SLAVA UKRAINI! GLORY TO UKRAINE!
March 8, 2022
Flames for a Revolution
The day before November 7, Keith and I drove from Helsinki through Novgorod on our way to Moscow. As a diplomat with the American Embassy, Keith was allowed to bring a new foreign car into the Soviet Union. For us, it was a splendid opportunity to see the arrangements for the upcoming celebrations of the October Revolution in that part of the country. According to the day observed by the Gregorian calendar, the festivities always fell on November 7.
En route back to Moscow, we saw quite unexpected expressions of communist fervor. Along the roads hung red flags, red posters, and red banners. On one side of the main square in Novgorod stood a huge placard with pictures of various members of the city's central commitee. On the other side, equally large, stood an enormous picture of communism's three most celebrated heroes: Marx, Engels, and Lenin.
By the time we reached Moscow the commemorations had already started in the city. As we passed Gorky Street a gigantic picture of Lenin appeared on a building, encircled by flashing red lights. All the surrounding streets had been embellished with red flags placed in metal hooks sticking out of most building facades. The flags flapped in the wind, sounding like an orchestra that followed us all the way home in our new car. The Soviets must have rushed because we had not seen any flags when we left. The job seemed almost routine, like a practice performed year after year, since the days of the Revolution.
Bolshaya Ordynka, where we lived, led into the embankment near Red Square, the country's major celebration site. The activity around our apartment started in the early hours of November 7. People with cheerful faces stepped out of endless buses parked in the vicinity and made their way towards the square. Most carried small red flags, just red, nothing else. It seemed there was no need to embroider the golden hammer and sickle on the upper left corner, as it appeared in the full-size flag.
As I looked out our apartment window I said to Keith, "It's amazing how happy the Soviets look today."
"This is the main Soviet holiday, Laura. People don't have to go to work; they even get free rides to Red Square."
The average Soviet expected, rightfully, a few exceptional happenings on this special day: the celebration of the victory of communism, the tribute to Lenin's memory, the military parade and, finally, the view of all the Politburo members lined up by the specially erected wooden tribune on top of Lenin's mausoleum.
This happened but once a year.
As Keith and I did not feel like elbowing our way through the crowds in Red Square, we sat on the sofa and watched the celebrations on television. It would be easier to take a stroll afer the ceremonies were over.
Television was a superb medium to help intensify people's patriotism. It kept viewers in a state of alert, as if their country was at risk of imminent foreign invasion. Announcers constantly referred to their rodina, the motherland, a feminine word in Russian, as a land different from other nations. They told Soviet citizens that they stood apart—after all, they had produced not only a unique revolution but had also played a major role in helping the European powers defy the Nazis in the Second World War.
It was easy to imagine that the Bolshevik Revolution had happened only the week before.
Keith and I decided to go out when the ceremonies ended on television. The November day was almost warm for Moscow, the sky even showing patches of blue amidst enormous white clouds. Hordes of orderly citizens were already returning from Red Square. As we walked briskly along, I pointed at a few cheerful groups.
"Look at those people over there, Keith." I indicated a group carrying a huge red banner. "Listen to how loudly they're singing."
"See how every man has a znachok," he answered pointing to one of the characteristic communist lapel badges.
Children ran helter-skelter ahead and behind the groups, excited by the atmosphere. The joyful feeling of a party, not yet over, was still in the air. Keith and I felt drawn into this lively atmosphere.
Again, I turned to Keith, "I feel almost happy today."
"Good, Laura, enjoy it. You don't seem to feel that way very ofen here."
"People seem so light-hearted. It's contagious."
"I know." Keith put his arm around my shoulders. "Somehow life seems manageable today."
"I'm glad you can enjoy this country if only for a few hours," he said, clearly relieved by my good mood.
In ten minutes we were in Red Square.
The square was surrounded by portable metal fences brought in for the occasion. Placed at regular intervals, they provided the strategic entrance points into the large open space. Afer showing our diplomatic cards to the militsioner closest to the Moscow River Bridge, we got in quickly. Pushing against the crowds still coming out, we headed in the direction of Lenin's tomb. We wanted to be near the country's central Soviet symbol.
The large crowd had dwindled but there were still groups of people strolling and talking, showing children the honor guard marching stiffly back and forth, enjoying the sense of space. A feeling of relaxation prevailed.
We saw a few friends from the diplomatic community and started to chat. My friend Ellen, married to Peter Thompson, came to greet us. "How was your trip?" she asked.
"Great, we finally have a car. We had a wonderful lunch in Novgorod yesterday!"
"What was so wonderful about it?"
"Oh, we found a restaurant near the monument dedicated to one thousand years of Russian history and shared a table with two Soviet college students. We discussed literature, Gogol, and Russian absurdities."
"Changing subjects: did you hear that the General Secretary didn't attend the celebrations? Ellen asked, and then continued, "No Soviet broadcast mentioned it."
"That figures," I answered. "What did you expect? That the Soviets disclose Andropov is at death's door?"
"It's only the second or third time since the Revolution that a General Secretary hasn't attended the October celebrations. It's definitely unusual."
We continued chatting casually, until Keith, who had been talking to Peter, suggested that we return home. We said good-bye to our friends and turned our backs to the mausoleum. But, at that precise moment, a rush of people pressed toward the monument, and we heard loud screams. We looked on in awe.
Close by, just a few steps to the right of the mausoleum, we saw—horror of horrors—a man on fire. There, before our very eyes! He was small and frail and half naked. And he was on fire.
It was staggering to see a living torch in front of us.
His body was entirely covered, including his face, in a dark-brown substance, no doubt flammable. The dark and loose-fitting rags that covered his pelvis and legs were quickly consumed. The flames traveled at high speed eating material, skin, and bone. Afer a few minutes, both arms and shoulders, then the torso and head, all leaned forward, as if unable to remain upright. It was noticeable how his right arm and shoulder tilted lower than the left.
Surprisingly, the human torch made no sound—there was no shouting, no crying, nothing. The screams we heard came from the people around us.
I could smell the scorched flesh, something I had never experienced before. Distracted by the odor, I was not sure how much time had elapsed. Foreigners and Soviets alike stood still, as if glued to the ground; everyone was so shocked that we all seemed paralyzed.
Suddently, a black Volga darted from the side of the square where the GUM department store was located. Mere steps from us, the burning body crumpled to the ground, arms and legs folded in a small circle. Five men dressed in civilian clothes spun out of the car and rushed towards the circular pile, still a human body. With a fire extinguisher and a few light gray blankets they put the flames out.
Their gestures were efficient, resolute, brutal.
And still no sound, no sound whatsoever, came from that body—no shouting, no crying, nothing.
Was the man still alive?
The body was swifly carried to the car and thrown onto the floor in the back. The men, no doubt policemen in disguise, kicked it repeatedly to adjust it in place. Afterwards, two of them sat in the front, and three were in the back with their feet on top of the body. As the Volga sped across Red Square, those who had not witnessed the scene could not have noticed anything peculiar about the car. The policemen had not placed the body in the trunk, I suspected, to make sure that, if still alive, it could not escape.
Keith and I returned to our group of friends; they talked nervously, unable to leave, pretending that the unsolicited vision, which no one wanted to acknowledge or confront, had not occurred. Maybe we all had had a bad dream, totally outside our realm of former experiences, collective nevertheless, as the Soviets so much enjoyed.
At once, all of us, Soviets and foreigners alike, were surrounded by KGB agents in civilian clothes. We were unable to figure out how they had arrived so quickly.
The KGB bureaucrats were distinct—and dressed differently from regular Soviets. The shoes, the stylish clothing, the warm, comfortable overcoats, were all exclusive marks of their elite status. Also giving them away were the well-washed faces, the trimmed beards, the good haircuts. And they were all fat, as someone accurately observed, even beefy.
They had thin wires running along their broad chests inside their overcoats, and reaching the woolen scarves around their necks. What ordinary Soviet would be carrying that kind of portable radio?
My throat dry with tension, I examined their air of authority, stern expressions, and steady eyes. One Soviet standing not far from me talked excitedly to a group of people eager to hear what had happened. He was quickly taken away with a KGB officer on each side.
Ellen's husband, Peter, had had a chance to take a picture of the small figure in flames. I had seen him positioning himself for the shot. The human torch was in the center. In the background, by the Kremlin wall, hung a poster showing a group of smiling Soviet workers talking to peasant girls.
"Give me your film," said one beefy KGB agent approaching Peter.
"This is my camera," Peter replied.
The man did not lose a beat but looked Peter in the eye and said, "Give me your film, or I will take your camera."
"These are my orders," was the agent's reply.
Peter exposed the film himself instead of fighting or giving his own camera to the man.
Other agents came closer trying to hear what our group was saying. A well-built man and a woman stood near us pretending to talk to each other. I noticed the good clothing, the polished shoes, the clean features. Seconds later the man came toward our group while his friend took a picture of us.
Irked, Peter addressed the man, "Come closer. Why don't you stand in the middle? This picture with all of us might earn you the Order of Lenin. What a great honor!"
The fellow smiled stupidly.
The glances between our group and the agents detailed the hostility of the Cold War itself. Who would vacillate first? Who could stand the pressure longer? Who might strike the next blow? It seemed to go on forever. The KGB agents gazed blankly at us, but remained, indisputably, in charge. We were astonished. A Soviet woman not far from me, disturbed by what she had seen, talked loudly to the people around her. An agent approached and stood by her side. I faced him deliberately. She asked him for an explanation of what had happened—once, twice—but got no answer. After a while, scared by his impassive expression, she became quiet.
Another Soviet man stood near us and talked loudly to himself, "This person had no sense, he could have set the mausoleum on fire. It might have been dangerous for Lenin's body. Who was that man? No Soviet, not one of us, would have done something like that."
The KGB representative left this Soviet to his own monologue.
Our group continued to stand around for a while, talking. Minutes later, Keith and I decided to leave, there was nothing left to do. Keith was a young, low-ranking diplomat, no one bothered to follow us. We walked silently for a while. Carefree people were still all over the place. A couple threw red carnations at each other. Closer to home I asked Keith, "Do you think the human torch didn't want to shout? Or he couldn't?"
"I think he chose not to. He must have planned this for months, if not years," Keith said.
"What about the rotten smell?"
"Something to remember forever."
I felt like one of the rags that the human torch had been wearing. As we continued to walk I added, "I really detest the secrecy in this country."
At home, we did not do much for the rest of the afernoon. Our building had a common furnace, therefore we could not regulate the temperature in our apartment independently. Since the day was not too cold, it was rather hot inside, even stifling. I changed from street clothes into something lighter in the bedroom. All our apartment's windows had been sealed for the winter with cotton and tape, so I could only open the bedroom fortochka, the upper windowpane, so small, so typically Russian.
But it did not help. My skin started to itch, my legs were tingling. It was as if I was burning, too.
Abruptly, I started to scratch myself and scratched for hours. Keith was as shocked as I, and that made him rather sympathetic. He held my hands, trying to calm me down, but to no avail. I seemed unable to relax or even take in the bit of cool air that came in through the fortochka.
The next morning my legs were covered in red sores, deep marks from my own fingernails.
"Krasnaya Ploshchad," I told Keith, "I know it means Red Square, Beautiful Square, in old Russian. But this square will never be beautiful in my eyes again. Never. Not even in a million years."
"I understand, we saw something awful," Keith said.
"Do you think there's a yearly immolation in front of Lenin's mausoleum? And do you think that, yearly, it goes unreported?" I persisted.
"We'll never find out," Keith replied, still trying to calm down my hands.