The House of Cards
By Leonid Newhouse
When I was growing up, few things worried me more than the state of my father’s back. He suffered from regular bouts of backache—what the Russians call radikulit—that made him walk like a penguin and that no doctor could remedy. His backache would especially act up on the eve of inclement weather, which, in our parts, lasted a good two-thirds of the year. In addition to walking, the condition made other kinds of movement, especially that of bowels, quite painful for him. The strain involved exacerbated his backache, which further aggravated his constipation, which, in turn, made his backache even worse. The hours he spent on the communal toilet trying to relieve himself—preceded by imbibing generous amounts of castor oil—left him drained and dispirited, and led to skirmishes with sosedi, the apartment roommates who claimed the throne for themselves. At such times I knew better than to get in his path, for this normally cheery, soft-spoken man, now reduced to a state of sullen gloom, was prone to lose his temper and give me a drubbing at the slightest of pretexts.
For a long time I had remained ignorant of the true origins of my father’s ailment. He himself had vaguely alluded to it as frontovoy, a war injury. The story went that once, while on a reconnaissance mission near the river Dnieper in the Ukraine, he had stumbled upon an SS patrol, and had to dive into the ice-cold waters of the river, where he spent an hour or so hiding in the reeds. The ordeal had cost him his sciatica. And at that the matter rested until one day when, as a young man of twenty-one, I was about to leave Russia and my parental home for good, and my father and I had a real heart-to-heart. It was during that conversation that he disclosed to me a series of episodes from his and my mother’s past that helped explain not only his own predicament, but some of the tribulations that I, their son, had endured as a Jew in Soviet Russia.
His story went like this. When my parents first got married, they had no place of their own. This was in Leningrad, USSR, at the end of the 1940s. The city had just begun to recover from the devastation left by the siege, and what with the thousands of veterans and evacuees that had poured back into it after the war, housing was all but impossible to come by. Prior to the marriage, my father, then a meat procurement manager for the local Catering Administration, had been staying in an annex adjacent to his sister’s basement room on the Fontanka river embankment. My mother, thirteen years his junior, had recently finished high school and was still living with her own mother, Leyah, in a small, canyon-shaped room in a communal apartment on Trade Unions Boulevard, in the city’s historic center.
The newlyweds got on a waiting list for a single room. In the meantime, they settled in Leyah’s canyon where, for lack of space, they had to share Leyah’s bed. Few men, of course, would fancy living with their mother-in-law at such close quarters, but my father’s circumstances were especially cruel. Consummating his marriage was out of the question. My grandmother Leyah (God bless her memory) had a tendency to roll out of bed in her sleep and insisted on sleeping in the middle, smack between my parents. Then there was the snoring—Grandma suffered from an intractable bronchial condition that made her a formidable snorer—that kept my father, a light sleeper at the best of times, awake most of the night. Not to mention the sleazy gossip in the cavernous hallways.
The waiting list was moving slowly—actually hardly moving at all—and every Sunday my father repaired to the open-air exchange near Kuznechny bazaar where people from all over the city swapped their government-assigned rooms. His plan was to acquire a room with the ten thousand rubles still left from his wartime savings.
Time after time, in the miserable Leningrad winter, he paced the strip of pavement with a sign stuck to his chest: “Looking for a single room.” He could find no sellers, only swappers. But one drizzly Sunday in late March, a middle-aged woman with a silver fox stole elegantly slung around her neck, came up to him. In a conspiratorial tone of voice, she whispered in his ear—he felt the fox hair tickle his cheek—that she had just what he was looking for. But it was a “delicate situation,” she added, and he would have to promise her to be discreet.
My father looked around to make sure that no one was watching them. Was the woman a provocateur? Was she trying to get him in trouble? Secrets were dangerous at that time—the time of Stalin’s terror—especially the unsolicited ones. But he was desperate and ready at that point to hear anything, as long as it wasn’t my grandmother’s snoring.
“Yes, I promise!”
The woman then told him that she was about to leave town and wanted to sell her room in a communal apartment.
“Near the Kirovsky Theatre.”
Her proposition was entirely illegal. But the socialist property she was offering for sale was in an excellent location. My father was ready to clasp her in a bear hug, bury his head in her fur, and repay her confidence by telling her his own woeful tale of sleepless nights in the canyon on Trade Unions Boulevard.
“I want to see it!”
The room turned out to be a tiny affair in a former palazzo converted for communal living. There were only two other rooms in the apartment: one occupied by an old, chain-smoking Jewish woman and her son and daughter-in-law; the other by two middle-aged sisters.
“Ten thousand rubles.”
“Let me think.”
Yes, he wanted the room all right, but there was one problem. It concerned the propiska, the residence permit. His official propiska was back in his sister’s Fontanka cellars. Like fate itself, propiska couldn’t be changed at will. It might take him and his wife months of finagling to obtain the new propiska, a time during which their status would essentially be that of squatters and they could be displaced by the mere stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. He weighed the possibility of losing his savings, in case the propiska did not pan out, against the prospect of staying with his mother-in-law. The decision seemed clear.
“I’ll take it.”
My parents moved in. Their neighbors greeted them with a smile—a major deviation from norm in the Soviet times—and the old woman, Yelena, brought them some homemade meat jelly. Their new room, though small as a closet, appeared to be a huge improvement over the old canyon. At last, they had a place of their own. And they could sleep alone in their own bed.
My father was eager to consummate the marriage right away. But my mother suggested that they wait until the following Saturday, after novosel’ye, the housewarming party, a postponement to which he grudgingly agreed.
The woman from whom my parents bought their new abode had neglected to mention a few important details about it. One was that the building had been hit by a German bomb during the war. It was later repaired, of course, but in such a hasty and slipshod way—what the Russians call khaltura—that it earned among its residents the nickname of the House of Cards. The workmen had originally been ordered to finish the restoration by Stalin’s seventieth birthday, but the necessary materials were missing, and they spent their time at work drinking. When the materials finally arrived, only weeks prior to the Great Leader’s jubilee, half of them were immediately stolen. Hung over and cold (it was already winter) the workmen had to improvise with what materials they had left, and in a great hurry. They did manage to finish by the due date—it could have cost their foreman his life if they hadn’t—but with questionable results. Stories abounded of caved-in floors, leaky pipes, and crumbling walls. The architect who had drafted the blueprint for the reconstruction had the old apartments chopped up so that some of them resembled stalls with doors. Many walls were sacrificed in the course of this socialist expansion, with new, flimsy partitions erected in their place. All this did not bode well for the general soundness of the structure.
The worst thing, however, was the neighbor upstairs, a one-legged former artillery gunner known among the tenants as “Ivan the Terrible,” an inveterate drunkard. Night after night, the artillerist marked his return from the pub with shrapnel bursts of disintegrating dishes and the mortar-like sound of pots and pans, smashing against the fragile walls. When he ran out of his usual projectiles, he would hurl his crutches at his wife. All this was usually accompanied by Ivan’s loud cursing, the terrified shrieks of his wife and child, and the furious knocking from neighbors in the adjacent apartments. As the battle upstairs raged, the chandelier in my parents’ room would begin to swing, cracks and crevices appeared in the ceiling, and pieces of plaster fell on their heads like early snow.
The neighbors had made numerous complaints about Ivan to the authorities, but nothing ever came of it. Because he was a decorated war veteran and an invalid to boot, the police seldom bothered him. Only on paydays, when he drank so heavily that he ended up sprawled on the floor of the pub, would chyorny voron, the Black Raven, the paddy wagon, pick him up and take him to the sober house. The two-day “rehabilitation stays” there didn’t really do much for Ivan—he would start drinking moonshine as soon as he got out—but gave his neighbors a chance to catch up on their sleep.
It was during one such lull that my parents celebrated their novosel’ye. When the party was over, they retired to their marital bed. To my father’s dismay, my mother went to sleep right away, pleading exhaustion. For some time he tossed and turned in bed, nursing his disappointment with his wife’s apparent coldness. The disappointment soon turned into depression and gave rise to a whole train of thought that made him more and more anxious. He started to ruminate about his job at the Catering Administration and how precarious it was. After all, the times were such that Jews were kicked out of work en masse. Worse, he feared arrest. His immediate boss, Krantzman, the deputy director of the Catering Administration, had been arrested only a few weeks before. He hadn’t been heard from since. All they were told at the sobraniye, the weekly party cell meeting, was that the old manager had turned out to be a spy and saboteur, who had conspired with the Joint Distribution Committee to poison Leningrad’s meat supplies. Could Krantzman have incriminated his underling as a fellow conspirator in this plot, as the secret police interrogators wrenched from him confession upon confession? (Sure he could have, and he would, if only they wanted him to. When a man’s joints are being crushed and his testicles zapped with high-voltage electricity, he would be glad to incriminate anybody, including his own mother and father.)
It wasn’t all that unlikely that they might arrest him, Moishe Aishenboymer, next. For at that very same sobraniye, the main topic was the unending deviousness of the Zionists. The head of the First Department, Chugunkov, informed his comrades that those dastardly enemies of the people, having poisoned Comrades Zhdanov and Bolvanov, were now poised to poison the food stuffs as well as the wells, lakes, and rivers of the motherland. Something had to be done to stop them. Chugunkov assured his comrades that MVD, the secret police, was working around the clock to deal with this threat. More arrests would surely help. He summoned everybody to be extra vigilant. There were probably more Zionist cosmopolitans and their sympathizers lurking among the employees of the Catering Administration, and with some extra effort they could be flushed out.
But there were only a handful of Jews left there as it were. Would he be the next one to be denounced?
Never before had my future father’s last name or his swarthy looks weighed so heavily on his mind, and possibly—what would be far more ominous—on his comrades’ minds as well. Granted he was a good worker, an excellent manager (his meat procurement department had come out first in that year’s Communist competition), and no one could complain about his performance, but who cared about performance when there were directives from Moscow to get rid of the Zionists? The organs, as the secret police called themselves, had their own target figures, and their meat grinder was working round-the-clock.
They could come for him and take him away from this warm bed and his beautiful young wife, and he would never see her again—her or the child that he hoped they would have some day. Why, they could be ascending the stairs even as he was lying in the dark thinking these thoughts! Any time now, the patter of steps on the stairway could stop short at their door. The bell would ring. Men in fedoras and raincoats would enter. “Get dressed,” they would order. That’s all they usually said, those men: they didn’t want to wake the neighbors and cause a scene. There’d be no use trying to escape through the back door, for a man in a fedora was always posted at the rear entrance just in case. Thousands of people all over the country disappeared in this fashion every night.
With such thoughts on his mind, how could a man ever fall asleep?
The alarm clock on top of the dresser went tick-tock, tick-tock, like the sound of footfall on floorboards. He felt as though he was about to lose his mind. He could no longer remain alone with his thoughts and the ticking of the clock. He woke up his wife.
He pulled her, still half-asleep, toward himself and made love to her hurriedly, like a thief. He didn’t know how much time he had. The comrades in trench coats and fedoras might already be ascending the stairs. The clock was going crazy.
It was as if he were in a race, a Communist competition of sorts: Moishe Aishenboymer vs. Comrades in Fedoras. The comrades were fast, but Moishe was faster.
Only minutes later, just as my father was about to arrive at his destination, Ivan the Terrible came home and started his usual hullabaloo. First, a heavy object crashed against the floor; there was screaming and swearing and the sound of broken glass. Then Ivan began to pound on the floor with his wooden leg, in the manner of a jackhammer. “Ye fuckin’ Yids!” he hollered. “I will get you yet. I will...”
My mother opened her eyes just as a big crack opened in the ceiling above the marital bed. “Moishe!” she cried, pulling him close to her.
The chandelier swung madly, like an agitated parrot on a perch. There was a flurry of plaster flakes. “Sheyna!” The chasm above the bed widened another few inches when Moishe let go.
A large chunk of plaster landed on his back. He emitted a cry as if wounded. More pieces of plaster, together with insulation, loose nails, and other debris avalanched onto the bed.
“A bombing raid!” my father screamed from under the rubble. He thought the Americans had attacked.
“Goddamn Yids!” a drunken voice thundered above. Having made a hole in the floor, Ivan’s wooden leg had become stuck between the rafters. Hard as he pushed against the floor with his other, good leg, and bore down on his crutches, he couldn’t quite extricate it. “I won’t let you have it!” he howled. “I won’t let you...”
By the time the ambulance arrived, my future parents had already dug themselves out of the rubble. My mother was uninjured, having been covered by her husband. As for my father, he sustained a spinal concussion with lesions, multiple bruises, and damage to his sciatic nerve.
And that is how I was conceived.