Photo: Maxim D. Shrayer


By David Shrayer-Petrov

Translated from Russian by Emilia A. Shrayer and Mira Isabella Shrayer


From this entire seething adventure, crime, tragic incident (I don’t know how best to identify what happened before my eyes and with my participation), all that’s left in the years’ deck of cards is a sharp memory: the thunder and lightning of the brazen beauty’s green eyes and the curses and tears of an elderly gentleman who had changed from his military officer’s uniform into an awkwardly fitting cream tussore suit. And even though my recollections of these events have been dulled over the years, I still remember some of it.
I was seventeen years old, and dreamt of befriending a beautiful young lady. Like many young men, I had started dreaming of a beauty much earlier. But at the age of seventeen, artistic imagination made me realize exactly what kind of a beauty I was dreaming about. I was a frequent visitor to the Hermitage and the Russian Museum. It was probably art museums and endless reading that helped me conjure up an image of my desired beautiful lady out of hundreds of portraits painted on canvases or described by words printed on reams of paper. I was ready to recognize this alluring young beauty the way a mother is ready to recognize her unborn child. But neither the abstract mother, nor me, pregnant with my potential state of being in love, were given the chance to paint the portrait of our dream in advance of its arrival.
It happened in January 1953, a terrible year and month for Soviet Jewry. The exact date was 13 January 1953. On that day, the newspapers announced that “the unmasking of a gang of doctor-poisoners is a blow for the international Jewish Zionist organization.” This unleashed an unbelievably virulent harassment of Jews in the Soviet Union. Of course, I was feeling insulted and dejected, and of course I was volatile. More tragicomic was the fact that on the very same day, 13 January 1953, a performance by the famous tenor, Mikhail Davidovich Aleksandrovich, had been scheduled at the Leningrad Philharmonic. I could barely hope the performance would happen. But I had purchased the ticket far in advance, and so I went to the Philharmonic. Every seat was taken in the concert hall. I could see many Jewish faces in the audience. Among them, in the row behind mine, I saw the face of a young beauty, which struck me as extraordinary. She had red hair and green eyes. Her red hair stood up like the mane of a lioness, framing her face, which was milky white like the marble of ancient Greek statues. And her neck, also marblelike, flowed down into her high chest concealed by a white knit top. With the long fingers of her left hand, the young beauty held the concert program, while on top of her right hand, placed on the cherrywood armrest, was the right hand of an officer, his other hand aiming military-issue binoculars at the stage.
Aleksandrovich sang arias, romansy, and Neapolitan songs. The audience was incredibly enthusiastic. And I was constantly turning back to look at my beauty. Of course she didn’t notice my stares, absorbed as she was by the singing. During the intermission, as if under a spell, I followed my beauty and her military officer. He whispered some tender phrases and even kissed her neck once or twice, which made me insanely jealous. And yet, I knew that my time would come. And it did. While he stood in line to buy champagne and pastries, the officer left my beauty at a café table. I ran up to her table. She gave me a look of surprise.
“Don’t be surprised! I’ve been searching for you a long time. I’ve never seen a beauty like you. What is your name?”
“It’s Regina.”
“Where can I see you again?”
“Because I love you!”
“You’re a silly boy. What’s your name?”
“Daniel. Danya.”
With my peripheral vision, I could see that the officer was getting close to the concession counter. He was about to pay for his champagne and pastrieswhy did I imagine it with such clarity, champagne and pastries, and not chocolate and clementines?and pick up his order, and then, full of self-contentment, he would return to my beauty’s table. Full of self-contentmentthat’s exactly how I imagined it at the time.
“I love you, and we must meet tomorrow. Where?”
“Leave, now, crazy Danya!”
“Tomorrow at 5 pm outside the Ars movie theater.”
The Ars was an old movie theatre in Leo Tolstoy Square. I immediately believed her.
As the second half of the concert was coming to an end, Aleksandrovich performed an Italian song which hinted at a Jewish melody. The audience froze. I looked at Regina. Tears were streaming from her wide-open eyes. The officer was patting her hand and whispering words of comfort. Even the performance of a Jewish melody, daring in its outrageousness though veiled by Italian words, did not shock me as much as Regina’s tears. I wanted to get up from my chair and rush to her, to console her. I waited for the performance to end, then waited in line to get my coat and hat, and finally exited the Philharmonic. I didn’t see Regina and the officer outside. Had I imagined the whole thing?
I must’ve been unable to sleep all night. I don’t remember if I went to school that morning. The streetcar moved with unbearable slownessa winter, red-flanked caterpillar of the Leningrad streets, slowly gobbling the distances between the stops. The Nevka lay under the snow that was turning bluish in the early dusk. Somewhere in a side street, adjacent to Leo Tolstoy Square, I jumped off the streetcar. The evening passersby, like ghosts communicating with the help of Munchausen’s words that were exhaled and instantly frozen, flitted past me. There was still about half an hour left until five o’clock. I entered a corner supermarket to warm up. Long lines of people, tired and enraged with work and freezing cold, were streaming toward the salespeople standing at different counters. I wandered amid various sections of the store. People regarded me with suspicion and hatred. Or maybe it only seemed so to me. All Jews in the winter of 1953 felt that people were looking at them with suspicion and hatred. I left the supermarket and proceeded to walk from one corner of the square to the next, every now and then returning to the building of the Ars movie theater. As the arrow of the street clock stood still at five, I saw a woman slipping into the theater and heading for the ticket office. She wore a coat of squirrel fur but no hat or scarf. Who actually needs to wear a hat or a scarf when the flame of the red mane can vanquish the fiercest cold? I rushed inside after her. She was pulling two blue paper strips out of the ticket box window.
“Let’s go, Danya, the show’s starting,” she said.
We entered the dark, half-empty theater. They were showing a newsreel. Some ridiculous shots of rattling workshops, flaming open-hearth furnaces, workers’ rallies, military exercises, and visits of Arab or African leaders. We heard or saw nothing. We sat in the back row and kissed nonstop. Even now I don’t understand why she chose me, an inexperienced Jewish youth, still almost a boy. Maybe such were the times. She later confessed that she was drawn by my stare, both desperate and bewildered. Onceit was our second or third trystshe whispered some verses unknown to me before: “Like Daniel in the lion’s den…” Did she find a soulmate in me? Was it, perhaps, that the College of Physical Culture, from which Regina was about to graduate in a few months, didn’t usually attract Jewish students? She was a brilliant exception. The gymnastics champion of Moldova. Her family lived in Kishinev. With me, Regina could be frank. At that time, all the frank conversations among Jews started and ended with the same question:. What would be the outcome of the antisemitic campaign? Pogroms, imprisonments, or total deportation of Jews to Siberia or Kazakhstanjust as had previously been the lot of the Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, and Chechens?
Yes, Regina had a fiancé, Nikolai Nikolaevich Malinin. A major in the tank troops. He was doing advanced training at one of Leningrad’s military academies. In March they were planning to register their marriage and leave for the location of his division someplace in East Germany.
“Why in March, and not earlier?” I asked, choking with jealousy and hope.
“Ah, problems with housing!” She brushed off my question.
Regina rarely spoke about her major. “Kind. Honorable. When he saw this vile stuff about Jewish doctors, he spat and tore up the newspaper.” I didn’t want to rub salt into the wound. Was there a wound, anyway?
We met secretly wherever we could. In her dorm room. In friends’ apartments. At my place when everybody was at work. At museums. Yes, that was something we shared: a passion for museums and books. We kissed and talked about art and books. She was always in high spirits. Sometimes she allowed me to attend her practice at the gym. From a distance I observed how she would balance on the beam, turn on the vault, or fly on the bars. Sometimes right after lovemaking, when we both lay on her narrow student cot, and the February sun, like a small yellow bird, was barely pushing through the filthy window glass, Regina would jump down to the floor, naked, and perform various acrobatic numbers for me. The mane of red hair was thrust between her hips, her green eyes were asparkle. I don’t know how I managed to keep up with my studies. I had no desire to go to school. Some of the teachers relished reading to the class new details about “doctor-murderers” when these details were printed in newspapers. Only Regina’s love inspired me not to quit school altogether.
She convinced me it was better this way, and I promised not to mention her major, he of the tank troops. As if he didn’t exist. And indeed, he wasn’t present in our secret daytime life. In the evenings, I just waited for the next day when I could see Regina again. 
Early in March, Stalin died. And several days later, the radio and the newspapers announced that the Jewish doctors’ plot had been a mistake, a lie, a libel. I rushed to see Regina in her dormitory. We hadn’t arranged to meet that day; I was supposed to call her at the dormitory’s switchboard at an agreed-upon time to fix the next date. Joy, jubilation, confirmation that the truth had prevailedthat we Jews, having been slandered in vain, were once again cleared in the eyes of the worldthis entire gamut of springtime feelings filled my soul to the brim. I had to see Regina right away. I didn’t find her at the dormitory. Nor was she at the gym. I headed back home, hoping for a miracle. We didn’t have a telephone at our communal apartment. She knew my address. We had once agreed that, as a last resort, she would let me know of her whereabouts. But I couldn’t believe that the “last resort” would come. Every day after that, I called Regina at the dormitory, at the time we had previously agreed on, or like a spy, I sneaked into the gym. She was nowhere to be found. At last, at the end of that week, I received a letter from her: Dear Danya! I’m so lucky I met you-thank you. When you receive this letter, I’ll be very far away. I’m saying goodbye for good. Your red-haired lioness, Regina. 
Many years passed. I finished medical school and was drafted to the army. That’s how I became a military doctor. The tank division, where I was in charge of a medical unit in one of the regiments, was stationed on the outskirts of Borisov, a small city about an hour and a half northeast of Minsk. Officers’ drinking parties and dances at the local House of Culture at first dulled the acute longing for my home, friends, Leningrad streets, and museums, but only for a short time. Nothing else was left but reading. Luckily, the local bookstore had a weekly delivery of new books from the best publishers: Masterpieces of Literature, Soviet Writer, World, Art. And the library of the House of Culture subscribed to the leading literary magazines: New World, Banner, Neva, People’s Friendship. It was actually in the bookstore that I met Pavel Abramov. He was about three years older than I, and also my senior in rank. He served as a military doctor in a neighboring division. A Don Cossack by birth, he had finished medical school in Moscow, started doing research, and suddenlyas did many of usfound himself in this backwater, doing his mandatory military service. Even though Pavel didn’t shun the attention of young ladies, books were his only salvation. Pavel was a genuine southern Russian looker: tall, swarthy, dark-eyed, always sunny and ready for a joke or a drinking party, but equally ready for a heart-to-heart talk with friends, a serious conversation about books, medicine, or politics. He had an open and clear mind, which didn’t happen too often in the milieu of army officers, even among people of our generation. We found common ground in our appreciation of Dudintsev’s anti-Stalinist novel Not by Bread Alone, which, luckily, had not been removed from the Borisov city library. At that time I believed-and still do-in the magic power of the printed word. The love triangle in Anna Karenina (Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky) gave impetus to the characters of Dudintsev’s novel (Nadia, Drozdov, and Lopatkin). And the act of reading Dudintsev’s banished novel could in turn highlight a predicament that was reminiscent of Anna Karenina. And if my friend Pavel Abramov played the role of Count Alexei Vronsky, who in our backwater would get the parts of Anna and Karenin?
One day late in April or May, when the raging white-and-pink blossoms of apples and cherries filled the gardens of Borisov, Pavel drove up to my medical center in his green military jeep. His officer’s field uniform, made from a light, dark-green wool fabric (tunic, breeches, forage cap) suited him in a defiantly dashing fashion. Bursting from under his cap’s visor, a long wavy lock of raven-black hair accentuated Pavel’s Cossack appearance. I ordered my medical assistant Svistunovto this day I remember his funny name because of its linkage to the Russian verb svistet’, “to whistle”to bring some tea. We retired to my office, and Pavel confided in me that he was mortally in love, that she also loved him madly, that they had been seeing each other for over a month secretly from her husband, a lieutenant-colonel in a tank division, and that they wanted to get married but the husband wouldn’t grant her a divorce, and so they would have to elope.
“Yes, elope, run away!” Pavel confirmed.
“But where?”
“At first, we’ll go to Sochi. I, on furlough. She’ll tell him she’s going to visit her mother-her mother’s in on the whole thingwho will pretend she’s very ill and summon her daughter to Kishinev. Actually, she’ll only stop at her mother’s for one day, then fly to Sochi, and we will spend a whole month by the sea together.”
“And then?” I tried to push my friend to think logically.
There was no room for logic! As a result, my feeling of friendship prevailed over any sane argument. We created a planthat I take a leave of four days and head to Sochi, rent an apartment, let Pavel know the address, and wait for the fugitive lady. Pavel would join us the next day and I would return to my unit.
“What’s the name of your beloved?” I asked.
On the eve of my departure I was very anxious. A foreboding feeling of some encroaching inevitability took hold of me. I tried to reason with myself: “Lord knows how many Reginas there are in the world!” I don’t remember getting to Minsk or buying a roundtrip ticket to Sochi. I got off the plane and dove into the warm somnolent air infused with scents of sea, barbecued meat, and palm fronds. I rented a place on the outskirts of the city close to the Matsesta valley, stocked up on local brandy, and began to wait for my friend’s beloved. The cottage where I rented my lodgings stood on a hill above Sochi. In Stalin’s time the Leader’s dacha used to be nearby, and the standard-issue cottages, in one of which I was staying, were built for the guards. I was shocked to see a huge portrait of Stalin occupying half the wall in the hallway. I was sipping brandy and waiting. It was getting dark. Down below, the Black Sea roared and rattled. Sochi pulsated with floating lights. I wanted to forget about my commitments, join the dressed-up crowd of vacationers, go down to the place where no twisted adventures and conflicted plans abounded, and where instead there was a joy of life that one got to taste if only briefly.
But instead I sat and waited.
It became totally dark outside. I heard the roar of a car driving up to my cottage from the embarkment below. I rushed outside. The taxi driver removed a suitcase from the trunk and took money from a woman, whose face I couldn’t see in the darkness. She came up to me. It was Regina, my red-haired lioness. The taxi slipped away and disappeared into the darkness below. We entered the cottage. It was difficult to find the words after everything that had once happened between us, with many years of a death-like void, and now this sudden resurrection. Resurrection of what? What, if anything could be resurrected between us? I didn’t know how Regina had lived all those years. And I’ve since had my share of stormy loves, of funerals and separations.
I showed Regina to her room. I cut up some cucumbers and tomatoes for salad. I also had some bread, cheese, and bologna. We drank some brandy. She told me a bit about East Germany. I told her about my life in Borisov, about books, and about Pavel Abramov. Yes, we kept interrupting each other as we both talked about Pavel’s virtueswhat a wonderful doctor he was, what a fine athlete and horseback rider. We even touched on his research interests in pathology and his excellent drawings of dissected cadavers and tissues under the microscope. We talked about Pavel as if he’d always been in our lives. Then she went to bed.
In the morning, as I ran to the washroom across the hallway, I glanced at the Leader’s portrait. I thought for a moment that he was grinning through his moustache, half concealed by his brown pipe of polished wood. Only half a day remained until Pavel’s arrival. We had to find a way to pass the time. We decided to get breakfast in one of the seaside cafés. The downward path, which our landlord showed us, was steep, so we walked slowly. Now and then Regina would stop to pick flowers. At one of the turns, which had a little area where one car would wait while letting a car from the opposite direction pass, Regina turned toward me.
“You have changed, Danya!”
I was silent. I didn’t want to say banal things. She moved closer to me, her wide-open eyes bright like two moons over a Russian steppe.
“Kiss me, Danya, for old times’ sake.”
I embraced her. A wavewas it passion? need? love? memory?took hold of me. I forgot about everything else in the world. All my stern loyalty to Pavel, to whom I had been able to stay true all night, was washed away by a mountain stream of frenzied desire.
We were kissing, and didn’t hear that someone had climbed up from the road below and come up to us, screaming in a raspy voice: “Damn you both! Finally I found you!”
We saw an elderly man in an awkwardly fitting cream tussore suit. The collar of his white shirt was undone, the knot of his tie was loosened, his sandals were covered in dust. Sweat was pouring from his half-bald head. I could hardly recognize in this tormented, aggrieved old man the military officer who had once been Regina’s companion at the Leningrad Philharmonic.
“Nikolai, please calm down. It’s all a mistake…” Regina tried to explain the situation to her husband, but her words made no sense and weren’t convincing.
Indeed, what could she have said to her deceivedtwice deceivedhusband? I didn’t speak. It was a classic situation. Almost laughable. Except it was hardly a joke. Regina’s husband was wound up to the point of explosion, when people do crazy things. He retrieved a pistol from the pocket of his trousers. Every commissioned officer had a personal weapon. We used to carry it while on duty, and also during exercises and regimental inspections. At the end of such duties, we would return the pistol. How he had managed to get to Sochi with the pistol, I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. As luck would have it, no one else was on the road, walking either up or down. Not a person, an animal, or a car. Regina and I stood next to each other, and Regina’s husband was aiming his pistol. At me? At Regina? He was aiming for a long time, as if choosing whom to kill first. Suddenly his body was convulsed with sobbing, and his hand holding the pistol fluttered in the air like a white flag, a sign of surrendering and asking for mercy.
“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” he said, sobbing, then dropped the pistol to the ground and crawled up to Regina’s legs. He kept saying the same thing over and over again: “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t…” embracing and kissing her legs.
Stroking his wet, messy, half-bald head, Regina said, “Calm down Nikolai. Now please calm down.”
I left them there and returned to the cottage where Stalin’s guard once lived. I packed my bag and walked the narrow path down to the sea. The salt water calmed me down. I spent the rest of the day in the airport bar, waiting for my return flight. 

Copyright © David Shrayer-Petrov 2023. Translation copyright © Mira Isabella Shrayer and Emilia Shrayer 2023.

David Shrayer-Petrov (the author) was born in 1936 in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), and debuted as a poet in the 1950s. Exploration of Jewish themes put Shrayer-Petrov in conflict with the Soviet authorities, limiting publication of his work and prompting him to emigrate. A Jewish refusenik in 1979–1987, Shrayer-Petrov lived as an outcast in his native country but continued to write prolifically despite expulsion from the Soviet Writer’s Union and persecution by the KGB. He was finally allowed to emigrate in 1987, settling in New England. Since emigrating, Shrayer-Petrov has published twelve books of poetry, eleven novels, six collections of short stories, four volumes of memoirs, and a play-in-verse. Four volumes of Shrayer-Petrov’s fiction have appeared in English translation: the collections Jonah and Sarah, Autumn in Yalta, and Dinner with Stalin, and the novel Doctor Levitin, all of them edited by his son Maxim D. Shrayer. Dr. Shrayer-Petrov lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. 

Mira Isabella Shrayer (co-translator), David Shrayer-Petrov’s granddaughter, is a junior at Brookline High School. 

Emilia Shrayer (co-translator),David Shrayer-Petrov’s wife of fifty-five years and a former refusenik activist, has previously translated her husband’s fiction and nonfiction from the Russian.

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