Nina doesn’t know why she’s been taken out of her cell. They only let her out for a guarded walk in the courtyard every other day, and today’s not one of them. It’s a Tuesday, she thinks. It would be the fourth Tuesday she’s spent in this prison. Her plane arrived in Moscow on a Sunday, her trial was on Wednesday, and by Friday she was here. Before that, she’d awaited trial in a holding cell in the basement of the Lubyanka building. She prefers it here in the Lefortovo, but only marginally. There are fewer ghosts.
It is November by now. Brezhnev is dead—she heard the guards talking about it when they changed shifts a few days ago. It is not a surprise, but Nina still feels a bizarre pang of grief. He had been General Secretary for almost her entire life. She remembers huddling around the radio in the communal kitchen of her family’s apartment building, listening attentively to his speeches on Victory Day and the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. She also remembers the rush of nervous excitement that flooded over her the first time she heard a biting joke at their leader’s expense. She had half-screamed with laughter and then sputtered to a stop, earning a scathing glance from the older schoolgirl who had made the comment. She’d lain awake that night in bed, feeling an odd mix of guilt, fear, and recurring amusement. It had been a small rebellion—even in her anxious girlhood nightmares, she never would have thought she would be in prison for treason.
The guard silently leads her to the room they use when a prisoner has visitors. Nina’s parents had come from Kazan the week after her trial. They were only allowed an hour, and told her they weren’t sure if they’d be given permission to do it again, or if they could afford the train tickets. Nina and her father had both cried. Her mother, ever the more ardent communist of the two, had mostly sat in stony silence. She had tried to explain the situation—how she had been a double agent, how the operation had failed, how she’d been punished. She hadn’t mentioned her relationships with Stan or Oleg. Those feelings were still too raw.
Her parents had known about her luxury-goods racket—her father had been selling off the electronics she’d smuggled back to Kazan on her holiday break, and while her mother had initially disapproved, she’d appreciated the jazz records Nina had brought her, and the warm new coats and black-market meat and spices they’d been able to buy with the money from the stereos. But she hadn’t told them about Stan’s blackmail, or her confession to Arkady. They knew about her promotion, of course, but she’d told them it was recognition of her hard work and capable management skills. They’d been so proud of her, and it wasn’t technically a lie.
When the heavy door to the visiting room creaks open, Nina is, perhaps, expecting to see her parents again. Who else would it be?
Instead, she’s faced by a slim, nondescript stranger in an understated if expensive suit.
“Who are you?” Nina asks, although she suspects the answer. There aren’t that many middle-aged bureaucrats who would be interested in her case.
“I'm the Minister of Railways. You can call me Igor Pavlovich.”
Of course, she knows who else he is. Oleg’s father gestures for her to take a seat, and she sinks into the chair, hands clenched nervously in her lap. He sits across from her, slouching in a way that reminds her uncomfortably of his son.
“I can see why Oleg fell for you,” Igor Pavlovich remarks dispassionately. His gaze is clinical rather than lascivious, but she still feels exposed.
“How is he?”
She has thought often about Oleg in the last month. If he’s lonely, without her. If he resents her, for trusting Stan Beeman loved her enough not to betray her, for not taking his money and running. Sometimes, she wonders if he has already forgotten her.
Clearly not, though, if his father is here to see her. Maybe even here to help.
“You're worried about him?” For the first time, a fleck of emotion slips into Igor Pavlovich’s grey voice. It’s no more than mild surprise, but it’s something. It is strange, she thinks, when Oleg is so full of life.
Nina wonders why he’s surprised. Did he not think she loved Oleg? Or is he merely disbelieving that she, in prison, would worry about Oleg, still safe and untouchable in his cushy job.
“Not worried, I just want to know.”
She has missed him, after all, even more than she had expected, especially given what she’s recently come to realize.
Igor Pavlovich sighs.
“He's taking this hard.”
Nina can’t tell whether he’s exasperated—poor foolish Oleg, pining over a traitor—or concerned for his son. She hopes it’s the latter.
“You have no children?”
It’s a surprising question—perhaps, he will tell her, she can’t understand. He has to prioritize Oleg, of course, make sure his precious son isn’t tainted by her crimes.
Nina clenches her fists, feeling a rush of anger. It’s that anger that loosens her tongue, makes her throw all her metaphorical cards out on the table.
“I’m going to have your son’s baby,” she blurts.
Finally, she’s cracked his cold exterior. Igor Pavlovich jolts upright, his face jerking involuntarily.
Nina nods frantically. “I’m pregnant. Two months, I think.”
She ought to have had her period right before the Echo operation, but she’d been so anxious and busy that she’d barely noticed she was late. She’d begun to feel nauseous shortly after she’d arrived in prison, but of course she’d assumed it was just nerves.
She supposes she hadn’t wanted to believe it, at first. Growing up, she’d heard horror stories in hushed whispers, rumors that a quiet, withdrawn neighborhood babushka had given birth in a gulag camp, and the baby, fathered by a camp guard, had died.
Of course, that was decades ago, and in many, many ways Nina is better off than that poor woman. Still, though, she had kept her secret to herself. She could ask to go to the prison doctor and get a pregnancy test, but that would make it real in a way that she wasn’t prepared to deal with yet.
Now, though, it is out in the open, her words hanging heavily in the air between her and Igor Pavlovich, and she’s not sure whether she regrets saying anything. Still, though, this might be her best chance at getting out, so she’ll push it for all it’s worth.
Igor Pavlovich steeples his fingers together on top of the rickety table, struggling to regain his composure.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Nina lies. She’s almost certain, but desperate enough to ignore the chance that she’s wrong.
“And how do you know Oleg is the father?”
His tone is suspicious.
“What about this...this FBI agent, Beeman? Did you think I wouldn’t read your file? Or, who knows, some other man?”
Nina narrows her eyes at him.
“Agent Beeman told me he got a vasectomy ten years ago. And there was no one else.”
Even if he’d been lying about that too, Stan had spent less time with her in the weeks before the Echo operation, busy with work and fixating on his wife’s own affair. Meanwhile, she’d spent most of her free time in bed with Oleg. Nina isn’t sure that Igor Pavlovich would want to hear that, though, and she certainly doesn’t want to tell him.
“Still,” Igor Pavlovich grumbles. “The timing is awfully convenient.”
Nina’s bottom lip trembles, her eyes filling with tears. It’s not hard to be sad, scared, and vulnerable, and maybe it will make him more sympathetic to her plight.
“Please, can you just tell Oleg? I want him to know. I didn’t realize before I had to leave. I wish...I wish I could tell him myself, but…”
If Oleg knows, she has a chance. She can tell that Igor Pavlovich is reluctant to concede to her, reluctant to help her. But Oleg has clearly been in contact with his father, has pushed him to visit her, has been quite possibly pouring out his feelings over the telephone. Nina is no one to the exalted Comrade Burov, Minister of Railways, just a pretty girl in a bad situation and a most inappropriate lover for his son. But as the mother of his grandchild, she might have some degree of power, and Oleg has further ammunition to fight for her.
Igor Pavlovich sighs.
“My son is a soft, spoiled child. Getting involved with you was a mistake, and he’s certainly not ready for the responsibilities of fatherhood. Oleg might decide it would be prudent to forget you and focus on his career.”
Nina thinks of Oleg, with his bright mind and gentle hands, the curiosity and passion and steel under his coddled playboy exterior. She thinks of the way he looks at her in the mornings, still sleepy-eyed, their legs fitting together in a perfect tangle under the sheets.
“With all due respect, Igor Pavlovich, if you think that, you don’t know Oleg very well at all.”
His eyebrows arch upwards, and she wonders if she’s gone too far.
“How touching,” he says, voice laced with dry sarcasm. “I’m sure you’ve come to care for him very much over a few short months--or at least the advantages he can give you.”
“I do love him,” she says defiantly. “As he loves me.”
Stan had said he loved her too, of course. But it was different with Oleg, wasn’t it? They understood each other, listened to each other, trusted each other.
“I wasn’t pretending.”
Igor Pavlovich pushes back his chair and rises, frowning.
“Well, you have certainly given me a lot to think about.”
Nina jumps hastily to her feet as well.
He holds up a hand, cutting her off before she even knows what she’s planning on saying.
“I am not making any promises regarding your situation. But I will tell my son what you’ve told me. He does have a right to know.”
Nina finds her face breaking into a small smile, feeling a wave of gratitude rush over her despite herself, despite the fact that this is barely anything at all. She finds that her hands are shaking.
“Thank you for that.”
He is already heading towards the door, but he pauses before he leaves, turning back halfway to look at her.
“I’ll have your rations increased. I’m not a cruel man, Nina Sergeyevna. Your baby doesn’t deserve to be punished for your betrayal of the motherland.”