Illustrations by Katie McBride
Illustrations by Katie McBride

Rays of Life

Rays of Life

By Yuri Dolgushin • Translated by Yvonne Howell • Illustrations by Katie McBride

“Something eludes the clichés” of this tale, writes Yvonne Howell, its translator. A professor of Russian and international studies, Howell teaches Richmond’s students to examine the interplay of literature and culture, how they illuminate and inform each other and sometimes reveal cloaked tensions between power and resistance. This excerpt — from Howell’s recently edited collection of Russian and Soviet science fiction, Red Star Tales — comes from a Russian novel first published in 1939, “at the height of Stalin’s terror,” she notes, the peak years “when Soviet citizens disappeared into the Gulag in waves of arrests.” Science fiction perhaps provided a surreptitious voice for expressing a very basic desire: to bring missing loved ones back from the dead.

Among the various instruments that were helping to bring Anna back to life, there was one whose function did not become clear to Nikolai until later. It seemed to be an ordinary electrocardiogram, an instrument for measuring the heartbeat. It consisted of a small box with a round eye that glowed green, and inside the green was a dark shadow in the shape of a butterfly. By observing the pulsations of the butterfly’s wings, one could follow the heart’s “action current,” as Ridan called it.

In and of itself, this apparatus did not present any particular mystery: its construction, which was based on the principle of cathode oscillations, was clear. The beats of the heart were transmitted to the machine by two wires, which were in turn attached to electrodes glued to either side of the chest cavity.

The device had been turned on as soon as they took Anna out of the cylinder and laid her on the operating table. By that time, over three days had passed since the moment of her death. Yet immediately the cardiograph’s “butterfly” had started to furl and unfurl her trembling wings. In this dead, immobile heart a charged electrical life was still pulsing. Therefore, the heart wasn’t completely dead! Some kind of life was still there after all!

Now Nikolai started to understand Ridan’s musings about “real” and “false” death. What we are used to calling death is not really death. It’s just a pause. The remarkable scientist , working with anabiosis, was right: an organism that has been struck down by death is actually like a clock, whose pendulum has been stopped by a hand. All you need to do is push the pendulum, and the clock starts to tick again. Ridan took this concept even further.

“Real, irrevocable death arrives only at the moment when the proteins that make up living tissue fall apart,” he reiterated. “If that hasn’t happened yet, then life can be resurrected. If the cause of death is the destruction of one of the organs — whether a lung, a heart, or a stomach, then that organ can be removed and replaced with a new, healthy one, often taken from an animal — and the whole organism will live again. That’s the theory. And we have already advanced to the practical application of theory. We were able to do so thanks to the ‘conserving apparatus’ that you, Nikolai, have invented. Soon we will arrive at a time when death ‘by accident,’ that is, by the failing of this or that organ, will no longer exist. We will create reserves of live organs that are ready to function, and we will use them as necessary, just as today we use the preserved blood of those who have died for transfusions to those who are still living. Futhermore, Nikolai Arsentievich, I am certain that this very condition, which up until now we called death — and rushed to bury or burn the body — we will come to under- stand as the opposite: one of the most powerful healing methods at our disposal.”

“What?” said Nikolai, who was completely taken aback by this progression in Ridan’s prognosis. “We are going to heal by death?”

“Yes, heal by death. The dead can’t be sick. All illnesses depend on the functioning of living organisms. Temporary death, with very few exceptions, closes down all bodily functions and cuts off everything that feeds the pathological process. It stops the disease.”

“And when the person is resurrected, and bodily functions resume, the illness will pick up where it left off?” “No. Once the pathological process has been cut off, an external force or infection is required to restart the process. A functioning organism is only capable of supporting illness, it can’t initiate it.”

In these conversations, Nikolai was always deeply struck by the novelty of Ridan’s ideas. Ridan’s fanatical faith in the power of human reason was contagious. Nikolai needed this inspiring faith now more than ever, because when he was left alone with his own thoughts, he was ready to fall back into doubt and despair, to lose hope again.

Another night and another day had passed since the last little golden sparks of happiness had danced in Nikolai’s heart, which was darkened by doubts. He had hoped that it would be just a few more moments — and Anna would look up at him, smile, and recognize his love, which he had for so long kept hidden both from her and from himself. …

None of that had happened. For days Anna lay on the operating table with a beating heart and quietly breathing chest — yet still as immobile as ever, still completely lifeless. As before, her eyelids were slightly opened, but they only fluttered in response to a touch. There were no signs of consciousness.

“What is happening?” asked Nikolai, with a despairing glance at Ridan.

“Nothing,” he said, and Nikolai sensed the same sense of anxiety in his voice. “We’ll have to wait. …” Ridan looked for any opportunity to distract himself from the doubts that threatened to overcome him, so he talked, and talked. … “In the animals that I brought back to life after a ten-minute death, the brain resumed its functions within seven or eight minutes. Simka the ape was also dead for about ten minutes, but it took twenty hours for him to come back to consciousness. I think that the more complex the brain of the organism, the more deeply its cells are damaged by carbon-dioxide poisoning at death. After all, death is accompanied by the cessation of oxygen to the brain, oxygen that the blood conveys from the lungs to the brain. It’s quite possible that the brain of a person takes much longer to restore. We’ll have to wait. …”

An organism that has been struck down by death is actually like a clock, whose pendulum has been stopped by a hand. All you need to do is push the pendulum, and the clock starts to tick again.

At nine in the evening, Natasha telephoned to the operating room to say that Vikling had arrived.

“Ah, Vikling!” answered Ridan. “Take him to the cafeteria, I’ll be there shortly.”

Nikolai had expected this call and followed Professor Ridan.

“Are you really thinking of meeting with Vikling?” he asked.

“Of course.”

“No, Konstantin Alexandrovich, you will not go. I’m sorry, but this part of the set-up has been vouchsafed to me. Everything is prepared, and your appearance is not part of the program. It would be insane to subject you to this danger. Vikling is perfectly aware that Anna’s life is in your hands, and, at the last minute, if he sees that he can’t save himself, he may do something unexpected.”

“Sure, maybe,” Ridan shrugged, “meeting with him does not exactly flatter me.”

Meanwhile, in the cafeteria, the silent drama was already starting to unfold. Natasha had been initiated into our secret a few days earlier. Since then, she had mostly stopped crying, but her mood had grown darker. A feeling of insult had compounded her pain: why had Ridan hidden from her what he was doing with Anna until now?

When Nikolai explained everything to her and told her that Anna was still breathing, Natasha looked mistrustfully at him with her dark, searching eyes; then, with sudden comprehension, she laughed, threw herself at Nikolai and sobbed on his chest. This was happiness, and from that moment on, her grief disappeared. Without any hesitations or doubts, she was immediately convinced that Anna would return to life, and everything would be as it was before.

When Nikolai told her about Vikling’s arrival, her emotions boiled to the surface just as violently.

“I sensed this would happen! I hated him from the very beginning! How could you all have believed him, when in his every movement and every word, something rings false!

She triumphantly swore to Nikolai that she would not give herself away in even the slightest gesture as she welcomed Vikling. And now she was leading him into the cafeteria.

“Please, have a seat, Alfred.”

He sat down, still crumpled with sadness, warily glancing into Natasha’s eyes.

“How is Anya, Natasha? You, probably, already know something. …”

Oh, how hard it was to resist temptation! The desire to torture this despicable person, to toy with him like a cat with a mouse, was so strong; she wanted to start a conversation full of innocent hints that would alarm him terribly. It would be so easy now to make him sense his own impending doom, to get revenge for his betrayal, his crime, for everything. … No, she did not have the right, she had promised.

“I don’t know a thing,” she answered unexpectedly loudly.

That was a signal. Vikling saw the door directly in front of him open suddenly, and a man in an army camouflage shirt quickly stepped out of the room and stood by the wall. Vikling recognized the man and broke out into a cold sweat. Then he noticed the revolver in the man’s hand. …

Vikling glanced around rapidly. There were three doors in the room. Next to each one stood a person with a weapon. Yet another person emerged out of Nikolai’s room and walked directly towards Vikling, calmly and confidently.

“Alfred Vikling, if I am not mistaken?” he asked politely.

“Yes, that’s me! What kind of ridiculous mystification is this?” Vikling cried, growing pale.

“I am from the Operations Division of the People’s Commissariat for State Security. I have orders to arrest you. Kindly raise your hands. … Search him,” he ordered.

“Wait a minute!” Vikling objected. “There must be some kind of mistake. On what grounds do you arrest me?”

“I can tell you on what grounds. You are accused of the attempted murder of Anna Ridan.”

“What nonsense! Natasha, you know how things happened. Call the professor. …”

“The professor is busy,” said Nikolai as he entered the cafeteria, “and he asked me to convey to you that he cannot help you in any way. He himself agrees with the charges brought against you, based on information obtained directly from Anna Konstantinova.”

The last words Nikolai uttered struck Vikling like a bolt of lightening. His eyes grew wide, his knees buckled, and one could see how much effort it cost him to take the first step towards the door. …

Three more days passed in anxious anticipation. Anna lay in the same condition — at least, so it seemed to Nikolai — and once again his hopes changed to despair.

Ridan, on the other hand, continued with his observations, analyses, and experiments, and each day he detected new signs of awakening life in the organism of his daughter. Her somatic system had already reestablished itself. Her digestive organs had started to work, supplying her blood with the products of miraculously transformed proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, all of which Ridan delivered to her stomach in complex solutions. Anna’s half-open eyelids, which frightened Nikolai more than anything else, finally closed. Her whole body was ready for movement. A few peripheral muscles started to twitch on their own, as if preparing their strength for much more significant contractions.

Yet still no “orders” came from her higher organs. The complicated departments of her brain, containing the secrets of thought and the enigma of consciousness, were silent. She was in a deep, unconscious sleep.

“Don’t worry, Nikolai Aresentievich, we will wait, hope, and keep at it,” Ridan said repeatedly, which did not do much to boost poor Nikolai’s fading hopes.

Nikolai was always deeply struck by the novelty of Ridan’s ideas. Ridan’s fanatical faith in the power of human reason was contagious. Nikolai needed this inspiring faith now more than ever.

On the other hand, released from the sharpest pangs of bitter grief, Nikolai finally recalled his interaction with the German, with the last radiogram that he sent to Ufa. At the time, Nikolai did not know that this communist sympathizer and underground antifascist activist was named . As Nikolai deciphered the text of the radiogram, he became convinced that the fascists had tried to set up an airwaves defense system to intercept the German underground’s communications. True, they had not been able to pinpoint Hans’ exact location; it’s not that simple; an experienced operative who knows he is being hunted can always throw off his pursuers. Still, they managed to once again block Hans’ messages. All he could do was repeat with alarmed insistence that the German fascists intended to attack the Soviet Union, and then add a few more words to the explanation of Gross’s method that he had begun previously. In short, there was still no clarity. He had not said a word about whether the fascists had gotten Gross’s machine to work again, and Nikolai was more and more convinced that they hadn’t: Gross’s colleague had blown up the blueprints and the model along with himself in that Munich explosion.

Vikling knew nothing about all of this beyond what had been reported in the papers. All he was supposed to do was get the encryption key so that they could decode the messages coming out of Munich. Instead, as it emerged in the conversation Nikolai had with the prosecutor, Vikling, apparently devastated by the thought that Anna might come back to life, lost hope in getting off scotfree. He fled. Of course, Vikling would hardly have believed in Anna’s miraculous resurrection if not for the prosecutor’s carefully planted mention of the information Ridan had obtained through the “generator of miracles.” Nobody had access to those facts except Vikling himself and Anna!

The prosecutor got the impression that Vikling was genuinely remorseful for his espionage and sabotage activities — he was so eager to expose himself and everyone who had been involved, from Moscow to the factory in the Urals.

Vikling turned out to be the son of a powerful Moscow financier who had emigrated during the first days of the Revolution. Masquerading as a German named “Alfred Vikling” enabled him to easily “escape” back to the Soviet Union from Germany in 1936. This was the Gestapo’s trick: the real Alfred Vikling, who was a fairly well-known member of the German anti-fascist intelligentsia, had been secretly captured and, in all likelihood, executed. It would have been nearly impossible to unmask the switch, since both the real and the false Vikling had the same profession, and they were remarkably similar in their physical appearance. In fact, when the Gestapo handed over the real Vikling’s documents to the spy Vikling, they didn’t even bother to change the identifying photographs. Furthermore, the “new” Vikling was assigned to go undercover as an embedded spy, so for many years he did not engage in any espionage functions at all. His only task was to find a foothold in Soviet society, acquire people’s trust and an appropriate position — a task at which he excelled.

Yes, he was determined to “win over” Anna Ridan as well. Not only for professional reasons …

His first explicit assignments were to participate in the sabotage operation in the Ural factory, and to intercept Nikolai’s radio communications. These missions did not fall on fertile soil. “Vikling” was no longer the person he had been, and he acted unwillingly; his earlier anti-Soviet convictions had dimmed considerably during the time spent living in his original homeland. Only the fear of death was stronger. Anna’s murder, which he committed in a fit of insane fear, along with his subsequent exposure and arrest, was simply too great a burden for him to bear. He “gave up” and revealed everything that could possibly be useful to those who protected the safety of the Soviet Union.

Nikolai did not tell any of this to the professor, so as not to divert him from his stressful work. He didn’t tell Natasha, either. Why cloud Natasha’s mood by revealing these terrible memories, when all her grief had immediately turned to boundless joy when she saw her one and only sister coming back to life? A lucky person! Natasha was capable of simply loving, simply suffering, and just as simply rejoicing, without allowing unnecessary doubts to color her pure feelings. Now she simply believed that Anna would live again, and she threw herself into helping Ridan.

Whereas Nikolai … poor Nikolai! It was not at all easy for such a reticent person, finally touched by love just as it was tragically snatched from him. Fate had pulled him into this terrible maelstrom, buffeted him from side to side, first by tempting him with imminent happiness, then by meting out a terrible blow. …

He was completely derailed. Days went by — endless, dark, hopeless days. Never before had he felt so empty, and so useless. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t help Ridan, other than taking turns with Natasha watching over Anna. He tried to read, conscientiously leafing through the pages, only to realize that he hadn’t retained a thing. …

Sometimes he started to think about his own behavior, and then he couldn’t understand what was happening to him. Why was he not able to do anything that didn’t relate to Anna? How could Natasha, sitting in the same place by Anna’s bedside, carry on with reading her textbooks, solving problems, or sewing something? How did Aunt Pasha take on all the tasks of caring for the family, without missing a thing, and only allowing herself to occasionally interrupt her cleaning to stare intently at Anna’s completely immobile face?

“Apparently the professor is right, something is wrong with my nerves,” Nikolai concluded. “Or else I just have an unfortunate personality. …”

On the morning of the tenth day a band of murky clouds stretched along the eastern horizon. The grey dawn broke slowly. The barometer fell.

Ridan sent Natasha off to sleep and stayed alone with Anna. Last night her body had been wracked by some kind of tumultuous process of awakening. Isolated tremors and the twitching of individual muscles suddenly became much more intense and convulsed her whole body. It was as if her muscles were quivering from the desire to move freely. The process continued for an hour and a half. Then, suddenly, all movement ceased. Anna once again lay in a deep, motionless sleep, seemingly even deeper than her previous slumber. …

Ridan sat next to her and tried to figure out what had happened. Was it a step on the path to reanimating the functions of the brain, or, on the contrary, a burst of activity like death throes — after which everything goes backwards, towards death. …

By ten in the morning, the clouds had spread over Moscow, the first streaks of lightening rent the sky; in the garden the dusty trees began to sway, welcoming the desired storm. The rain poured down in sheets, full of lightening, thunder, and wind.

Morose and unshaven, Ridan abruptly tore himself away from his thoughts, went to the window and flung it open. The sharp scent of storm tore into the operating room. A clap of thunder resounded with a dry crack, and the rain slanted down like a golden curtain.

Ridan approached Anna again.

He saw. … Maybe it just seemed that he saw it? Of late, his exhausted eyes often betrayed him. … No, he saw, and he heard, a deep exhale, the first to disturb the far too even rhythm of her calm breathing. Next her lips moved, and lightly parted. … Nikolai awoke to the ring of the telephone and grabbed the receiver before he was even fully awake.

“Come here! Natie too!” the voice was exultant. Nikolai understood. Pulling on his clothes as he went, he ran into the operating room.

Natasha caught up with him at the doorway, barefoot and in her robe. Ridan, without saying a word, moved to the side, as if ceding to them a place near the table. They bent over Anna, anxiously looking into her face, her lips, her wet eyelashes that had just closed. …

“Anya,” Natasha said softly but surely.

Suddenly her eyelids opened, and her brows raised slightly. Anna looked up, transferred her gaze to Nikolai, and then wearily closed her eyes again.

“Kolya …” — a barely audible whisper.

Beside himself with happiness, forgetting everything in the world, Nikolai planted a hot kiss on her cheek.

Natasha was frightened by this movement — maybe it was too much? — and taking his head gently in her hands, she moved it away. When they both turned around, Ridan was no longer in the room. Nikolai ran to the adjoining laboratory and found Ridan at the far side of the room, elbows propped up against the window sill, holding a handkerchief to his face. His shoulders were shaking.

Excerpted from Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction. Editor, Yvonne Howell, professor of Russian and international studies. Translation editor, Anne O. Fisher. Available from Amazon and Russian Life Books. Copyright © 2015.