She Blinded Me with Science
*** Author’s Note: This short story originally appeared in the anthology Words to Music. Please have a look at it to see 48 more stories, all written to different songs by 40 authors. ***
Vasiliy Ivanovitch hurried along the muddy road towards the town hall. It was the only place in the village where there was a radio, and he loved listening to it whenever he had a moment to spare. Such moments were few and far between for a farmhand at a Siberian Kolkhoz.
As Vasiliy passed people, they always nodded and smiled to him. Who could not feel pity towards that little man, all bent and clubfooted and with a face like a dried prune? And yet, poor Vasiliy was the hardest worker at the Kolkhoz of the Victory of the October Revolution. Early in the morning, he’d be there to see to the cows, and his little shack by the dung heap would always have the last lamp flickering.
He was so proud of the Kolkhoz. He was old enough to know the life of a serf, although out here, exactly who owned the land meant little. But in the Revolution, that glorious period of violence and revenge and Proletariat victory, he had gained his freedom and was now able to inject his meager strength for the good of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Vasiliy had heard that today there’d be a special radio program. It would be broadcast from the sky! Yes, the ingenious designers at the Antonov Aircraft Factory had produced the largest airplane in the entire world, the Tupolev ANT-20 Maksim Gorky. It was big enough to contain a radio transmitter, along with a printing press, a photography laboratory, and a portable cinema. The plane toured all of the USSR, spreading the good word of Communism and the teachings of Stalin.
Whenever airborne, they’d switch on the transmitters and play marching music and Prokofiev and all the other geniuses Vasiliy’s country had produced. The Kolkhoz leader had given half a day off to all peasants, which was reason to rejoice.
Soon he was at the town hall. The assembly room was already half full with old women with their wicker baskets, the horse-trading men and workers like Vasiliy. Still, he entered the room and straightened his bent frame as best he could. This was his hall just as much as any other person’s, he told himself once more, and took a seat on the right by the window.
The hustle and bustle continued until the Mayor stepped to the podium and removed the dark sheet of velvet covering the cabinet-sized radio. “Comrades! Silence, please! We will have a special program transmitted from the Maksim Gorky, which is approaching our part of the country. Yes, my friends, we are truly blessed, for Comrade Stalin has sent the pearl of our aviation engineering on a wide tour of Siberia. Starting from Irkutsk now and coming our way through Krasnoyarsk and Tomsk, it should be here within a week. But contain your excitement! We must prepare the town for the plane. Today we will hear details when the Voice in the Sky comes alive.” He pulled out a piece of paper. “So now, please, let me find the new frequency. It has been sent to me by telegram.”
The Mayor was soon so engrossed in tuning the radio that he didn’t even notice his oily comb-over slipping and hanging to one side. The hiss and screech of the ether filled the hall, and everyone hoped he’d find the right signal and the program would be heard. To Vasiliy, even the white noise was miraculous. His father could never have imagined hearing someone’s voice from miles away, but here was his son, about to hear news and information and music, sent to him by his Great Leader Josef Stalin.
The Mayor found the frequency, the white noise stopped, and at once the hall fell silent. After a ponderous pause, the Soviet National Hymn blared from the radio loudspeaker, proud and magnificent. All the peasants scrambled to their feet and joined in. When the last chord died, the program continued, with a young female announcer’s voice. The listeners could hear she was smiling.
“Greetings, comrades,” she said, “this program is sent to you from the radio station Voice in the Sky aboard the Maksim Gorky. As I speak, we are flying at 7,000 feet above our courageous countryside, en route from Irkutsk to Krasnoyarsk. If you could only see what I see now! All around me there is nothing but virgin territory, just waiting for the hardened workers of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics to come and reap the harvests of the land….”
Vasiliy listened intently at first, but soon entered a dreamlike state. The huge airplane, absolutely mammoth-like, bigger than anything built by the Capitalist states, was somewhere above him, perhaps just beyond sight in the horizon, transmitting this program just for him. He drew a long breath and savored the feeling of equality he shared with everyone in the room, the sweet-voiced announcer girl, and the skilful pilots of the plane. He dreamed of getting to see the crown jewel of Soviet engineering first-hand when it flew to their hometown, and how he could then tell his grandchildren of it when they’d sit in his lap by the fireside.
He returned to the hall from his thoughts when he remembered he’d never had any children. No one would have him when he was younger, and then disease and malnutrition made it even harder for him to charm anyone. He had had to accept his hard lot and learn to live with it, but working for Communism made up for that lack of private life, and he was the most ardent supporter of the Party in his town.
When he shook himself awake, the program was already almost over. He cursed his dozing off and tried to make the most of the remaining broadcast, but it ended with a recording of the Finale of Shostakovich’s First Symphony. As the radio clicked and went back to white noise, the Mayor turned it off.
“So, comrades, we have a few days before Maksim Gorky lands. As you heard, we need to locate a suitable place for its visit. Anybody have ideas?”
Igor Alekseev raised his hand. “I suggest the meadow by the riverside. It’s long enough for the landing strip as we just heard. There’s a ditch across it, but we can fill it in, we have four days.” This was met with widespread negation and hushing. The next proposal by Sofiya Alexeeva met with similar resistance, albeit for different reasons. Sergey Sergeyevitch and Uliyana Borisova fared no better.
To his eternal surprise, Vasiliy raised his hand, and when he had the attention of the hall, he stood up. “You know, the field… out at the far end of the Kolkhoz, the one we let lie fallow last year… it’s by far long enough, and wide enough. No forests around it for miles. Why don’t we prepare a place for them to land there?” He sat down slowly, as if someone let the air out of a balloon.
The Mayor considered his suggestion for a while, then spoke. “I am sure we all agree – Vasiliy has the answer. I suggest a round of applause.” Vasiliy was ashamed and flabbergasted. Never had anyone applauded him. The Mayor continued.
“Since you know the place best, I suggest we nominate you to be in charge of the preparations for the landing strip. I have here the notes I took and all the instructions, and you can commandeer anyone and anything to help you. This is a once in a lifetime event for our town, and we must not fail to make the visit of the mighty Maksim Gorky a success.” The impromptu meeting adjourned and everyone scurried homeward.
That night Vasiliy barely slept. He was just waiting for the sun to rise and let him get to the task he had been assigned. As soon as he could see it was light enough, he got up, did his farm chores, and then went to see the site he had suggested. On the way he picked up a pry bar and some stakes.
It was indeed good for the purpose. The field had been harvested but not plowed under. The winter snows had packed the topsoil, and only clover and other low plants grew there. Vasiliy was sure the plane would have no problem landing there. Then he drove a stake in the ground, and measured five hundred paces across the field. Another stake, and then he walked five hundred paces along the field. He placed stakes at regular distances and every time made sure he had correct alignment along the line.
It took him hours to walk around the field, but having thus created a measured landing field six thousand feet long, he was sure it was big enough. Now he’d go and ask for empty barrels and oily rags, and a large cart for transporting them to the stakes. He would ask the leader of the Young Pioneer detachment to supply Pioneers to every barrel. The barrels would indicate the strip in daylight, and if the landing was delayed into dusk, the Pioneers would set fire to the rags.
In the evening he took care of these arrangements, and was told by the Mayor it was good work. The other townsfolk prepared a feast to be served at the Town Hall, and made accommodations ready for the heroic aviators. A positive buzz had taken over the remote town, which never before had been paid a visit by anyone of any notable status.
Then, at last it was Thursday. Vasiliy awoke to a glorious late spring morning, with fragrant light wind and scattered high clouds. It wouldn’t be hard for the airplane to navigate in such weather, and the flight would be smooth and enjoyable. Vasiliy hardly dared to think what it was like up there, surveying all that land from thousands of feet up in the air. He considered some people lucky to have the opportunity to work for Communism that way, bringing information and news of Soviet progress to the earth-bound peasants.
Half the village was at the end of the landing strip by noon, waiting for the event. The reception party entertained itself by enjoying refreshments from the welcoming buffet, until those responsible for it closed up shop. Then they sat around on the ground, singing songs of revolution and feeling a tingle – something momentous was on its way in.
And then, around five in the afternoon, someone said, “Listen! Isn’t that engine noise? There, from the southeast!” They all sprang to their feet and started scanning the horizon. After a little while they saw what they had come for: the gigantic airplane appeared, and it never was a speck in the distance. No, this one revealed its dimensions right off the bat. It was like an eagle among sparrows, vast, dominating, a true Soviet masterpiece. It was escorted by a trio of fighter planes, and the fighters were like flies around a thoroughbred.
The pilot flew his plane over the field, and Vasiliy felt even the impact of its shadow as it overran the people on the ground. He thought it was an eclipse of the Sun, so majestic and long-lasting was the sensation of its fly-past. The pilot took the plane on the downwind leg, then turned into the very slight wind, and came in on final along Vasiliy’s runway. Vasiliy had thought he had it lined out wide enough, and yet the plane was so wide, with its wing span of more than two hundred feet, that he felt it would not fit.
But the pilot was a professional, and with all engines idling, the barn-door-size flaps down, the plane gracefully acknowledged gravity and touched down on the grass, then taxied up to the welcome party and parked. The sheer size of the plane made Vasiliy dizzy; the wheel spats alone were higher than two men, the engines were thirty feet up in the air, and the aluminum wings gleamed as though they were pure silver.
No one waited around for the fighters to land, but they did and taxied to park next to the propaganda plane. The pilots jumped out of their planes, but nobody was the least interested in them. Everyone’s eyes were glued to the mighty engines that began to sputter and die one after another.
The stairs came down from the plane, and the crew descended to the ground like so many gods of the skies. Vasiliy watched as the crew motioned for the peasants to approach them and come see the plane. “Hello, brave denizens of this village! Come see your airplane!”shouted one of them, a woman dressed in an Air Force uniform. The villagers rushed out to her and began cackling with delight.
Vasiliy let the others rush out first. He wanted to make the most of the moment, and watched in silence. Then he limped over to the wheel spats and kicked the tires that protruded from under the shack-size spats. “Quality Soviet engineering,” he said to himself. He was a little miffed about the way the villagers behaved. They had no dignity in their excitement, he thought, and stayed away from the crowd.
With everyone’s attention focused on the plane crew, no one except Vasiliy took notice of four men dressed in black leather jackets as they disembarked the plane through the rear door. They walked further away from the plane and one of them produced a camera. He took several pictures in all directions. Then one of them walked to the villagers and asked for the Mayor, and when he was pointed out to him, he asked the Mayor to come with him to the others.
Vasiliy followed him out of the corner of his eye. After the Mayor reached the other men and was spoken to, he began to grovel and speak with agitation, pointing out to all directions and spreading his arms. One of the men took notes as he spoke, and the others lit cigarettes and asked questions.
Vasiliy’s pondering was interrupted by a pretty girl from the plane crew. “Hello!” she said, “wouldn’t you like to come up and see the plane?” Vasiliy recognized the voice – it was that of the smiling announcer. Seeing her smile was even more wonderful than hearing it. She was so pretty Vasiliy averted his eyes.
“Please, comrade, do come with me. I will show you the latest in Soviet progress. My name is Comrade Vera, and I am Information Officer First Class aboard the Maksim Gorky.” She took Vasiliy by the arm and led him past the gargantuan wheels to the stairs, and pushed him up, no matter how he resisted.
Inside, she showed him everything they had on the plane. “Out there is where the pilots sit, and the flight engineers. The radio equipment for the Voice in the Sky is by the cockpit, and that’s where I sit when we fly. Let’s walk down the aisle! This is our dining room and cafe, and ….”Vera was lost in her explanation. Vasiliy tagged along and half listened to her, looked at what she pointed out without thinking about it. Everything was gleaming clean, made of aluminum and brass and leather and glass. He felt a surge of pride in the system that could produce all this, and reveled in the knowledge that he was part of that system.
Vera walked down the aisle of the cavernous plane. “Here’s the printing press, and photographic laboratory, where we develop the pictures we take home to Moscow from the regions. Did you know the archive is at the Hall of Nations? Yes, every picture we take is stored for future generations to admire.”
A man walked up from the aft on his way to the darkroom with a camera. Vera was delighted. “Jegor! How convenient! Let’s take a picture with… what was your name again?” Vasiliy said his name in a low voice, and Vera grabbed his arm. “Vasiliy and Vera! Smile!” Vasiliy put up a grin of sorts, and Vera wore her trademark smile. The flash blinded Vasiliy. “Can you develop the picture now so Vasiliy gets a copy, Jegor? Many thanks!”
Vera went on. “Our beds are within the wings. Yes, the sleeping quarters are big enough to accommodate all thirty of us. That room is where we store the sound film projector for showing movies, and the library is that room in the very end. If you wish, you can go and have a look.” Vasiliy didn’t want to, since he could not read. “We have books on every conceivable subject. Please, make use of it now that you have the chance!”
Vasiliy was saved from the unfortunate situation by the Mayor’s arrival.“Vasiliy – thank the saints I found you. You need to go get your donkey and cart, and show the four gentlemen around. Just take them where they want to go, and ask no questions. Understand?”
Vasiliy was very confused. “Who are they?” he had to ask.
“NKVD. That’s all I’ll say. Now go.” The Mayor wiped sweat off his brow and smiled to Vera, who smiled back, but this time with an uncertain look. What would the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs want with him, a simple peasant, Vasiliy worried.
Vasiliy hobbled back to his cot and got the donkey and cart, then sped back to the plane as best he could. The crew was already setting up the giant white screen for the movies to be shown, albeit the Siberian May evening was a little too light for movies. Still, as no one in the town had seen movies before, all waited for the show with great anticipation, and Vasiliy was sad he would miss it. Some clouds had gathered to cover the sky.
The four men in leather coats waited for him, then boarded his cart with looks of disdain. They all took out their cigarettes and started to smoke to cover the smell. Then one of them spoke. “Old man, take us to the riverside. We saw it from the air and want to take some measurements there.” Vasiliy nodded but said nothing, and slapped the donkey with the bridles to get it to move.
When they reached the river, the leader surveyed it with binoculars. The youngest man of the team took notes. “Yes, this will do nicely. There’s ample room for huts. What was the estimate for that other spot around Irkutsk? 70,000 people? This will take 120,000 with ease. In fact, we must send a radio telegram to Genrikh Grigorievich just as soon as we can reach the Ministry of the Interior’s radio network from the air. We will take this one instead, and make Irkutsk a backup site. Got that down?” The leader then asked Vasiliy to take them to the Kolkhoz sawmill.
It took Vasiliy’s tired old donkey a while to get there, and then half an hour to reach the next spot, and the next. Notes were taken, photos were snapped, and things were discussed in a low voice, which Vasiliy pretended not to hear. Finally the leader asked him to take them back to the plane. Once there he said, “Thanks, comrade, for the ride. You helped us a lot. I hope you didn’t pay too much attention to what we talked about?”
Vasiliy cupped his ear with his hand. “Come again?” The men all laughed.
“Go see the last movie, old man, and see how agriculture is done in the Ukraine now.” The men entered the plane by the rear door, and Vasiliy went to watch the film. Ten combine harvesters were collecting the barley on a boundless Ukrainian field, to the accompaniment of a brass band, and an announcer delivering messages of Soviet prowess.
“See how Soviet engineering has made it possible to harvest countless hectares of ripe, golden fields of barley fast and efficiently! Soon, these powerful machines will be available in great quantities to revolutionize the farming of all of Soviet Union! You need to wait just a bit longer to receive these monstrous beasts and put them to work for you!” Vasiliy had to wonder how well these machines would survive here, but his trust in the system made him feel ashamed. Of course Soviet machines would work anywhere!
Vera came out to him.“Hello again! I wanted to bring you this photograph of you and me, so you can have a memento of our visit. It turned out just great.” She thrust a glossy photo in his hand. He looked at it, and indeed, Vera was captured with all her radiant beauty, and Vasiliy looked just like the surprised little gnome he was.
“Thank you, comrade Vera,” he said, and put the picture into his shirt pocket with great care. The movie ended, it began to rain a little, and the party dispersed with reluctance. The crew boarded the plane and prepared for the night, but the fighter pilots were happy to have accommodation made available for them.
In the morning everyone gathered again to see the plane take off. At the stroke of nine o’clock, the Mikulin power plants cranked up one by one, coughed and spat black smoke, then began to idle. The peasants shuddered at the sound of eight times nine hundred horsepower, which had brought the future to them from the air. The last one to board the plane was Comrade Vera, and Vasiliy felt a sting in his heart when she threw a kiss to them all, but pointed at him. She closed the door and the stairs retracted into the fuselage, accompanied by the oohs and aahs of the villagers.
The pilot gunned the port engines and braked with the starboard wheel, and the plane turned in its place. Then he pushed the throttles forward, took the flaps out a bit, and when the engines roared at full power, he released the brakes. For a while, nothing happened, but then the plane inched forward, gathered momentum, and travelled ponderously down the strip. The pilot pulled back on the steering column, the plane lifted off, and the peasants applauded. The pilot went straight out, the fighters took off to fly wing on it, and then the strip was once again for the use of crows only. The peasants went their ways; the party was over, but the memories and dreams of progress remained.
Vasiliy pinned Vera’s picture by the oil lamp. This way it’d be the last thing he’d see every night, and the first thing to see every morning. The picture acquired a whole new meaning when they heard the news of the demise of Maksim Gorky. On May 18, 1935, two weeks after the show in Siberia, it had collided with a fighter plane at an air display in Moscow and crashed, killing everyone on board. Vasiliy was frozen in his tracks when he heard it. Though he hoped Comrade Vera wasn’t on duty that day, he knew it was a slim hope, and began to touch Vera’s picture with his stubby finger every night and morning. It was all that remained of her smile in the world.
By August, he had come to know all too well who Genrikh Grigorievich was. The People’s Commissar for Internal Affairs sent his henchmen by train to the nearest town, then they came to the village, and commandeered the entire production of the Kolkhoz for the construction of the newest Gulag. It was to be built where Vasiliy took the NKVD men. The first ten thousand men and women arrived that winter, building a camp for the thousands who followed.
Vasiliy wondered why the first thing to be built was a vast perimeter, with barbed wire and guard posts. He also wondered what happened to his lively little town. All went quiet, the chatter that used to fill the air at the marketplace simply vanished at the sight of the first NKVD man dressed in black leather. The goings-on at the camp were not discussed outside closed circles of two or three people.
But the thing that perplexed him the most was the constant influx of new workers for the camp. Vasiliy was sometimes at the train station when a new trainload of people bound for the Gulag arrived. He thought the workers, who were going to build Stalin a new canal — a wondrous waterway to connect rivers for transport — should have been able-bodied Ukrainians and hardy Mongolians. But the people looked like artists and writers with their feeble forearms and clothing ill suited for Siberia. And where were the machines that had been promised? All they took to the camp were shovels and pick-axes and two-man saws.
Still, Vasiliy did not want to question what the NKVD was doing. Surely it must be beneficial for Siberia to have that canal, otherwise they wouldn’t dig one. When he took his only week of holiday in early February, as he had done for many years, to go ice-fishing on a small lake far from the village, he didn’t burden his mind with the camp. He was looking forward to a few days all alone, pulling trout from his secret little lake at a rate of one a minute. Salted fresh it would taste so good, and keep for the whole spring. He whistled as he basked in the sun.
There should not have been anything on the vast, barren field of snow. Nevertheless, Vasiliy saw something project from the ground. As he got nearer to it, he first took it for a tree stump, but when he got close, he saw it was a corpse, half-buried in the drifts of snow. Someone wearing the striped Gulag overalls, with the number 172987 stenciled in his back, had attempted to escape. He had a bullet wound in his shoulder, but even without one, the Siberian cold would have finished him off.
Vasiliy was aghast at his find. The corpse was smiling. Vasiliy knew that death by freezing is a pleasant way to die; just before death, one feels warm and cozy as the body succumbs to the cold. Vasiliy took his shovel from the sled and buried the man in a shallow snow grave. His holiday was ruined, and his ominous feelings began to take concrete form. The camp was not what Vasiliy had believed it to be.
And as the year drew on, countless trains brought people to the Gulag, nameless but numbered units of human labor. The village soon learned of the death of the first ten thousand, then the next, and the next. All perished digging a canal no one needed but Stalin had ordered. The village buttoned up and went about its life as if no Gulag existed in its vicinity.
Oh, how Vasiliy prayed in the dark of the night and wished Vera would come and take him away from all that pain and suffering, and let him admire progress and common good once more. After all, wasn’t that all the Soviet Union was about?