She had moved to Germany to be a writer but quickly found there wasn’t very much to write about. Germany was calm. The people were friendly and straightforward. If you managed a few words of German they would say, “Your German is very good.” When you gave them exact change they would smile.
She got a job at a news agency. Everyone she interviewed told her that the country was built on stability. “The postwar model is consensus,” they said. The election had happened and her job mainly was to explain what the different colors meant when the parties came together for coalitions. Red and black meant center. Black and yellow meant right. Red and green meant left. Black, green, and yellow was the one the politicians settled on. It meant that none of the parties got along. They called this arrangement Jamaica, because the colors were the same as the Jamaican flag. “If there’s a Jamaica government, will more Germans travel to the Caribbean?” was one of the headlines she read on her morning review of local news.
There was no Jamaica government. She spent all night in the Parliament on assignment with the news agency, waiting for the government to come together. She was there with a French cameraman. The French cameraman kept asking about her thoughts on English translations of Proust. She hadn’t read Proust and felt embarrassed. She wanted to be a writer and Proust was the man you read if you were going to write. She didn’t want to lie to the French cameraman. He was very handsome and kept giving her Haribo gummy bears he had brought in his backpack.
At four o’clock in the morning Angela Merkel left the Parliament, got into her car, and drove away. The cameraman cursed. He had only gotten a shot of the top of Merkel’s head! Another politician came out of the building and announced that he was breaking off the negotiations. There had been too many disagreements. As he got into his car, she noticed that he was young and well-dressed. He looked like he was already thinking of the next step in his political career. They got a good shot of him. “We have great footage,” said the cameraman. They sat in the hallway of the Parliament by a stack of empty pizza boxes and sent the video to the office in London. At 7 a.m. they hugged and she went home. A few weeks later, there was a different government and it was the same as the one Germany had had before.
A friend from Berlin moved to Moscow and began sending her dispatches about the political scene in Russia. There was going to be an election and it was very important. No one knew what was going to happen. When you asked experts about it, they would say, “It’s too early to know.” Or else they said, “There are multiple possibilities.” Sometimes they would say, “The outcome of the Russian election will determine the future of the West.”
The friend had been following the campaign of Dmitri Narodny, a dissident who lived in the North and who was held under house arrest. The official charge was corruption, but really it was for organizing too many protests, said the friend. He had been challenging the president for many years. “They may let him run,” the friend wrote. “If he does, he could pose a real threat to the present situation. He could really change the thing.” He sent her a picture from one of the protests. An old woman was being carried by five policemen into a truck. Her forehead had been hit and blood trailed below her.
She looked at the picture. She googled “Dmitri Narodny” and there it was, the familiar face: thin lips and doughy cheeks and eyes that looked like they might turn cruel at any moment. She went to the website and scrolled down. “Andrei Ivanov—Press Secretary.” She clicked on the name and wrote:
Dear Mr. Ivanov,
I am an American writer living in Germany, where I cover European politics. I write for Vice, the Atlantic and the Boston Globe. I am hoping to write an article about Narodny’s campaign. You may know that Americans are anxiously watching this election. It would be good to give a behind-the-scenes look, so that they know who Narodny really is and what he’s up against.
Please let me know if this might be possible. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.
She tried to freelance. She wrote an article on Germans’ love of unicorns. There were unicorn candies and unicorn hand creams and unicorn alcohol and unicorn condoms. Often you would see an adult man, not even a hipster, a real adult man, wearing a shirt with a big unicorn on it. Were the unicorns a protest against the rising far right? That is what she asked in her article.
The next week, she wrote again.
Dear Mr. Ivanov,
I am just following up on my e-mail from last week. Might it be possible to follow you and Narodny around the campaign? I do think such coverage would give American readers a sense of the stakes involved in the upcoming elections, which, I am hearing, could determine the future of the West.
Andrei Ivanov wrote back a few days later. She quit her job at the news agency and asked her neighbor to look over the plants.
It was cold when she arrived in Murmansk. She was disappointed that this was the first thing she noticed when she left the airport. Everyone knew it was cold in Russia, even people who had never been there.
She took a taxi to the Park Inn and unpacked her clothes. She took a shower. None of the television channels were in English. She found her warmest socks and put them on, along with a clean set of clothes.
The house Narodny was held in was on the other side of Murmansk, which was bigger than she had anticipated. One week earlier, she had not known what Murmansk was. I’m in Murmansk! she thought. The house was at the edge of a low apartment block, on the side of the city that was nearer to the port, which it turned out was what Murmansk was known for. When she arrived at the house, she put up the hood of her coat and stood across from it. Armed car on the other side of the street, she wrote in her notebook.
No one around. Aside from the (minor? otherwise hidden??) police presence, you wouldn’t know this was the home of Russia’s most famous dissident, she wrote.
Very gray, she wrote. The word “nondescript” comes to mind.
She put away her notebook and squeezed her hands a few times. She walked slowly around the building, where she met no one. It was only four in the afternoon but it was already getting dark. Murmansk was the biggest city north of the Arctic Circle. She had learned this in her research. Back at the hotel, her boyfriend asked her on FaceTime when she would be returning to New York.
The next morning, she folded her clothes back into her suitcase. She packed a backpack with two notebooks, two pens, one pencil, a pack of gum, and a voice recorder. She went back to Narodny’s house and knocked on the door.
A man appeared. He was very tall and had brown hair. He would have been handsome but his hair was sort of overgrown and there was a stain on his shirt.
“You have arrived,” he said to her in English. He turned and she followed him inside.
She was surprised when she walked into the building that she had entered the living room of a house, but of course that’s what it was. What else would it be? There were computers everywhere. A woman was talking on her phone while tapping on an iPad. Another woman was looking at a map of Russia on a screen. There were two young men, who looked more Eastern European than the others, answering e-mails at the big long table, which was also covered in stacks of documents and old coffee cups and tissue paper still shiny from grease. It looked a little like a campaign headquarters in New Haven, but the floor was linoleum and the couches were leather. In the corner was Narodny, older than in the photos, dressed in sweatpants with a computer on his lap. A green light winked on his ankle.
She followed the doorway man, who pulled up two chairs across from Narodny for them to sit in. One of the women, the one who had been looking at the map of Russia, brought some tea and a plate of candied fruit. Narodny grabbed the woman’s arm and, without looking up from his screen, pulled her in for a kiss.
“You were here yesterday,” said the doorway man.
“Yes,” she said. “I just wanted to get a few notes. See what the locals think of Narodny’s arrest. I’m very sorry if it was any inconvenience to you or to Narodny.” She didn’t know whether to say “you” since he was right there, across from her, but figured it was all right since he was also a public figure. He was probably used to hearing his name like that. He didn’t say anything.
“Of course. You are a journalist,” said the doorway man, who introduced himself as Andrei Ivanov. “We’re always wary of fanatics, or, well—I hate to say it—assassins.” He looked at her grimly when he said it.
They put her on the top floor, in a room between Masha’s room and Svetlana’s room. Andrei and the two young men, whose names were Viktor and Anton, had rooms on the floor below. So did Narodny, though he spent most of his time in the living room downstairs. Masha was Narodny’s girlfriend. He kissed her and sometimes slapped her on the butt. Svetlana did some sort of research. She usually had a spreadsheet open on her computer. The two boys seemed to do errands. They came in and out a lot.
The room they gave her was very dour, with wall-to-wall gray carpeting and bedding that had faded in the wash. Outside the window was another apartment block. The windows in that apartment were shaded shut. Did the police use it to spy on Narodny? she wondered. She was very excited to be there. When Viktor brought up her suitcase, she put her sweaters in the laminate dresser with a little dance.
In the morning, there would be some sort of briefing for the day and Andrei would outline what they were going to do. Then Narodny would look at all of them with his serious eyes and give a speech that always ended in the same few words. This, she assumed, was a slogan. Maybe the slogan for his campaign. Then they’d disperse through the living room and that was a little better because they were all working in silence and she didn’t have to worry that she was missing what they were saying. She took furious notes about what she observed. She described the movements of Narodny’s staff, how they all seemed to hate each other and acted as if each one of them had been taken hostage in Murmansk by the others. She described how Narodny looked like a man beaten down by fate and sometimes she didn’t know whether he was thinking about the future of Russian politics or sleeping. She wrote about how he would sometimes get up in the middle of the day and give talks from the corner behind the couch, which everyone watched with a mix of elation and fear. Andrei’s one rule had been no pictures, so she sketched out a little map of the living room. When she ran out of notebooks, Masha gave her one of the laptops to work on. A lot of what she did was sitting.
At night, Viktor and Anton would come in with bags of groceries from the market and Masha would disappear into the kitchen and come back an hour later with a big meal. Noodles covered in cream or dumplings or, when it had been a long day, mashed potatoes from a powder mix. Sometimes Narodny would join them at the table. Sometimes he stayed on the couch chewing on a Snickers bar while the rest of them ate among the old coffee cups. “He is a man of the people,” said Andrei the first time Narodny ignored dinner. The second time he said, “His stomach is upset. It is hard on him, not leaving the house.”
Andrei was the only one who could speak English or wanted to and so she spent most of her time with him. He explained the history of Narodny’s movement, how he had been an anti-corruption official until he realized just how big the problem was. The entire Russian state, Andrei said, was built on corruption. How could an ordinary person in Murmansk or Vladivostok expect to have their fair share when all the resources were lining the pockets of the rich? He told her about Narodny’s party, how he had tried to become the mayor of Moscow, the people’s marches that had energized Russia but now seemed to be dying down. The only thing that could really change the country, he said, was an end to the rule of the oligarchs. “They pretend it’s democracy but it’s really dictatorship,” he said. She wrote this down.
After a few days she began to worry about the article. How was she going to write an award-winning long-form narrative if she just stayed in the living room? The structure of these things was usually the same. You’d have some dizzying anecdote and then an exposition of facts and then a few scenes and then a sort of ambivalent ending mentioning the upcoming elections. Usually there was a quirky incident or two to reassure the reader that the man in the article was still human, even though he was very famous and important. He’d eat an ice cream and dribble it on his shirt, or ride a bike with a neighbor’s kid. But Narodny didn’t leave the house and you could really only get a few hundred words out of sweatpants. There was no use in worrying too much, she decided. She was the only journalist there. She had the story.
One night the doorbell rang, and when Andrei went to the entrance, it wasn’t another journalist but a group of young Russians. They were dressed in jeans and long khaki coats with furry hoods. Three men and a young blond woman. They looked tired but when they walked into the living room they bounced around in a very happy, American sort of way. Narodny seemed excited to see them and got up and even hugged one of them, a curly-haired young man wearing a wrinkled white shirt. Viktor cleared the cups and documents off the table and wiped down the white plastic with a cloth. He took out three bottles of vodka.
“Our Moscow group,” said Andrei. “They are bringing news of their efforts there.”
The Moscow Russians sat around the table. Narodny joined them. She sat next to Andrei, who translated bits of conversation so that she could follow along.
“They say that they have talked to someone who is close to Medvedev,” said Andrei. “They say that international pressure has mounted on Russia.”
“They say that some within the government are saying that if the president feels Narodny is so weak, he should allow him to show his weakness to the Russian people.”
“They say that he will be allowed to run.” The Moscow group were shaking their heads excitedly and Narodny had his face in his hands. Masha got up to get another bottle of vodka and then a bag of chips, which the Moscow Russians finished almost immediately.
The mood was joyous now. It was almost like a little party. For the first time, she saw Masha and Svetlana talk to each other. Viktor took out his laptop and started playing music, some sort of Russian Annie Lennox. Masha was singing along. The woman from the Moscow group took out her phone and was showing Narodny a picture on it. It was a child, no older than two, going down a slide. Narodny had his hand on the woman’s shoulder and was asking her questions and she was nodding and smiling. Narodny was also smiling. His eyes were soft now, and his face looked friendly and inviting. Younger, too. She could finally see it, what made him someone who people would follow to Murmansk. It wasn’t his knowledge of corruption or his grasp of the importance of Russia’s regional differences, though she trusted Andrei that he knew more about those things than anyone else. It was the way he looked at each of them as if they mattered the most, as if the democracy he fought for wasn’t a plurality of voices but theirs alone. That’s it, she thought. That’s his secret.
She excused herself. As she picked up her glass, Narodny said something to her in Russian. She looked at Andrei. “He says that tomorrow he’ll talk with you. We will do an interview where he tells you the story of his campaign and how he will win the Russian elections. Meet him in the living room.” She laughed because where else would they meet? Andrei laughed too.
She went upstairs and opened her laptop. She wrote down her questions for the interview. She wrote, Ask him if he’s ever wanted children. (Good. Question usually only for women). She tried to describe what she had observed. She wrote, He’s the president’s strongest critic, but he melts when he sees a baby. She wrote: Possible title: The warm heart of the Arctic: Dmitri Narodny in exile. She was very pleased. She went to sleep.
When the door opened she thought it was one of the Moscow Russians, drunkenly lost on the way to bed. She said, “Sorry! No! It’s the American here! I think Masha said that you guys were sleeping on the couch.” But whoever it was didn’t understand English or didn’t hear, and when he got into the bed she could tell it was Andrei.
She was confused at first because why was he there? But then she knew he had a reason and though she turned away he pulled her back by the ribs. Vodka doesn’t linger long on the breath, she thought, and was ashamed that this, in this moment, had been the observation she had made. She was trying to push him away but he was not letting go. She remembered that although she now thought of him as “Andrei who answers my questions,” when she had met him she had noticed that he was very big and tall. She was alone in Murmansk.
He had found her breasts. He had them in his hands and then in his mouth, then began to push on her nipples like he was anxious to close the doors of the elevator. And she could feel that her underwear was now off, she was naked under the washed-out sheets. His whole weight was on top of her and she was pressing the palms of her hands on his chest to move him away but he seemed not to care. It went on a long time, longer than she had imagined it would. Not that she had spent much time imagining what it might be like. When it was over, he kissed her on the forehead and left.
The sunlight that came in the morning was brighter than usual and she thought, The winter in Murmansk is over, soon it will be springtime here. The entire North will be full of light and you won’t see darkness again for half a year. That is what she was thinking when she looked down and saw her underwear on the floor. She ached out of the bed and put the underwear in the plastic bag she had brought for dirty clothes. She would have to do laundry soon, she thought, but if she worked hard enough she would have the story before she was out of clean things. She felt around in the laminate dresser for a new pair and when she had showered and dressed she went downstairs, where Narodny was waiting for the interview, and Andrei was next to him, ready to translate.