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The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy

“Carlyle took the card out. ‘All classical,’ she said. ‘Very edifying.’ She hoped it was. She thumbed through the catalogue, tiny titles flickering past. Looked up, smiling. ‘Here is a good example. “The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy.”

‘Brezhnev?’ said Jong, interested. ‘The friend of the Great Leader?’

‘The very same,’ said Carlyle, winging it.

San Ok stood up, clapped, and indicated to everyone that they should put on their translation headphones if they didn’t speak American. After a bit of fiddling about with the card and the interfaces, the big screen lit up with a picture of the interior of a vast room, lit by torches and a blazing fire, over which a pig on a spit turned. Bear furs, swords, and Kalashnikovs hung on the walls among oil-painted portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Twenty or so shadowed figures in fur cloaks sat around a huge oaken table, quaffing wine, feasting and talking. At the head of the table sat a burly giant of a man, his face stern and scarred, but sensitive and intelligent withal. Through a distant, creaking doorway a tall, thin-featured knight came in, and the tale began.

The Central Committee room, the Kremlin.

Enter. Yuri Andropov (a spy).

Brezhnev: How goes it, Yuri Andropov?

Andropov: Things go not well in Muscovy, my lord. Our workers idle in the factories and bodge their jobs. The managers think plan fulfillment is but a game and planners are their foes. The farmers let crops rot and tractors rust. Our warriors fight bravely; but on far-flung fronts—Angola and Afghanistan—contra and muj wreak havoc on our men. America presses on us hard, its empire vast now reaching into space, and from above spies on us even now. In time to come its missiles threaten us, its laser beams may stab us in the back, deterrence gone. Our intellectual men, and women too are dissidents or hacks. Our bloody Jews—their bags half-packed for Israel—have lost all gratitude for what we’ve done on their behalf. Timber, oil, and gold are all we sell that willing buyers find, aside from MiG and Proton and Kalashnikov—aye, these sell well! But for the rest our manufactured goods are crap, a standing joke in all the markets of the world. The Lada—

Ligachev (interrupting): I’ve heard men howl straitjacketed in Bedlam for saying such stuff as this!

Andropov: ‘Twas I who put them there. ’Tis not the saying but publishing abroad that was their crime, their plain insanity. In another time your insolent crossing me would’ve had your gob opened and shut by nine-mil from behind as well you know. Let us speak freely…

Brezhnev: What of the brotherlands, of Comecon?

Andropov: The sledded Polacks grumble in their yards. They hearken to, on shortwave radio that turbulent priest, Pope Wojtyla, and bide their time. The Bulgars hard oppress their Turks. The Czechs bounce currency abroad and Semtex too and do protest too much their fealty. The Magyars boast themselves the happiest barrack in the People’s camp. Our Germans seethe with discontent at that dividing Wall. As to our brother Serbs, what can I say? Their house of cards may topple any day.


Gorbachev: We cannot live like this. We must face facts. We must learn (as Lenin said) to trade, to reckon and account, in roubles hard as dollars are, not in worthless chits. Our factories must feel the chilling blast of competition fierce, and strengthened thus go forth into the world, where we must make our peace with other lands, and first America, mightiest in arms. Let’s not provoke their wrath in rash adventuring abroad as bold Guevara did, to die for naught. Let’s give our people what they want, which means fast food, cheap television, cars, and Levi jeans.

Brezhnev: I know my people well. They’re still the folk who stormed the heavens in the Five-Year Plans—built Magnitogorsk, defended Stalingrad, drove Hitler’s hordes back to Berlin, then stormed the heavens in very truth: Gagarin blazing a cosmic trail! With them I’ll face the worst America can do. Tikhanov—beat your ploughboys into swordsmen! The Party too I know and can command. A mighty host of all the best in Muscovy, the strong, loyal, intelligent—my very knights. All discipline is in their hands. It is the key you overlook, good Mikhail Gorbachev that shall unlock our problems old and new. No traffickers shall tell us what to do.

Later. A forest. Enter Two Conspirators.

Schevardnadze: While Brezhnev tarries nothing can be changed.

Gorbachev (aside): His passing? That can be arranged.

Exeunt, pursued by a bear.

It must have gained something in the translation, Lucinda thought. Eighty-Seven Production Brigade watched the play on the big screen utterly agog. They hooted with laughter, gasped, wept at inappropriate moments, thumped the tables and each other’s backs. They shook their fists and hissed at the sly, treacherous Gorbachev; shuddered as he took his blood money from the evil American emperor, George II; applauded the noble, doomed Leonid. Andropov’s eulogy over the prince’s bullet-riddled body had them sitting bolt upright, silent, tears streaming down their cheeks.

‘This is wonderful,’ San Ok said at last, to enthusiastic nods. ‘With this Eighty-Seven Production Brigade will make fortune in entertainment. This will be viewed in many habitats.’