Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Honorable Mention — Love in the time of Dystopia

By Jan Cymba 

In an alternative dystopian future, where the world has never got out of the clutches
of communism, an old man returns to his hometown to sum up his life.

The old railway station seemed fresh, as the blue-white express appeared between the rusty freight wagons. The train creaked awfully while braking. With great effort, Josef opened the metal door and stepped cautiously to the cracked platform surface. He walked slowly, which was natural due to his age, but he also wanted to enjoy the view of the scenery ahead. After all, he was not in Brno for sixty years.
The city was cadaverous as the deepest night. On the street that he remembered as New Gardens, there were few people hanging around, eyes tilted into the ground. The ubiquitous silence was interrupted only by the characteristic jingle of trams, which evoked pleasant nostalgia in Josef. Instead of taking a ride he went further to explore the remains of the cathedral in Petrov, from which he could not look away. The well-preserved tower of the Brno landmark boomed to the sky and looked epically in contrast to some drab block of concrete that encircled it. That pinnacle served as the reminder of the old world, which outlasted only in memories of such witnesses as was Josef.
He toured the city for two hours. Lapsed in the moment, he euphorically danced through the ruins of Freedom Square, not thinking about the reasons for his presence in Brno. Numerous places assembled him a mosaic of his childhood. Mr. Řericha's confectionery, where he used to go for sweets after school or the ideological library of socialist youth, where he became first acquainted with the teachings of Marxism-Leninism and tasted the forbidden fruit by reading samizdats. However, one spot had deeper meaning to him.
Huge chemical storage was standing on the place where the Church of St. James once grew, the alley leading to St. James‘ Square however looked credible to its state decades ago. Josef opened the paper sheets he was carrying and pulled out a yellowed postcard that portrayed the ambiance before him. He ran his eyes from the image to the alley and back. He moved on, trying to orientate himself in the space between the warehouse and opposite houses, whose entrances were filled with construction rubble or nailed with wooden planks. After a while he finally found his target. On the dingy wall of House No. 2 he recognized a dusty metal plate and deciphered the inscription "Сердце Европы". His heart flickered at first, but then withered away like a rose in frost and was pervaded by ancient sadness.
He calmed down and tried to concentrate. He gathered all his strength, yanked twice and managed to detach a piece of wood from the entrance. He peaked through the cranny and saw the dark space of a former student club. His stomach tightened as he looked at it. It has been so many years. One glance filled his head with many images of that old catastrophe.
It was March 1986. For the first time since the Khrushchev Thaw, the Soviet Union was laced with relaxed mood. The helm was held by unusually young Gorbachev, who was the first to draw attention to the backwardness of the Soviet empire, set up a perestroika, and opened the Eastern Bloc to many reforms. The archaic ensemble of socialist Czechoslovakia approached the changes in a lukewarm way, rather than economically initially focusing socially to strengthen youth education projects in which it saw tomorrow's future.
Sixteen-year-old Josef Tomešek drove through his first year at grammar school playfully.
His interest in Marxism attracted the teaching staff and earned him place in the presidency of the newly formed youth organization of the Union of Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship. Within the first international activities twelve students from Ukraine and Uzbekistan arrived for an exchange visit. The aim of the project entitled "Heart of Europe" was to bring together different cultures and provide the exchange of experiences within the student leaders. However, no one returned from the originally three-month internship.
The whole project had a strong ideological nature and even palpable promotion
of comradeship could not stop growing sympathies among the students, who were by that time throbbed with tumultuous adolescence and exposed to new areas of human cognizance.
Her name was Anastasija. She arrived from Kharkiv, where she was the chairman of the local organization. As a gifted health care student, she was valued by her school and thus came to awareness of the Ukrainian authorities, who had already deputed her to Minsk and Alma-Ata in the past. Josef spent a lot of time with her, engaged in party talks. He was intrigued by her purposefulness and complemented by her feminine elegance and unmistakable Slavic beauty.
He taught her Czech phrases, and in return she showed him the steps of hopak. With the advent of spring he began taking her for evening walks through the city. By that time he was already aware of his feelings for her. He kissed her for the first time in front of the Janáček Theater, where they clung together to elude from cold. She had a dilemma at first, because her socialist mission indirectly required emotional restraint, but it didn't take long for her heart to blossom into calf love. They went almost whole April like that, devoted to the club within school hours and delved in tender bliss during late afternoons. Usually they spent them in an empty clubhouse where they finally got to know each other as man and woman. Josef often found himself lost in the endless depth of Anastasija's dark gray eyes as they were lying there in the silent harmony. Neither of them admitted at the time that it should ever be over. Love seemed eternal to them as they noticed the time flow only when the day spilled over to the night and their paths temporarily split.
On April 29, the first reports of the Chernobyl accident came to the public. Anastasija was strongly affected. In vain she tried to connect with her family in Ukraine, but she was told that there was chaos in the country and a large part of the infrastructure was disrupted. She couldn't come back for obvious reasons. The Ukrainian part of the delegation became deeply introverted as they experienced the whole event on completely different level. Nevertheless, Josef provided support to his girlfriend.
Over the time the situation escalated into deep crisis. Ukraine was convulsing in anti-regime demonstrations, whose organizers put the blame on the weak Soviet leadership. The rebellious mood graduated and moved further to Russia. Enemies of the régime firstly dominated the Kursk and Belgorod regions and then, in a bout of anti-government rage, they pulled on Moscow. Communist power did not wait for long and stopped the poorly equipped protesters already in Voronezh, from where the Soviet army moved to Ukraine. Opposition already seized much of the military equipment and fought the Russian troops on the battlefield north of Luhansk. Natives failed hard, which allowed the Russians to move on. At the end of May they controlled entire East of Ukraine. Military continued their fights with guerillas, fighting their way to west and up to the Belarusian border, where the fatal battle, known as
"4 iyunya – poslednyaya bitva v istorii", took place. No one is likely to know who caused the second explosion of the Chernobyl power plant, but it was certain that its intensity far exceeded its predecessor. Chaos in the country did not allow intervention units to fully stabilize the situation, so all the undisposed nuclear material was dispersed into the wider area. Ukraine, Belarus and the southern part of Russia have been swept away from the earth almost overnight. Central Europe was hit by a powerful wave of fallout and Czechoslovakia found itself in crisis due to a lack of doctors. Anastasija was soon summoned to the medical ranks and treated affected individuals from dawn to dusk. They were mostly preventive examinations, but some required intensive care. Even Josef, who was outside at the peak of radioactive activity, did not escape the misfortune. After the brief examination, he was assessed as potentially dangerous and quickly transported to a remote sanatorium in the West Bohemia near Mariánské Lázně. He was told that he will stay there for a few weeks because of medical observation.
But the real consequences of the second explosion were yet to come. According to measurements, air contamination has become increasingly serious and the affected parts of Europe were near to collapse. Czechoslovakia was economically depleted as the production in the country virtually stopped and people were starving. International assistance from the West was offered too late. A state of emergency was declared, but the government did not know what to do, as it lacked the support of Moscow, which itself collected pieces of its former size.
If Josef once read about anarchy, the social situation in the second half of 1986 was closest to his imaginations. Crisis was exploited by a group of radical Federal Assembly deputies who revealed their true faces and performed a violent putsch in July. Totalitarianism in the state was heavily tightened as the national committees' autonomy at all levels was reduced, centralizing the political power even more so that the people practically lost all relics of their freedom. The new government has promised to establish order and populistically proclaimed citizens' health security as highest priority. However, no new hospitals were built or foreign medical missions organized. Patriots emphasized the position of Czechoslovakia as "the heart of Europe that must heal itself". In everyday reality it meant cruel treatment of the population, the violent division of families and the transfer of their members to different areas of the country, where individual groups of people were concentrated according to the degree of harm caused by radiation. A ban on leaving whereabouts was declared, only trips with state approval were allowed. Josef had never seen any of his loved ones again. The Ministry of Health's strategy was austere and frightening – to eradicate all undesirable people after the second Chernobyl explosion within sixty years. Fixation on such a long period was naive, but the government has secured a long-term power position. Politicians could act almost arbitrarily and invoke the motto "the end justifies the means". Sixty year long period was to expire on June 4, 2046 - the day after Josef‘s arrival in Brno.
He stood in front of the House of Commons building, looking at the ruins of the Red Church. He pulled out a letter from the paper folder, flew through it and rested on the signature at the bottom. Shivers went down his spine. He did not pay any attention to the fact that he was holding a summons for his own death. It was from her.
"Mrs. Avramenko?" He asked the doorman.
"Second floor, then left," he muttered. Josef climbed the stairs and searched for the right door. He was only a step away. He read the nametag once more. The beginning letters of her name and surname were written in small caps. Double Large A.
He knocked and was invited to enter. He thought he might close his eyes. Now he was sitting in front of a gray-haired woman, whose face was filled with countless life events, as many as could happen in six decades. She was holding Josef's documents and stared at him in amazement. Josef watched the tear that ran down over Anastasija’s face.
"Grim reaper got me too," he breathed after a moment of moving silence.
"I… that's not true, is it," was all she could tell. Josef wanted to react, but was interrupted by muffled door knock behind him. Probably a peer, he thought.
"Many people come here today," she said, realizing the horrible meaning of her words. Josef ran through paper sheets, just to make sure he handed everything over. Before he walked away, he looked at the babushka behind the desk.
"Evening, Serdtse Yevropy?" He asked resignedly. Anastasija covered her mouth and held back tears. Josef opened the door and looked into the broken eyes of a bearded old man.
He was holding some documents in his hand.
Josef was delighted that he will not spend his last evening alone. He managed to break through all the barricades and was now sitting on a dusty bench in the middle of the club. He saw the approaching female silhouette at the entrance.
"I said let's make a window here," he lamented as he walked around the room, "I would have much more writing light." He ran his hand over the wet wall and went back to sit.
"Office sends the letters, you know. I'm not writing signature, I'm just the head officer. I don't have an overview,” Anastasija said quietly. It was obvious she desperately wanted to ask many questions, but didn't know which should be the first.
“Otherwise, I think that you ended up well, ” commented Josef on the background he had seen earlier that day.
“There was no possibility. I stayed here as a doctor, we were few. Then they needed to lead the youngs, ”she explained. Even after so many years, she remained that beautiful accent and muddy word order.
"But, Pepa, how were you?" She asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. The short question was imbued with tremendous pain.
"What would I say. They took me for a couple of weeks, but Prague went down and I was kept in Bohemia. Compared to those who arrived later I was lucky, I already knew it a bit there, ”he replied, knowing how much he was summing up in those sentences.
“Then I was put in a cobalt factory. Those swines found out that it wouldn't be that easy with our liquidation. Who would have worked for you all those years, you punks! They locked up up and left us there until we were able to breathe… and now they can slaughter us. Sixty years ... you don't even know how many people commited suicide, " he continued. Anastasija looked into his old eyes and leaned back against him.
“I didn't even know if you were alive. I'm so, so sorry, ”she sobbed.
“They are not worth it. If they taught me one thing, it's not to cry over ruined life. Millions would cry then. It won't matter tomorrow. No one took my inner freedom, "he pointed to his chest. Old philosopher spoke.
“I lost everything, you know. My family was gone even that day, "she said sadly. She didn't believe it until she saw her dead parents on TV screen.
Josef hugged her around her shoulders. A stripe of light from the setting sun entered the room. Josef realized it was spring. He had almost forgotten about something like the seasons during that long gray period. Now he had life before him. Nothing from outside could steal from him what made him alive. He was sitting in the very heart of Europe, where it all once began, and he felt love. Time was gone again. He felt alive. It seemed like it would last forever.

1 comment:

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