Purges in Dictatorial Russia
In 1937, an overnight train ride from Lyon to Strasbourg, France, places our young American traveler, Philip, in a position to overhear a strange conversation between two Russians:
The big man who had just entered spoke in a low, deep voice. Philip faintly heard, though could not understood the man’s thick French, which sounded like Russian.
“You think you can evade me so easily, mon ami? I have not come down here for no thing. We do have some settlement that yet needs to be achieved,” said Ilya Ehrberg to his comrade. He raised his eyebrows, as if they could become a question mark to complete his inquisition.
Philip could see only the back of the big man’s neck as he spoke, and a jowly jaw on the right side of his face. The thin man’s nervous profile was stricken with dismay. Philip watched the thin, close cropped black moustache twitch as he retrieved some impatient answer, giving him the appearance of a smart kid who was uncomfortable with the bully’s rough intimidations. “What do you want? Why have you come here?” asked Pierre.
“I think you know why, comrade.”
“I know nothing.”
Ilya laughed. He rubbed his stubby beard, stretched his neck. Maybe he was limbering up his jaws for some lengthy inquisition. “Andre has given you a copy of his pamphlet, n’est ce pas?”
“No. Who told you that?”
“It doesn’t matter. I have ears. You see?” Ilya grabbed his left earlobe and pulled, as if demonstrating the obvious to a simpleton. His little grin was an annoyance, the expression of an overconfident man who doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows. But the countenance returned abruptly to serious scowl. “He must not publish it. You know that.” It seemed that Ilya was about to display on the tabula of their dispute, what he thought to be a winning hand.
But Pierre Geras held his poker face. He had questions of his own. “What has happened to Zinovyev and Kamenev?” Now the Frenchman’s riposte came forth, with spunk.
“You know, comrade. Why do you ask such questions? This is for the Party to decide.”
“Ha!” Pierre, surprised at himself, looked around. His feigned amusement was unexpectedly loud.
Philip was napping, of course, a fly on the wall. No matter. Two men were talking three seats ahead. That’s all. Still, his ears were tuned on their frequency, for some reason he could not surmise, dialed in like the RGD radio to BBC that Nathan had shown him back in London. But he could not understand; the night was dim, and the speech was French. The rumble of the wheels beneath their feet was a hypnotic cover of gray noise, a small subterfuge rattle beneath the narrowly careening railway of a vast, disjointing Continental rift. He could not comprehend the words of the two men, but the subdued urgency of their tone was vibrant, like the air before a thunderstorm.
“The Party — ” continued Pierre. “The Party of uncle Joe? No longer the party of revolution. The party of Stalin. Where three were — now there is one!” Pierre’s voice had morphed to a hoarse whisper. “And Bukharin? What of Nikolai? Where does the purging stop?”
The scene above was lifted from chapter 12 of my novel, Smoke.