Koba's Bad Cut

By Jim Snowden


Even here, among the chirping spring birds and the shade trees that Vera hoped would cheer me up, my imagination won’t stop whispering in my ear the legend of the barber who breathed the story of Midas’s jackass-ears to a hole in the ground, believing that the tongueless, lifeless hole would guard his secret. But the hole betrayed him. The hole told the grass and the grass told the trees and the trees told the farmers and eventually the whispered tale reverberated within the jackass ears of Midas, who, enraged to discover his secret exposed, slaughtered the barber. Cut his head off, if I remember correctly. It’s been so long since I last read the story, but I don’t want to search for it in a library because it might get back to someone who could piece together why I’d want such a book, and the next thing I’d know there’d be a note from me on the General Secretary’s desk: “Koba, why do you need my death?” Only I wouldn’t call him Koba because I don’t know him as well as Bukharin did. I don’t think I could be that cogent either. There’s something particularly devastating about the way Bukharin wrote that note, something simple, painful, and pure. I can’t figure out whether the General Secretary keeps it on his blotter because he loves to gloat, or because Bukharin’s question is his question.

Such entertaining thoughts. If only I could spend this fresh, sunny day mulling them. Instead I must grapple with the fearsome knowledge I carry. I simply have to say it out loud. Okay. Here, at Collective Farm Number 5 near Rostov, where my brother-in-law works, in a tiny copse of trees a few meters from a dusty back road, I will say the words that have kept me in terror for six months. Let me look around. Nobody would bother planting microphones out here, would they? The NKVD is scary, but lazy. They’d bug my brother-in-law’s house. They’d bug our apartment in Moscow. At the Foreign Ministry, all our offices and cars are bugged. Still, they wouldn’t come out this far. Let’s not get silly.

Okay. Here it is.

On November 20, 1937, I went into Comrade Stalin’s office to deliver that day’s communiqués from Comrade Litvinov, our ambassador to the League of Nations, and upon entry I noticed that Comrade Stalin had a mediocre haircut.

I can’t call it awful. It wasn’t as if his barber had inverted a shaving basin, plopped it on the General Secretary’s head, and simply cut around the rim. No. It was not that bad. Neither was it suffused with cowlicks and bare spots. It was just, well, the wrong shape for Comrade Stalin’s head. My father was a barber, and he used to explain about shapes of faces and their corresponding haircuts, things that might be dismissed as bourgeois decadent thoughts. But even twenty years after the Revolution, faces have shapes—unique ones—and hair has types: straight, curly, coarse, fine. These are realities of the human animal, unrelated to economic systems or moments in history. Nowhere did Marx say that the dialectic would someday obviate the need for a flattering haircut. Stalin’s face is squarish, though age is softening his jawline. But his haircut made the top of his head look round. His barber had failed to sharpen the edges to emphasize angle. I thought it a good thing that the General Secretary opted for his military cap when in public, because for him to be seen this way would be an embarrassment. So I handed the General Secretary the dispatches from Comrade Litvinov and was in the process of turning around to leave when Stalin, who’d never before said anything more to me than “good,” “all right,” or “hmm,” said: “Remind me of your name, Comrade.”

“Eduard Gregorovich Smyslov, Comrade Secretary.” I said.

Stalin looked up at me. I could see why at first so many people in government had once dismissed him. Small, with beady eyes, Stalin seemed like someone who tagged along after power, not someone who held it. At least, not until his eyes caught mine. Then I saw. The slightest change in the dilation of one of his pupils could either promote me or blast me from the planet. My life floated in that blackness.

“Eduard Gregorovich,” Stalin said. “I have a question to ask you, and I want complete candor.”

“I haven’t read Litvinov’s dispatch in any great detail, Comrade Secretary.” I said. “I’m not sure my commentary can add much to your deliberations.”

“You are a good fit with the Foreign Ministry. Everyone there, from Molotov to the tea lady, talks just like you.” Stalin said. “But I don’t give a shit what you think about foreign policy. I want this question answered: do you like my new haircut?”

“Like it?”

Stalin cocked his head to one side, “Yes. Like it. Do you like it? I recently had to make a change in barbers, you see, and this was his first attempt. What do you think of it?”

“What happened to your last barber?” I asked.

The black, polished telephone on Stalin’s desk started ringing. He quickly raised the receiver and hung it up again to restore silence. “We’ve found other work for him in the east, more suited to his talents and interests. So, what do you think?”

Ever since the Foreign Ministry recalled me to Moscow, I’ve studiously avoided this question. Back when I was Comrade Litvinov’s aide in England, I didn’t mind fielding it. Those were good times, far from home. Maxim was a good boss. He and I once watched a Marx Brothers movie together, laughed, and drank Smirnoff. Sometimes I think that the Foreign Ministry recalled me to Moscow precisely because Litvinov and I got along so well. Every few years now, everyone shifts to new jobs, and nobody knows anybody anymore. It makes it hard to get into a rhythm in a job, and it breaks up all loyalties. You don’t know whom you’re talking to, or how to tailor your answers to your interrogator’s liking. The only constant in my working life is the picture of Stalin on the wall. And now the picture was asking my opinion.

Why did he want it from me? What possible interest could he have in my opinion on his coiffure? Yes, my father was a barber and I’ve inherited some knowledge, but I am hardly expert. Stalin commands an army of photographers and portrait artists whose opinions vastly overmatch mine. Had someone in the office denounced me? Had word reached Stalin? Was this his way of catching me off my guard, of reading my reactions to him? His eyes seemed to dig into me, probably extracting material inside I didn’t know was there. What was he finding? Was there a Trotskyist opinion on hairstyle that Stalin had just ferreted out of me, something about my aesthetic in these matters that would betray loyalties outside of him? What questions would follow? What songs do I like? Valentin Parnakh? Hmm. Ryutin liked Parnakh. What does that say about my commitment to the Five Year Plan?

What was there to denounce? I’d said nothing. Not to coworkers. Not to my wife. Nothing about my opinions. When Vera asks how my work is, I say “fine,” and tell her some amusing tales about safe trivia from the office—who kissed whom, who came in drunk, who told the day’s best (or worst) joke. When I ask how her work is, she tells me all about the hospital and its discontents, and I smile. I work in the Foreign Ministry. There’s nothing I can do about short supplies of blood or bandages or vaccines or whatever. My opinions are fine, I thought. If Stalin looks, he’ll see nothing. So why did his turning his high-powered perception of human weakness on me shake me so?

For the same reason I’m out here, whispering this fucking story to a divot in the ground, that’s why. How do you know what your opinion might coincide with? I don’t know what everyone else in the world might have said. Things I’ve said probably sound like things once said by Trotsky or Ryutin or Rykov or Kamanev or Henry Fucking Ford for that matter. There are only so many things to say! Words and ideas are finite! That’s a problem of language, not of me.

Of course, maybe all this was paranoid fancy. Another way to read the General Secretary’s question was as a sincere request for information. His barber was new. Never mind why he was new. He was. Maybe Stalin wanted to gather a wide range of views about whether this was the right man for the job. Maybe everyone else he’d asked had shown the same fears as I had, and stammered their way toward what they thought Stalin wanted to hear. I felt some sympathy for the Comrade Secretary. It must be hard for Stalin, perched alone at the top of an entire nation, to know whether he’s being flattered, or bullshitted, or mollified. It surely breeds mistrust and misunderstanding. If he asked the janitor, “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” would not the janitor quake in fear that this was some kind of test, and take perhaps way too long to help point Comrade Stalin to the place where he can empty his engorged bladder? Might this stammering uselessness not provoke the General Secretary into thinking perhaps he wants me to piss myself while he shilly-shallies and stammers! Off to Kolyma with him!

Besides this, whatever my answer, what would I say to Vera about it when I came home? Sure, just don’t say anything, right? Suppose my home is bugged, and suppose that, after I walked in the door and kissed Vera, I didn’t mention Stalin’s question—a question Stalin would expect me to mention to my wife because his asking me anything at all ought to be an event a good Communist husband narrates to his good Communist wife. My silence would indicate my distaste for his haircut, but saying something could be worse. I can lie to the world, but I can’t lie to my Vera. The instant I’d open my mouth she’d see that I hated Stalin’s haircut, even if I told her it looked good. She’d tell everyone, make all sorts of comments, and potentially cook us both. I had visions of her in Lubyanka, the things they’d do, all because I couldn’t shut up when she asked how my day was. I often think this’ll happen anyway, with Vera’s big mouth, but if I were to contribute to it, to her pain, I couldn’t bear it. For me, it’s just her and that picture on the wall. Those are my constants. All else are variables.

Another possibility: The General Secretary knew his haircut didn’t flatter him. He wanted to see who would tell him the truth and who would fawn. Maybe Stalin told his barber to do it deliberately, or maybe he was just taking advantage of a botched job. If so, I had to admire Stalin’s subtlety of mind. There are so many ways to answer a complex question of policy so that you can appear to be on any and all sides of it. The best of us in the ministries hold this capability, and, to be honest, it’s something we share in common with our counterparts in Western bureaucracies, both in government and in business.  The ones who fail in those capacities vanish, just as species that fail to adapt to the challenges of the material world perish.  Eventually, Stalin will, if he continues, winnow the party down to those who can believe in everything.  But, I reminded myself to curb my enthusiasm about this possible interpretation of Stalin’s query, it had to be borne in mind that one of the possibilities here—if the barber had tried but failed to deliver a suitable haircut—meant that, if I told Stalin the truth, the barber was destined for punishment of some sort. I didn’t want that on my conscience. I mean, maybe he’d get off with just publicly denouncing himself, but who knew?

It’s taken me a long time to say all this, I know, but while I stood in that office and shivered from a draft that hit me square in the back and Stalin searched my face for an answer to his question, I processed every one of these thoughts, and hundreds more linked to them, through my brain as I tried to settle on exactly the right response. Calculations of potential for losing and gaining sped through my mind. I tried to grab the thoughts as they flew past, fumbling at them, snatching. Was I sweating? Had I fidgeted for a moment? How much time had actually passed since Stalin’s question? Two seconds? Three? How much longer could I weigh odds before he’d know I was hesitating and therefore didn’t like the haircut? How long would it take to formulate the proper language for the sentence once I settled on the proper response?

Here it went. I dispatched orders to lips, teeth, lungs, larynx, and tongue to release energy in the form of sound to the tune of this sentence: “Comrade Secretary, your barber has transformed you.”

Stalin’s moustache quivered. I followed it out to its ends, hoping to get an early read on which way it would curl. A few twitches later, the tips of Comrade Stalin’s moustache rose. Grinning as broadly as I’d ever seen him grin, he thanked me for my opinion and told me I could go back to my job. I turned around. It was hard not to run, but my time in the army had taught me discipline. Five seconds later, I stood once again in the outer office with Stalin’s secretary, listening to the ringing of the phone.

It’s been six months since then. I’ve been on vacation for a week, so I haven’t heard much about what’s going on at the Ministry. Nothing seemed amiss when I left.  There are some rumblings about Hitler and the Sudentenland, and I hear that Litvinov and Molotov are both worried, but it’s nothing that needs to concern me now.

Nobody seems to be afraid to be around me. That’s a good sign. I think I’m all right. I guess it all depends on another question, one that, since I left Stalin’s office, has sweated me every night in my bed, haunted me on my walks to work, and screamed at me all during my vacation:

Why was Stalin smiling?

Jim Snowden is an award-winning writer, editor and educator who lives in the Seattle area. His passion is telling stories about people who find that the rules they’ve lived by are turning against them. Jim received his MFA from the University of Washington in 2004, where he won the David Guterson award for his work on Dismantle the Sun. He also runs a small press, MMIP Books, which published its first short story collection, Coming Unglued: Six Stories About Things Falling Apart, in May of 2011. Its next collection, Blood Promises, And Other Commitments came out in October of 2012.

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