Vlad Men, Part Three – The Thaw

Part 3 - The ThawBy David Michael Newstead.

“This is Radio Moscow! The news, read by Yegor Burlatsky on Wednesday April 17, 1963. First, the headlines. Today, Premier Khrushchev announced a series of reforms to encourage—”

Danik switched off the radio.

He stood up from his desk and stretched, checking his watch. Absently, he pulled a pack of Belomorkanal cigarettes from his pocket. He lit one and inhaled the strong Soviet tobacco – filling his lungs, then emptying them again. Cigarette in hand, he stared down intently at a large sheet of paper. When he smoked, Danik was able to clear his head, shutting out distractions, so that there was only the paper in front of him and the cigarette fuming between his fingers.

He exhaled again.

A moment passed. The cigarette burned slowly, while he tried to think of a new design. Then, Danik picked up his pencil and began to work.

Around him, the art room was a flurry of activity. Teams of illustrators huddled together in two’s and three’s, hunched over their work stations as assistants ran between rooms. The entire department was busy as deadlines loomed over their respective projects. Nationwide May Day celebrations were in two weeks and the Minister of Culture had demanded a wave of newly commissioned propaganda art to commemorate the event. For the artists, this meant hours of grueling labor. And in short order, their office had become a mess, covered with red tinted posters on every available wall. Each piece was analyzed and corrected as needed before being sent to the Censorship Board for final approval.

Until then, Danik realized he was surrounded by official slogans everywhere he looked.

A TRIUMPH OF PRODUCTION, read one poster boasting of increases in industrial outputs.

HOUSING FOR THE MASSES, read another.

JOIN THE PIONEERS!

Danik glanced over the artwork and smoked his cigarette. His coworker, Sergei, arrived late that morning, stomping up to the desk and complaining about housing construction along Peace Avenue.

“My bus was behind a bulldozer for an hour,” he said. “It was awful!”

Danik Drapushko offered Sergei a Belomorkanal.

“That’s progress for you…” Danik grinned.

Outside their office window, Moscow was visibly mired in construction cranes and a rising skyline of new, pre-fabricated Khrushchyovka apartment blocks. It was warm and clear out and Danik saw that the trees were already turning green.

Sergei groaned and lit his cigarette.

“We have a busy schedule,” he said. “All the poster submissions are due and I can’t spend the whole morning in traffic! Not today.”

“I started on the agricultural drafts,” Danik told him. “The collective farms… The air force recruitment posters are done. The cosmonaut posters are finished. But we still have work to do on the Komsomol, the Olympic qualifier postings, and the Moscow subway posters. Ruslan also wanted a few pieces with Vladimir Lenin if we have time. Old favorites like that.”

“I can draw Lenin with my eyes closed!” Sergei replied. “But we don’t have enough time for that. The ministry deadline is tonight and our assigned project submissions will already take hours to complete. We have to reach the new quotas!”

“Finish your cigarette,” Danik said to his friend. “Gennady across the hall made tea for everyone and somebody’s wife cooked pirogis. There’s a bundle of them in the break room. You sketch and ink and I’ll color. Then, we’ll switch after lunch, alright? I promise this won’t take as long as you think. There’s time.”

“You’re right. You’re right,” Sergei conceded, beginning to relax.

He hung up his coat and pushed the spent Belomorkanal into an ashtray. Then, the pair of them sat down to create new propaganda, one poster at a time.

A VIRTUOUS LIFE THROUGH COLLECTIVE FARMING INITIATIVES!

JOIN THE KOMSOMOL AND WORK FOR THE BETTERMENT OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY!

CONTINUE THE LEGACY OF COMRADE LENIN WITH OUR BELOVED LEADER, NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV!

As they worked, Danik would become totally fixated on their assignment, attempting to perfect how he drew the hands of a particular worker or the shading around Lenin’s moustache. He kept at this for hours until he abruptly realized it was already the afternoon.

Danik sat up and rubbed his eyes.

“I’m going to walk around some,” he informed Sergei. “Do you want anything from the break room?”

Sergei spoke without looking up from his desk. “Yes. See if there are any of those pirogis left. And how are we for cigarettes?” he asked with great concern.

Danik checked their dwindling supply – half a pack between the two of them for the rest of the day and that evening.

“We’ll have to ration, I think. But we can make do,” he replied.

Around the office, Danik saw other artists at various stages of their craft. Some teams laughed together and smoked, having fulfilled their quota earlier in the day. Others drew frantically in silence, trying to meet the ministry’s deadline. Their department director, Ruslan Strelnikov, could be seen walking the halls and discussing the whole process with a handful of bureaucrats. In fact, Pyotr Kamkin was among them, having gained a minor and fairly meaningless promotion the year before. Pyotr was eager and stood next to Strelnikov, but the director ignored him completely.

When Danik walked by, he and Pyotr traded cold, hateful stares.

That little bastard, Danik thought.

At the end of the hallway, he found the break room abandoned. Danik discovered that the food had long since been devoured and that the area had practically been ransacked by hungry artists throughout the day. Instead, he poured two cups of tea. And just above the stove, he noticed another poster on display. Standing there, Danik’s silhouette was framed by the red background of the propaganda and he briefly became enthralled with the artwork.

COMMUNISM IN TWENTY YEARS, it declared in dynamic typeface. The images were of a prosperous and idyllic future filled with happy people.

Walking back to his desk, Danik lingered on the thought and, in his mind at least, he couldn’t help inserting himself and his family into that positive vision of things to come. It was beautiful to him.The Thaw in the Middle

By the late afternoon, the office had mostly cleared out with only a few teams remaining in the building to finish up their work – Danik and Sergei included. But it wasn’t until their last cigarettes and their fourth draft of a Nikita Khrushchev portrait that the discussion started. No one was around to hear them anymore.

“What do you think of the boss anyway?” Sergei said, while his hands hurriedly added color to their leader’s face.

“Khrushchev?” Danik replied. “I don’t know if I know anymore. Maybe it doesn’t matter.”

“Certainly, he’s an improvement,” Sergei thought aloud. “Though I suppose that’s not saying much.”

Danik grimaced. That poster of Joseph Stalin that he’d grown up seeing every day in school and at the orphanage flashed through his brain. The thick moustache, the dark eyes.

“I like Khrushchev,” Danik said finally. “There’s been a lot of improvements in the last few years. More openness and artistic freedom! He’s instituted some necessary reforms in our country. It’s just…” And he paused.

“After I heard about the Secret Speech… After Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s legacy and his cult, I was very optimistic. They started releasing people from the gulags not long after that. And I don’t know,” Danik said. “I just had never known for sure what happened to my parents – whether they survived imprisonment or not. You know, there was no way to be certain when Stalin was still alive. Years later, I half expected my mother and father or even my uncle to just reappear after all that time.”

“But they didn’t,” Danik concluded and turned back to his drawing.

“Did you ever visit the American Exhibition a few years ago?” he asked a moment later.

“In Sokol’niki Park?” Sergei said. “I stopped by. I remember thinking it was interesting enough. Home appliances. Consumer goods. That sort of thing. Why do you ask?”

“It was fascinating to me. It was this opportunity to see how people live elsewhere, even if it was being presented in the most favorable light. I don’t know how to explain it. Just the idea that things could be different,” Danik admitted.

Sergei considered it for a few seconds, then stubbed his cigarette into the ashtray.

“I think people are the same everywhere, unfortunately. Everything else is just propaganda,” he said.

The two of them finished their last poster and handed it in at the main office. Sergei caught a bus home and Danik began walking to his apartment, lost in his own thoughts. He kept picturing that bright future he’d seen on the wall of the break room and he wondered if it would become a reality. He thought about his two children, Masha and Boris, as well as his loving wife, Elizaveta. Danik reflected on the pace of progress under Khrushchev and the technological innovations driven by the Space Race. There were cosmonauts now, rocket ships, missiles that could cross entire continents in minutes.

So much was changing, it was difficult to know what the future would be like. Yet, Danik asked himself this question over and over again.

When he passed the Kremlin that evening, he noticed a small, sandy haired boy looking up at it. The child wore a blank expression devoid of joy or any emotion at all really, but he stared at the towers of that iconic structure with a quiet intensity that was striking to Danik, even at a distance.

“Come along, Vladimir…” The boy’s parents called to him.

Danik watched as they headed in the opposite direction, then he continued on his walk home.

He was exhausted when he finally reached the sixth floor of his building. It had been such a long day. He breathed and stood outside his apartment for a minute to collect himself. Danik waited before going inside, still worrying about his wife and his children and all the possibilities that lay ahead of them. Just then, he saw that a sliver of paint was chipping away from the door to his home. A crack had formed at the base of the door frame and it caused a growing imperfection. He glanced down at the small patch of chipped, white paint and sighed.

A moment later, he turned the doorknob and went in.

“Yay! Papa is home!” exclaimed his two children, instantly encouraging him.

Danik Drapushko smiled wide and leaned down to hug them. All at once, he felt hopeful about the future.

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