Ludmila Tarasova had feared she might not be allowed back into Russia. Now, sitting in a cell-like office in the bowels of Sheremetyevo Airport, she worried about getting out. Two policemen had approached her at the departure gate in Terminal C — the new gateway to the Russian Federation. Mila, as she now called herself, had lived long enough in the Soviet Time to know that resistance was not an option.
Mila had left for America from the old terminal 10 years ago — a cavernous, teeming gulag of an airport, dark and choked with the smell of fuel, cigarettes and body odor. Russia’s past was present in the sinister little room where Mila now sat, her mink coat and matching hat accenting high cheekbones, blue eyes, and blond hair.
Princeton, A Week Earlier.
Sasha, Mila’s ex-husband, called her office. Her mother has suffered another heart attack. She must come. Yelena Fedorovna might be saved had she been willing to come to America, he noted. But she was stuck in a provincial hospital and given the state of Russian medical care, would not recover. Sasha bore his former mother-in-law no ill will. It was a statement of fact.
Mila was a scientist by education, an IT executive by occupation, and one generation removed from the Russian peasantry by birth. She had worked her way from Rozovka, a village outside of Moscow, to a series of well-paying IT jobs with various American companies. Now her training and her wits deserted her and the office erupted with cries that came from deep in the Russian soul. Rajit, her boss, was summoned to calm her. Her assistant, Soo Jin, an earnest Korean girl, who kept a bible in her desk, took Mila home to pack.
There was a For Sale by Owner sign in the window of the townhouse in West Windsor. Mila’s boyfriend, Ted, had moved out and was no longer contributing to the mortgage and upkeep of the house that was in Mila’s name. Soo Jin waited patiently in the immaculate living room that Ted had renovated.
Soo Jin’s cell phone rang. Rajit had arranged for a ticket to Moscow. A car was coming to take Mila to the airport.
Sheremetyevo Airport, Moscow
A surly immigration officer looked at her blue American passport and asked the usual questions of a usual suspect. Why had she left? Why was she back? Finally, he waved her through. Mila was home.
Sasha stood in the mob of greeters. He awkwardly held a bouquet of roses in the Russian tradition. His manners were impeccable, like those of an old aristocrat, as the family claimed to be. “My Sasha,” his mother would say, “ is like Pierre Bezukov in War and Peace.” “Yes,” Mila would silently agree. “Sasha is like Pierre Bezukov — a passionate dreamer and now no use to me.”
Volograd Regional Hospital
Mila had not been home for a decade, but the riverside town of Volograd and its crumbling hospital were the same. Her mother lay gasping in a large ward with 25 other women. She could be in Princeton Hospital with clean floors, crisp sheets, and humming machines pumping life back into her. But Yelena would not leave Russia. Her oxygen supply wasn’t turned on until Mila shoved a handful of rubles into the hand of the indifferent nurse.
Whenever a friend went to Moscow, Mila sent cash to Sasha for her mother. Even after their divorce, he dutifully made the 100-mile trip to Rozovka to give Yelena the money. There was no bank in the area. Had there been, no one would have trusted it. But now it seemed her mother had nothing — not even the price of a bribe.
Mila wrung a cloth in the chipped bedpan and wiped Yelena’s forehead. She moaned in pain and Mila paid more for a shot of morphine. Mila put her mink coat over her mother and then lay beside her on the bed. The night was long and cold and the wind from the river swept the falling snow. In the morning, Yelena was dead.
Deep drifts covered the wooden house and weighed down the tattered roof. When Mila was growing up there was a pig and a few chickens in the backyard. In the spring there was mud. In the summer, vegetables. Smoke from the lumber mill lay thick in the air.
The rooms were empty — neighbors had picked the place clean — but Mila saw it 20 years past. Her father, drunk, sprawled on the table. The drab green curtains and the hole in the floor that led to a root cellar. Thick icicles hung from the kitchen door and her mother broke one off and held it to her forehead. A migraine, she explained. Mila soon learned that migraines did not leave a bruise.
She turned to Sasha. “Is it worth anything?” she asked.
“Who do you think would want to buy it, Boris Berezovsky?”
Princeton — Two Years Earlier
“Oy, Kate. You do too much for that girl. You cannot trust those people — my bubie told me terrible stories about the Russians.”
“Next you’ll be telling me you hear the sound of Cossack hoof beats on Nassau Street, Rosie.” Kate McGuire poured Rosie Silverman another cup of coffee. She looked through the kitchen windows, to the carriage house she rented to the young emigre.
“You don’t know anything about her,” Rosie persisted. “I told you, she worked for a Russian radio station and got an invitation for an exchange program with ABC. When it was finished, they helped her get a temporary visa. But her English isn’t good enough, so she ended up working at Berlitz.”
The rent was nominal. Mila’s small salary as a translator barely covered it, but Kate was a childless and wealthy widow with a Colonial-era house and a popular show on the Food Channel. She came from a poor and fractious family of Boston Irish and knew a fellow fugitive when she saw one. Kate’s ticket out of Southie was a modeling career and minor roles in commercials. She met and married Martin McGuire, a wealthy New Jersey businessman and major contributor to Democratic campaigns. When Mila’s green card application came up for review, Kate simply picked up the phone.
Kate helped with many things — clothes, courses in English and computer programming, and even Mila’s long-distance divorce from Sasha. She stood proudly as Mila took the oath of citizenship and was promoted to VP at Merrill Lynch, all in the same week.
Kate suggested that Mila buy a place of her own. She wanted to convert the carriage house into a TV studio. Mila showed no reaction. Kate left for New Orleans to film a segment on Cajun cooking. When she returned, Mila was gone. E-mails, calls and letters were ignored. “What did I tell you,” Rosie began. But the hurt in Kate’s eyes stopped her.
Princeton — 6 Months Earlier
“That’s cold, man. Really cold.” Allan, the bartender at the Alchemist & Barrister poured another Scotch for Ted Melville. “Yeah. I got downsized, I wasn’t out of a job for two weeks and the bitch threw me out.”
The letter from Moscow State University came while Mila was working at the lumber mill. Her father had reached the Russian male life expectancy of 54 and died of a heart attack on the very floor she was sweeping.
A huge poster of Lenin, fist raised, dominated the walls. There had once been a portrait of Stalin there. Yelena often recalled Stalin’s death. Russians were crazed with grief. How would they go on without him?
In Moscow, the massive white facade of Moscow University commanded the skyline. One of Stalin’s skyscrapers, it was often decried, in whispers, as a monstrosity. To Mila, it was beautiful, despite her shabby room and the girls from Moscow and Petersburg who snubbed her.
Sasha was a slender, intense young instructor in Russian literature. Mila took his class in Pushkin and casually flirted with him, but her talents lay in physics and math. She graduated with an engineering degree and waited for the state to find her a job. When a position arose in Vladivostok, a closed city on the Pacific coast, Mila needed more than a reason to stay in Moscow — she needed a residency permit. Sasha, who came from an old Muscovite family with Party connections, was her best chance. She seduced him and a besotted Sasha, faced with Mila’s forced relocation to Vladivostok, married her. They moved in with his parents and his sister Katya, who referred to Mila as “the village girl.”
His elegant Italian suit was out of place in the shabby office, but Mikhail Alexandrov was not. He was in his element — an interrogation room.
“I am sorry to detain you Ludmilla Petrovna. We can resolve this very easily.”
“There is nothing to resolve, I am a U.S. citizen.” She pointed to her passport that lay with the plane ticket on the desk.
“Yes, you are. America has been good to you — a good job, your own house, friends with political connections. And until recently, a lover. Yes, Ludmilla Petrovna, we have been watching you for some time. You climbed so far, so fast. Just a village girl and now an American dreamer, isn’t that what they call it?
“Dream. The American Dream.”
“But the dream is over. Your house does not sell. Your lover loses his job. Your friend, Mrs. McGuire, betrays you. Why not return to the Motherland? We are growing, prospering. There is a place for you.”
“No! There is not! Do you ever leave Moscow? Do you see the villages with the little wooden houses and carved shutters? And no indoor plumbing? You think that’s quaint don’t you, you spoiled Muscovite bastard. It isn’t quaint. It’s cold and filthy. All you can do is gasp for air. Do you see the old babushkas in Red Square selling flowers that people put on Stalin’s grave? Will your parents die in a slaughterhouse of a hospital? Living here is like living in a big pile of shit and I will never come back!”
“You misunderstand, Ludmila Petrovna. You need not come back. You can help us by staying in the States.” Mila stiffened and Alexandrov continued. “Bush has left America in ruins. The country is finished. We can take advantage of the coming financial collapse in many ways. People like you can help us. Besides, think of what you owe Mother Russia — your education, your culture — your loyalty.”
Mila reached for her passport. “I owe you nothing!”
Alexandrov learned forward, his fist on her documents. “But we have been trying to find the right thing for you. Initially, we hoped you might help us to infiltrate Merrill Lynch — someone with your access to their database could be invaluable. But they will be sold and you will be dismissed.” Mila began to tremble — there were rumors, of course. Alexandrov seemed very sure.
“I knew you were KGB!” she hissed. Alexandrov was not amused. “We don’t use that term. Ever.”
Then he smiled. “You must not miss your flight, Ludmila Petrovna. I have written a name and number in New York on the inside of your ticket jacket. Call it when you return. You may follow your American Dream.”
The return flight landed at JFK, not Newark, but that would be no problem. Mila would stay at the Plaza tonight. She was quite sure she could afford it. As the cab crept through the Midtown traffic she pulled out her cell phone, looked again at the inside of her boarding pass and dialed. The nasal whine of a New York secretary answered. “AIG. Jeffrey Frankel’s office. Yes, Ms. Tarasova. We’ve been expecting your call.”
Sweeney is president of Anne Sweeney Public Relations, a marketing communications firm based in South Brunswick. Anne worked for Pan American Airways and Intercontinental Hotels before starting her own firm in Central New Jersey in 1990. She has traveled to more than 40 countries, including the Russian Federation and the former USSR.