Longform

L'AFFAIRE KRAVCHENKO

MILES AWAY FROM asphalt, in a secluded lodge north of Lake Pleasant, the Russian blusters and frets. Mad with dislocation, he drags his prison-damaged leg from room to room, bellowing for the interpreter, sounding like a wounded bear. Valentin Bodrov, the son of a traitor, has a child's capacity for both injury and delight. He is 56 years old, yet fresh to the world; he does not much like to be left alone.

Though the left side of his body was permanently weakened by the truncheons and jackboots of Soviet jailers, and his mouth wrecked by authoritarian fists, Valentin still looks robust enough to wrestle Fate. At last surrounded by Americans, he gestures and enthuses, oblivious to the opaqueness of his language and the pregnant lag of translation. He prattles on as the interpreter nods and lifts his hand to beg relief. Bodrov is happy to be here, so happy that he seems animated by crazy joy-yet at night, in his room, he weeps.

Valentin is a refugee. Like his father, he has left his country and his people, and he does not plan to return. He has taken shelter in the home of his half-brother, whom he has just met and whose existence he discovered only 16 months before.

In a scene rife with made-for-TV dramatic potential, Valentin embraced his father's other son at Sky Harbor International Airport on January 3. Two long-lost men of middle years-one Slavic and burly, the other fair and slight, but recognizable products of some of the same genetic materialÏfinding each other through serendipitous circumstances always makes for a touching, telegenic moment. But there were other factors that lent this particular meeting geopolitical gravity.

These men were the sons of Victor Kravchenko, who defected from the Soviet Union during World War II and wrote a controversial best seller exposing Stalin's Great Terror. Later, Kravchenko instituted an action in a French court that placed the Soviet state on trial for what we might today call human rights abuses. That trial, forgotten by most Americans, was a significant event in the early years of the Cold War.

Now the Cold War is over, and Soviet communism has crumbled like so much crummy socialist concrete. Today, Valentin Bodrov can stand in a thoroughly bourgeois bedroom on an old Arizona dude ranch and examine the artwork.

It was his newfound brother, Andrew Kravchenko, who years ago made the painting that now holds the Russian's attention. It hangs in the room where Valentin sleeps, and consists of two figures, a man and a woman, amorphous through a green wash. Only their eyes are defined: odd, fishy sockets boring clean, flat and dead through the fog.

"These people have the eyes of wolves," Valentin says. "They are the eyes of the last man in the bread line that's five kilometers long, and he's standing in line because his family is hungry. These people, they're wondering where the rest of themselves have gone-if you were to show this painting in Moscow you should title it `The Soul of the Soviet People.'"
Of course, there are no "Soviet people" anymore. The coming apart of Soviet communism, perhaps inevitable since the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev and certainly accelerated by the abortive putsch of last August, has left a residual, volatile "Commonwealth of Independent States." While, in western minds, chaos and uncertainty have replaced trenchant authoritarianism and numb bureaucracy as the prime signifiers of the Russian Soul, Valentin insists the gates to the gulag have not been sprung.

His visa allows him 90 days in this country, but he wants to stay. He fears if he goes home, his life will be in danger. He is cynical of the new "so-called democrats" and contends the Soviet police apparatus has not been dismantled. His name, he darkly hints, is on a list of those scheduled for deadly sanction. If he goes back, he fears, he will be killed.

²ÔThis feeling in the United States now, that there is no communism, that this has all changed now-this `Boy, isn't this great'-this is nothing but your American childhood," Valentin says. "You need to grow up. I pray to God that there will not be civil war. Therefore don't go around celebrating."

Possibly Valentin is being dramatic. He is capable of overstatement; there is even a charmingly theatrical side to his bluster.

But Bodrov's six years in a Soviet prison are no fantasy. His busted limbs attest to it, as does the faint ring of scar tissue-a trophy of attempted suicideÏthat circles his neck.

VALENTIN'S FATHER, Victor Kravchenko, stepped off the edge of the known world on April 1, 1944.

That night he boarded a train in Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, bound for a seedy New York City hotel room he later described as "made to order for suicide." A few days later, he surfaced on the front page of the New York Times, declaring himself a "fugitive from injustice" in a story of international consequence:

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Philip Martin