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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Buying Lenin Miroslav Penkov

When grandpa learned I was leaving for America to study, he wrote me a good-bye note. "You rotten capitalist pig," the note read, "have a safe flight. Love, Grandpa." It was written on a creased red ballot from the 1991 elections, which was a cornerstone in Grandpa's communist ballot collection, and it bore the signatures of everybody in the village of Leningrad.

I was touched to receive such an honor, so I sat down, took out a one dollar bill, and wrote Grandpa the following reply: "You communist dupe, thanks for the letter. I'm leaving tomorrow, and when I get there I'll try to marry an American woman ASAP. I'll also try to have American children. Love, your grandson."

My senior year in high school, while most of my peers were busy drinking, smoking, having sex, playing dice, lying to their parents, hitchhiking to the sea, counterfeiting money, or making bombs for soccer games, I studied. English. I memorized words and grammar rules and practiced tongue twisters specifically designed for Eastern Europeans. Remember the money, I repeated over and over again--in the street, under the shower, even in my sleep. Remember the money, remember the money, remember the money. Phrases like this help you break your tongue. Develop an ear.


I lived alone in the apartment because by that time almost everybody I'd loved had died. First Grandma. Then my parents. Grandpa had moved to the village renamed Leningrad and stubbornly refused to come back and visit. I must have said some pretty bad things on a few occasions, especially when we had that big fight, and he was acting offended.

So I decided to seek my fortune elsewhere.

Early in the spring of 19991 got admitted to the University of Arkansas and received a free ride--full scholarship, room and board, even a plane ticket. I called Grandpa.

"My grandson, a capitalist!" he said. "I can't believe you'll do this to me. Not when you know what I've been through."


What Grandpa had been through is basically this: The year was 1944. Grandpa was in his midtwenties. His face was tough but fair. His nose was sharp. His dark eyes glowed with the spark of something new, great, and profoundly world-changing. He was poor. "I," he often told me, "would eat bread with crab apples for breakfast. Bread with crab apples for lunch. And crab apples for dinner, because by dinnertime, the bread would be over."

That's why when the Communists came to his village in Bulgaria to steal food, Grandpa joined them. They had all run to the woods and made dugouts and lived in them for weeks on end--day and night, down there in the dugouts. Outside, the fascists sniffed for them, trying to hunt them down with their greyhounds, with their guns and bombs and missiles, these bastards, these czarist sons of bitches. "If you think a grave is too narrow," Grandpa told me on one occasion, "make yourself a dugout. No, no, make yourself a dugout and get fifteen more people to join you in it for a week. And get a couple pregnant women, too. And a hungry goat. Then go around telling everybody a grave is the narrowest thing on earth"

"I never said a grave was the narrowest thing, Grandpa."

"But you were thinking it."

So finally, Grandpa got too hungry to stay in the dugout and decided to strap on a shotgun and go down to the village for food. When he arrived in the village, he found everything changed. A red flag was flapping from the church tower. The church had been shut down and turned into a meeting hall. All people walked free, and their dark eyes glowed with the spark of something new, great, and profoundly world-changing. Grandpa fell to his knees and wept and kissed the soil of the motherland. Immediately, he was assimilated by the Party. Immediately, he was given a high position in the local governing force. Immediately, he climbed up the ladder and moved to the city, where he became something-something of the something-something department. He got an apartment, married Grandma; a year later they had a baby boy.

"What so terrible have you been through?" I asked him one day over the phone, before I left for America. "You've had a good life."

"I hate the capitalists," he said. "I love Lenin."

"Do you love me?"

"You are my grandson."

"Then come to the city. Live with me in the apartment."

"I have things to do here," he said. "I have responsibilities."

"You have graves to clean."

"I can't come," he said. "You know I can't."

"I know. That's why I'm leaving."

I arrived in Arkansas on August 11, 1999. At the airport I was picked up by two young men and a girl, all in suits. They were from some sort of organization that cared for international students and had e-mailed me in advance to offer the pickup.

"Welcome to America," they said in one warm, friendly voice. They had good, honest faces. We shook hands. Then in the car they gave me a Bible.

"Do you know what this is?" the girl said, very slowly and very loudly.

"No," I said. She seemed genuinely pleased.

"These are the deeds of our Savior. The word of our Lord."

"Oh, Lenin's collected works," I said. "Which volume?"

When I was still a boy, I used to spend my summers at the village with my grandparents. In the winter they lived in the city, two blocks away from our apartment; but when the weather warmed, they always packed and left.

Sometimes when the moon was full, Grandpa would take me crawfish hunting. We spent most of the day in the yard, preparing the big bags, reinforcing their bottoms with tape, patching the holes from previous hunts at the river. Finally, when we were done, we sat on the porch and watched the sun dive behind the peaks of the Balkan range. Grandpa lit a cigarette, took out his pocket knife, and drew patterns along the bark of the chestnut sticks we had honed for catching the crawfish. We waited for the moon to rise, and sometimes Grandma sat by us and sang, or Grandpa told stories of the days he had been out in the woods, hiding in the dugouts with his communist comrades.

When the moon was finally up, shining brightly, Grandpa would get to his feet and stretch.

"They are out on pasture," he would say. "Let's get them."

Grandma made sandwiches for the road and wrapped them in paper napkins that were always difficult to peel off completely. She wished us luck, and we left the house and walked out of the village, and then on the muddy path through the woods. Grandpa carried the bags and sticks and I followed. The moon lighted our way; the wind was soft on our faces. Somewhere close by the river was booming.

We would step out of the woods, into the meadow, and with the night sky unfolding above us we would see them. The river and the crawfish. She was always dark and roaring, and they were always out on the grass, moving slowly with their pincers pinching blades of crowfoot.

We would sit on the grass, take out the sandwiches, and eat. In the sharp moonlight the wet bodies of the crawfish glistened like live coal, and the banks seemed covered with burning embers, little eyes that watched us through the dark. When we were done eating, the hunt began.

Grandpa would give me a stick and a bag. Hundreds of twitching crawfish at our feet: Touch their pincers with the stick, poke them, and they pinch as hard as they can. I learned to lift them, then shake them off in the bag. One by one you collect.

"They are easy prey," Grandpa often remarked. "You catch one, but the others don't run away. The others don't even know you are there until you pick them up, and even then they still have no idea. Teaches us a lesson to apply to human nature, doesn't it?" I was too young to understand what that lesson was, so I listened and hunted.

One, two, three hours. The moon, tiring, swims toward the horizon. The east blazes red. And then the crawfish in perfect synchrony turn around and slowly, quietly, make for the river. She takes their bodies back, cold and harsh, and lulls them to their sleep as a new day ripens. We sit on the grass, the bags heavy with prey. I fall asleep on Grandpa's shoulder. He carries me home to the village. He lets the crawfish go.

In my dorm I called Grandpa. I couldn't connect for a long time, but then the line gave a crack and I heard his voice on the other side.


"I'm here."

"You are there." His voice was low and muted, and its echo made it seem like we were standing on the opposite ends of a tunnel.

"How do you feel?" he asked.

"I need to sleep. Did you get my good-bye card?"

"I fed it to the pigs. Pigs like American money."

The line cracked between us as if tossed by the wind.

"Grandpa, there is so much water between us. We are so far apart."

"We are," he said. "But blood, I hope, is thicker than the ocean."

When he was thirty and holding the position something-of-the-something, Grandpa met the woman of his heart. It was the classic communist love story: They met at an evening gathering of the party. Grandma came in late, wet from the rain, took the only free seat, which was next to Grandpa, and fell asleep on his shoulder. Right there on the spot he hated her slack interest in party matters, and right there on the spot he fell in love with her scent, with her face, with her breath on his neck. After that they talked about pure ideals and the bright future, about the capitalist evil of the West, about the nurturing embrace of the Soviet Union, and most importantly about Lenin. Grandpa found out that they shared the same passion, viewed the same things with gratitude and admiration, and so on the next morning he took Grandma to the Civil Office where they got married.

Grandma died of breast cancer in 1989 only a month after Communism was abolished in Bulgaria. I was eight and I remember it all very clearly. We buried her in the village where she was from. We put the coffin in a cart and tied the cart to a tractor, and the tractor pulled the cart and the coffin and we walked behind it all. Grandpa was sitting inside, by the coffin, holding Grandma's dead hand. I don't think it actually rained that day, but in my memories I see rain and clouds and wind. It must have rained inside of me--that quiet, cold rain that falls when you lose someone close to your heart. It must have rained inside of Grandpa, too, but he shed no tears. He just sat there in the cart, the rain of my memories falling on him, on his bald head, on the open coffin, on Grandma's closed eyes; the music flowing around them--deep, sad music of the oboe, the trumpet, the funeral drum. There is no priest at a Communist funeral, and there was no priest when we lay Grandma in her grave. Grandpa read from a book, volume twelve of Lenin's collected works, and his words rose to the sky, and the rain knocked them down to the ground like wet feathers and they flowed in muddy rivers, in roaring waterfalls from the edges of the grave.

"It's a good grave," Grandpa was saying when it was all over. "It's not as narrow as a dugout, which makes it good. Right? It's not too narrow, right? She'll be all right in it, right? She'll be all right. Certainly, she'll be all right."

After Grandma's funeral Grandpa refused to leave the village. In one year he had lost everything a man could lose: the woman of his heart, and the love of his life--the Communist Party.

"There is no life for me in the city," I remember him telling my Dad. "I have no desire to serve these traitors. Let capitalism corrupt them all, these bastards, these murderers of innocent women."

Deep inside, Grandpa was convinced that it had been the fall of Communism that had killed Grandma.

"Her cancer was a consequence of the grave disappointments of her pure and idealistic heart," Grandpa would explain. "She could not watch her ideals being trampled on, and she did the only possible thing an honest woman like her could do--she died."

Grandpa bought a village house so he could be close to Grandma and every day at three o'clock in the afternoon he went to her grave, sat by the tombstone, opened volume twelve of Lenin's collected works, and read aloud. Summer or winter, he was there, reading--he never skipped a day--and it was there, at Grandma's grave, that the idea hit him.

"Nothing is lost," he told me and my parents one Saturday on which we'd come to visit him. "Communism may be dead all over this country, but ideals never die. I will bring it all here, to the village. I will build it all from scratch, so your Grandma's deepest wish can be fulfilled. Your Grandma would be proud of me."

On October 24, 1993, the great October village revolution took place, quietly, underground, without much ado. At that time, everybody who was sixty or younger had already left the village to live in the city, and so those who remained were people pure and strong of heart, in whom the idea was still alive, and whose dark eyes glowed with the spark of something great and profoundly world-changing. Officially the village was still part of Bulgaria, and it had a mayor who answered to the national government and so on and so forth; but secretly, underground, it was the new communist village party that decided its fate. The name of the village was changed to Leningrad. Grandpa was unanimously elected secretary-general. Every evening there was a party meeting in the old village hall, where the seat next to Grandpa was always left vacant, and water was sprinkled from a hose outside on the windows to create the illusion of rain.

"Communism blossoms better with moisture," Grandpa explained, when the other party members questioned his decision to water; in fact, he was thinking of Grandma and the rain on their first meeting. And indeed, communism in Leningrad blossomed.

Grandpa and the villagers decided to salvage every Communist artifact remaining in Bulgaria and bring them all to Leningrad: to the living museum of the communist doctrine. Monuments, scarred deep by the red ideal, were being demolished all over the country. Statues erected decades ago, proudly reminding, glorifying, promising, were now taken down and melted for scrap. Poets who were once extolled now lay forgotten. Their paper bodies gathered dust. Their ink blood was washed away by rain water.

In one of his letters, Grandpa told me the villagers had convinced a bunch of gypsies to do the salvaging for them. "Comrade Hassan, his wife, and their thirteen gypsy children, doubtlessly inspired by the bright communist ideal and only mildly stimulated by the money and the two pigs we gave them, have promised to supply our village with the best of the best 'red' artifacts that could be found across our pitiful country. Today the comrade gypsies brought us their first gift: a monument of the Nameless Russian Soldier, liberator from the Turks, slightly deformed from the waist down and missing a shotgun, but otherwise in excellent condition. The monument now stands proud next to the statues of Alyosha, Seryoja, and the Nameless Maiden of Minsk."

Life in America was good. I went to class, studied, made new friends. I wrote letters to Grandpa or called him on the phone early in the morning in Bulgaria when I knew he would be awake sitting in his chair, reading Lenin. Yet I started having bad dreams again. I saw the car crash over and over in my head and woke up with a scream, covered in cold sweat. Then when I fell asleep again, Grandma would come and sit down on my bed and caress my forehead the way she had done when I had been sick with fever. "Your grandpa's dying," she warned me, "we are expecting him soon. And please, my dear, next time you talk to him, ask him to stop reading me Lenin at my grave."

Grandpa wanted to know more about the Americans. I told him he should read a book, then.

"I can't analyze people," I said. "I make wrong judgments."

"Why do you study psychology then?"

So I tried to explain what Americans were like. "They are different," I wrote in one of my letters. "They don't think of what they'll eat tomorrow, whether there will be food on the table. These," I wrote, "are solved problems for them. Like walking. Walking, we studied, is a solved problem. Evolution has taken care of it and it is no longer necessary for anyone to figure out how to walk. All it takes is a year for the brain to wire itself properly, and then boom! Off you go on your feet. People here have different problems. They worry about different things,"

"What do you mean?" Grandpa asked on the phone, after he had read my letter.

"Take this girl I know," I said, "Samantha. She's been depressed for a month now. Her father gave her a BMW with a stick shift instead of automatic transmission. She cried. 'I can't drive it,' she said. 'It's awful. I want to die.'"

"It is awful," Grandpa said.

"But then there are other people with problems more similar to ours. My roommate's parents are getting divorced. They've been together for twenty years, and one morning they just decided they didn't want to wake up in the same bed anymore."

Grandpa coughed on the other side.

"Your parents died on this day," he said. "Seven years ago."

"I know," I said. "I have it marked on my calendar."

My parents died one week before I turned twelve. They were going to give me a bicycle as a present--I saw it hidden in the basement. A white BMX with a leather seat and dynamo-powered headlights. Mom had already written the card and attached the envelope to the bike. "To our dearest boy," the card read. "When you fall and bruise your knees, think of us."

I remember the night they died as if it just happened. It was 2:30 in the morning when the phone rang. Dad picked it up and talked for a while. I woke up from his worried whispering, then drifted away, then woke up again. Morn was sitting by him on the sofa, holding his hand, and they were both washed in blue darkness, looking like two shadows of flesh.

"Thank you, doctor," Dad said at last. "We are on our way."

Mom came to my bed and sat down. I held my eyes closed, shivering with fear.

"Mishe," she said, "little mouse, wake up."

"Is it Grandpa?" I asked. She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead.

"He's had a stroke," she said, "but he has stabilized and they've taken him to the village hospital."

"Will he die?"

Dad came and gave me a kiss. His eyes glistened in the light from the street-lamps. He picked me up, wrapped me in my blanket, and carried me out the door. When we got on the highway it was four o'clock. One hour later they were dead.

All I remember is bright truck lights coming our way. The car spinning out of the road. The hit. Then the dark.

I woke up with cables on my chest.

"Mom?" I said. "Dad?"

"Sinko," I heard. "My son, you woke up!"

Then Grandpa appeared from somewhere. He stood before me, crying.

"You woke up," he repeated, "you woke up."

Doctors came. And nurses. They were all excited. They were all very happy to see me awake.

"Grandpa, where is Mom?"

"Sinko," he kept repeating, "you woke up!"

He took me to the graveyard a week later, to see the fresh grave. The earth was piled into a mound, dark and wet. My parents had been buried in the same grave, and next to them lay Grandma.

"Grandpa, you are lying," I said. I stared at my parents' names on the wooden crosses. "You're a liar."

He rested a hand on my shoulder.

"I'm glad you missed the funeral."

"Liar," I whispered. I kneeled and grabbed earth in my fist. I turned around and

threw it at his face. Then I hugged him.

My sophomore year in college, during one of our long-distance phone calls, Grandpa asked me, "What do you know about eBay?"


"eBay. Have you heard of it?"

"Yeah, I have. I mean, sure, but why?"

"Comrade Hassan has done research," Grandpa explained, "and found something interesting. It seems like someone is selling Lenin's body on eBay."

"Lenin on eBay." I let that soak in for a moment. "Grandpa, are you crazy?"

"That's irrelevant," he said. "The party needs your help now. We want you to help us bring Vladimir Ilyich to Leningrad."

"You are kidding me. You can't possibly ..."

"The seller requires a credit card." Grandpa said. "Visa, MasterCard, or Discover. We have none of these in the village. That's why we need you. Do your research. Call me tomorrow."

I sat on my computer and opened the Internet browser. Then I closed it. Then I opened it again and browsed to eBay. I typed "Lenin" and hit the search spot: 430 items. Postcards, badges, T-shirts. Did Grandpa mean a bust? Or a hat? Or maybe a fake beard? And just when I was getting ready to close the window, I saw it: "CCCP Creator Lenin. Mint Condition. Serious bidders only!"

I followed the link and waited for the page to load. I read the content aloud: "You are bidding for the body of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The body is in excellent condition and comes with a refrigerating coffin that works on both American and European current. Serious bidders only. Pay immediately after purchase."

The item location was marked as Moscow. The shipment was worldwide. I checked the seller but found he had no previous feedback and no other auctions. Clearly this was a scam. I returned to the auction page and read it a few more times. No one had bid so far, and the starting price was set at $1.99 (Reserve not met). I typed in a bid of $5 and hit the button to post it. The page disappeared, then a new page loaded. "Reserve met" the page read. "Congratulations, CommunistDupe_1944. You bought Lenin."

I called Grandpa on the following day.

"I wasted ten dollars for your stupid Lenin," I said. "I hope you're happy."


"Yes, I bought him. Five dollars for the body and five for shipping. I filled in your village address."

"We must build a mausoleum then!" Grandpa said. "We have no time. We must start building right away!"

"Grandpa, this is a scam. It is a joke. No one has the right to sell or buy Lenin."

"We must build."

"Do you even hear what I'm saying?"

"A mausoleum. On the square. And we must paint. Yes, paint the square red."

"Grandpa, stop it!"

He paused, then said, "Listen, Grandson. I'm tired of cleaning graves. I'm having terrible headaches lately. My right hand goes numb and just drops. I can feel pinches and needles in my leg. So, please, please, please," he said, "don't tell me to stop. I would like to think I could buy Lenin if I wanted, or build a mausoleum or a pyramid or even a sphinx."

"I'm sorry, Grandpa."

"Grandson," he said, "are you still angry with me? Do you still think it was my fault your parents died?"

I said it was his fault, on my sixteenth birthday when he gave me a bike as a present. We were in our apartment, celebrating. He had bought a cake and candles and balloons, and while I was unwrapping the gift he was singing and clapping his hands.

"It's a BMX," he said, and winked at me. "I used connections to get it."

Then I snapped.

"It's all your fault!" I shouted. "Dad was so worried about you and your stupid stroke that he crashed the car."

I knocked the cake to the floor. I got up and tore to pieces every picture of our happy family before the incident. I broke dishes and glasses.

"I wish you had died!" I shouted. "I wish you had died right there in your sleep."

"Sinko," he said.

"Don't call me sinko!" I shouted. "Your son is dead. They are both dead because of you."

On the following day Grandpa left the city. He went back to Leningrad, once more joined the local underground party, and resumed his daily visits to the graveyard with a volume of Lenin's works under his arm. I never heard him call me sinko again. For one year we did not speak. Then I phoned to tell him I was leaving for America.

"My grandson, a capitalist," he said. "After all I've been through."

Five months after we bought Lenin, during one of our conversations, Grandpa told me.

"He's here," he said. "The leader of nations came to Leningrad."

"You're funny, Grandpa."

"We received the body yesterday. A refrigerating coffin and everything. We are almost finished with the mausoleum, so in the meanwhile Lenin is staying at home. We put him in your room. Do you mind?"

"I mind that you are crazy."

"I thought so," Grandpa said.

"You need to see a doctor. Why don't you see a doctor?"

"What good will that do? The headache is always with me. The pinches in my hand. And I have bad dreams again--about the people in the dugout."

"What about them?"

"Well, do you remember how I lived in the dugout, with fifteen more people and two pregnant women and a hungry goat, and how when I was starving and desperate I found the courage finally to go down to the village?"

"Yes, I remember."

"Three years later I went back to that same place in the forest. To the dugout. I wanted to see it once again, now with my free eyes. I cleared the entrance, climbed down the ladder, and I saw them. The fifteen men and the two women and the hungry goat. All dead."

"In the dugout?"

"In the dugout. No one told them the war was over. No one told them they could come out. They had not the courage to walk out themselves, and so they starved to death."

I sat in my chair, held the receiver, and thought of these men and women and the goat and how no one had told them they were free. I thought of Lenin, whom we had bought over the Internet and whose body was now being refrigerated in my room. And so I burst out laughing. And when I started laughing Grandpa started laughing, and we laughed for a long, very long time until our voices mixed along the wire and at the end sounded like one.

On the following day I called again, but no one picked up the phone. I called again a few hours later. And a few hours after that. No one answered. For two weeks I called every day. My hand was sore from gripping the receiver. I sat in my chair and listened to the silence at the other end of the line, interrupted regularly by the long, monotonous beeps. They sounded like a pulse in my head--a pulse very slow and tired, bidding me good-bye. I cried a lot. I paced the room, holding the receiver, calling. I knew no other numbers--just Grandpa's.

The other day, I got a letter in the mail. I did not open it for a very long time. I had no strength. I cried for two days and then finally made myself take out the letter.

"Dear Grandson," it said. "I am dead now. I instructed Comrade Penkov to send this in the mail the day my heart would stop beating. He is a good man. He would pay for the shipping expenses.

"Grandson, we've had a hard life, you and I. We grew old, not with years, but with deaths. You are now one death older. Carry this baggage with dignity, and don't let it break your back. Always remember that you've suffered a lot more than many, but that others have suffered even greater pains. Be thankful for what you have. For what you've seen and for what you've been spared from seeing.

"They are easy prey, the crawfish," Grandpa went on. "You catch one, but the others don't run away. The others don't even know you are there until you pick them up, and even then they still have no idea. All this teaches us a lesson about human nature, Grandson, a lesson you should remember: Not every stick that falls in your pincers is worth pinching. Sometimes pinching the wrong stick may even take you to your end. So think carefully, my dear one, which stick to pinch and which to miss. Fight only the fights that are worthy; let all others pass you. And even when the stick hits hard, learn not to pinch it back.

"My dear one, forgive me."

And at the end Grandpa had written just four words.

"Sinko, I love you."