I heard it from my friend Janusz Bardach, a former Soviet political prisoner, who became a world-renowned maxillofacial surgeon, ultimately at the University of Iowa. He and I became friends after I reviewed his memoir in The New York Times. As I wrote The Yid, I imagined this medical luminary cursing, bickering, and, above all, hurting.

Janusz thought my plan to write a novel about Stalin’s death was insane and the early pages he saw scared him.

“You are writing a comedy about tragic events,” he objected.

I concurred.

Yet, Janusz, who is now gone, would have been a perfect recruit into the band of conspirators in The Yid—and, in a way, he is in it, fighting tyranny shoulder-to-shoulder with my heroic grandfather and his Red Star-toting Bolshevik friends.

Paul Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an exposé of the American healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Lear's Warning

Monday, February 15, 2016 | Permalink

Paul Goldberg first heard a Moscow version of the myth about Jews using blood for religious rituals when he was ten, in 1969. By the time he emigrated to the US in 1973, he had collected the Moscow stories that underpin his debut novel, The Yid. Paul is blogging here all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

Imagine Moscow in late February of 1953.

The most powerful tyrant in human history is mad. His paranoia, his dementia afflicts the entire land. A group of prominent doctors—most of them Jews—is behind bars, awaiting execution. Ominous vehicles called Black Marias fan out across the city to arrest enemies of the people.

This drumbeat of hatred is heard in the streets. Ancient tales of blood libel are circulating on buses, trolleys and streetcars. Thugs and military units are preparing a pogrom—the biggest since Kristallnacht. Freight trains amass in Moscow and its environs, and lists of Jews and half-Jews are being prepared for deportation.

The Yid begins with a knock on the door. Three goons come to arrest Solomon Levinson, an actor once employed at the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Friends call Levinson der komandir, the commander. As a young man in 1918 he led a band of Red partisans who fought against the White Guard and the Czech legionnaires and the United States Marines alongside the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Levinson became a formidable swordsman in the civil war. His mastery of small-swords and stagecraft make him deadlier still.

He and his companions confront the fundamental question of Russian literature: Chto cheloveku delat’? What’s a man to do? They decide to take the ultimate challenge of patriotism and rise up: “The king is mad! Down with the king!” They determine—strategically—that on some occasions simple terrorism is what history calls for. I will not throw in any spoilers here.

To write The Yid, I had to inject reality into events that occurred six years before I was born. I needed someone to guide me, and I turned to a writer who had an astonishing command of that terrain—madness, evil, blood libel, racism, regicide, the boundary between the stage and the world. This writer was neither Russian nor Jewish. Though he died in 1616, he remains contemporary, even urgent.

There is a lot of Shakespeare in The Yid—all of it in Yiddish.

Shakespeare was big in the USSR of the 1930s. Censors thought it was safe—as did playwrights and translators. The Russians have a special appreciation for Shakespeare’s ability to explain the horror of their lives. The Bard knew nothing of Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, but he understood wisdom, power—the loss of power, especially—and of course folly.

One of the most interesting performances of Lear opened in 1935 in Moscow, in Yiddish. Solomon Mikhoels, the artistic director of the Moscow State Jewish Theater, decided to stage Kinig Lir, starring himself as the title role. The production of Kinig Lir, the story of a king gone mad, is the historical backdrop of The Yid: the story of a king making a deadly error was playing out against the backdrop of the Moscow Trials, with their theatrical accusations, scripted confessions and, of course, executions.

(Argument can also be made that Lear is a Jewish story. Who is Lear but a royal Tevye, an old fool with strong-willed daughters?)

There is an interesting line in Mikhoels’ article on Lear: “The tragedy of Lear, to me, begins not at the moment where he is banished by Goneril. The tragedy begins at the point where he banishes Cordelia—that is in Act I.”

Is Stalin Lear? Is he making a fatal mistake? Is Trotsky—who is banished—Kent? Is Bukharin Cordelia?

Indeed, Mikhoels planned to test the notion that Shakespeare was safe material by staging Richard III, casting himself in the role of the tyrant. I would not be the first person to argue that the twentieth century transformed Richard III into a play about Stalin.

The war was followed by more urgent material for Moscow State Jewish Theater. Shmuel Halkin, the translator of Lear, wrote a play called The Avengers of the Ghetto. And then came catastrophe: the anti-Semitic campaigns, the bizarre assassination of Mikhoels in 1948, the execution of Yiddish poets at the end of the Moscow State Jewish Theater.

Lear is a warning to Stalin: You are making catastrophic errors of judgment, which set you and your country on a path to disaster. But in February 1953, the time for warnings has passed. My characters are deep in disaster, and they accept that the ultimate challenge is to act as Russian patriots, to slay the tyrant.

Now, we circle back to Shakespeare, as seen through the broken mirror of the celebrated Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin, born 183 years after Shakespeare’s death. In Boris Godunov, his epic play about political assassination and tyranny, Pushkin riffs on Shakespeare. Some say he riffs on Puccini as well. As I read it, it’s Macbeth made Russian.

Here is an excerpt from Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, the usurper’s soliloquy:

. . . Raging pestilence
Will burn the soul, and poison fill the heart,
Reproach assault the ears with hammer-blows,
And spinning head, and rising nausea,
And blood-bathed boys appear before the eyes . . .
How glad I’d be to flee—but where? . . . Horrible!
Oh, pity him whose conscience is unclean!

Is regicide followed by regret? Does it cause madness?

The characters in The Yid are contrarians. Their answer is an emphatic No. Lear was your warning, Comrade Stalin; you should not have executed Bukharin or banished Trotsky.

The year is not 1935. It’s March 1, 1953, 4:42 AM in Moscow. The great biomechanical Machine of Truth is blasting off the dust and cobwebs. The wheels of just revenge begin to grind.

Paul Goldberg has written two books about the Soviet human rights movement, and has co-authored (with Otis Brawley) the book How We Do Harm, an exposé of the American healthcare system. He is the editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter, a publication focused on the business and politics of cancer. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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Moscow, 1953: The Czardom of Black Cats and Black Marias

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Yid: A Novel by Paul Goldberg, published by arrangement with Picador.


In the early morning of March 1, 1953, when Iosif Stalin collapsed at his dacha, he was preparing to solve Russia’s Jewish Question definitively. Military units and enthusiastic civilians stood poised to begin a pogrom, and thousands of cattle cars were brought to the major cities to deport the survivors of the purportedly spontaneous outbursts of murder, rape, and looting. Stalin intended his holocaust to coincide with the biggest purge Russia had seen.

The West would have to choose between standing by and watching these monstrous events or taking the risk of triggering a world war fought with atom and hydrogen bombs. Stalin’s death was announced on March 5, the day his pogrom was scheduled to begin.

Act I

1

At 2:37 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, 1953, Narsultan Sadykov’s Black Maria enters the courtyard of 1/4 Chkalov Street.

A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.

At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.

The arrest of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater, is routine. An old, likely decrepit Yid, Levinson lives alone in a communal flat at 1/4 Chkalov Street. Apartment 40. No hand-wringing wife. No hysterical children. No farewells. No one to hand the old man a toothbrush through the bars of a departing Black Maria.

In the parlance of state security, arrests are “operations.” This operation is easier than most: collect some incriminating rubbish, put a seal on the door, help the old man into the truck, and a little before dawn, the Black Maria drives back through Lubyanka’s armored gates.

Lieutenant of State Security Sadykov is slight and pale. His hair is straight and dark red. He is a Tatar, a dweller of the steppes, a descendant of the armies of Genghis Khan, an alumnus of an orphanage in Karaganda. With him are two soldiers, naïve nineteen-year-old boys from the villages of Ukraine, dressed in anemia-green coats, each armed with a sidearm. One of the boys carries a pair of American handcuffs.

Another night, another knock-and-pick. The function of the green, covered light trucks that fan through Moscow at night is clear to everyone. There is no reason to hide their purpose or to flaunt it. It’s best to approach through the courtyard, turn off the engine and the lights, and coast gently to a halt.

The driver, one of the nineteen-year-olds, skillfully pilots the vehicle through the dark, narrow cavern of an archway built for a horse cart. With the engine off, he surrenders to inertia. Bracing for a burst of frost, Sadykov and the boys step out of the Black Maria. A thin coat of crisp, pristine snow crunches loudly underfoot. Sadykov looks up at the darkness of the five-story buildings framing the sky above the courtyard. The night is majestic: dry frigid air, bright stars, the moon hanging over the railroad station, pointing toward mysterious destinations.

Whenever possible, Sadykov avoids going through front doors, favoring tradesmen’s entrances. The back door of 1/4 Chkalov Street is made of heavy oak, devilishly resilient wood that has defied a century of sharp kicks and hard slams. Protected by an uncounted number of coats of dark brown paint, it stands impervious to weather and immune to rot. Opening the door, Sadykov and his entourage plunge into darkness.

Since 1/4 Chkalov Street is close to the Kursk Railroad Station, travelers use the building’s stairwell as a nighttime shelter. As they await morning trains, these vagabonds curl up like stray dogs beneath the staircase, their bodies encircling suitcases and burlap sacks. If it’s your lot to sleep beneath those stairs, you have to be cold or drunk enough to tolerate the overpowering smell of urine.

Ignoring the odor and the sound of a man snoring under the stairs, the three soldiers feel their way to the second floor. Sadykov lights a match. A blue number on a white enameled sign identifies apartment forty.

With the match still lit, Sadykov motions to the boys. When duty takes Sadykov and his comrades to large communal flats, the arresting crew has to wake up someone, anyone, to open the door and, only after gaining entry, knock on the door of the person or persons they’ve come to collect for the journey through Lubyanka’s heavy gates. More often than not, the proverbial “knock on the door” is a light kick of a military boot.

Three men standing in cold, stinking darkness, waiting for someone to hear the kick on the door is not an inspiring sight. They might as well be scraping at the door, like cats, except cats returning after a night of carnage and amour are creatures of passion, while nineteen-year-old boys with sidearms are creatures of indifference, especially at 2:55 a.m. on a February night.

On the tenth kick, or perhaps later, the door opens. Sadykov discerns a frail face, an old woman. Blue eyes set deeply behind high cheekbones stare at the three men. These old crones are a curse, especially for those who arrest people for a living.

Whenever a Black Maria or its crew is in sight, a Moscow crone is certain to start mumbling prayers. Sadykov regards prayers as futile, yet he secretly fears them. He has an easier time with handwringing middle-aged wives; their hysterics affect him no more than a distant cannonade. (As a product of an orphanage, Sadykov has had no exposure to familial hysterics.) For reasons Sadykov cannot fathom, a prayer threatens, even wounds.

“Does Levinson live here?”

Making the sign of the cross, the old woman disappears into darkness of the hallway. The three men walk in. It’s a long hallway of a five-room apartment, with three doors on the right facing Chkalov Street, and two on the left, facing the courtyard.

Sadykov lights another match.

He hears a door creak. It has to be the old woman. She is watching. Her kind always watches. No, righteous she can’t be. She may be the resident snitch, and now she lurks behind the door, pretending to drag God into this purely earthbound affair while in fact savoring the results of her anonymous letter to the authorities.

Sadykov doesn’t know which door is hers, yet hers is the door he wants to avoid.

According to instructions, Levinson’s room overlooks the courtyard. That leaves a choice of two doors.

During operations, neighbors sit behind closed doors, like trapped rodents. And in the morning, they feign surprise and indignation. Just to think of it, Levinson, an enemy! A loner. Always grumbling. Had no use for children. Hated cats. Fought in the partisan bands along the Trans-Siberian Railroad during the Civil War. Would have thought he was one of us, a simple Soviet man, but with Yids nothing is simple. Treachery is their currency of choice. And if he really is a traitor, fuck him, let him be shot!

Have you seen old Yids creaking down the street, going wherever it is they go, carrying mesh bags and, in their pockets, rolled-up newspapers? With the pigmentation of youth wiped off their faces, they still look dark, bird-like, bleached angels ready to fly to God, or the Evil One.

Such is Sadykov’s mental image of Levinson.

Lighting his third match of the night, Sadykov steps up to another door. This time, he doesn’t order the boys to kick.

He knocks three times with the knuckles of his clenched fist. There is movement behind the door, no more than what you’d expect.

“Dos bist du?” asks a raspy voice in a language that isn’t Russian.

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