Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Debunking the Historical Importance of Lev Vassilynikov

Debunking the Historical Importance of Lev Vassilynikov

Jay Firestone

Working at a university comes with certain privileges (good vacation benefits, lax dress code, cheap gym membership, strange characters that wander around campus and serve as continuous fodder for story ideas . . .). But these days, the greatest privilege for me is free access to the Bakhmeteff Archive in Butler library, the second largest depository of Russian émigré materials outside of Russia. A depository that is bound to contain at least something about the great writer Lev Vassilynikov and his connection to the mysterious Marfa Andropova.

Lev Vassilynikov was no émigré, in fact he was determined to remain in Russia. He was so loyal to his homeland that no matter how much suffering he might have endured there during the bloody years of Nicholas II or in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, he wanted to fix it, not flee (an attitude congruent with his admirable refusal of the honor bestowed upon him by the czar in 1912). But, while he never left his country aside for the occasional Paris vacation, he had many friends who did. If I knew anything about Vassilynikov, I knew that he was an avid letter writer, and I was certain that somewhere in the correspondence he must have maintained with his émigré friends (which was at least in part bound to exist at the Bakhmeteff Archive), there had to be something about his connection to Marfa Andropova.

As I walked up to Butler, a big columned building on college walk, the fall atmosphere made me nostalgic, and I was eager to get inside, to smell the smells, spend the afternoon searching through letters and old books, photographs and whatever else I might find. I watched the students prancing about, they’d just finished their midterm period and I could tell that they felt lighter; excited about the rest of their semesters, relieved to have lifted the weight of testing and paper writing from their shoulders . . .

My own fate also seemed brighter than ever. I felt that I was on the brink of something big, not just felt, but tasted, the sweetness of success raw and ripe on my tongue. My heart was aflutter with the knowledge that the precious diaries that my grandmother would send to me through my dad’s cousin Sashinka (due to visit New York early next month), would soon be in my hands.

When I bragged about this to my mother over lunch earlier that day, she tried to bring me down.

“You stop with this nonsense,” she said. “Nobody cares about Vassilynikov. So what if you prove this connection between him and Marfa Andropova? The whole matter was nearly a hundred years ago!”

I didn’t let her upset me, like most mothers, she doesn’t understand anything about what is and isn’t important . . .

“You should be focusing on your own writing,” she continued, “not trying to solve some stupid historical mystery about a guy that’s been dead since the 1940s and isn’t that good of a writer to begin with! No one can even understand the point of any of his stories. He’s certainly no Babel . . .”

She was eating salad, and a piece of arugula was stuck between her teeth. I didn’t tell her, nor did I explain that Babel has absolutely nothing to do with Vassilynikov.

“And by writing, I don’t mean some silly little stories,” she continued. “You should be writing political articles. You have Construction as a platform now; you work at the Harriman Institute for god’s sakes, take advantage of it! Publish something important!” she kept ranting . . .

I didn’t care about political articles; let someone else write about politics. Once I proved that Andropova saved Vassilynikov from the wrath of Nicholas II, not only would Bobbins be mine for the taking, but the material I will have obtained would probably be newsworthy, hell, fuck Construction (I’d still run the Bobbins interview there, of course), with that kind of information I could surely pitch an exposé to The New Yorker!

I swiped my ID card at the Butler security desk and headed for the elevators. My feet echoed against the marble steps, a strong coffee aroma wafted from the Butler café, and I couldn’t have felt more content. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Maura (a girl I knew form a Russian literature class a couple of years back) was leaving one of the reading rooms and heading in my direction.

I made sure to look down; she was the kind of person who always traps you in awkward conversation. But of course, as it always happens in moments like these, the elevator took forever, and though I tried my hardest to stare at some point on the wall, check my phone, concentrate as much as possible on something, anything, that could either make me disappear or appear too busy to engage with, she got me.

“Heyyyyyyyyyy,” she tapped my shoulder. Why hadn’t I put in my headphones? It was a droning nasally “hey” that stretched out and lingered, hovered in the air awaiting something.

I stuck my hands deeper into my pockets. The last time I’d run into this girl I was stuck for ten minutes, watching her marshmallow-like face move as she asked me one awkward question after the next.

I turned to face her, feigned surprise, raised my eyebrows and said, “Hey Maura, how’s it going?”

She waved a long, bony hand (red nail polish chipping from her nails) and tucked her hair behind her ears, leaning an angular hip against the wall by the elevator.

“Time to bury myself in the archive again,” she said, giggling and biting her lip. “And why are you here?” She jerked herself forward and then sideways (she was one of those people who flail their entire body anytime they say something) and pushed her glasses up to the bridge of her flat little nose.

“Also on my way to the archive,” (I hated to admit to her that we were going to the same place, but there was no avoiding it now). “There are some letters I wanted to look into.”

“Of what nature?” she pried.

Of what nature? Puh-leeze, why did she always have to speak like she belonged to the 19th Century?

The elevator had finally arrived (it wouldn’t save me at this point); I followed her in reluctantly.

“Trying to dig up what I can on Lev Vassilynikov.”

“Vassilynikov!” Maura closed her round eyes—brown buttons stuck into an unfortunate face—and put a hand to her turquoise cardigan, “Yes, you’ll probably find plenty of letters; his sister was an émigré to Paris you know, they must have corresponded quite frequently.”

I already knew that Vassilynikov had never been close to his sister (one of the many parallels between his life and the life of Jonathan Bobbins) and therefore they never exchanged any letters. I studied Maura with an air of superiority, here she was, a Ph.D. candidate in Russian history, and she didn’t even know this simple fact about one of Russia’s greatest literary icons. Sure Maura would get her degree and settle into some professorship somewhere, maybe in Ohio, or Kentucky, but what was it all for? Her meager little life . . . who was the real historian?

“In my eyes, no one can compare to Vassilynikov, not even Gogol,” Maura droned on. “There’s something about him that surpasses human expectation, it’s a shame that his legacy is fading, Gogol, Dostoevsky, even Babel; they’re all anyone cares about anymore!” I wanted to interrupt her, to say that she was wrong, that people do care, but she barely took the time to gasp for breath. “‘The Bridge to Yekaterinburg?’ that story is magical, prophetic . . . a glimpse into the misery that would envelop the Russian people after the revolution, Siberia . . . it was like, somewhere, deep inside, he knew that he would die there . . .”

I rolled my eyes, she was quoting a piece that George Saunders had written for the New York Times years ago (and she wasn’t even quoting it well . . .)

I could already tell that Maura planned to trail me around the archive, spouting her insignificant little thoughts about Vassilnykov. I had to lose her somehow, somewhere, or my afternoon would be wasted.

“The greatest essay I ever read about Vassilynikov was written by Jonathan Bobbins,” she continued. “Are you familiar with it? With him?” she laughed uncomfortably. “Of course you’re familiar with him . . . it’s hard not to be. Anyway, there was one in The New Yorker years ago, when was it . . . nineteen-ninety . . .”

“Nine,” I said, “’Ninety-nine.”

The doors slid open, we faced the glass entrance, the gateway to all of that precious information . . . I glanced at our reflections side-by-side. Maura was much taller; her head cocked to one side, to the point where it could fall off, droop over like a daisy or a dandelion. Inside I could see Natasha, the curator, a tiny squirrely woman, who always shuffled everywhere silently and very quickly. She stood next to a shelf and feverishly flipped the pages in some book, licking her index finger between each turn.

“Right . . . But it was another piece that proved very interesting. Unfortunately, it went by quite unnoticed.” She tapped her foot against the marble, turning to stand in front of the entrance so I couldn’t get in without pushing her aside. “You see, Bobbins had this fascination—there is nothing he hates more than that which cannot be explained—he was puzzled by the mystery surrounding Vassilynikov’s visit to Nicholas II . . .” she squinted and looked down at me, when she got into a topic she knew about (or thought she knew about), she really took authority, even her jerky flailing had ceased. “Am I speaking gibberish here? Do you know anything about this event, or would you like for me to elaborate?”

I waved for her to proceed, trying to act nonchalant.

“A great admirer of Vassilynikov, Bobbins was moved beyond belief that the great writer would risk his life for his principles—I mean imagine, refusing an honor from the Czar, calling him a tyrant to his face!”

I nodded, barely believing that she was talking about this.

“The fact that there was no clear answer to why the Czar not only allowed Vassilynikov to live, but had completely let him off the hook, was preposterous to Bobbins. How had no one ventured to delve into this historical mystery? He kept asking. So, he went out to solve it himself.”

“But he didn’t?” I said. “The mystery remains unsolved.” Bobbins tried to uncover it and failed! My heart pounded faster than ever, and for some reason, a Meatloaf song pounded through my head . . .

“Well, the thing is that no, he did, he found an answer. The right answer, I think,” she paused and looked at me, enjoying the fact that she now had my undivided attention. “But this was back in the 70s. Bobbins was still a nobody, he was only 22; he’d published nothing, just a couple of short stories in some college literary magazines, and, though he loved Russian literature, he had no authority to write about Vassilynikov.”

I had been googling Bobbins and Vassilynikov incessantly, how was it possible that I hadn’t discovered this huge connection?

“Bobbins treats this time in his life as a sort of dark period, he rarely talks about it. I mean, you have to imagine the embarrassment that can arise when nobody’s listening to you. He invested himself in this research . . . he was at it for nearly two years, discovered something he thought would be valuable, and then kaput,” she flicked her hands. “No one cared. The writing community was too snobby to read something by someone who’d never been published, and the historians were not going to listen to a person with no background in history.”

Instead of going into The New Yorker, or The Atlantic, like Bobbins had hoped, his discovery (what was it??? I was dying to know!) appeared in some off-beat journal on Slavic studies. According to Maura, it has long been out of print. If you search for it online, it’s like the entire thing had never happened. She only knew about it from a professor she’d had for a class called Debunking Russian History, who’d shown the article to his students.

I tried to suppress my bewilderment, there was still hope . . . what if I got my hands on the article written by Bobbins, and then proved him wrong? Now that he was famous, people might actually care . . .

It’s sad isn’t it?” Maura went on. “The incident sent him into a monumental depression . . .”

“So, what did Bobbins uncover?”

“Oh, it was a funny little thing, such a typical soap opera drama . . . your regular love triangle,” she said with another one of her little laughs.

And, still standing in front of those same glass doors , I watched Maura’s marshmallow face (at this point it seemed to me to be moving in slow motion) as she recapped a narrative nearly identical to what my grandmother had told me the weekend before.

It was right then that I felt a buzzing in my pocket. Slowly, still silent, and staring back at Maura as she awaited my reaction, I pulled out my phone. There was a text message from David:

“I’m pretty sure I’ve got Bobbins!”