Vlad Men, Part Four – Iron Curtain

21. srpen 1968, PrahaBy David Michael Newstead.

Danik left for work that morning under a cloud of uncertainty. He got dressed, ate his breakfast, and kissed his wife on the cheek. Then, he went down the stairs of their apartment block and into the streets of Moscow. It was quite cold out, so he walked faster than usual. But he still stopped at a newsstand along the way, looking over his shoulder several times.

In the last week, the normalcy of Danik’s routine had been shattered as troublesome rumors began circulating around the city. Of course, officially there was nothing outside the ordinary to report in the USSR and newspapers reflected this. At the stall, Danik found the usual stack of bland articles and nothing more. Unofficially, however, wild speculation had taken the place of fact among Muscovites as stories passed between friends about an on-going power struggle for Soviet leadership. But the precise details differed significantly in each version of events and none of the sources were any more reliable than the next: a distant cousin, a friend of a friend, a whisper heard on public transit. Very likely, no one knew anything and every story was either complete nonsense or a fabrication. Even for Danik, the rumors were too numerous to keep track of.

Premier Khrushchev has arrested the entire Politburo!

No, the KGB poisoned Khrushchev!

Perhaps, an American plot is underway!

In fact, another Great Purge is about to begin and the life of every Soviet citizen is at risk!

It was all hearsay, of course. Just the same, Danik scoured the headlines for some kind of clue, any indication of what was happening. Finally, he closed his copy of Pravda in frustration.

“Have you heard anything yet, comrade?” the newsagent asked him from behind a wall of publications.

“Me?” Danik responded, glancing over at the newspaper pile. “I thought you would find out before anyone?”

“Oh, no…” the man told him. “I’m always the last to know anything.”

Danik arrived at work a few minutes before nine that morning. The hallways were eerily quiet and each office was filled with tired artists, anxiously smoking. Like himself, every person in the building was just waiting. Three days earlier, their regular communication with the main office at the Ministry of Culture had stopped without explanation. In the absence of official instructions, an entire department suddenly had nothing to do except worry. It was apparent that the stress had taken a toll on many of them and Danik could see memories of the Stalin era on each man’s face as they smoked. They were terrified.

He tried to shut out his own memories from that time. But once Danik sat down at his desk, there was no work to occupy him. No assignments. He lit a cigarette and the past started to flood his thoughts again.

In the 1930’s, when Danik was a child, the country was gripped by fear. People would vanish every day and a knock on the door from the NKVD was a virtual death sentence. Danik’s recollection of his parents was vague now, but he knew they were good. He remembered the secret police took his father away first. Then, they arrested his mother not long after that. Sometimes, he would linger on the mental image he had of her.

“Danik?” his friend said to him.

“What is it, Sergei?” he asked, the cigarette hanging from his lips.

“Pyotr Kamkin has been conducting evaluations all morning. He’s been calling in artists one by one to question them,” Sergei said.

Danik didn’t respond.

“What’s happening?” Sergei asked, panicking.

“I don’t know,” Danik replied. “I suppose we’ll find out soon enough.”

Neither man said anything for a while. They just sat in silence, smoking and waiting until the inevitable happened.

“Danik Drapushko!” someone called out from down the hall.

“Danik Drapushko!” the voice repeated.

Sergei looked up at him. “It’s your turn…” he said.

Danik nodded in quiet resignation, still thinking about his parents. He left his cigarette in the ashtray on his desk and he walked down the corridor. He found Pyotr Kamkin sitting by himself in a small corner office.

“Please come in and shut the door,” the man said without looking up.

Pyotr was behind a director’s desk. There was a large stack of files in front of him and he made a series of notes before beginning the exchange in earnest.

“As you may know,” Pyotr said. “I’ve been tasked with evaluating everyone in this department. The Ministry of Culture is making some major administrative changes from the top down and these evaluations will be a deciding factor in the process of reorganizing.”

“Where’s Ruslan and the others?” Danik asked.

Pyotr seemed immediately irritated by the question.

“Director Strelnikov has been reassigned to another ministry,” he explained. “As have the other senior commissars in this division. The reshuffling is going to be quite extensive, I assure you.”

“There’s been a lot of rumors,” Danik said.

“Yes. Yes, that’s true,” Pyotr admitted. “I’ve been informed by the ministry that as of two nights ago the Politburo has formally removed Premier Khrushchev from office and there will be a number of policy changes going forward. Of course, there will also be an official announcement shortly, but there you have it,” he said.

Danik was taken aback by the news and his mind raced as he considered all the implications.

“And the Council of Ministers?” Danik asked, concerned.

Pyotr looked at the man in front of him and lit a cigarette for himself.

“The Minister of Culture has been reassigned. And I believe your friend, Deputy Minister Garin, has been sent to manage a power plant in Central Asia,” Pyotr replied.

“Now if you’ll please take a seat, we can begin,” he said, motioning to a flimsy chair in the middle of the room.

“I took the liberty of going through your file and I wanted you to confirm some information for me,” Pyotr said and took a drag off his cigarette.

“Alright,” Danik replied.

“Danik Fyodor Drapushko,” Pyotr read aloud. “Born in Leningrad in 1927. Mother and father were university faculty and registered party members. Parents purged by the NKVD in 1938 and posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era. Placed in state custody at the age of eleven in Leningrad Orphanage #59-M. You resided in the facility for a number of years, is that correct?”

“Yes, that’s correct. Until the war,” Danik told him, clearing his throat.

“Yes, I see that here.” Pyotr said. “Conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, age fourteen. Participated in heavy fighting during the Siege of Leningrad and the Baltic Offensive. Discharged from Soviet Armed Forces in 1947 and began your studies at art school in Moscow. Married. Two children.”

Pyotr read on. “Employed by the Ministry of Culture starting in March of 1951 and you’ve been an artist here in one capacity or another ever since then, is that right?”

“Yes,” he replied.

Pyotr leaned back in his chair. “The purpose of this discussion, Danik, is both personal and professional. I’m most interested in talking about your work here, but I’m just as interested to make sure your attitude is in line with party doctrine. For example, there’s a note attached to your file that you have an affinity for Anti-Soviet literature.”

“Excuse me?” Danik asked.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Records indicate your checked it out of the library at least twice in the last year. How do you account for that, comrade?”

“That’s… that’s not a banned book,” Danik told him. “The Politburo authorized its publication.”

“Yes. For now,” Pyotr interjected. “But that kind of literature, if you can call it literature, is critical in nature. It attempts to undermine the foundations of Soviet society. To say nothing about your other reading habits! This is precisely my point, Comrade Drapushko. A worker at the Ministry of Culture must embody the very essence of Soviet culture. All of its strengths! We cannot allow this ministry to become infected with politically unorthodox behavior and bourgeois attitudes, which are common in artistic people. And you consider yourself an artist, do you not?”

Danik paused. “Yes, I do.”

“But you see, you are not employed here to fulfill your own individualistic, creative yearnings,” Pyotr said with a sneer. “An ideal artist at this ministry is an instrument of the collective will and the communist spirit! Tell me in your opinion, comrade, what is the purpose of art and our work here in this office?”

Danik breathed in. He took a moment to decide on his answer. “I believe that art is a form of truth, which the Soviet people have always been accessible to. We must listen to the proletariat and experiment with solutions, courting popularity for our cause around the world. Our task is to better inform and inspire.”

“No!” Pyotr yelled. “Wrong! All this time, you have labored under false and self-serving illusions. All art is propaganda! Do you understand?”

“And propaganda does not concern itself with what is best in men or what is true,” Pyotr continued. “Propaganda does not seek to elevate mankind, but to make people serve. And as propagandists, we do not talk to say anything of substance, but to obtain a certain effect like a person shouting fire in a theater. If today that means we lie, then we must lie. And if tomorrow that means we tell the truth, then we will be truthful. But always in service of a greater purpose! It is the job of this office to condition a desired reaction from people, even if that reaction is passivity and indifference. We must reinforce bias, motivate action when it serves us, and continuously work to create the political climate of our choosing: fear, suspicion, sacrifice, hatred! We orient the population to an atmosphere of our designs, our themes, our narrative. You believe our role is merely to disseminate information when in reality we are of far greater importance. We work to distract. We work to accuse and co-op. We define the terms of a debate and muddy the waters of anything outside of that.”

“But comrade,” Danik tried to interrupt. “Our cause stands on its own merits without requiring us to manipulate the –”

“You still do not understand, Drapushko,” Pyotr said. “This department is part of a wider effort, a vast apparatus of coordinated psychological precision. And you do not work here to be creative or to debate what policy should be! Your art degree doesn’t make you any better or any different than a factory worker in this country. Do you understand me? In the Soviet Union, some men dig ditches and some build automobiles, while you draw posters. But all of you are alike, because of every single one of you does as you’re told!”

Danik didn’t speak and Pyotr Kamkin kept talking, hammering away at him for some time.

“From now on, I suggest that you think about your family’s well-being and your income when you conduct yourself in this office! You are not an art student anymore.”

Pyotr then passed him a bureaucratic form to sign and date, certifying their mandatory evaluation had been completed. Across the top, it said Pyotr Kamkin was now the acting director of the department. Danik read this in silence. Then, he scribbled his name at the bottom.

Danik F. Drapushko

October 16, 1964

After the meeting, Danik wandered back to his desk. In the hallway, he saw a short, moustached man walking between offices. A bundle of personnel files was tucked under the man’s arm, then he quickly disappeared down another corridor in the sprawling complex. Danik thought for sure he’d seen him before, but he couldn’t tell.

When he returned to the art room, he found Sergei pacing and chain smoking. They made eye contact briefly, but Danik didn’t say anything to his friend. He didn’t want to talk. He just lit one cigarette after another, exhaling black clouds like a diesel engine. He pulled out a bottle hidden behind one of their supply drawers and began to drink. Down the hall, they could hear other artists having their names called for their own evaluations.

An hour passed.

“Do you know why I became an artist?” Danik asked his friend finally.

“No, I don’t,” Sergei replied, still smoking nervously. “Why?”

Danik’s eyes were red from the vodka and he almost laughed when he told the story.

“When I was a boy, my father gave me an art set,” he said. “Inside, it had colored pencils, paints, some pastels, and chalk as well. A sketchbook. This was right before the secret police sent him to the gulags,” Danik explained.

“That was probably the last happy moment from my childhood…” Danik said, practically talking to himself now. “…and my mother had wrapped it so beautifully.”

He took another sip from the bottle.

“I don’t think that art set lasted more than a week in the orphanage before one of those bastards stole it,” Danik admitted, reflecting on the past. “But that’s the reason I became an artist. Because I loved that gift so much. Art was genuine to me…”

Sergei looked off into space and didn’t reply. Danik stopped speaking. And the roll call for evaluations continued unabated.

At his desk in 1964, Danik Drapushko recalled sitting at the end of his bunk in the Leningrad orphanage years earlier. Tears ran down his cheeks at the time and he felt so hopeless then. So alone. On the wall, that grim, almost fatherly portrait of Joseph Stalin stared down at him and all the other children the leader had made into orphans. Now, Danik felt like he’d never be free of him, that the man’s legacy would never die.

Throughout that afternoon, more rumors turned into fact this time confirmed by radio announcements. Nikita Khrushchev had indeed been overthrown. The reforms would be ended and artistic freedoms were to be severely curtailed. In a matter of hours, all the progress that had given Danik confidence in his country’s future had simply evaporated into thin air.

As that realization set in, his drinking got worse. After work, he tried to drown the past in vodka, but it was no use. The memories endured: the orphanage, the war. He felt alone and hopeless again. He thought perhaps his artwork had been for nothing, that it was worse than pointless. It was all a lie. In an unforgiving moment of clarity, Danik felt his whole life was a lie. For years, he had been illustrating a Soviet fairy tale that he’d also come to believe. But propaganda transformed justice and truth into hollow words, tarnishing the audience that saw it as well as the artist who made it. The more that Pyotr’s comments repeated in Danik’s brain, the further he sank into depression. And he could still feel that picture of Stalin hanging over him.

The next day, he woke up and his head throbbed miserably. His mouth was dry and Danik was lying next to a woman who wasn’t his wife. He had a hazy idea of what transpired the night before. Worse than that though, there was a pronounced sense of utter powerlessness. The futility of it. It was like change seemed forever out of reach in Soviet Russia, he thought. Then, Danik Drapushko grabbed the nearest bottle.

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Part 4 - The Iron Curtain