By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
"That's real good," Andrew says evenly. "Chris, would you ask him what good that's going to do? We don't read Russian. Ask him what good that's going to do us."
Chris is dutiful and Valentin is petulant. It is clear Andrew and Valentin are brothers-though they have been around each other for only a matter of days-and that they have reached a fraternal accommodation. Their circumstances sound like a high-concept pitch for the first post-Cold War situation comedy: "There's this American guy, see, who has this brother he doesn't know about, see, because he's a Soviet Russian! And then, like, after the fall of communism, this brother, like...well, he's penniless because they threw him in prison and took all his stuffÏhe gets out of prison and he comes to America to live with his rich American brother. And, like, these guys, they're real different, see, but they're kind of alike, too."
Having a Russian in the house can be taxing.
"Valentin is merciless," Andrew says. "He's going to wear poor Chris down; [Chris] can't keep this up."
Valentin's English is coming along, but it's not to the point where he can conduct an interview. He writes English somewhat better, but it is laborious for him. His story is squeezed out in discrete parcels, facts through an eyedropper. Eventually they collect, distilled and colorless.
In 1949, in Dnepropetrovsk, on the banks of the Dnieper River in the Ukraine, people were vaguely aware that Victor Kravchenko was on trial in Paris. There were some stories in Pravda, and at Number Seven, New Owl Street, the NKVD had paid a visit to Kravchenko's former wife, Dr. Zinaina Gorlova.
Valentin says his mother was forced to go to Paris to testify in the Kravchenko affair, that they coached her on what to say and that they threatened her family if she did not comply. Valentin was 14 at the time, and he remembers people coming up to him on the street and telling him his father was a traitor, but he has no memory of Victor, who divorced his mother soon after he was born.
It was coincidenceÏValentin says fate-that caused him to enroll in the same school his father had attended and to pursue the same course of study, metallurgy. He didn't know his father's history, only that the name "Victor Kravchenko" was the name of a traitor, carrying something of the same flavor as "Benedict Arnold" in the United States. He renounced his father and dedicated himself to Stalin.
"I loved Stalin," Valentin says in English. "I loved Stalin."
He slips back into Russian to explain he "was just a kid," innocent of the purges and brutality of Vladimir Lenin's heir.
"What did I know?" he says, shrugging in the universal acknowledgment of helpless ignorance. "I was 14 years old; I didn't know anything but what they told us in school. When Stalin died, I cried. I bawled like a baby. We didn't know what was going to happen to us."
It is difficult for Americans to comprehend the terrible uncertainty left in Stalin's wake. Even some prisoners in the gulag mourned him, some because they were convinced he was unaware of the abuses committed in his name, others simply because they were more terrified of chaos than of Stalin. Since before the Mongol invasion and the subsequent 250-year occupation, the Russian psyche had equated security with the rule of a potent prince. And no strongman was ever stronger than Stalin: He replaced all the banal worries of everyday life with one awesome fear.
"We cried because we were helpless," Ludmilla Alexeyeva, a Soviet dissident who published her memoirs in 1990, wrote. "We cried because we had no rational way of predicting what would happen to us now. We cried because, for better or for worse, an era had passed."
Valentin was a young man when, at the first post-Stalin Communist Party Congress, Khrushchev delivered a somber "secret" address-"On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences"-that exposed Stalin as a criminal. Again, the world seemed to give way beneath the feet of the Soviet people; all accepted wisdom was reversed. To a Russian, momentous events happen, but nothing ever really changes. That's why perestroika, glasnost and the fall of communism seem to matter less to Valentin Bodrov than they might to us, in our "American childhood."
"There was always the prisons," Valentin says. "Always they had political prisoners and common thieves there, all mixed together. They never let them all out; they haven't let them all out this time. If I go back there, they'll put me back in prison."
IN PRISON, VALENTIN learned about Victor. Jailhouse legends were passed on from generation to generation, and the prisoners in the gulag knew about Kravchenko; there, he was something of a hero. Though Valentin says I Chose Freedom never circulated in Russia-not even in an underground samizdat version-the book and its allegations were well-known.
And the state's institutional memory of Kravchenko might well have contributed to Valentin's own arrest and imprisonment. His story is terrible and familiar.
He renounced his father and the name "Kravchenko," and went to work as an engineer, repairing large heating and cooling systems. He became a member of the Communist party, married and led the life of an upstanding Soviet citizen. Occasionally, his remarkable resemblance to his father-Valentin has the same hooded eyes, the same brooding aspect, the same thick black hair-might raise an eyebrow, but only very rarely. His life was nondescript, and mildly privileged. He was talented and bright and a hard worker. He acquired a car, a decent apartment, a few perks.