Greetings from Afar

March 1st, 2013

The Evil That Men Do

Author’s Note: Due to the Public Image and celebrity status of the person in question, the name of the “American” has been withheld at his request.

The man was gaunt, almost skeletal. His height, well over six feet, made his appearance even more severe. He was balding, with a drooping mustache and a scraggly beard clinging beneath his lower lip and  to the base of his chin. He was dressed like a “bombzh”, a homeless man in an old army greatcoat, military trousers and worn jackboots. A visored cap rested on the bench next to him has he sat calmly and fed the pigeons in the little park and watched a group of children from the neighboring orphanage at play. Occasionally, he would smile at one of the children who ran by him, but as a whole, he was somber in his appearance. He had a somewhat sad look on his stern face, a look of longing. It was the look of a man dreaming of the past… of what “might have been”.

The American lived in an apartment building on the opposite side of the park. It was one of four monstrous, towering blocks of flats that formed a sort of wall around the pentagon-shaped secluded green area that contained a playground for the local children and a shaded grassy field for those who simply enjoyed the outdoors. As a rule the American used the well manicured little green as a convenient place to walk his dog. It was a safe place, and the little dog could run free for the limited time that he had to take her on such outings.

The park was fairly empty that day. There was an old man, sitting alone on a bench feeding the pigeons and a group of children from State Orphanage No. 4, which formed the fifth “wall” in the row of buildings surrounding the park. The American had seen the old man sitting there before. He was almost always there when the children from the orphanage were at play. But… this was the first time they had actually been in the park at the same time. He let his little dog, a black and tan Miniature Dachshund named Angel, off of her leash and casually walked over and sat down beside the man as he watched the dog run and play with some of the nearer children. It was a beautiful, warm spring day in late May. The grass was green and lush and the first of the flowers in the park’s manicured beds were beginning to show the first signs of color. The American was in no particular hurry. For a change, the first time in some weeks, he had all day, and intended to relax and enjoy the newly arrived warm weather.

With nothing better to do, he decided to try out his newly acquired Russian Language.  His company, the one he was under contract to at the moment, had invested quite a sum in his lessons. The film that they were shooting, on location in Moscow, required “realism”. That required some work on the American’s part, and he had often wondered, as he sat through the two-hour long daily sessions, why he had not bothered to learn the language from his grandparents when he had the chance. Of course, that was in the past now. Nothing could be done about it.  It was a lot of trouble, he thought, to go through for a single film, but perhaps there would be others. Now seemed to him to be a good time to put his newly acquired skills to the test and see if those lessons  had been effective. “Dob-rei Deen” he stammered to the man beside him on the bench.

” And a good day to you, too.” The tall, thin man said, in slightly accented but almost flawless English. “American?”

Definitely not a “bomzh” the American thought. He was far too literate, and definitely not drunk. He was probably a pensioner who lived in one of the adjoining buildings. The old man had probably come out to get a bit of fresh air, watch the children, feed the birds and look for the chance of some company as was the habit of many retired Russians who suddenly found themselves with a great deal of time on their hands. “Yes, in fact I am”.

“There seem to be quite a lot of you here, now. There used not to be so many. Not many at all in fact”.

“I know,” the American replied, becoming slightly more confident now that he was speaking his own language.  “Things are different, now. Better “.

“That depends on how you look at it,” the man said. “Those children, for example…”

“Yes, I see them here almost every day. They’re orphans,” the American said flatly.  Then he shook his head knowingly and said, “I know”.

“Not just that. Look at them. There isn’t a one of them that doesn’t look hungry. Look at the clothes they’re wearing… no better than rags. It wasn’t that way, once. It’s disgraceful. We didn’t permit it. Even in the darkest days of the Civil War, we managed to find food for the children. Some didn’t like our methods, we didn’t expect them to… Honestly didn’t care whether they liked them of not. But the children, after all, are our future”.

The American looked at the man carefully, intently. He was old, by local standards, but he wasn’t that old. Russian men tended to look older than their years, he thought… It was especially true of the generation born during, or just after, the “Great Patriotic War”, as the Second World War is known in Russia. This man seemed to be in his fifties, certainly not older than that. “You don’t look old enough to remember the Civil War,” the American said “let alone the Revolution. That was seventy some-odd years ago”.

“I remember them all right. You might say that I remember them too well.” That wistful look crossed his face again, as though he were bringing back bitter, but possibly bittersweet memories of  a time long past.

“You must have been a small child, then…I’m sure that it was a difficult time”.

“No” the answer was simple and matter of fact.

The American considered the situation. It just wasn’t possible that this man was that old. He had to be a little off in the head Maybe he had been a child, a very small child, at the time, but it was impossible that he could have been more than that. He almost certainly couldn’t possibly remember those times. Maybe he was dredging up stories that his parents had told him.

“You know, my wife and I we lost our only child” he mused “That ‘s why the orphans have always been special to me”.

“That’s sad,” the American said . It must have been a terrible experience. I’m not married myself… no children. But…I can understand how you feel, though”.

“Yes” the tall man said as he rose to leave. “It was very sad. It was a terrible time, the worst of my life. We were never able to have other children.  That’s why I did all that I could, all that was in my power, to make their  lives better”. He gestured toward the playing orphans with a broad sweep of his long thin arm and almost skeletal hand.  “They needed everything, schools, homes, doctors and medicine, kindergartens, training for jobs and useful work… They needed food and warm clothing”. He rattled off the baleful litany in quick order. There was no doubt that the old man had strong feelings about the parentless children. “They need it all, and our Revolution needed willing hands to build the future… a better future, we thought… for all of us. We got it for them. We got all of it for them. It cost us dearly, but we did it, and they built our future, or tried to”.

Things were getting stranger and stranger. The man had to be “off his rocker”. He was claiming credit for things that had been done three quarters of a century before. He looked at the strange old man again. He couldn’t have been more than a toddler back then, if he’d been born at all… He couldn’t possibly have had any part in what he was describing. Maybe he had been one of those orphans… It was hard to tell.

“Well, I must go,” the old man said. “I only have so much time each day that I can spend here watching them. I’ve really not much time at all. That’s rather funny,” he mused quizzically, “all things considered.  But… you know how it is. You know what they say, “no rest for the weary and no peace for the damned”.

“That’s right,” the American smiled. That was something that he could understand well enough. There was never enough time for anything in post-Soviet Russia. In the last year or so, Russia had undergone a transformation, and it was still going on. Things were in a state of near anarchy, and no matter how hard one worked, there never seemed to be enough time to get everything done. There were certainly never enough hours in a given day. This very day was proof of that to him. It was the first day off that he had enjoyed in six weeks, and he had at least another six exactly the same to “look forward” to. “No peace for the damned” he repeated softly.

“Why don’t you do me a favor? If you are going to be here for a bit longer, would you mind walking across the street with the children when the Matron calls them in? The streets here are dangerous now not like they once were”.

The American thought about it for a moment, then agreed. It couldn’t hurt, and the man looked so concerned… Even if he was a bit eccentric, his heart was in the right place. “Certainly, ” he replied. “I’d be glad to”.

“Thank you,” the man replied as he rose to leave. “You know, only a few years ago, this was a quiet street. We didn’t have so many automobiles then”. He used the quaint term “automobile” as though it was used every day. He stood, stretched, and put his cap on. A shock of his thinning hair protruded from under the visor. He turned up the collar of his long woolen coat as though against a non-existent wind. Then, without another word, he sank his hands deeply into his pockets and walked slowly away. The children didn’t seem to notice him at all, even though he walked right through the midst them as they kicked a scarred soccer ball around the center of the park. The American glanced away briefly when he heard his little dog bark. When he looked back up, the old man was gone. He must have already entered the nearest building, about 50 meters away. Funny, the American thought, he hadn’t seemed to be walking that fast…

A few minutes later, the matron of the orphanage, a short, plump woman in her mid-forties with a harassed and harried, but motherly look on her face, behind her tiny wire framed glasses, called out for the children to stop playing and come “home”. She said that it was time for supper. The American, noticed that this woman, obviously rather senior in the orphanage’s hierarchy, was hardly dressed better than her charges, and that her hair, tied in a severe bun at the back of her head, looked prematurely gray.  True to his word to the strang old man, he rose, called his little dog, put the leash back on her, and slowly walked across the street with the departing children. He continued with them until they were through the rusting wrought iron gate that guarded their home, and inside the austere brick walls of the orphanage compound. The place, he thought, had obviously seen better days The stucco was cracking and falling from the brick wall and the paint was fading, the stucco on the walls of the buildings themselves was cracked in many places. In places, the chipped orange-red bricks were visible thorough holes in the veneer. The place, he thought, had the look of one that had once been lavish by Soviet standards, but had fallen on hard times… very hard times. But, he mused, that could be said of much of Russia of late.

It was there inside the walled compound, surrounded by the aura of past prosperity, that he received the greatest shock of his life. There, in the midst of the courtyard, atop a small marble pedestal surrounded by a tiny, but well groomed and tended flower bed, was a bust. The American’s heart skipped a beat. There was no possible doubt as to what he was looking at. It was the likeness of the man he had met in the park. A sudden chill ran through him as he surveyed the scene before him.  On the pedestal beneath the bust, an inscription read “Our Founder”. Below it, was yet another  inscription… one that literally made his blood run cold… It said “Felix Edmundovich Drezhenski, 11 September, 1877 – 20 July, 1926″.

The American’s thoughts went back to the days that he had spent with his grandmother… years before as a small child and the stories that she had  told him about her homeland across the sea… He knew who this man was…

Felix Drezhenski… Son of a Polish Aristocrat, who turned on “his own”. Drezhenski, one of the “headliners”, and alleged “hardliners” in the “Great October Revolution. For years, Drezhenski was the most awe-inspiring name in Russia… loved by the honest, feared and hated by the criminal. He was the utterly incorruptible and honest cop. “Iron Felix”… the man who could not be bought, the ideologue, the founder and guiding light of the Cheka, charged with cleaning up and bringing order to revolution and Civil War torn Russia. It was Drezhenski’s organization that later, after his death by poisoning at the hands of Stalin, inadvertently became the predecessor of the infamous NKVD and KGB.

Felix Drezhenski was the man who brought the post-revolutionary black market to its knees with a fist of steel.  He was for the whole world, “Iron Felix”… the man who unwittingly became a symbol of freedom when his statue was toppled one night in August of 1991. He was a man who, after his death, had become a scapegoat for a dictator who hated and feared him for his honesty and integrity. Under Josef Stalin’s careful orchestration, Drezhenski’s name became synonymous with evil incarnate. But, the people did not forget. They knew that he was also the man who founded Russia’s fine system of Children’s Homes, kindergartens and orphanages. He was the man who often worked 18 hours a day on nothing more than a few slices of bread and a glass of water so that the children in the homes he founded could eat the meals that he denied himself. He was the man who would trudge wearily home at the end of the day, in any kind of weather, because he refused a driver or car… more money saved for “his children”. On the way, he would stop at the nearest orphanage and deliver the food that he had carefully hoarded in a brown paper bag, then stand by and watch it distributed among the young people that he had taken it upon himself to guard and protect until they reached adulthood. He was the man who denied himself a decent suit of clothing and new boots, so that the money he saved could be sent to the foundlings who, in his heart, had replaced his own dead son. He and his wife had lost their only child to Typhus in the horrible, deadly winter of 1906. They had lost the light of their lives, and forever mourned him. But…like “Mr. Chips” of fiction, Drezhenski had other children… hundreds of them. And…that’s what they called themselves, “Drezhenski’s Children”. Most of them, those who actually knew the man, are gone now, but a few still survive. They will tell anyone who will listen about their “father”. They will tell anyone who will listen how they stood in the snow and freezing slush for hours for a chance to pass by his coffin as he lay in state, and how surprised they all were to see him, for the first time that any of them could remember, wearing a pair of new boots as he reposed in death.

Shakespeare, the immortal Bard of Avon said it best “The evil that men do in their lives goes on after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” Of course, the Bard had never met Felix Edmundovich Dreshenski .

The American stood there in the courtyard of State Orphanage No. 4, for the longest time, in absolute silence. If anyone had seen him, they would have sworn that he looked for all the world as if he’d seen a ghost…

 


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