They were lined up outside the door to the Actor’s Union, seated in chairs on either side of the hall. There was Dima and Tolya, Ilya and Luka, and that bore Vladimir Antonovich Pugachov, who would never cease to remind you that he had studied at the feet of Stanislavski himself. Boris Nikolayevich lifted his hat to say hello, but he received only a few nods of recognition in return. Everyone was going over their lines. The hallway buzzed with that earnest mumbling peculiar to Jews in prayer and actors before an audition.
Boris walked to the office at the end of the hall and grabbed the clipboard that hung from a string. He added his name to the list, then turned, looking for an empty chair – halfway back in the direction he’d started. As he moved toward it, he realized that all the actors had dark hair. A decade earlier, he would have noticed this when he reached the top of the landing. But a decade earlier he would not have been out of breath after only three flights of stairs, and so his skills of observation were the least to change.
Boris fell into a seat with a groan and took off his hat to wipe his brow with a handkerchief. At his left sat an actor who’d returned from a camp in the North. While the others had dug a canal, he had put on plays for the guards and the inmates. He had been beaten when he forgot his lines, but then it was not whether or not you were beaten, he’d said, only why. With such words, Boris was sure the man would be going back, if not to a camp in the North, then one to the east. He looked at the man across from him: Vladimir Antonovich, his co-worker at the Moscow Air Field and the man with whom he shared a communal apartment on the outer edge of the new Metro line. Vladimir Antonovich had worn a full beard at breakfast, but since then he’d shaved all but a tiny patch of hair – a mustache no larger than the shadow beneath his nose. Boris wanted to laugh. He wanted to throw his elbow into the ribs of the man next to him and point. “Look at my neighbor,” he wanted say. “Do you see!” But he also wished his eyes had not opened on such a thing, for with the threat of Fascist Germany growing in the West, Boris could only think it must be a crime to wear Vladimir’s mustache this side of Minsk.
He threw his handkerchief into the crown of his hat and slid his feet out before him. He had not even stopped by the previous week to pick up a copy of the script. But then why bother? It was just another propaganda film, and for five years now the formula had been the same: Overcome this hardship, survive that, remember always the glory of the state. It was maddening. He wanted a part. Something he could sink his teeth into. Something worthy of his three years of study at the State Red Flag Theater for Russian Drama. But no, he got cast as a peasant, always a peasant. Take this sickle, they said, go into that field. Now sing a patriotic song and stand proud like the New Soviet Man. He swatted the air – “Bah!” – and only realized he’d said this aloud when Vladimir Antonovich glanced up from his script and squinted, causing his mustache to arch like a caterpillar.
Boris’s smile bounced. “My wife,” he said, “she asks that I go to the market, but this is women’s work, I tell her.” Again, he swatted the air – “Bah!” – and with this Vladimir Antonovich nodded and returned to his lines.
Boris pulled his hat down over his eyes. Sleep, that is what he needed. To disappear from this place and sleep.
When he awoke it was to a voice calling his name: “Boris Nikolayevich Ivanov!”
He sat up blinking and pushed back on his hat. Vladimir Antonovich came hurtling down the hall toward him, his hand clamped tightly over his mustache as if he were gathering the courage to pull it off.
“Boris Nikolayevich Ivanov!”
Boris stood, bumping shoulders with Vladimir Antonovich as he passed, and strode off after the woman who’d called his name. She dropped the clipboard on its string and turned into the Union Hall. When he met her inside, Boris was handed a script and pointed to a podium at the front of the room.
“A podium?” he said.
“For your speech,” she said.
He nodded slowly, the adrenaline of his mad dash now gone. He should have expected this: Art reduced to messages, acting turned into a simple recitation of the lines. These were the times, after all, and so as he walked behind the podium, he wondered what they would have him do if he got the part. Tour the farms by train? Give lectures from Moscow to Kiev, praising collectivization and damning the kulak? Well, he would do it. He would do it if they asked because at least it meant he wouldn’t have to push a broom, that he could stay at home and learn his lines and leave the rest to Vladimir Antonovich and Old Man Petrushkin at the Air Field.
“Will I be reading alone?” he asked.
The woman nodded, seated now behind a table that was shared by a man with a blue nose and a red scarf. The director. Boris didn’t recognize him. But then what did it matter who directed what when not one line of dialogue could be changed without two rubber stamps? It had happened on a film he had been cast in back in ’35 or ’36. The director had insisted on changing some dialogue, and so the rewritten lines (there were only three) had been sent to the Central Administration of Literature and Publishing, where they remained for fifteen months. When the script came back, with its binding sealed in red wax and CALP stamped across its front, the director and the actors had gathered round a table to read through the now largely forgotten work, and it was then that the director realized he preferred the lines the way they had originally been written. “I see that now,” he said. “It was much better, was it not?” And it was, they all agreed. But the lines were also no longer approved, no matter if they had been only fifteen months previous. So the script was returned to the Central Administration, where it promptly disappeared, as did the director.
Boris looked for the name of the writer on the title page, then squeezed his eyes closed, reminding himself that this too was meaningless. After all, a country of artists had entered the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers – Kirshon, Nikolai Pogodin, the great playwright Nikitin – but only one had emerged: the New Soviet Man. And so now while the setting of a movie might change from a factory to a farm, or even blast off into outer space, the story line never changed. There was the politically conscious worker and the one who believed not in the values of the state. From there the formula was simple: unmask, catch, and execute the kulak or saboteur. Do this with the wise counsel of a member of the Communist Party and the approval of an older worker who supplies the same tired Bolshevik jokes. It was enough to make Boris wish for the courage to escape to Hollywood, where at least movies – or no, films – were made for the pure true sake of art.
He cleared his throat. “From the top?”
The director nodded.
Boris turned the page and read:
INT. AUDITORIUM – BERLIN – DAY
Where NAZI FLAGS and SWASTIKAS decorate a stage filled by NAZI LEADERS and GESTAPO OFFICERS.
HITLER appears on-stage to the CHEERS of an ADORING CROWD. He approaches a PODIUM, and waits for the silence that will allow his speech to begin.
Boris Nikolayevich looked up, his eyes as soft and misty as they had been the day he’d dropped to one knee before his wife. Hitler? He could play Hitler? Because this was a part, this was a part worthy of three years of study at the State Red Flag Theater for Russian Drama!
The director twirled a hand over his head. “When you are ready.”
“Yes,” Boris told him, “yes,” and here he counted to three and breathed deeply through his nose, regaining his composure as he straightened his back and lifted his chin. His face hardened. He used the palm of one hand to pat down the front forelock of his hair. Then it began. And when he launched into the lines, his voice was so powerful, so full of spittle and hate, it could have brought hail from above and risen the dead from below. He gestured, he slapped at the podium and clawed at the air, denounced the Jew and the Communist, the Communist and the Jew, and broke off only once to say, “Wait, can I do that again? I would like to try something different when I say ‘communist.’”
It was a command performance. His throat grew hoarse from the fury of it all. And when the director came out from behind his desk, looking so grim it could only mean he was happy, Boris Nikolayevich Ivanov knew he had the part before they were even shaking hands.