Τhe troubles that would cause the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986 began for me in 1945. I couldn’t have known then that my life would change forever and that I would never be free of the detritus of these events. During the summer of 1945, I was living in Ottawa and feeling as if the ground beneath my feet were shifting. My companions and I had made it through alive when everyone else we knew in Eastern Europe, if the rumours were true, had been murdered. Or displaced. How could I ever forget the day when my lover told me Moscow was recalling the unlucky cipher clerk, Igor Gouzenko, back to Russia?
The sky was a luminescent blue, as it could be in the northern capital of the country, and I was imagining that it ought to turn to rose pink and then to a throbbing purple. Back then, I often thought about the sky changing colours. It was one of the ways in which my mind was playing tricks on me, trying to prepare me for who I was destined to become.
Ottawa was a city I never wished to leave, although as long as I lived there I experienced the overriding feeling that it was temporary and that I would need to leave. No matter how diligent I was, how hard I tried to please my bosses and the Party, it would never be enough. Somewhere deep inside me, I understood that my years in this capital city were only a reprieve from what had befallen the others who had remained in Europe.
Whenever I could, I tried to enjoy the city. Ottawa was splendidly calm; a northern outpost far away from the chaos and horror, with a landscape much like my home inside the Russian Pale, where the Jews were ordered to settle by the czar. On days like this one, I imagined I was back home in the old country, and that it, like Canada, hadn’t changed since the war.
I should have guessed that when Nikolai Zabotin followed me on my walk that day, he’d tracked me down for a reason—it wasn’t simply that it was too gorgeous to remain indoors.
At first I hadn’t noticed him. My mind was on other things; mainly, how to dodge the Labour Day celebration at the Soviet Embassy. Since arriving in Canada more than twenty years ago, I’d become attached to the Communist Party and I had no idea how to disentangle myself from all that it meant, or even if I truly wished to be alone without friends or protectors.
During my early days in Canada, I was the comrades’ pet, the orphaned Russian girl with the heart-shaped face and only the young rebel Harry Vine to watch out for me. Then the honours student, obedient but sagacious. Later the irresistibly exotic operative, the one who coaxed men to whisper their cloaked secrets in her ear. Secrets laden with information that Moscow savoured.
That day, I had wanted nothing more than to avoid another Party function. No one of any stature at the Soviet Embassy, other than Zabotin, would care if I spent a night alone reading on the fire escape beside my flat. But Zabotin never forgave any of my indiscretions or weaknesses, nor did my old friend Harry Vine. Vine had rescued me from Europe long before the war and, to his mind, I was to be forever grateful to him for saving me.
Later, when we were all implicated in the little cipher clerk Gouzenko’s accusations, and after the Mounties began rounding up members of our circle into custody, Zabotin reminded me of that glorious afternoon in Ottawa. I had been sitting in the bright afternoon sun, beseeching my old-country God, who I’d ignored since I’d left the shtetl. If I don’t attend the embassy’s soiree on Monday night, will you still lead me to Mama and Papa? My sister and brother?
I’d lured too many men to count into my bed until I finally caught the big fish that Moscow needed.
By the middle of 1945, I’d run out of rational solutions. My family was missing in the tumult of the war, and I was desperate to find them now that the conflict had ended. I’d tried all the official channels, Jewish social services, the Red Cross, but it was too early, they told me; or too late. How I was dreading another dreary night with the same drab comrades, repeating the same nonsensical slogans about the surety of history. History had failed me, and everyone I loved. Then I felt his presence.
“Who are you seducing now?” Zabotin whispered.
I turned around to see him standing behind me. “If you really want to know, I am talking to my God; to Hashem himself.”
Zabotin smiled his broad inviting grin. “I see. Bargaining with God.”
He hadn’t managed to frighten me as much as he’d intended, although he was my superior and I was expected to acquiesce to his every command. Zabotin, dressed in civilian clothes, moved closer and stood before me.
As the rezident in charge of Soviet military intelligence at the embassy, he answered to the Director of the GRU in Moscow. It was Zabotin’s job to supply the secret police with information about the Canadian government; to be its eyes and ears in this foreign land perched so close to the United States. The Director’s instructions to Zabotin were to find out how to reproduce the atomic bomb the Americans had tested at Los Alamos. Not much else mattered to the Director or to Stalin, now that the war was over.
In public spaces Zabotin was expected to wear his military uniform, but today he wore an expensive civilian’s suit expertly cut from taupe linen, his white shirt unbuttoned at the starched collar. In his good hand he held a Panama boater with a fine silver band. Zabotin’s blond curls glowed under the late afternoon northern sun as he caught me up, brushing my waist with his gloved hand. His right hand was fingerless, shot out by a German soldier at point blank during the first World War. That afternoon in late August, he was confident that no one was watching us. Not even the GRU could find us in the secluded parkland along the Rideau Canal.
Years later he admitted to me that he wasn’t even carrying his silver revolver that day; the one he placed on the night table beside his good arm when we were making love.
“Nikolai, how did you find me?”
“It is not difficult to anticipate your next move,” he said. Zabotin’s eyes were as sharp and blue as the afternoon sky.
Colonel Nikolai Zabotin was a powerful man, in his own way; a blond Cossack entirely certain of his undeniable desirability. Descended from a distinguished Russian military family, canny and charming, he’d fought courageously for the Bolsheviks at St. Petersburg and was decorated while in the Red Cavalry during the Revolution.
Even today, so many years later as I draw water from the flowing Dnieper River near the desiccated nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, I have no precise idea what Zabotin believes in, other than himself and his family’s name. After so many of his misadventures with the Soviet regime and after so many betrayals, I can never be certain of what he’ll do next. In that way, we’re a perfect match.
He, too, was a survivor. He had made it through the 1917 revolution and outwitted the punishing arm of Stalin’s Great Terror during the 1930s. His posting as rezident to Ottawa demonstrated that he remained useful to Moscow. His lack of ruthlessness when it came to traitors meant Lavrentiy Beria did not want him close at hand, but the chief of the NKVD still found a role for him. Zabotin’s aristocratic bearing was of considerable advantage in Ottawa, where certain carefully compromised bureaucrats and scientists provided the information that Moscow needed to compete with Washington. Zabotin would work for the GRU, military intelligence. If he disappointed, it would be on the GRU’s watch and not the NKVD’s.
Harry Vine, Fred Rose, Sybil Romanescu and the fourteen other spies whose lives would be destroyed by the Gouzenko defection hung on his every word. I, too, was a member of his spy ring.
I must admit that, although I feared Zabotin, I also admired him. Sometimes I even loved him. Speaking French or English with a fluency and intonation not common among Soviets abroad, he brought important people under his influence while making it all appear so effortless.
The way he ran his circle of agents seemed effortless, too. Harry Vine, Fred Rose, Sybil Romanescu and the fourteen other spies whose lives would be destroyed by the Gouzenko defection hung on his every word. I, too, was a member of his spy ring.
“I don’t know how you manage to look eternally young,” Zabotin said, still smiling down at me. He looked at me that way when he wanted me to undress before him.
At certain times, I loathed him for believing I could be so easily manipulated. I’d done everything he’d ever asked. I’d lured too many men to count into my bed until I finally caught the big fish that Moscow needed. If Zabotin cared about me as he claimed he did, surely he would have put an stop to my endless deceptions with men who should have known better, but he never did.
Despite his casualness with me, Zabotin was on edge. It was only days since the Americans had dropped two bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, on the Japanese. I’d seen the photos in LIFE, the first ones of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I’d purchased a copy at the newsstand on the corner of Elgin and Somerset and carried it with me to the nearby bus stop. I couldn’t stop turning the pages as I waited, and when the bus arrived, my feet would not move. My hands were shaking as I stood alone watching the others climb the bus steps and drop their coins in the fare receptacle next to the driver. They couldn’t have been aware of the carnage. They must not have known. How could they and just continue as if this were a normal day like any other? The bus rumbled up Elgin toward the Parliament Buildings, leaving a trail of exhaust fumes behind it. I breathed them in and for a moment I believed I would never move. When I did force myself to cross the road, I was unsteady on my feet. I never again regained the equilibrium I’d clung to before seeing the pictures of what an atomic bomb could do.
The war was ending in a manner I never could have imagined. This was not the way it was supposed to go. Not the way the comrades promised it would go. Immediately I realized that our Ottawa cell was linked to the horrible images on the page. It was why we were here. Stalin wanted the formula for the atomic bomb and, with our help, he would get it. If Soviet intelligence and our friends in the US failed, Zabotin would be recalled to Moscow and my work would be done. I had no idea where the Party would send me next. Or if they would even need me. I was already thirty-eight, and Zabotin alluding to my age only made me more anxious. I didn’t want to have anything to do with the bomb, but like most of my work on behalf of the Party, I was in no position to question or object.
I asked him again. “How did you find me?”
“Marxist philosophical materialism holds that the world and all its laws are fully knowable… there is nothing in the world that is not knowable. Not even you, my darling Freda,” he declared, quoting Comrade Stalin.
“Yes, but even Stalin cannot decipher the inner workings of a woman’s mind,” I shot back at him. I knew Zabotin admired me for my sharp tongue and my abilities with men. When he murmured in my ear, he often praised me for my delicate waist, my height, which he claimed was tall for a Jewess, and particularly my legs, which he insisted in dressing in sheer silk stockings sent from the newly established Soviet Embassy in Paris.
“What I would give to have my beloved parents see how beautiful and clever you are. Equal parts beauty and brains,” Zabotin said.
His elderly parents, now dead, had then been counting out their days in the family’s dacha in the Ukraine, the very one where in which we would hide after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. They’d wondered how the world had gone so terribly wrong. How quickly the count, a czarist military officer, and Countess Zabotin would dismiss me, a Jewess. The shape of my nose would give me away immediately. My nose was long and crooked, as though someone had broken the bone.
I turned away from Zabotin, itching to ask him if he’d seen the photographs in LIFE and if he believed Comrade Stalin would use the bomb in the same way as the Americans had, but I remained silent.
He said he remembered me from the day Harry Vine and I escaped the last pogrom of Nesvicz, when the Red Army captured our village and made it their own until the Nazis arrived.
Zabotin stood so close to me I could smell his musky cologne. “You are unhappy today?” he asked in his kind voice.
“No more than usual.”
“Taska, then?” he inquired, using the Russian word in all its complexity. “Yes, taska. Melancholic.”
“You look anxious.” He offered me a cigarette and lit it with the end of his burning one.
I couldn’t reveal my fears to him about my future with the Party, and the inescapable dread about how the politburo might use an atomic bomb if it got its hands on the formula. If I were to tell Zabotin about my misgivings, he would pat my backside and tell me I was being foolish. Or worse, in his official capacity, he could punish me. Trusting Zabotin was not an option, not then. So, I lied.
“No, more nostalgic than anxious. How can this blue sky not remind me of my sky above Nesvicz?” I was quite certain Zabotin considered the Nesvicz sky as his and his family’s alone, but I said, “Excuse me, Comrade Zabotin. The people’s sky.”
It was true, Zabotin and I were both born in tiny Nesvicz, a mud-soaked village that undulated along the Soviet–Polish border. Of course, though, we had not associated as children, he being the son of the Cossack count, the golden family of the medieval castle who ruled the village, and me a Jew. Soon after the revolutionary war, it would fall expressly within Soviet territory. It was Zabotin’s good luck that he’d taken a chance in 1917 and sided with the Reds, betting that the Bolsheviks would come out on top. When we had met again years later in Ottawa, Zabotin swore that he had immediately recognized me. He said he remembered me from the day Harry Vine and I escaped the last pogrom of Nesvicz, when the Red Army captured our village and made it their own until the Nazis arrived. When we met again all those years later in Canada, he never mentioned his role in the ransacking of our shtetl.
Before the war, more than four thousand Jews resided in Nesvicz. Now the Jews had disappeared from our shtetl. We knew the Red Army managed to push back into Nazi-occupied territory in the Pale of Settlement, but that was all we were told. No one actually knew then how many Jews remained in our dark corner of Eastern Europe or the extent of the damage. In my mind, I could visualize Nesvicz as it had once been. A sleepy place hidden from the world by its quaint traditions, its own petty feuds, its own minuscule victories. Perhaps my family was among the survivors and I would be able to find them and bring them back to Canada with me.
From time to time, because of our shared homeland and because we understood each other’s disenchantment with the Revolution, Zabotin and I dared to partake in little jokes at the Bolsheviks’ expense. Secretly, to each other, after moments of passion, when I spread my black hair across his broad chest, we spoke in whispered tones of the appalling mess Stalin had made of the people’s regime. How could Lenin’s brilliant plan have gone so horribly wrong?
Zabotin could read my mind. “You wish to return to Europe, you silly woman.”
“I do,” I admitted. “However small the chance is to find my family, it’s worth the gamble.”
“Aren’t you finished with gambling?” he asked me.
“I’d hoped to be, to stay right here in Ottawa. But I can’t. It is my duty to find them, no matter the chances anyone is alive.”
Zabotin understood. He’d tried to save his own parents during the German invasion and failed. “After Stalin and the Allies divide Europe, perhaps I could arrange it, a trip for you. Party business. I suppose you deserve it, after everything you’ve done for us.”
He’d admitted it, I thought to myself. After everything I’d done for the Party.
Now that the war was ending, I was down to a just few men: One highplaced director at the Wartime Information Bureau, a gentleman who didn’t resist. A few journalists covering the bickering in Parliament were still eager to accompany me to the Château Laurier or a dreary hotel room on the other side of the Ottawa River, in Hull. My work was slowing down. Zabotin could afford to send me back to Russia for a few months, perhaps for a year. It would take that long to find them, my family.
Instead of talking, he and I strolled along the canal and crossed the iron lift-bridge until we came upon a plain wooden bench in the little park at Kent Street. We sat together, drenched in the declining orange sun. A handsome couple, I suspect, if anyone cared to admire us.
Well-nourished boys in ball caps played catch. Young mothers wheeled their infants in canvas-quilted prams. We didn’t need to say a word. We were both thinking the same thing: the war had hardly touched these people.