Anna laughed and pivoted to the left, turning her back to the harsh wind. The man in front of her folded his handkerchief, laid it across his empty shoes, and stepped to the brink. Instead of using water to wet himself down, he scooped up some snow and rubbed his chest with it. Then, accompanied by the bystanders’ expressions of compassion and encouragement, he arched his back, sprang forward, and disappeared into the black water. Small chunks of ice bobbed against one another. Anna watched as the man swam underwater to the far end of his improvised swimming pool and surfaced there. His beard, white and unkempt a moment ago, was now gray and plastered to his cheeks.
“He ought to get a life guard’s badge,” the woman next to Anna cried out, pulling the fur trim of her cap down over her ears. “That way he could charge admission.”
“The Moskva River belongs to everybody,” a man wearing eyeglasses replied. The snowy wind bent his umbrella to one side. Anna dodged the pointy wire ribs and watched the bearded swimmer as he propelled himself through the water with increasingly powerful strokes. She pushed her way out of the group of spectators and hurried along the riverbank. Under the Krasnopresnenskaya Quay, she climbed up the icy steps and soon reached the bus stop. On the ride home, people on the bus discussed the weather. It was getting warmer, they said; tomorrow the temperature was supposed to rise above twenty below zero. That meant that the cold holidays would be ending soon, and the schools would open again. The thought elicited a satisfied nod from Anna. When Petya didn’t have to go to school, everything was thrown into disorder.
With a jerk, the bus moved out of the middle lane. Anna noticed the policeman who was waving the heavy vehicle to one side; at the end of the avenue, a large, dark automobile appeared and rapidly came closer. The bus rolled into the right lane. The Chaika was already right behind it. When the big car pulled alongside, Anna could see a lady in the backseat, her hair waved, a magazine on her lap, and then the Chaika shot past. Although the policeman, too, must have noticed that the car carried only a female passenger, he saluted it as it sped away.
Anna got off the bus at the Filyovsky Park stop. The queue of people waiting on the corner indicated that the canned peaches must have finally arrived. Should she get in line? It would be her fourth queue of the day. Anna banished all thoughts of peach compote, turned into her street, and entered Residential Building Number Seven. On the fourth floor, she unlocked the door to her apartment.
“Did you get toilet paper?” her father asked.
“No, Comrade, I have procured no toilet paper,” Anna answered, in her best Communist-youth-organization voice.
“If you think we can keep on using newspaper, you’re wrong,” Viktor Ipalyevich said, stretching out both arms and pointing from one end of the apartment to the other. “The paper in the windows was letting in drafts, so I had to replace it.”
“In the living room, too?” Anna asked, putting her purse on the table.
“In the living room, in the kitchen, wherever it was.” Since his daughter was paying his gesticulations no heed, he let his arms drop, took the dark brown chessboard from its shelf, and began setting up the pieces. His peaked cap, which he wore even inside the apartment, made him look younger; only his goatee betrayed the fact that the poet Viktor Ipalyevich Tsazukhin had gone gray.
Anna raised her nose. “Have you been distilling again?” Her eyes narrowed, and the blue irises grew dark.
“That’s no reason to glare at your own father as though he’s some sort of reprobate.”
He tried to bar her way to the kitchen, but Anna was faster. On the stove, she found the telltale system of metal pipes: a many-dented teapot served as a condenser; above, in another pot, the first distillation was cooling. In the next stage of the process, the once-distilled liquor would be sent through the labyrinth again.
“Even when you close the window, the neighbors can still smell it,” Anna said, looking at the elbow joint where the last pipe emptied into a converted paint can.
“And will the neighbors run to the police on account of a little glass of Four-Star Tsazukhin and denounce Viktor Ipalyevich as an unproductive Soviet citizen? Or will they hope to be invited into the courtyard on the next sunny day and served by Viktor Ipalyevich in person?”
Refusing to engage in a rhetorical battle with her father, Anna turned off the gas flame that kept the mechanism in operation. He said, “That’s the way to turn Four-Star Tsazukhin into rotgut,” and went into the living room, shaking his head. The velvet curtain that hid the sleeping alcove moved and a small hand appeared, followed by a child’s face—the image of Anna when she was a young girl. The child’s hair covered his ears and was cut straight across his forehead, just above his eyebrows. Long lashes screened his light eyes; he had a strong nose, and his mouth was a little too big.
“Are you finished now, Grandfather?” the boy asked.
Anna stepped into the living room. While the poet was announcing that the game could begin, he answered her anxious look with a nod. She formed the word temperature with her lips; her father pointed a finger upward and answered inaudibly, “Ninety-nine point seven.”
“You can play only until dinner,” Anna told her son by way of greeting.
Petya clambered out of the bed where they both slept and embraced his mother. In his dark blue pajamas, he resembled a miniature sailor. He jumped up onto the chair, squatted down, and moved a white pawn two squares forward. Anna carried her shopping bag into the kitchen, took out two cans, placed one between the windows, and opened the other. In order to prepare the soup, she had to move Viktor Ipalyevich’s private distillery to one side.
“I have to go out later,” she called into the living room. “Will you put Petya to bed?”
“You’re going to the combine again?” Anna’s father asked absently. “I wish I knew why you have to attend every meeting.”
“To get a Category One.” She dumped the red beets into the pot.
“And what’s the difference between a Category One painter and the rest of them?”
Anna looked at her hands, at her gray, chapped skin, at the cracks around her wrists. “A Category One painter doesn’t have to put her hands in lime anymore.”
The soup began to boil. She stirred it, remembering that the meeting of the building combine wasn’t scheduled to take place until the following week. The thought of her real purpose made her feel languid. She could heard her boy wheezing in the next room; the game excited him.
Shortly before seven o’clock, Anna left the apartment. The collar of her overcoat was turned up, and her fur hat was pulled down on her forehead. No one could have maintained that the cold wasn’t the reason for these precautions. On the ground floor, old Avdotya, a fellow resident, was fiddling with the mailbox. “Anna Tsazukhina, I’m at my wits’ end!” she cried out. Avdotya was nearly deaf. Since everyone spoke loudly to her, she took that for normal procedure and bawled at everyone in her turn.
“Have you misplaced your key again, Avdotya?”
“Indeed not! There it is!” The old woman looked up imploringly.
Anna considered the little metal drawers. Rust had made some of their numbers unrecognizable. “Isn’t yours seven-oh-six?”
“Seven hundred and six, exactly!” Avdotya pointed to her key ring, which was hanging awry from one of the little doors.
“But you’re trying to get into seven-eight-six.” Anna stuck the key into the right hole and turned the lock. The mail drawer was empty.
“I’m waiting for a letter from Metsentsev!” Avdotya explained, without looking into the mailbox. “He’s going to write me about . . .”?
But Anna had stepped out of the building, and the closing door swallowed Avdotya’s last words. Anna left her street behind, turned into Mozhaisk Chaussée, and crossed to the side where the streetlights were no longer functioning. In such cold weather, fewer people than usual were out and about, but Anna kept her eyes open for someone standing still where there was nothing to see, someone who slowed his pace in the icy wind. Only when she was certain that everything on the avenue looked normal did she slip into an alleyway on her left, a narrow passage that was closed to traffic. And yet Anna knew that at the end of the alley, for the past several minutes, a black automobile had been waiting with its engine running; the driver didn’t want to get cold while he waited. She hadn’t taken more than a few steps on the hard-trodden snow before the car’s headlights flared and a rear door opened.
“Good evening, Anton,” she said, settling into the backseat.
The driver tilted his rearview mirror so that he could see her. “You’re early. That’s good.” His full, deep voice always caused Anna to wonder if he’d once been a singer.
“Why is that good?” She took off her cap.
Anton didn’t answer as he made a skillful turn in a small space and drove out onto the avenue. He paid no heed to the onrushing traffic; as he expected, all vehicles braked when their drivers realized that a ZIL government car was jumping into the inside lane. Anton accelerated, the limousine hurtled forward, and Anna was thrust back in her seat. She was so warm that perspiration ran down her spine. A bright light made her look up; Anton was overtaking the bus for Nagatino. Passengers sat in pale light. Some of them stared after the long automobile; ZIL limousines had “Special Right-of-Way.” Except for weddings, driving a black automobile was forbidden. Anna smiled: If you got married, for a few hours you enjoyed the privileges of a prominent road user. She watched the bus getting smaller, certain that the weary shapes it carried figured her for a woman who was being driven, at state expense, to visit her hairdresser or pick up packages in Granovsky Street.
Anna put a hand over her eyes. Once upon a time, she would have set out on this drive full of happy expectation; she would have gazed at her reflection in the passenger’s window and fixed her lipstick and adjusted her hair. Two years ago, when she was twenty-five, and after three years of marriage, her husband Leonid had finally been transferred to Moscow. To avoid having to live in a shared flat on the outskirts of the city, they had accepted Viktor Ipalyevich’s offer and, together with Petya, moved in with him. Anna had obtained a good position with the building combine, earning more than her husband, who drew a lieutenant’s pay; it was she who took on the chief financial burden of her four-person household.
Then, in April of that same year, her building combine had been ordered to paint the facades of several buildings along Kalinin Prospekt for the May Day celebrations. Yarov, her foreman, had opined that a new coat of paint made no sense if the rust on all metal surfaces were not removed first. There wasn’t enough time for that, he was informed, and he should use colors that guaranteed anti-rust protection. Anna had kept Yarov from gainsaying this instruction, and work had begun. The plaster was loose and dry rot had invaded many walls; nevertheless, the building combine’s skilled workers covered the facades in friendly shades of yellow and light gray. In order to meet the deadline, they had worked in four shifts. On the afternoon of April 30, a committee that included the government’s Deputy Minister for Research Planning inspected the results. Anna didn’t know who the powerful man with the greasy hair was, but the fine fabric of his overcoat gave him away as a member of the nomenklatura. While scaffolding was being dismantled and hauled away on all sides, Anna gave the arch she was working on a final stroke of her brush. Alexey Maximovich Bulyagkov stepped under her ladder and praised her flawless brushwork as the other members of the committee formed a group behind him. The Deputy Minister wanted to know how long it took for a person to learn to make such a perfectly straight stroke.
“At twelve, I joined the Pioneer Girls,” Anna answered properly. “When I was sixteen, the combine offered me a trainee position. I received training to become a skilled worker, and two years ago, I passed my qualifying examination.” She straightened her headscarf; her work clothes were tight on her, because under them she was wearing her heavy sweater and a pair of pajama pants. While she was trying to remember some of her building combine’s outstanding accomplishments, Bulyagkov asked her name.
Anna came down the ladder. “My name is Anna Tsazukhina, and I’m twenty-seven years old.”
“Are you related to Tsazukhin, the poet?”
Anna could not have said why she’d introduced herself by her maiden name. “He’s my father.”
Two members of the committee put their heads together.
“I’m an admirer of his work.” Alexey Maximovich said, setting his foot on the ladder’s lowest rung. “Of some of his work.” He held out his hand; although her own was covered with flecks of paint, Anna laid her brush aside and clasped hands with the Deputy Minister.
“All the best, Anna Tsazukhina,” he said, gazing at her with merry eyes. Then he turned, and he and his colleagues moved on from the archway.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Russian Affair by Michael Wallner. Copyright © 2011 by Michael Wallner. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.