“Anatoly,” by Oleh Sentsov

This is the sixth story in this summer’s online Flash Fiction series. You can read the entire series, and our Flash Fiction from previous years, here.

Anatoly was given a seven-year sentence in a medium-security prison for wanting to blow up the Israeli Embassy and its Ambassador. It was difficult to understand exactly how the Jewish people had got on Anatoly’s bad side. Maybe Moses hadn’t been polite when asking Anatoly’s ancestors for directions to the promised land? Still, although Anatoly was filled with burning hatred for Jews, he didn’t admit his guilt in an assassination attempt. It wasn’t so much his conviction that upset him as the fact that he wasn’t put in a high-security prison, where, Anatoly believed, the real terrorists went. Terrorism, as a rule, is considered a serious crime that could earn you a strict sentence of life imprisonment, but for some reason the court decided to take pity on Anatoly. Either the criminal, in the court’s opinion, was not dangerous or the evidence was inconclusive. Or maybe the leniency was due to the fact that, as the state of Israel apparently noted in black and white in the accusation against him, there were no victims, no damage, and no claims.

Anatoly had been outed to the special services by a friend, who told them that Anatoly was planning to blow up the Israeli Embassy and its Ambassador and had invited him to participate in this exciting event. The friend also handed over some explosives and a flash drive with recordings of his conversations with Anatoly. Anatoly was arrested. He did not confess. The investigators checked the explosives for prints. There were some, but they belonged to Anatoly’s comrade, not him. The investigators listened to the conversations on the flash drive and discerned some indistinct muttering that led them to make broad conclusions about Anatoly’s fantasies, but there was nothing about preparing for an explosion. The only substantial evidence was his friend’s testimony, although the friendship was unlikely to survive such a turn of events. In court, Anatoly pleaded not guilty but delivered a fiery speech about the threat of Zionism to the world. The judge gave him a seven-year sentence because you never knew what could happen.

Anatoly was well over fifty. He had a wife and three boys. After the arrest, the youngest son, who was seven, waited a long time for his father to return from his business trip. He watched the news on TV, wishing for a quick end to the war in Donbas, which he believed was the reason his father could not come home—because it had stopped the trains from running. As usually happens with these sorts of cases, it was difficult to find the extremist. The judge is sure that the investigators wouldn’t just accuse anyone they come across, especially if the evidence is weak or nonexistent. The investigators work with the material that the field operatives have dug up, conferring on it an almost divine quality. The field operatives seize on any excuse to inflate the importance and existential necessity of their team. And this is how cases involving guys like Anatoly multiply all over Russia, while security forces receive orders and titles, TV channels scare their viewers with talk of terrorists, and the people shudder a little but then sigh in gratitude that such vigilant special-services officers are there to protect them. No one cares that, somewhere, a little boy waits for the trains to bring his father home from a business trip. Such is the state’s ruthless, repressive machine, which grinds up people’s futures. Well, at least the Putin regime has not yet resorted to mass executions—unlike the Stalinist one, when people disappeared into the unknown by the millions. Things were done quietly and in secret then, and everyone tiptoed in fear. Today’s Russia prefers show trials, to make people terrified of becoming one of those highly publicized examples.

Anatoly was of medium height, lean, and athletic for his age. He aimed to go to bed early, before lights-out if possible. To insure a good night’s sleep, he’d plug his ears with red paraffin wax that he had scraped from cheese rinds. He also wore a homemade black eye mask to block out any interference from the duty light. In this state of sensory deprivation, he’d set off to visit Morpheus. In the morning, he rose long before sunrise. Having unsealed his ears and removed his Zorro mask, he washed with cold water at the sink and began his yoga. Each new cellmate, upon waking, was horrified to see the life-threatening positions into which Uncle Tolya contorted himself, and rushed to save him. But there was no need for help: Anatoly unfurled himself independently. During his exercise time in the prison yard, he demonstrated how good he felt, raising his hands and greeting the sun with barely audible whispers, then racing around the cramped courtyard, practically running on the walls. When he was drenched with sweat, he would pause, still not out of breath, put on a special hat with a paper ball tied to it with string, and begin boxing furiously. Anatoly was a master of such homemade devices, and this was one of his most impressive. Even the guards, who had seen a lot in their lifetimes, would stop and watch from above, captivated, as Anatoly’s ball twirled around. He did little actual boxing, but, judging by the way he relentlessly attacked and defended himself from the ubiquitous ball, it was clear that he had his own unique style.

Anatoly didn’t smoke or have any vices, but he found a unique use for matches. He would burn bread crusts, using them to light or fumigate corners, and even creating fire circles in harmless Zoroastrian rituals. Anatoly was also studying Farsi—an interest perhaps born of his desire to check the Ayatollah Khomeini Telegram channel for the celebratory news that the Israeli Embassy had been bombed. His progress was slow, but, as Anatoly himself would say, “The language is several thousand years old,” so he was in no rush.

In many ways, Anatoly was a fairly typical inmate, but, as soon as the conversation shifted to the Jewish question, particularly when he himself redirected it there, his cell was filled with visions of Jewish Freemasons who controlled the world, weaving intricate plots and schemes with long-range goals beyond mere mortals’ comprehension. The main question for Anatoly was: How can we fight all this? And the first answer that came to his mind involved explosives.

Anatoly was a seasoned ideological combatant, well versed not only in the so-called Jewish world conspiracy but in the intricacies of Putin’s regime. For many years, he’d followed a crazy colonel who intended to overthrow Putin with the help of a couple of divisions that were loyal to him, plus tanks, submarine mini-boats in the Moscow River, and volunteers like Anatoly in a paramilitary organization named after Minin and Pozharsky. The uprising failed: either the tanks didn’t arrive on schedule or the submarines surfaced in the wrong place. The colonel was imprisoned for a long time, but he continued to direct appeals to his supporters and shower curses on the heads of his enemies.

In his youth, Anatoly had served in Soviet military intelligence. He was sent to Afghanistan as part of a newly formed Muslim battalion. He did not take part in the Tajbeg Palace assault, but he performed other feats to protect the interests of the Soviet Union in a distant and barren land. Anatoly talked a lot about his service, the exhausting training, the long marches in full gear in a-hundred-and-four-degree heat, his stupid fellow-soldiers, the local life, the war. He described how he had interrogated silent mujahideen fighters by inserting an explosive with a Bickford fuse into their ears. While the fuse was burning, the gift of speech usually returned. The stoic ones had half their heads blown off. Every war has its laws, none of which can be called entirely fair. Anatoly did not like to describe what the mujahideen did to the Soviet soldiers they captured.

He sincerely hated Putin for many reasons, including his attack on Ukraine, a country that Anatoly loved with all his heart and whose fate he now worried about from afar. It was not only because his wife was from there, or because they took a train there for a visit every summer, or because of the delicious food or the good people, and definitely not because of the freedom there after the Maidan Revolution, which he could not appreciate, sitting in his cramped cell. He loved Ukraine because it was dearer to him than his own, criminal country.

Once Anatoly had received his sentence but had not yet been sent to the prison camp, he was allowed a short meeting with his wife in a booth where they were separated by a pane of glass. He returned, pale, to his cell, sat on the bed, and stared at the wall. Two of his best friends, former colleagues, had gone to Donbas to fight for Ukraine and had been burned alive in a damaged Kamaz truck. Anatoly spoke, as if to himself: “And my wife, silly woman, came all dressed up and happy. She says, ‘It’s good you’re in prison, you old fool. Otherwise, you would have gone with them.’ ” Anatoly couldn’t contain himself and started to cry. That evening, he burned even more matches than usual. ♦

(Translated, from the Russian, by Dmytro Kyyan and Kate Tsurkan.)

This is drawn from “Diary of a Hunger Striker.”

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