a short story by Andrew Warburton
Elizabeth collapsed on the cell’s wooden bench and gave herself over to the devastation that had haunted her since Stalin’s intransigence became apparent. How could the plan have gone so badly wrong? The president had promised her that knowledge of Stalin’s intentions would be enough to convince him she wasn’t lying, and, on her part, she’d trusted in the magnitude of his wisdom, sure it would allow him to discern the truth. By the time she’d realized this furious Stalin was not the one she’d longed to meet, it was too late. That other Stalin—a man with glossy waves of hair and eyes that shimmered with visionary luster—was not the man she’d seen tonight; and with that realization, she sobbed into the cold bench.
The cries of prisoners echoed through the night: Drunk or insane, they made a terrible din; and, at one point, despairing, she went to the cell’s window and looked down on an alleyway crawling with rats. The sight of their lithe and shiny bodies, scattering at the steps of a passing guard, filled her with disgust for this filthy place, and, lying back down, what else could she do but pray? Despite her attempts to expel from her heart the influence of her faith, she’d never succeeded by sheer will alone, and sometimes, such as now, she prayed as she did when she was young and a princess: O Lord, support me all the day long, until the shades lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed… The words weren’t particularly comforting to her now, but eventually, she did sleep.
With the clanging of a key in the lock, Elizabeth awoke, and she feared her end had come: either they’d take her to a dungeon in this prison and she’d never see the light of day again, or, worse, transport her to the Gulag at once. Instead, the door swung open, the guard stepped back, and a man entered her cell. The sunlight from the window couldn’t reach to illuminate his face, but she saw the vaporizer clenched between his teeth, the white plumes of steam rising from his mouth. “Leave us,” he growled at the guard as he stepped into the light.
As Stalin’s features came into focus, Elizabeth swooned on the bench. Every detail of his appearance—from the waves of his hair to his eyes that twinkled like stars above the Kremlin—filled her with awe, and the sensation that spread through her was like melting. Her eyelids drooped, and she recalled with surprise the lists of poor comrades Stalin had purged. Before she could suppress the signs of her emotion, which she was sure had appeared all over her body, she noticed him examining her curiously, apparently fascinated by her discomposure.
“I trust you slept for a time, comrade,” he said, more gently than she expected. “I also hope you’ve thought carefully about the explanation you owe me.”
The mission had begun the previous morning when a knock on the door had interrupted Elizabeth’s reading. A soldier in a gray coat stood to attention in the doorway, the red star on his hat glimmering in the gaslight. His loud “Message from Soviet Steamship 1 for you, Comrade ER!” annoyed her more than it should have. But she was lulled by the “the beauty of the morning,” by the vision of things long since passed away, and the last thing she wanted to do was exchange all that for the message she believed had come. What else could she do under the circumstances but say, “Thank you, comrade,” place the book of poems on the arm of her chair, and rise to greet him? She was, after all, a virtual prisoner in her former home.
Even now, three years after her abdication, the commissars continued to call her Comrade ER. It was a practice the guards had apparently taken a liking to, delighted by the irony that her-once-royal-highness was now serving with alacrity the cause of the working man. The papers called her “Elizabeth Windsor,” and who she was in the privacy of her thoughts, even she no longer knew: a woman who’d embodied the traditions of a nation was now a minion of the state. Although it didn’t take her long to adopt the proper vocabulary, one doesn’t shed the etiquette of centuries overnight.
She took the folded paper the soldier offered her and waited for him to leave before opening it. The timing of the message convinced her a catastrophe was imminent. Ever since the Americans had stationed their steamships on the edges of British waters—five fleet in the Atlantic and five in the Arctic—she’d been expecting this moment to come, this message to arrive from Kruschev. She wanted to make sure she was alone when she opened it so she could express any anguish she felt. Although there was no question as to whether she’d follow the instructions contained in it, she hardly relished the task of ensuring the Americans’ obliteration; she only hated their leaders, after all.
By the time she’d read the fatal words, the blood was pounding in her ears. “Uncle Joe,” it said in a barely legible scrawl.
The cruel irony of this choice of code words had been obvious to her from the moment they were mentioned in secret briefings between the commissars of the Soviet Union and those of Great Britain. The name appeared often in the American press, but to use it like this seemed sadistic.
The words themselves were like arrows of ink, stabbing her in the heart. For a while, she merely stood there, brushing down her skirt, as their significance sunk in. Then she sat down at her desk and tried to compose herself by shutting her eyes. If she could only imagine the enemy steamships in the Arctic, the cannons stationed on them, perhaps it would support her in her moment of hesitation. The longer she thought about it, the greater the likelihood that images of Americans—blasted to smithereens—would come to her and weaken her resolve. There was no time for this anticipative remorse: for the plan to go smoothly, she had to complete the mission by evening.
She tore a sheet of paper from a journal in front of her and scribbled out a note: “Message received, Comrade Kruschev. If everything goes well, the plans will be secured by midnight.”
The bell above her desk jangled as she pulled the cord, and soon the soldier returned. Handing him the note, she gave him strict instructions to take it straight to the airship; then she went about preparing for her departure.
The spider-web outline of Tatlin’s Tower tilted over the spires of parliament like a deformed Eiffel Tower. Designed in 1919 by Vladimir Tatlin, the tower had been shelved for forty years due to lack of funds, until British communists had resuscitated it to celebrate the founding of the British Soviet Republic. Now it was the tallest structure in Europe, and it had drastically altered the London skyline.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” said the president, standing with a detachment of Red Guards.
“Yes,” said Elizabeth, feeling herself shiver as the adrenalin rushed through her. Even with the lights of the city turning the sky to mauve, stars twinkled in the blackness above the tower. She wondered if these same stars would be visible over the Kremlin.
“Everything is ready for your departure, Comrade ER,” said the president, gesturing toward the machine.
The helicopter-like structure had been positioned in the middle of the roof. Its gold frame shone in the strobe lights, and the red leather saddle glistened, inviting. Another light, pulsing from the crystalline bar at the front of the machine, competed weakly with the strobe lights. By now, she’d become so accustomed to using it, the mere sight of it was enough to evoke sensuous memories—of all the times she’d reclined on the soft leather saddle, pulled back the lever, and held her breath as she launched into the air.
“Thank you, Mr. President,” she said, taking a pair of goggles from a nearby guard. She gazed at the ivory lever on the machine’s side and felt a shiver of excitement at the recollection of how it fit so perfectly in her hand. One single backward motion would send her spinning eight years into the past.
“I take it everything’s been worked out for my arrival,” she said, glancing at the president.
“Yes,” he said. “We’ve programmed the machine so you’ll arrive inside the Kremlin grounds among some trees near the Moskvorestkaya Tower. You’ll be well hidden there, but you’ll need to navigate to the Senate entrance. On this day in 1950, a woman called Miriam Cohen, a comrade of our Labour Party, left Stalingrad on state business and was due for an appointment at the Senate. Due to a broken-down train on the Privolzhskaya line, Comrade Cohen never arrived. We’ve stowed her papers in the compartment for your use. Once you’re inside and have introduced yourself to the ‘big man,’ he should ensure your safe passage home.”
Elizabeth smiled grimly at his mention of the “big man,” surprised to feel a fluttering in her chest. She’d met so many powerful men in the course of her life, one might think this planned meeting wouldn’t phase her; but the man in question was the progenitor of their way of life, the father of their alliance with the Soviets, and if anyone could rattle her, it was him.
She ducked under the frame and sat down sideways on the saddle, making sure the tails of her overcoat were inside the brass rails. Her skirt forbade her from straddling it, but thankfully, she anticipated a smooth ride. She’d inherited the machine from her great-great-grandmama, Queen Victoria, who’d received it from an eccentric science-fiction writer at the end of the last century. It hadn’t been designed for women, and, before Elizabeth had owned it, only male adventurers had operated it—all under the guise of science, of course. It had stayed in her family for generations, a secret heirloom bequeathed by successive kings, until British government agents had found it hidden in a room in Buckingham Palace. It was only after she’d committed herself to the service of the state that it was formally entrusted to her care, and it was then she realized this antique machine—which originally only traveled into the future and back—could now travel anywhere in space and time; the Soviets, she believed, had doctored it somehow.
The president’s hand rested on her shoulder. “Good luck, comrade,” he said, sounding surprisingly tender. “The coordinates have all been entered. All you need to do is operate the lever. The success of socialism and the alliance depends on you now.”
“I will do my best, sir,” she replied, groaning inside. Although she didn’t doubt the advance of the enemy could spell disaster for the Soviets—a thought that sobered her greatly—the president’s reminder of her mission’s importance did nothing to calm her nerves.
The machine began to hum and vibrate as she powered up the boosters and freed the lever from its lock. It was already lifting from the roof, spitting gravel out from under it. She grasped the ivory handle and eased it back, carefully following the markings until it reached the number 8.
The engine roared, and Elizabeth held tight to the reins as she soared into the air. As she hovered over the palace grounds, the treetops became blurred, the stars stretched into lines, and the fabric of her reality appeared to open, forming a tunnel, which she traveled down at great speed. The last thing she saw as the machine soared over the teeming city were the spires of parliament, Tatlin’s Tower, and Westminster Abbey, bending and stretching outward and away from her.
The last time she’d seen those spires from this vantage point was the day she arrived by airship for her coronation at the abbey. It’s only with a sense of shame that she recalled the gaudiness of that rite, so deeply out of touch with the spirit of the times. She knew even then things were coming to an end, but nobody told her exactly what to do; what else could she do but carry on as normal?
The death of Stalin had hung heavily over the proceedings that day. The crowds in Parliament Square would not let her forget him, waving red flags and singing his praises. In a moment of surprising frankness, the Archbishop of Canterbury told her she’d be reigning on borrowed time, that neither the police nor the army would stop the people. Ever since the momentous union between the British Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain, the prospect that everything might change overnight could no longer be denied. Considering the atrocities the Americans had committed during the war and the Soviet Union’s role in saving the country from Hitler, even she found herself sympathizing with the people’s new enthusiasm for socialism.
Two years later, on the day she finally abdicated, she boarded a public airship in the palace gardens and soared over London to roars of approval from the crowds. The Soviet-backed commissars of the Labour Party had assured her the people would look favorably upon her due to her cooperation, and they were right. They gave her one month to return to Balmoral, to prepare her home for its requisition by the state, and then they said she’d be given an apartment at the palace.
She’d never forget how light she felt that day—how oddly accepting she was of this turn of events—as the airship floated toward the Thames. The sails beat like the fins of a ray, and steam poured from the funnel, almost obscuring her view of the crowds. When she arrived that evening at Balmoral, she dispatched a letter to her siblings, her husband, and her mother—who’d already fled to Washington—saying she had no intention of joining them. She had too much thinking to do about the nature of her responsibilities. First and foremost in her mind was the question of whether her role as a servant of the people had come to an end now the old order had passed away. That the people continued to look upon her kindly, despite not wanting her as their queen, not only flattered her but compelled her to think hard about what it was she ought to do.
She spent a great deal of that month lying on the sofa in the living room, the corgis stretched out by the fire. She couldn’t bring herself to go riding, much less walk far from the house. The wireless blared the news from London, informing her the state had announced plans for the nationalization of industry, that commissars from Moscow were advising the government. Everything else of any value had been seized.
Finally, she awoke one morning and everything was clear. She went to the magneto telephone in the parlor, cranked the handle vigorously, and dialed 10 Downing Street. “Mr. President,” she said. “I’m ready for my return to London. You may call me Comrade Windsor from now on.”
Red brick walls and distant gas lamps obscured by trees and falling snow informed Elizabeth she’d arrived at the Kremlin. It was hallowed ground she stood on: Red Square lay beyond those walls, and not very far from here, in a building overlooking the entrance to Cathedral Square, a man who embodied the new way of life was breathing the same air as her. As she made her way through the snow-blanketed gardens, she peered with difficulty, on account of the wind, at the bell tower of Ivan the Great, which loomed over everything. Symbolizing, for her, the man she was about to meet, this tower—like everything else in this country—had undergone a complete transformation, no longer a beacon of Russian Orthodoxy. She knew she had to keep to the right of it, and it wasn’t long before she found a pavement, which she followed to the cobblestoned square outside the Senate walls. Even more surprising to her than the ease with which she’d found the right building was the painlessness of her encounter with the Senate guards: after examining her papers closely, they were satisfied and let her in.
The moment she got up to follow her escort after a long, anxious wait by the wall, Elizabeth’s heart swelled, surprising her: here she was on her way to meet the leader of the revolution, and every fiber of her being felt primed for the encounter. The corridor opened onto a flight of stairs; the stairs gave onto a gas-lit corridor; and in the time it took her to traverse those halls—stopping, finally, outside a double door—it was as if a painful inner transformation had come to a sudden end: no longer was she an embodiment of the old, only an agent of the new.
As the door swung open and the guard floated away—like a peripheral figure in a dream—she found she’d come face to face with Stalin.
He stood in front of a wooden desk, staring at the end of a vaporizer he’d evidently been smoking. His absorption interrupted, he fixed her with glittering eyes and smiled. “Comrade Cohen,” he said in an almost unintelligible accent, before reaching out his hand, which she shook.
Although she had, of course, seen this face before, not only in the London papers but in the endless portraits that hung around Buckingham Palace, nothing could prepare her for the feeling that overcame her, the shock of awareness it was him, in flesh and blood, before her. She’d always been impressed (who could not be?) by the definition of that nose, the blackness of those eyes, even that mustache, now graying, and the silver patches in his hair; but all those images paled before him now.
Seeking profundity in the present moment had never much appealed to Elizabeth until now. She’d always thought it was multiple encounters, accrued over time, that gave things their true significance. It was her firm belief, for instance, that one experiences the power of Stalin’s presence only through the lens of his representations—so much so that a British comrade, meeting Stalin for the first time, will experience that meeting quite differently from an American visitor. Someone who’s formed an idea of Stalin from numerous encounters with his image may even be disappointed to find that meeting the man in person is less meaningful than he expected, although it may have been enough only to think about the leader in his absence to be filled with the yearning to be near him. It’s not so much the leader’s presence as the repeatability of his image on a stamp or coin that’s meaningful. What struck Elizabeth about Stalin at that moment was that his presence, as she’d hoped, appeared to contradict this notion: it was somehow both iconic and substantial.
“Comrade Stalin…” she said, her voice suitably breathless. “It’s a great honor to meet you.”
“Please sit down,” he said, gesturing to a chair in front of his desk. “This vaporized tobacco… what do you British people say? It really hits the spot.”
They laughed for a moment, Stalin sounding noticeably calmer than her. Despite his Georgian accent, which occasionally rendered his words unintelligible, his English surprised her. Although she’d been assured the linguistic difficulties he displayed at conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill were just a ploy to disadvantage his enemies, she’d come well prepared to use her Russian training. So far, however, it seemed he had a perfect grasp of English.
He sat down opposite her. “I take it you’ve come from Stalingrad. You’ve been arranging to send party members from London?”
She nodded. “Yes, comrade.”
“Good. We hope you know how much we appreciate the support of your party. With the union between Labour and the communists, the workers in the British Isles now have the representation they need. We’re certain you’ll follow in our footsteps soon, and with the example of the Soviet Union as your guide, it’ll be easier for you than it was for us, no doubt. Here in Moscow, we’ll never forget it was the British who stepped forward in our time of need and said, ‘Hands off Russia!’ to their leaders.”
She felt a warm glow of pride. “The communists were the vanguard of the labor movement and always urged us to support the Bolsheviks. The bond between the workers of our countries is strong, comrade; even the bourgeoisie cannot deny it. After all, it was a Labour government in 1924 that reached out to the Soviet Union with loan terms and a trade treaty. Of course, Mr Baldwin, the conservative, put a stop to all that.”
“Only for a time, comrade, only for a time,” he said, and with that, he smiled and placed the vaporizer between his teeth.
“Comrade Stalin,” she said, inching forward in her seat. “I do not mean to be rude, but I know your time is valuable, and I feel I must come to the point.”
His eyes narrowed as the steam trickled from his nostrils, a waterfall in reverse. “Of course…”
Elizabeth paused to consider how she ought to proceed. Although she’d rather have thrown herself on his mercy, executives at MI6 had instructed her to convey, as concisely as possible, a message that would leave him easily manipulable. The plan they’d devised involved terrifying the leader by presenting him with information only he could possibly know and admitting she was a traveler from the future. Even if he reacted angrily, they said, her statements would nevertheless plant seeds of doubt that would force him to take her seriously. The goal was to wound him psychologically, and to couch it all in feminine charms she’d been raised to exhibit at will.
“You may find what I’m about to say rather shocking, comrade,” she said. “But when I’ve explained it all, I’m sure you’ll understand. Although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t afraid of how it might appear to you at first, I feel that if I unburden myself at once, you’ll know exactly what to do.”
Stalin placed his vaporizer on the desk, put his elbows either side of it, and looked at her curiously over steepled fingers. “What’s this all about, comrade?”
“It concerns the plans for the bomb drawn up by Igor Kurchatov.”
The moment the incriminating words were out, she longed to take them back. The longing itself was not very surprising (the risk of having to expose herself had been obvious to everyone from the start), but the dread accompanying it was shocking, welling up from somewhere near her heart.
Whether it was a response to some physical danger or the prospect of alienating a man whom she’d hoped, more than anyone, might understand her, her heart began to throb, and no amount of mental strength could prevent her body’s shaking.
Stalin reacted less dramatically than she expected; except for the slightest narrowing of his eyes, his face remained perfectly composed. An agent who lacked Elizabeth’s training in the reading of foreign leaders might even have concluded, understandably, that her statement hadn’t troubled him, but she could tell he was deeply concerned.
“If I’m not mistaken, Comrade Cohen,” he said, his dark eyes scrutinizing her, “you’ve just admitted to knowing secret affairs of state. If you weren’t being so voluntary about it, I might conclude you were an American spy.”
“I can assure you, sir, I’m a loyal communist,” she replied. “As proof of my sincerity, I want to give you something, and, if you’d do me the honor, I’d like you to examine it carefully. As you do, I want you to know it represents where I’m from, that I came to you today only to secure the Soviet Union’s future and that of the British Soviet Republic.”
Stalin’s icy exterior melted into incredulity and shock. His lips curled into a snarl. “The British Soviet Republic?”
She dug in her pocket and pulled out a coin, which she placed on the table and pushed toward him. Without touching it, he bowed his head; soon his frown became a wide-eyed stare. She knew what he was seeing, what was causing this look of disbelief—his own face in profile beside the face of the British president, the words, “The Soviet Republic of Great Britain,” crowning both.
He looked at her disdainfully. “What is this? Some kind of joke?”
“No, sir. It’s deadly serious. The future of our nations is at stake. I come from the future, Comrade Stalin—from 1958, to be precise—and my name isn’t Miriam Cohen.”
Stalin stared at her, blinking furiously.
After a pause that felt like an age—during which Elizabeth began to doubt the wisdom of MI6’s plan—he stood and reached for the telephone on the desk.
“This coin…” he said. “Your American patrons must be desperate to resort to such tricks.”
“I can prove it’s no trick,” she said, half rising from her seat.
“Send two guards to my office at once,” he said, before dropping the receiver on the hook. “We’ll soon find out what’s motivating this deception of yours.” He opened a drawer in the desk, pulled out a pistol, and aimed it at her chest. “It’s one thing to disguise yourself as Comrade Cohen but quite another to believe you could infiltrate the Kremlin and fool me into believing this nonsense.”
Elizabeth stared into the blackness of the pistol’s barrel and readied herself to wield her own weapon of sorts: her knowledge of the man’s not-too-distant future. According to psychologists at Lomonosov University in Moscow, who’d profiled the leader and whom she’d consulted on the matter of persuasion, she was far more likely to influence Stalin if she waited until his arousal had reached its peak before deciding to reveal her “hand.” Seeing that his cheeks had now turned a reddish pink and his pistol hand quivered imperceptibly, she believed that time was now.
“We know about your change of heart,” she said, “how you’ve decided to end the project. In my time, it’s a fait accompli. One week from today, you’ll send soldiers with orders to destroy the laboratories, to arrest Mr. Kurchatov, and set fire to his work. If I meant only to deceive you, how could I know this, comrade?”
Stalin paced back and forth behind his chair, his face becoming pale and drawn. When she came to the words, “one week from today,” he stopped, placed one hand on the desk, and leant toward her, eyes wide with fear or awe.
At that moment, two red guards burst into the room.
“Wait outside,” Stalin barked.
After they’d retreated, he lowered the pistol. “If I understand you correctly, Comrade Cohen—or whoever you are—you’ve come here today to advise me against taking a course of action only I could possibly know about. I hope you possess a convincing explanation—or you’ll be sleeping in a wing of Butyrka tonight.”
“Nothing I could say would make you change your plans, comrade,” she replied. “By coming to you today, I only hope to change the future. If another option had been available to us, we’d never have chosen to disturb you in this way; but without the bomb in Soviet hands, the Americans will surely defeat us. By 1958, they’ll have steam-powered warships, and airships they can propel across the globe within hours. The American navy will have spread to every corner of the world, checkmating us, and socialism will be finished in ten years. But if you give me Mr. Kurchatov’s plans, I can take them to 1958 and use them to detonate bombs along the eastern U.S. seaboard that will destroy the American threat forever…”
Stalin’s fist thudded against the desk. “Enough! Gvardiya!”
With a sinking feeling, Elizabeth saw that the impact of her words had gone far beyond merely terrifying Stalin and had instead inspired an icy rage. Before she could say something to plead her case, the sound of the guards’ boots filled the room, and large hands rested on her shoulders.
“I wish this imposter to be removed at once,” said Stalin, his face twitching. “A holding cell in the dissident wing will do.” He threw her a look of fury. “If you thought I’d fall for such games, you insult my intelligence, comrade. We’ll soon discover how you trespassed on these grounds, and then you’ll be sorry you were even born.”
Two guards hoisted Elizabeth up by her armpits.
“Comrade,” she said, as they dragged her toward the door, “just think about everything I’ve said!”
But Stalin didn’t acknowledge her words.
The last thing she saw as the double doors closed between them was his hand, trembling, as it reached for the vaporizer on the desk, before stopping and hovering, indecisively, over the coin.
The wind beat the walls of Butryka and whistled through the barred window of Elizabeth’s cell. She lay in the dark for hours, frozen by thoughts of the future awaiting her—a bullet in the brain or transportation to the Gulag—before she drifted in and out of consciousness.
After dragging her from Stalin’s office, the guards had thrown her into the back of a van, and they’d bumped and rattled through the streets of Moscow. The further they’d traveled from the vicinity of the Kremlin, the more she’d dwelled hopelessly on the president’s final words: “The success of socialism and the alliance depends on you now.” When they threw her into this filthy cell, she knew in her heart she’d failed at her task: force of arms had come between her and the machine, and nothing short of capriciousness on Stalin’s part would change that. The president would realize the plans weren’t coming, and the Soviets, most likely, were doomed.
After praying to the God of her childhood, she slept—but the fear of approaching death didn’t leave her; it followed her into the depth of unconsciousness and waited for her in the darkness, ready to spring up again through all her nerves. It was so different from a deep, drowsy sleep, she couldn’t be sure if she’d slept at all—or if only moments or hours had passed; and as she plunged in and out of this darkness, the wind took on an almost voice-like quality and seemed to rage at her specifically. Somehow this wasn’t enough to rouse her from her torpor, and when she next became conscious, everything around her—the room, the door, the bars—seemed eerie.
The sensation of a presence on her right hand side, somewhere near the door, brought Stalin to her mind, though he obviously wasn’t there.
When she woke the next morning to the clanging of the key in the lock and to Stalin entering her cell, the stress of the last eight hours overcame her, and she remained insensible for some time.
When her astonishment had subsided and her strength had returned, she sat up and brushed the hair from her face, looking at him sideways. By the redness of his eyes and his pale face, it was obvious he’d not slept—or at least not much at all—and she felt a mixture of hope and fear.
Although his fury appeared to have diminished, something else—the look of an agitated cat waiting for its prey’s next move—flickered in his eyes. What was she to make of his coming here today so soon after sending her away, the milder aspect he’d assumed, and, despite all that, the aggression that lay simmering beneath it all?
“Thank you for coming, sir,” she said, “I did not believe you would leave me here to rot.”
Stalin drew his pistol and sat beside her on the bench. “I believe it was your intention to confound me last night by mentioning the knowledge you possess. But you should know that the more you confound me, comrade, the more you owe me a sufficient explanation. I’m willing to listen to you a little longer—but remember: a single command from me, and the guards outside will escort you to a permanent cell in this prison at once.”
“I understand, sir,” she said, her heart constricting.
“I’m perplexed at how you came by the intelligence you possess. It’s clear you possess it, but I can’t fathom how or why. Not even Beria is privy to my intentions in this regard, and I can only conclude there’s more to your story than an incompetent attempt at espionage. In short, comrade, you must tell me who you are.”
Elizabeth gazed into Stalin’s bloodshot eyes and thought of all the times she’d asked herself a similar question—without ever producing a satisfactory answer. Having lived two separate lives in the service of her country, she tended not to think in terms of who she was but rather what she represented at the time. But who better to understand all this than former peasant, Josef Dzhugashvili, beloved leader and “man of steel”?
“I cannot tell you, sir, without muddying things unhelpfully,” she said, aware of how haunted she must have looked at that moment. “I hope it will suffice to say that in London, they call me Comrade ER, and I’m an agent of the British Soviet Republic.”
Stalin frowned heavily and then looked at her with renewed interest. In his eyes, it was as if a light, once veiled, now burned with unobstructed brightness. “The desire to identify oneself by one’s social function, rather than a personal history, is something I can sympathize with readily,” he said. “Some people would call such a desire communist. But without full disclosure of who you are, I’ll need further proof of your claims.”
She replied gently, “If we speak as communists, sir, and on that footing alone, I’m sure you’ll understand what I tell you just the same.”
He nodded, apparently satisfied. “If you won’t tell me who you are, comrade, you must tell me how you came by Madam Cohen’s papers and how you succeeded in infiltrating the Kremlin.”
“If you’ll allow me, sir, I would show you the machine I arrived in; it’s hidden away inside the Kremlin grounds. As for Miriam Cohen—we knew she wouldn’t arrive in time for her appointment; it wasn’t difficult for us to copy her papers.”
“Machine?” he said, raising an eyebrow, before standing and opening the door to the cell. He called down the corridor: “Ready the armored car for our departure, and send two guards at once. I’m taking the prisoner for a drive.” He turned to face her, tilted his gun toward her, and said: “The coin you showed me yesterday could have been fabricated easily. Your means of coming here, presumably, could not. If this machine you speak of is not where you say it is, comrade, I’ll shoot you immediately.”
She nodded, and they waited for the guards to appear.
It was perhaps the initial ferocity of their encounter that caused a surprising sense of intimacy to characterize their walk through the Kremlin. To a passing observer who failed to notice the pistol in Stalin’s hand, the couple might even have made a romantic image, both in their heavy overcoats, with the snow falling around them. The two guards he’d ordered to trail them were not close enough to intrude on their intimacy, and every time Elizabeth opened her mouth to speak, the cold wetness of the snow on her lips was like a kiss. As they passed by towering snow piles, she felt the urge to tell him about her past—that she, too, had once reigned over a people—but that was out of the question.
They found the machine covered in a layer of snow. The moment Stalin laid eyes on it, she wondered if MI6’s plan was complete. On the walk from the Kremlin gates, his demeanor had suggested the existence of the machine—combined with her knowledge of his secret intentions—would be enough to convince him she was telling the truth. She was certain that if he came to understand the Americans were on the verge of winning—that only the bomb could stop them—he’d relinquish the plans. If he refused, it could only be because he’d accepted socialism was doomed.
Stalin approached the machine through the trees and placed a hand on one of the rails. She came up beside him, unlocked the engine, and pressed the power switch, causing the bar at the front to flare and pulse like a crystalline heart. Beneath the branches, the wonder in Stalin’s eyes, illuminated by the bar’s soft glow, gave him the appearance of a child. “Comrade Stalin, now you know the truth. I came to you from 1958. You must give me the plans or our nations are doomed.”
He took her hand, making her pull away instinctively, but he held her tight. The suspicion with which he’d viewed her earlier had all but faded, replaced by a look of anguish. “Don’t be so hasty, comrade. My reason says I should have you arrested, but my heart tells me you speak the truth. What is this machine—and how did it come to be inside the Kremlin?”
“I believe you met the man who built it some 15 years ago—a famous author by the name of Wells. The records indicate this Mr. H. G. Wells requested a private audience with the Queen at the close of the last century, and it was there he presented this machine to her in secret. He was anxious his invention might fall into the wrong hands and in that way come to inflict great harm. When the Queen emerged from her private quarters after a long and tiresome exchange—the contents of which she never fully disclosed—she called her privy counsellors to her and informed them she’d promised to bequeath this machine to her descendants. You knew the man, sir, and, I’m sure, can vouch for his uprightness.”
Stalin’s eyes widened. “I would not say ‘knew,’ comrade, but certainly, I met him. We spoke in Moscow when he visited on literary business. But surely you’re not suggesting this machine is the one he wrote about in his tale; that was just a story, comrade!”
“This supposedly tall tale, sir,” she said, “was, in fact, a fictionalized history. After Mr. Wells released this machine into the monarch’s care, a succession of kings and queens possessed it in a personal capacity for half a century, before agents of the British Soviet Republic confiscated it for the state. You wanted to know how I came to you today; well, this is how I traveled here, comrade.”
Stalin frowned at the words “British Soviet Republic” but otherwise listened with great interest. At the end of her speech, he let go of her hand and began to circle the machine, moving in and out of the shadows of the branches. At the moment he passed by the crystalline bar, the light transfigured his features, his hair became lustrous, and the Stalin she’d longed to meet (whose imaginariness she’d since become resigned to) seemed to be standing before her. Before her fear had a chance to subside, his demeanor changed; he glared at the machine and pointed his pistol in her direction. “Until you show me how this thing works, comrade, I’ll never be able to give you the plans. You must understand that, surely?”
Although she’d hoped it wouldn’t come to this, in truth she’d suspected he’d want to travel in the machine ever since he’d requested to see it. The president hadn’t favored this outcome, but it was an eventuality they’d considered among others. If Stalin came with her to 1958, it would prove to him, finally, that everything she’d said was true, but dangerous complications might arise (for instance, if he discovered he’d died in 1953).
“If you mean we should travel in it together, sir,” she said, “I must warn you of how sick it might make you. My body has adjusted to traveling in this way, but you may become fatigued, even nauseated.”
Stalin laughed humorlessly. “Think about what you’re saying and who you’re saying it to, comrade. This pistol I hold has represented a way of life for us Russians these past 40 years. Facing death every day, year in, year out, has put steel in our veins. Surely you don’t believe this machine could be the thing to overcome me?”
“Of course not,” she said, gesturing at the saddle. “It’s a bumpy ride, though, and I’m afraid it’ll be a tight squeeze. If you come with me, comrade, you must be prepared for what you’ll find. The machine will take us to the roof of Buckingham Palace in 1958, and the president will be waiting with a group of Red Guards. I’m sure he’ll want to speak with you in private.”
“I understand, comrade,” he said, “and don’t forget: I’ll have you as my ransom.”
Turning to the guards (who’d stationed themselves far through the trees), he addressed them loudly: “Return to the senate and wait for me there.” Then he stepped back, allowed Elizabeth to climb the rails, and, following her instructions, climbed up behind her on the saddle. She soon felt the weight of his body pressed against her.
“Don’t forget my pistol is next to your ribs, comrade,” he murmured. “If I suspect something has gone amiss, I will not hesitate to shoot.”
She nodded and undid the lock on the lever. “Hold tight, sir,” she said. “I’m going to operate the lever now, and soon we’ll shoot high into the air.”
An unexpected feeling of desolation swept over her as she pushed the lever forward to number 8. In moments she’d inhabit a world in which a brutal future lay ahead. With Stalin on their side—something that looked increasingly likely—millions of Americans would soon be wiped out by Kurchatov’s bomb, and socialism would be complicit in the destruction. What else could she do but ignore the dread that seeped through her?
The machine lurched into the air, crushing her against Stalin, and they ascended through a tunnel of multicolored lights. Within seconds, they appeared above Buckingham Palace, the gas lights of London spread below them like a web. The machine rattled noisily as it descended, before landing with a bang on the palace roof. Stalin let go of her waist and exhaled deeply. Amid the chaos of their landing, the president rushed toward them.
“Mr. President,” she said, heart thudding, “meet Comrade Stalin.”
The president signaled to the guards to lower their guns. “Welcome, comrade,” he said, recovering quickly from his surprise. “Walter Gallagher—president of the British Soviet Republic—at your service.”
Rather than betraying weakness or shock (as one might expect of someone for whom the rigors of time travel were a novelty), Stalin slipped down from behind her and adopted a familiar stance: chest inflated and with an enigmatic smile, he resembled the “man of steel” she knew from a handful of Brodsky portraits.
“Good day, sir,” he said to the president.
Moments later, a small but crucial event occurred, which in truth she’d been anticipating ever since Stalin had requested to travel with her in the machine: His eyes looked toward the horizon and settled on the beams of Tatlin’s Tower rising at sixty odd degrees from the black smudge of London. Almost imperceptibly—in the widening of his eyes and the slackening of his jaw—Stalin’s face registered the dawning awareness that everything she’d told him until that moment was true. Here, in the shape of the tower, was a design familiar to him from the earliest days of the revolution, but this was no sketch or model; it was glass and steel, forged by workers of Great Britain, not Russia. Impassive and still, he resembled a man whose life’s work had been completed before him in a moment.
“Tatlin’s Tower,” she said, placing her hand on the back of his arm.
“I know what it is, comrade,” he said, his tone short but resounding with feeling.
“I’m happy you were able to see it, sir, and I hope it proves that you can trust us.”
“I’d like to speak to your president in private,” he said, appearing to catch his breath.
The president smiled. “Of course, comrade. We appreciate your willingness to speak with us, and we believe it’s in your power to help us defeat the enemies of the Soviets again. Just as you did in the Great Patriotic War…”
The president turned to Elizabeth and began to say something about what a great task she’d accomplished in arranging the meeting. Hardly hearing him for the sound of her heartbeat, she held up a hand to make him stop. As the cold air crept inside her coat, making her shiver, she looked down at her hand and remembered the press of Stalin’s fingers. Despite his standing mere yards away from her, his presence felt ghostly, insubstantial. It was perhaps a result of his not belonging in this time, five long years after his death, and the fact that he’d soon be returning to his own time. “Now everything is in order,” she said, “may I go to my apartment and rest?”
The president began to speak again, and this time it was Stalin’s turn to interrupt: “May I speak with you later, comrade?”
She gazed into his glinting eyes. “Yes, comrade. You may come to my apartment when you’re ready.”
He nodded and addressed the others, “Then let our meeting commence.”
As Elizabeth often did when returning from some arduous task—especially one involving her great-great-grandmama’s antique time machine—she chose to seat herself in the window overlooking the Mall and gather her wits by steeping herself in symbolism. With a porcelain teacup in one hand and a matching saucer in the other—every Englishwoman’s “buckler and shield”—she directed her gaze between the red flags and trees lining the way as far as Trafalgar Square and attempted to remind herself of what an honor the president had bestowed on her. Those scarlet flags never failed to rouse in her an appreciation for the righteousness of the tasks she’d accomplished—for her people, primarily, but also for the memory of Stalin. On this occasion, they didn’t disappoint. With a heart fit to burst, she lowered her gaze to the crowds gathered before the palace gates and said, partly to herself and partly to them, “It’s for the good of humanity, of course. It’s for socialism, for Stalin.”
A knock at the door interrupted her thoughts, followed by a guard’s voice announcing the arrival of the very man she’d evoked in words seconds before. She rose to greet him and felt his warm hands envelope hers. With a softness she’d hardly seen in him till then, he gazed down at their sandwiched hands and said, “You’ll be pleased to know, comrade, that Mr. Gallagher has explained everything. My first thought, upon learning the truth, was that I should let Mr. Kurchatov’s project go ahead. The president explained that the past cannot be changed—despite the knowledge I now hold about the future.”
“Correct, comrade,” she said. “From our perspective, it’s happened. Nothing can change it. Our only hope is for you to give us the plans and change the future.”
“First, comrade, there are questions I would ask of you in particular—questions I believe only a woman can answer.”
“Then ask them, comrade, please,” she said.
A pained look appeared on his face, and when he spoke, it was low and deliberate: “If I give you the plans for the bomb, can you assure me it’s for the good of humanity and not just the good of our nations?”
Elizabeth paused. Momentarily, she appeared to stop breathing; and then, when she spoke, her stumbling words reflected the difficulty of articulating a belief, which, until that moment, had seemed self-evident; as such, the words when they came felt contrived, even childish. “The world today is not a place in which the workers can thrive, comrade,” she said. “The Americans are creating a world in which a small elite will monopolize the wealth. This is precisely the world you gave your life to thwart.”
The light of the gas lamps danced in his eyes. “I understand that, comrade, but it’s not what I meant. What I wish to ask you is a more human question.”
She nodded and said, “Go on…”
“The weapon you speak of, if it were to exist, could kill thousands, even millions, of people. The world has never heard of such a thing. Last night in my office, you implored me to launch this evil upon the world. But this great country of ours, the Soviet Union, represents the hope of workers throughout the world. Say I gave you Mr. Kurchatov’s plans and you used them for their intended purpose, would it not involve us all in barbarism?”
Elizabeth clasped her hands to her chest. The lines of Stalin’s forehead and his furrowed brow hinted at the anxiety bubbling beneath his forceful exterior. It occurred to her that even Stalin might feel relieved to talk to someone about such a momentous decision, even someone whose sanity he was initially far from sure of. Nobody knew why Stalin had destroyed the plans for the bomb; unease about its humanitarian implications hadn’t ever been considered.
“The bomb will be devastating to many people,” she said, weighing her words, “but if we’ve learnt anything from Marx, it’s that history is larger than people. The bomb is necessary, comrade—for the Soviet Union and for Britain. Without it, socialism could be buried for centuries—forever. All other civilizations—Imperial Russia, the British Empire—have been unworthy of the sacrifices socialism can claim; if those civilizations could sow the fields of history with blood, think how much more entitled we are to do the same. Once the Americans are defeated, socialism will flourish under the Soviet Union’s direction and spread to the entire world. If we could defeat them without it, we’d attempt it, but history demands its sacrifices.”
Stalin pressed his hands to his face and sighed. When he withdrew them, shakily, she was stunned to see that tears stood in his eyes. For a while, he gazed at her hand, his fingers wrapped tightly around it, and then—shocking her—he lifted it to his lips and kissed it. “You speak with such sincerity, comrade, and with a certainty even I don’t possess. Kurchatov’s plans are in a cylinder in my office. They’ll explain everything.”
The relief that flooded through Elizabeth was strong, and she could hardly feel her smile. “It’s our only hope, sir,” she said.
Stalin took her elbow and gestured toward the door. “Shall we to return to the Kremlin, comrade?”
She nodded. “Yes. I’ll fetch my coat.”
“Before you do, isn’t it time you told me who you are?”
Elizabeth’s eyes widened, one hand on her throat. “Why, yes, of course. I’ll tell you on the way.”