The following is the tenth chapter of a novel, Offended Sensibilities, which explores, through the structure of a neo-noir detective story, a controversial Russian blasphemy law that criminalizes offending the sensibilities of religious believers. The law was passed in 2013 after three members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot staged an impromptu protest called “Punk Prayer: Mother of God, Chase Putin Away” outside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ and were arrested.
IT WAS MARINA SEMYONOVA’S first birthday without Andrey Ivanovich. Her living room seethed with activity; hired waiters in snow-white shirts and bow ties dashed about, gesturing dramatically like orchestra conductors. Lids were swept with great flourishes from enormous serving plates, revealing entire sides of pike perch on beds of onion lined with lemon slices, beef tongue in walnut sauce garnished with feathery cilantro and parsley, baked pork with red potatoes. The dishes breathed steam, like dragons.
Gilded plates and bowls were laden with small open-top herring and red caviar pastries, rolled crepes, marinated garlic cloves, pickled cucumbers, carrot stars, stuffed tomatoes, eggplant rolls, all kinds of salads—French bean, pine nut and roast pear, imported Parmesan.
The guests held out their porcelain sectioned plates, rotating them to receive a variety of hors d’oeuvres. Aged wine bubbled in champagne flutes. Conversations were born and died; loudest of all were the voices of Ilyushenko and a little man who always turned up at this kind of occasion. He had been an advisor to the former governor but now headed some utterly obscure public institution. His hair bristled in a graying buzz-cut, and a GTO sports and country badge gleamed on the lapel of his jacket. As usual, they were arguing about Russia.
“Peter, Peter, at what point did you turn revolutionary? One minute you’re living your life, happy as a clam, espousing ecumenism. There’s a slight turn of the screw, and suddenly you’re leaping up onto a tank! What you’re saying is just ridiculous: autocracy… What kind of autocracy do we have here?”
“But why did they come after me?” Ilyushenko frowned.
He had been unable to get his bearings after a recent surprise visit by goons from the Internal Ministry’s Counter-Extremism Directorate. They had come to question him about appeals for all-Christian unity he had posted on the internet.
“So you’re saying that we have to bow down to the western church?” the goons had pressed.
“What do you mean, bow down?” Ilyushenko stammered. “This is about unity of faith among equals under God’s commandment.”
“But you do understand that they are our enemies, don’t you?” the goons persisted. “What you are calling for is collusion with the enemy.”
At the end of the conversation they had strutted around his apartment with their elbows stuck out; they complimented the silver clock that hung over the doorway (a present from Marina Semyonova), then made their exit, leaving Ilyushenko in a state of abject terror.
“They came to sort things out,” replied the little buzz-cut man. “What if you’re spreading heresy? Stirring up the masses? It’s their job; they have to maintain security. Especially with the sports festival about to start.”
“So now I have to sit all night long in fear and trembling, ‘awaiting dear guests, rattling like shackles the chains on the doors’?”
Hearing the familiar lines from Mandelstam’s poem, the buzz-cut man winced and leered, drumming his patent-leather dress shoes on the parquet floor. “Oh, no. I can’t stand it! This is the last thing we need. Please, none of these crazy speculations! ‘Chains on the doors’… It’s some kind of fad you’ve picked up, going around scaring people. Enough of these bugaboos—Stalin, the year 1937… It’s downright laughable!”
“Well, it wasn’t the least bit funny for me.” Ilyushenko twitched his nose, offended. “I sure didn’t feel like laughing.”
“What did they do, rip out your tongue? Send you off to Siberia? Here you are lolling about in the best company, drinking French wines, dining on roast grouse, and you have to jump on the bandwagon and cause a panic. Peter, Peter… I assumed you had more brains than that.”
Marina Semyonova, her face flushed, perched herself on the armrest of an enormous chair next to the crew-cut man. She was wearing a sparkly black dress, and an exquisite necklace glimmered in her deep décolletage.
“Are you on again about politics, boys?” she asked reproachfully.
“We’re talking about you, Marina Anatolyevna, about you!” The little man beamed and draped his hand lasciviously around her waist.
“We are talking about—the predicament I’m in,” blurted Ilyushenko.
“Oh that…” Her eyes dulled momentarily, then she beamed. Someone had called her name; a new gift had arrived. She fluttered up off the armchair and darted to the door to greet the newcomers.
The crew-cut man’s eyes followed her for a few moments, spellbound. Then he came to his senses and picked up where he had left off as though nothing had happened. “Well, judge for yourself. Take Stalin’s staff shakeups, for example. What was that like? A complete bloodbath! One guy gets his head chopped off, then another, a third, and the entire family is hauled off and shot. What do we have here? Some minister or governor gets caught with his hands in the till, and it’s all off the radar—no muss, no fuss, no one lays a hand on him. Maybe someone gets fired—that can happen. Or maybe someone gets hauled off to court. But then it fizzles out. Zilch, diddly. The son of a bitch might even get transferred to a new job, one that’s no worse. Rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns. ‘Life has become better, comrades. Life has become happier!’”
“All right, but take your basic Ivan Ivanovich,” Ilyushenko began, but the man wasn’t listening.
“Humanity in general is becoming better. Overall, on earth as a whole. People aren’t getting their guts ripped out; no one’s being shot or hauled off to the gallows. Except maybe in the Middle East. But even there, there’s no comparison. Take a look at A Thousand and One Nights…”
“What’s with the literature lesson?” asked Ilyushenko. “No one’s getting hanged, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t terrified. Why did they come after me? I know I’m not the bravest guy in the world, maybe I am too wrapped up in my own problems, but don’t look at me like that—this is no laughing matter. Instead, tell me, why this concern for security, this focus on invisible enemies like in the old days? They’re afraid of phantoms, but they’re going around terrorizing actual people, citizens. Me! They’re terrorizing me personally!”
An enormous basket of red roses was brought into Marina Semyonova’s living room with great ceremony, generating a wave of excitement that drowned Ilyushenko’s lamentations. The birthday girl skipped and hopped along in its wake, clapping her hands like a child.
“They’re from the mayor!” she announced.
The basket, which was of staggering dimensions, became the center of attention. The guests crowded around, and there ensued a great clicking of iPhones. Semyonova laughed and posed, the golden necklace radiating sparks from its nest in her cleavage. Ernest Pogodin abandoned his glass and fell into a kind of artist’s trance, contemplating the picturesque scene—the beauty sniffing the roses—his head tipped slightly like a bird’s, the white knob of his cane gleaming between his knees. Chashchin, the theater’s artistic director, kept repeating rapturously: “There are easily five hundred of them, no less. I have an eye for it. Believe me, this is way beyond what actors get.”
The construction firm executive flashed his dentures in delight; the manager of the Wildflower Beauty Clinic, a woman of indeterminate age whose lips had been inflated into a pair of sleek cylindrical bolsters, focused her cell-phone lens on the basket and exclaimed hoarsely: “Whoa sister, take a look at them roses!”
When the excitement died down, the little man cried: “You see, Peter? Everyone is happy! No one is afraid!”
“What’s this all about?” Pogodin was curious.
Not without a note of triumph, the crew-cut man gestured at Ilyushenko. “Peter here thinks someone’s going to squeal on him!”
Guffaws all around. The beauty clinic manager’s puffy lips parted, and her shoulders quivered in mirth. Marina Semyonova administered a loud, jokey kiss on Peter’s forehead. “Don’t be afraid, Petya. Why get your knickers in a twist? Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
“Nothing?” Ilyushenko shot back. “What do you mean, nothing? Something sure happened to Lyamzin. And his deputy. And his wife too.”
“Shh, shh…” Hisses came from all sides. “You’ll ruin the party.”
Chagrined that he’d let himself run off at the mouth, Ilyushenko fell dumb. He stood guiltily stroking the massive cross that hung over his belly.
“Relax. Don’t worry!” The hostess soothed her guests. “I know that’s all anyone can talk about, about poor Ella Sergevna. I personally have nothing against her. I even wanted to make up with her. But I was too late.”
“Who ratted on her?” asked Chashchin, extending his glass to a waiter for a refill. Everyone started talking at once.
“The school…” Everyone had a fact to share. “Teacher…fired…her husband… She slit her wrists… The maid found her…”
“I’ve got people squealing on me too, and I couldn’t care less!” declared Ernest Pogodin, looking up from his boiled shank roll.
“What, you too? What could anyone say about you?” Marina Semyonova flirted.
“That I debauch boys, my models.”
That stirred up the guests, who’d been getting too serious.
“Ha, ha, ha!”
“Right there at the easel!”
“A pedophile artist!”
“You got it,” nodded Pogodin, appreciating the attention. “Recently I did a portrait of the governor’s wife. And during one of the sittings she comes out and says, ‘Ernest, if I’m to believe the rumors, you are completely depraved; I would not allow you to paint my son.’ Quote unquote.”
“She bought the slander?” whispered Chashchin.
“Whether she did or not,” snickered Pogodin, “the lad had already signed up for a portrait. Decked out as a cadet.”
The guests sat side by side at the table, rapturously devouring the refreshments. Their molars ground and pulverized; their canines chomped; their incisors bit and tore.
“That was terrible, what happened to Ella Sergevna,” Chashchin confided, masticating. “Completely unexpected, to be honest. She was a real tough one. Like a bulldozer, that woman. Must have been the psychological shock. You’ve seen the YouTube videos that people took in the theater. Quite the bitch fight. Ten thousand views! And so much filth. What language! People like us, creative artists, public figures, we’re used to that kind of thing, but what must it have been like for a peaceful, decent public servant like her?”
“I looked into this thing, wrist-slitting,” Pogodin noted, taking a loud swig from his glass. “Did you know, for example, that the blood’s velocity through the vessels is forty kilometers an hour? That’s just insane.”
“Picture how it all just poured out into the bathtub—five liters. She basically drained herself out completely.”
“Yes… I feel sorry for their son,” sighed Chashchin. “An orphan, alone in the world.”
“Completely loaded, though. Set up for life.” Pogodin winked.
The living room grew lively again. New guests arrived: the prosecutor Kapustin with a bouquet and a mysterious little light-blue box tied with a ribbon, along with two detectives. One was the guy with the moustache who had questioned Lyamzin’s widow about the history teacher. The other was Lenochka’s Victor.
“I’m here with my entourage,” announced Kapustin, and, kissing the birthday girl, he murmured into her ear: “I have received the money and the papers.”
Semyonova nodded approvingly. The waiters bustled about, brandishing wine glasses and directing the guests to the refreshments tables.
“Forgive us for coming late,” said Kapustin in his bass voice. “We were at the movies. Our entire team, so to speak.”
“Why the movies?” snickered Marina Semyonova.
“Under orders,” clarified the mustachioed detective. “They had us go to a patriotic Russian film. Very inspiring.”
“On the eve of the sports festival,” interjected Victor.
Indeed, the town was festooned with banners. The festival was to showcase traditional folk games. The competitions would begin on the main town square, then various events would be held in sports facilities all over the region. Athletes had been invited from China, Zimbabwe, Turkmenia, and Venezuela. With all the excitement, the governor had taken to adding several drops of hawthorn extract to his evening cup of chamomile. The mayor was wracked with insomnia. The minister of tourism and sports had lost two kilos from worry.
The little man, who had been arguing with Ilyushenko up to this point, suddenly spoke up. “Let’s drink to Marina Anatolyevna! Our precious treasure. The manager from her construction company is here tonight. These people, ladies and gentlemen, have poured their energy into rejuvenating and modernizing our town. They’ve built an ice arena, a new bridge—and all of this has come about thanks to the vigor, brains, perseverance, and of course beauty of our very own Marina Semyonova. Well, as Horace said, ‘Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.’ And she is our hard worker. My dear, I wish you health, love, and may there be, well—you know what I mean—no more tragedies!”
Glasses clinked, the naked cupids cavorting on the ceiling were overcome with emotion, and the guests succumbed to a sweet tipsiness. Marina Semyonova tapped her knife handle against the stalk of her wine glass, silencing the room.
“I have a proposal. Since we’re all gathered here together, let’s play a game!”
“What a scamp! I’ll pass, though,” Ernest Pogodin said immediately.
Ilyushenko perked up. “What do you have up your sleeve?”
“Don’t you drag me into any games,” said Kapustin, his mouth stuffed with food.
“Actually, as chief prosecutor, you’ll find this extremely interesting,” said Marina Semyonova. “The game is called ‘bringing the sphinx to life.’ See, I take a match and place it on Petya’s eyelid. Like this, right above his eyelash. Now Petya, make sure you don’t blink.”
“How am I supposed to keep from blinking?” asked Ilyushenko, to general laughter.
“Petya will be the sphinx,” she explained. “I have to try to say something that shakes him out of his complacency so he lets the matchstick fall, see?”
“If that’s your goal,” drawled Chashchin, “all you have to do is yell hey at the top of your lungs. That’ll do the trick.”
“That’s just it. I can’t. You’re not allowed to raise your voice or wave your hands. You have to keep your hands in your lap.”
Marina Semyonova sat on the elegant stool opposite Ilyushenko, as the game prescribed. The guests gathered around, so as not to miss the moment when the sphinx would get rattled and drop the matchstick.
“Now then, Petya,” she began. “Thank you for coming to my birthday party. I thought you might have been so scared about the counter-extremism guys that you’d completely lose it. Yes, of course there are haters out there—I’m not going to try to deny it—but no one is scheming to drive you to your grave. Though I’m sure they could come up with a reason if they wanted to.”
Ilyushenko sat perfectly still.
“Do you know what people are saying?” She lowered her voice to a near whisper. “That supposedly you’re not into the ladies, Petya. Know what I mean?”
Ilyushenka’s knee twitched, but he remained stoic. On his eyelashes the matchstick quivered like a candle flame.
“What do you have to say for yourself? Stallions and warhorses all around, just one gentle nag for the ladies,” Semyonova pressed on, her tone gentle, her words cruel: “You see a nice looking boy and think, What a cute widdle bunny wabbit, gonna shag ’im through the back door.”
The guests lost all restraint and guffawed raucously. Ernest Pogodin wriggled his sideburns mirthfully and let fly: “Bugger! Bum chum! Queen! Pansy! Fruitcake! Gay-boy! Faggot!”
The matchstick quivered, then toppled into the folds of Ilyushenko’s cassock.
“That’s not fair!” he flushed. “First of all, you’re all ganging up on me. Secondly, I’m not allowed to say anything. What kind of game is that—just sit here like a fool while everyone curses and abuses me?”
“The sphinx has come to life! The sphinx is alive!” purred the birthday girl, ignoring her friend’s protestations.
“Your turn now, Marina Anatolyevna,” said Kapustin, savoring his dry red wine.
“Fine!” Shooing Ilyushenko off, she settled down in the armchair. “Give me a matchstick! Who is going to try to wake me up?”
“Oh,” muttered Chashchin. “What wouldn’t I give for a chance like this?” And he plunged his fork into a serving of horseradish aspic.
The mustached investigator stood up. “Let me give it a go.”
A piece of dill had gotten stuck to his moustache, which gave it the look of a bare hedge in winter with just a single green leaf poking out. The smile vanished instantly from Semyonova’s face.
“You’re not allowed. You have an unfair advantage!” the woman with the sausage lips squealed saucily. But the hostess took up the challenge.
“So be it. Here goes.”
The matchstick was perched on the pedestal of her semi-permanently mascaraed and curled lashes. The detective sat down facing her.
“Allow me, Marina Anatolyevna, to express my deepest admiration for you,” he began, speaking somehow very distractedly and indistinctly. “You are an extraordinary woman, that’s for sure. We all know how much the late minister loved you. And if there is a next world”—he looked upward, and the guests tipped their heads back and gazed at the ceiling with its flock of angels—“he undoubtedly regrets that he cannot wish you a happy birthday as usual.”
Victor was sitting by the grand piano, and his fist accidentally slipped onto the keyboard, producing a mismatched do and re in a contra-octave. The matchstick on Marina Semyonova’s lashes twitched and tipped, but held.
“We know it’s not been easy for you,” the detective raised his voice. “Your beloved was by your side, but at the same time not with you… Tell me, were you the one who sent him the anonymous letters?”
The guests murmured and stirred. The sphinx’s eyelashes wavered and dipped, and to a chorus of oohs and ahs, the matchstick tumbled to the floor.
“You joker, you!” Kapustin shook his finger at the detective. Semyonova giggled nervously and hunched over awkwardly with her hands pressed to her lips, leaving lipstick smears on the soft tips of her fingers. Victor applauded for some reason.
But at this point the lights suddenly went out. Ernest Pogodin sat down at the piano and plinked the notes to the familiar melody. The guests chorused:
Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!
Happy birthday, dear Marina. Happy birthday to you!
A cart glided slowly into the living room, bearing a luxurious, five-tiered cake, proceeding tentatively, like a bride. Each tier was lined with a dense, magical forest of confectionary candles whose flames quivered, sending enchanting shadows scurrying along the delicate, creamy icing petals of the cake’s airy blue-beige sides. On top, a coffee-colored chocolate inscription read, Happy Birthday, Dear Marina!
The cake wheeled up to the birthday girl, where it halted and curtseyed like a ballet dancer in a tutu before a fairy-tale queen. Deeply moved, Semyonova leaned over to make a wish, and in the gaps between the candles could be glimpsed the sparkling of her dress, a piece of her chin and neck, and the beguiling cut-out triangle on her full bosom. She exhaled, extinguishing the candles, all except one, whose little flame swayed for one more second in mortal agony before it, too, died, plunging the room into darkness.
The overhead light came on, and everyone squealed, gathering around the extinguished cake, which stood like some exotic beast in a trap. One of the waiters brandished a huge knife. In its mirrored blade the guests’ faces, the room’s cornices, and the cherubs on the ceiling flashed and jerked. The knife plunged into the cake’s soft, spongy insides like a swimmer into a pool, soiling itself in the cream, luring lovers of sweets.
A line of guests holding dessert plates coiled around the cake cart. When they had received their servings they stepped back, transfixed like blind men, salivating. Victor indulged himself without the slightest restraint, his rust-colored forelock grazing his spoon. Chashchin stood to one side, eating alone; he leaned low over his plate, kissing the cake like a woman. Ilyushenko went for seconds, getting tangled in his cassock along the way.
The waiters circulated, repeating their refrain, “Tea or coffee?” Surrounded by guests, Marina Semyonova flipped through the mass of fresh photographs on her phone. The alcohol had kicked in, infusing her movements with a sluggish languor.
“Music! Music!” she demanded.
The band struck up one of the latest dance tunes. The birthday girl stepped out into the middle of the room, her dress shimmering like a snakeskin, undulating with her movements. A ring of bodies formed around her. The rhythm determined their movements—spurred them on, quickened them, prescribed their patterms. Victor flicked his fingers dashingly, the little man with the crew cut launched into the twist, and the Wildflower manager twerked her sensuous derrière.
She danced up to Marina Semyonova and took her hands: “So, babe, how is it going?” she asked. “Are you thinking about your Andrei?”
“Actually, not anymore,” giggled Marina. “I’ve fallen in love with another.”
“O-ho-ho! Tell me right this minute, who is he? Is he here, at the party?” The pillow-lipped aesthetician burned with curiosity. Her paws encircled Semyonova’s waist.
“I’m not going to tell you. I’m not…” Semyonova gathered up the hem of her dress and whirled around her axis. The music changed to a slow, swaying love song.
“Slow dance time. Sadie Hawkins,” announced Ilyushenko, finishing off his third piece of cake.
Marina Semyonova went up to the prosecutor and gave him her hand. Kapustin flashed a flattered, lascivious smile. They went out into the center. They began the dance, and the others gazed on, entranced.
Translated from the Russian by Carol Apollonio
Alisa Ganieva is the author of three novels in Russian: The Mountain and the Wall, Bride and Groom (both published in English by Deep Vellum), and Offended Sensibilities. She has also published a collection of stories and essays, Salam, Dalgat!, and a biography of Lilya Brik, muse of the Russian avant-garde. A native of the Caucasus, her work has been translated into ten languages.
Carol Apollonio teaches at Duke University. Her books include Dostoevsky’s Secrets (Northwestern), The New Russian Dostoevsky (Slavica), co-edited volumes on Chekhov, and translations from the Russian and Japanese. She serves as president of the International Dostoevsky Society.