Week Eleven: Tovarishch O’Sullivan

The cold winter wind whipped through Grigory O’Sullivan’s thick red beard as he darted from the tramway. He wouldn’t be out at this hour or in this weather on a normal evening. But duty called; the Party came first.

The city center was mostly dark; a café ahead on the right was still inhabited, casting a pale warm wedge of light in futile resistance to the bitter night. A man behind the counter stared back at Grigory as he passed; his eyes were black and dull.

Grigory pulled his fur-lined collar closer about his neck as he turned the corner onto Tenth Avenue, no—onto Brezhnev Avenue—and the wind caught him square in the face. If only it had been snowing, he might have been able to call someone at the Committee and beg the evening off. But he was expected to show that he was made of tougher stuff.

He cut the corner at Holliday Avenue; if there had been traffic—or even passersby—he might not have been so brave. The rules were closely followed in Lewellingrad. And besides, he loved seeing the People’s House from this angle; the limestone columns and sharp rooflines tugged at each other like dancers.

He let himself in through a ground-floor entrance; and up to his office through the back stairs. He sat at his desk, in the dark, for just a moment. He loved this view. His office was in the attic, and he knew that was the second-worst place to have been assigned (besides the basement), but it didn’t feel like it; not with that view. Across the street, the Justice Center rose from the center of the People’s Plaza, a strong Brutalist structure that unintentionally presaged the arrival of the Party. The narrow pillars of its façade seemed too small to carry the weight of its cantilevered floors, much as the proletariat once seemed too small to carry the weight of the capitalist’s yoke. But the building endured; and the proletariat triumphed.

Grigory turned on his small desk lamp and got to work.

 

Morning found him still hunched over his small desk in his small office. The plaza was beginning to fill with workers, dressed in long coats and thick hats, on their way to work before the sun rose above the housing blocs on the east side of the city center. Grigory watched them, a dull ache having settled in the middle of his back, half asleep.

A knock on his door woke him. “Come.”

The door opened with a creak. “Comrade O’Sullivan, come to breakfast.” His friend Pyotr stood in the doorway, his cheeks red from the walk to work. “There are duck eggs.” Pyotr knew Grigory loved duck eggs.

“Yes, alright, Comrade. I could use some coffee, too.”

“Burning the midnight oil again?”

“It’s just the farm bill.” Grigory tried to stretch out his back as he stood.

“They need something to debate today, then.” Pyotr gave him a knowing grin.

Grigory sighed as he raised his arm to show Pyotr out of his office. There was always something for the Party members to debate; there just wasn’t always a bill to ground their debate in reality. As a legislative draftsman, it was Grigory’s job to make sure that didn’t happen very often.

“Yes, Comrade. Today and every day.” Grigory closed his office door behind him. He didn’t bother to lock it.

 

Breakfast was pleasant enough. Many of the Konza Oblast Party Committee members were in attendance, making a show of greeting each other and the Committee staffers. Grigory tried not to be disdainful of their fine suits and clear eyes.

Pyotr regaled him with the latest rumors on each one as he walked by. This one had a new mistress; that one’s youngest son received permission to go to university abroad; this other one was mounting a campaign to run for the Central Committee; that other one had secretly celebrated Christmas (can’t you see his new pocketwatch?, Pyotr asked, pointing at the man’s waistcoat.)

But for all the pomp, the Party-sponsored breakfast was a little meager. There had been duck eggs, as Pyotr had promised, and bacon, and griddle-cakes, and some strawberries that must have come from Mexico or somewhere. But the thin and gray-skinned kitchen staff ensured no one—not even the Oblast Secretary who came downstairs for a few minutes towards the end—received more than a modestly-sized portion.

Pyotr ate quickly and excused himself; as a Liaison Officer for the Security Committee, he had several things to finish up before the Party Committee began its first meeting. “Just reports and things,” he said with a wry smile.

Grigory walked back to his office alone. The People’s House was over a hundred years old, but the former occupants had obscured its mural-covered hallways and built offices out into the open spaces. The Party had been restoring the building almost since taking up residence; but there was still a lot of work to be done, and not a lot of room in the Oblast budget to complete the work. A carpenter avoided Grigory’s glance as he walked by.

The sun had risen high enough to cast Grigory’s office in a bath of orange light. He was about to step into that pool of sunbeams, though it promised no warmth, when he realized the draft bill was missing from his desk.

He quickly closed his door and took stock of his office. Everything was where it was supposed to be; everything except the bill.

Not that bill. Not that one. Not today.

It was a joke. He hadn’t meant anything by it. He still had plenty of time to fix it. It was just that in the early hours of the morning, when the bill was close enough to completion that his sleepless-ly fuzzy brain couldn’t choose between orneriness and celebration, he’d changed some of the words. A lot of the words.

It hadn’t been a bill sitting in his typewriter when he left for breakfast. It had been a manifesto. An indictment. A rumination and a prescription. A scathing review and a heartfelt sermon. It was everything he knew he shouldn’t say, most of the things he knew he couldn’t say, and quite a few of the things he knew wouldn’t have said if he hadn’t been called in so late on such a cold night.

It wasn’t a bill. It was a confession.

Changing his name had been easy; Pyotr had done it, too. Changing his beliefs had been harder.

He wasn’t a communist. He wasn’t a socialist. He had never cared for the populists who once controlled the state, either—although they’d been smart to invoke the battle cries of Mary Elizabeth Lease and her contemporaries when they came in with their new “People’s Party.” In truth, he hadn’t ever been much of anything. He’d always simply voted for the person who made the most sense.

But now they would know. They would know that he was not reformed. That he was not truly loyal. That he didn’t care for the Party Committee members or their hypocritical fancy suits. That he didn’t care what crops made the approval list for spring planting. That he thought the whole system was a sham.

He doubted they would find his cleverness very clever, but there was a great section in there building up a three-pages-long metaphor comparing the Central Committee to a certain local wizard.

Whoever had that sheaf of papers, whatever they intended to do with it, Grigory’s career was likely over. He turned for the door—running wasn’t much of a plan, but it was a plan.

But the glazed window had the figure of a man behind it. A man reaching his hand back to rap on the glass in a rude knock.

Grigory saved him the effort and opened the door.

 

Grigory couldn’t remember if he’d ever been in the Secretary’s office before. He’d worked in the People’s House long enough he surely must have entered the room for something or other at some point. But its smallness surprised him. Maybe he hadn’t been in there before.

The Secretary sat cross-legged behind his desk, leafing through the papers that had been left in an office that should have been locked. Now that he was only a few feet from the man, Grigory could see that his suit was well-made but not new; his glasses were chipped in a few places along the rim; his eyes were puffy with redness and lack of sleep. He looked around the office again; the bookcases were plain, the carpet a little worn, the paintings on the wall were poster prints. He briefly entertained the thought that this man, the most powerful in the Konza Oblast, was a true believer. He wasn’t sure if that should worry him.

The Secretary finished reading, put the papers on his desk and worked a phlegmy cough as politely as possible. He took off his glasses with his left hand and rubbed his temples with his right. He put his glasses back on and stared at Grigory. His tired eyes were blue and sharp.

“Tell me Tovarishch O’Sullivan,” he started, using the formal Russian term as if to remind Grigory that although he had lost most of his accent he had not lost his ties to the Motherland, “why does the Party Committee debate a farm bill every spring?”

Grigory contemplated his response. Giving the Secretary the same answer he’d just read in the stolen papers was obviously not an option, but he was hard pressed to come up with a better one.

“Do you think it is to make a show? To fill the radio waves with sound bites and catchphrases? To quell the people, to convince them the merits of growing crops that receive almost no subsidy from the Central Committee? To trick them? Into mere obedience?”

Grigory chose not to answer.

The Secretary grew tired of waiting.

“It’s because we have quotas. Our Republic stands in unity with other soviet republics across the globe. There are radicals who would shatter the bonds that tie us together with so-called ‘decentralization’ efforts. The only way to stop them is to protect the system of mutual cooperation we have so carefully established.

“And so we must choose. Maize, or wheat? Beans, or barley? Sorghum, or rye? Do we stay at five million cattle, or should we replace some with sheep or goats? And on top of it all, we must choose where these things will go. Do we plow more fields in the east, or do we let fields lay fallow for a season? Do we build more pumps in the west, or do we turn fields over to ranching?

“These are the questions the Party Committee was supposed to debate today. We must have a proposal for the Central Committee to review, as must the other Oblasts. We must play our part. Do you understand?”

Of course he did. Grigory was from a farm town. Surely the Secretary knew that; he could see his personnel file there on the corner of his desk. “I didn’t sleep last night,” he offered.

“Neither did I.” The Secretary’s response was almost kind.

“I only meant—”

“I know exactly what you meant, Comrade. You were frustrated. You had every right to be. But your work is serious. You must be serious about it. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Very well then.” The Secretary pushed the papers back across the desk. “I’ll need a finished draft before noon. You did good work on the bridges bill last fall. Let’s get a little mor of that out of you, shall we?” He smiled in a way that told Grigory the discussion of his transgression had come to an end.

Was that it? A half-lecture and a pat on the back? He stood, and offered a feeble smile in return. An aide showed him out.

He had to admit, he had done good work on the bridges bill last fall.

Wait—was that all it took? A pat on the back? To put him in his place, to turn him back into a good little soldier?

Of course the bill debate was just a show. Of course it was designed as a source of sound bites to distract the dirt-poor farmers whose standard of living had actually decreased since the so-called “People’s Party” had swept them up in its fervor. The Central Committee had already decided who would grow what, and where.

But maybe there was another truth buried in what the Secretary had told him. Maybe the system was fragile enough they needed him—yes, him—to write another bridges bill, the kind with lofty language that would inspire the kind of debate that would get endless replay on the evening news. Maybe the Party would crumble under the weight of its central planning, or maybe it was more likely that it would crumble without it.

Either way, Grigory feared what would happen if there wasn’t at least a debate before the Central Committee issued its planting maps. He felt sick to his stomach.

He knew he would feel better when he fixed his draft.

Duty called; the Party came first.

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