Yevgeny’s is a strange childhood, raised by the men who murdered his parents. Surrounded constantly by the rough thugs who answer first to Cheka, then OGPU before finally settling on NKVD for the next pair of decades. The child haunting the Lubyanka. Some of the prisoners, driven half-mad by torture and deprivation, take him for a ghost upon sighting him, this quiet boy roaming unrestricted in this place of restrictions, apparently unnoticed at times by their captors.
These hard men see to the boy’s education, and he receives a better one than most in Soviet Russia at the time. A strange education, compared to the decadent West; the boy reads Lenin, and Trotsky when he is still in vogue. Young Yevgeny shows a gift for languages, so the Chekists find him a string of tutors, who school him in German, French, Polish, Ukrainian, the languages he will need to spread international revolution.
His German tutor, an old Menshevik who failed to emigrate in time, is strict but kindly; he slips the boy sugary sweets when he performs well, and does not beat him like the others when he fails. A strict word of reproach serves to correct, and, after time, Yevgeny finds, stings worse than the strike of any fist. Soon he reads Marx and Engels in their original German, and recites pages at a time from Das Kapital, to the appreciation of his comrade teachers. One morning, reporting for his studies, the boy is crying. Instead of striking him, as the others do, the old Menshevik asks what the matter is, and listens kindly while the boy explains his troubles, which are numerous, even for an adult. A torturer’s soul is troubled or has been carefully excised, and Yevgeny is too smart for the scalpel, and too young for the things they’re teaching him, the sights he’s seen. He misses his parents, though he cannot remember their faces.
The old Menshevik commences to teaching Yevgeny the stoics. He adds Marcus Aurelius and Seneca to the curriculum. When the Chekists confront him on this unauthorized addition, he explains that their words will forge the boy into a better soldier, which is, after all, what they are training him to be, even if the boy does not recognize it yet himself. The Chekists, satisfied, leave him be for the time being. Meanwhile, the boy’s agile mind adapts the stoics to what he knows, Lenin and Marx and the grim executioners of the Lubyanka. Their virtues become one. The old Menshevik does not realize it, but he is creating a true believer, an ideologically driven monster born of his compassion.
Some of Yevgeny’s instructors cannot read, so they teach him to pull a trigger, and put a bullet where he means it to go; and how to fight with a knife, and how to kill a man with his hands, and where to beat him so as to cause the maximum amount of pain without irreparably damaging him. The boy gets to be very good with a hammer.
Dzerzhinsky comes down to meet the boy, to see what they refer to as his talent. The head of the Cheka is not old, only 44 at the time, but he looks older than he is, the victim of a hard life. He will be dead before 50. When the boy cannot change on command, he charges the instructors with motivating him. Threats are implied, and it is with a deep-gnawing fear that they beat Yevgeny, again and again, until finally he learns to command his power. The first time he changes, the shape within ripping through the shape without, suddenly and atrociously, in the space of ten seconds or less, it startles them all.
The first time he shows them the creature he can become is the first time he kills a man. He selects the cruelest of his teachers, a reviled beast sporting the nom de guerre of Chekov, perhaps thinking himself literary, and tears and slashes until little of him resembles a man. When Yevgency changes back, he laughs at his tormentors, cowering together like frightened rats in the corner of the room, and leaves them to clean up Chekov’s mutilated remains. Once he is out of their sight, the boy doubles over and vomits until there is nothing left in his stomach.
Some of his handlers are soon replaced with sterner men, more careful men. One in particular, Gavrilenko, understands that violence is a tool to be applied in sufficient measure to obtain one’s goals, a means to an end, not an end in itself. From Gavrilenko he learns to wield violence as a painter swings his brush.
With his new handlers comes a political officer. It is time for Yevgeny to learn past Marx and Lenin. This is the age of Stalin, and a new communism is in order. The political officer tells him he must exterminate the enemy within as well as without. The boy learns to hate his parents, to hate their names, though he carries his father’s like a scar. Ilyich. The name haunts him, reminds him of those who loved him, those class enemies righteously executed by his new protectors.
“Comrade Commissar,” he says one day, “I am afraid.”
Despite his occupation, the political officer is not without compassion, so quietly, almost like a priest, if you could find one at that time in that land, he asks, “What troubles you?”
“Good communist soldiers must fight, to spread revolution and earn peace for the New Soviet Man.”
“Yes. The priests lied to us; there is no heaven. You must create a paradise here on earth. And no paradise is without cost.”
“But what becomes of those soldiers when the war is over?” He is a sensitive boy, too introspective, perhaps, and saline gathers at the corners of his brown eyes.
“What do you think happens?” the commissar says.
“When the proletariat is free, the soldiers must stop killing. They must become farmers and workers.”
“Yes. That is so.”
“What if they cannot? Comrade Commissar, this is all I know. I cannot farm. I cannot operate a factory machine.”
The political officer watches the boy for a moment, pondering his next words, or perhaps knowing them exactly, waiting simply for dramatic effect. “It may be that these things can be learned, even by one who has never known them,” he says. “Or it may be they cannot. Paradise is not for everyone, including some of those who help to build it. But is that not the greatest sacrifice you can give of yourself? To give all of yourself so that others may dwell in a paradise you may never enter?”
The political officer leans close, whispers his next words. “History will remember the names of great men until the last days of the Earth. Marx, Lenin, Comrade Stalin. History is simple, it is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, to whitewash the complexity of human interaction. Just because your name is not mentioned in the story does not mean that you did not play an equal part in shaping it. If I teach you nothing else, nothing at all, let me teach you this lesson: power comes from the people who do. Without the people, without the proletariat, there is no history. There are no great men. Do you understand?”
Yevgeny nods. He does.
He executes a prisoner for the first time when he is fourteen. The Chekists choose well. When Yevgeny enters the killing room with the pistol heavy in his hand, he sees the back of the old Menshevik. The old man is seated, shoulders slumped in resignation. Yevgeny notices for the first time how dirty his suit is, how disheveled his hair. Mercifully, the old Menshevik does not turn and witness this betrayal. His killer remains anonymous to him. Yevgeny remembers his training, remembers his cause. The Menshevik was kind to him, but he is the enemy. Yevgeny must be monstrous so that people may live without monsters. He aims and fires before he can lose his nerve in front of all of these expectant eyes. The bullet severs the old man’s spine at the base of his skull and he falls forward out of the chair, as limp and formless as a sack of grain.
Gavrilenko wipes the tears from his cheek and says, “Good boy, good Zhenya. You are a grown man now.”