A Peculiar Incident At Harvard University
In October 2008, the relatively dormant Department of Slavic Languages and Literature of Harvard University found itself amidst a stunning revelation. One of the Department’s graduate students, Konstantin Zilber, refused to have sexual relations with a fellow graduate student, Anastasia Frolova.
Zilber and Frolova were dating for nearly a month in the environs of Harvard Square and other Cambridge neighborhoods. Friends and faculty often spotted them together at various coffee shops and cafes. Sometimes Konstantin and Anastasia held hands; on other days they kissed and stared at each other with unmistakable ardor.
It was only fitting for both to consider the next step in their developing relationship.
One evening, as Konstantin was visiting Anastasia in her studio apartment, he decided to move forward with that step and commenced caressing Frolova’s sensitive organs. As he was getting ready for a more meticulous exploration amidst a surprisingly moonlight-abundant autumnal night, his sexual partner-to-be informed him that she was fond of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
In response, Zilber reclined back in disbelief, reached out for his glasses within a nearby night table perimeter, and slowly exhaled a full mouth of air at least several times. Bare-chested and still aroused, he stormed out of Frolova’s apartment.
While both Konstantin and Anastasia independently decided to keep this incident private, many in the Slavic Department became aware of it by the following morning.
As he was preparing coffee for himself on the graduate school cafeteria grounds, Konstantin felt a deliberately perusing gaze burning on his back. The gaze belonged to Mikhail Bernstein, a post-doctoral student and a rising specialist in Boris Pasternak’s poetry. The latter was examining Zilber with a sense of commiseration.
– Pasternak used to have both a wife and a mistress in his time, – Bernstein said. – It is just unfortunate that you have neither.
– What are you referring to? – Konstantin attempted to respond as innocently as possible.
Mikhail lowered his voice to that of a whisper.
– You denied sex to a woman because of Molotov and Ribbentrop! Why do those two even come up in your bedroom?
Zilber shrugged his shoulders:
– You are asking the wrong question. A better question: why is she supporting their criminal 1939 pact, one that spelled out doom for Poland and essentially launched the Second World War?
As far as Frolova was concerned, she hoped to forget the incident and move on to another Harvard relationship.
A foreign exchange student from Russia’s Krasnodar region, Anastasia came to Harvard to study the American period in the literature of Vladimir Nabokov. At the same time, she reminded herself that, like Nabokov, she yearned to make the United States her second homeland. With the right man, of course. A shining blue passport goes well with all colors, particularly with those from “Lolita” and “Bend Sinister” editions.
Both attractive and affable, Konstantin Zilber merited serious consideration, in Frolova’s view. Yet, judging from what happened the other night, Anastasia was beginning to have serious doubts about his mental faculties.
Never before did a man escape from her bedroom in a similar fashion.
– I doubt it had anything to do with the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, – Anastasia got some unsolicited opinion from Bella Rosenman, the author of the about-to-be-published book, “The Sexuality of Alexander Blok”. – Men are famous for finding excuses; yet, they flee the sexual intercourse for one and one reason only: when they are unable to perform.
– You really think that he could be?… – Anastasia Frolova found herself on the brink of an important realization.
– The guy is as impotent, as Blok! – Bella Rosenman concluded with certainty.
Konstantin’s weekly meeting with his dissertation adviser, Professor Patricia Matthews, took an unusual turn. Konstantin assumed that it would be literary business as usual between the two, as they would continue their perpetual discussion about Anna’s true reasons for leaving Karenin and eloping with Vronsky: those very reasons that by now constituted approximately 80% of Zilber’s dissertation.
– I want you to know, – Professor Matthews blushed, as if conveying a delicate secret. – I want you to know that had Tolstoy been alive today, he would have definitely condemned the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.
Konstantin was taken aback, a bit surprised that Patricia Matthews, so proper and reserved on other occasions, would suddenly pry into his personal life.
There was still a glimpse of hope that she merely wanted to chat about a random historical event with Konstantin.
– I am sure he would have, – Zilber played along. – I assume that most people these days condemn Stalin and Hitler for dividing up Poland.
Zilber’s hope was crushed by Professor Matthews’ next statement, however.
– That’s not what I meant, – she said. – What I meant is that Tolstoy would have similarly refused to have sex with anyone who didn’t condemn them.
Frolova was not a big fan of political discourse. She knew that much too often heated debates ended up in bitter disagreements. They were not meant to convince or win over, but rather – to egotistically enunciate one’s own position. That’s why she seldom voiced her personal opinions.
She didn’t remember how Konstantin approached the topic of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact that night. More importantly, she was caught unaware of Zilber’s anti-Stalinist beliefs. Had she known how strongly he felt about the matter, she would have veered away from it, particularly on the verge of their first sexual encounter.
Back in Krasnodar, Anastasia grew up with respect for her elders and for traditions that were sacrosanct to them. One such tradition was the family’s get-together on the May 9th Victory Day. Both of her grandparents fought in the war, spilling blood and liberating one European capital after another. They spoke respectfully of their commander-in-chief, who also happened to be the leader of the country at the time. This veneration was passed on to others in the family after their death. The name of Joseph Stalin commanded respect and gratitude.
She was aware that some accused Stalin of purges, mass killings, and so forth. Personally, she knew of no one who endured such sufferings during his rule. Neither did her parents. What she did know was that he saved millions from the Nazi invaders. And, before the war, Stalin did all he could to prevent it. Such was the purpose of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
When Zilber stormed out of her apartment, he made it sound like her thinking was uncommon and even perverted. Yet, as Anastasia shared her beliefs with others in the department, she proved him to be wrong.
Mainly, she felt a strong support from Kirk Johnson, a fellow classmate who happened to be an ardent admirer of Demyan Bedny’s poetry. Kirk concurred with Anastasia on every point of Joseph Stalin’s greatness. The man had a military genius, not mention his extraordinary managerial capabilities. In addition, Kirk Johnson signaled his own readiness to copulate with Frolova, regardless of Molotov or Ribbentrop.
– I am proud of you! By publicly denouncing the Nazi-Soviet pact you stood up for moral clarity and for historical ethics.
Those were the words of Professor Peter Kreschatnikov, the author of numerous texts on the prose of Ivan Bunin, who also claimed to be the writer’s great-grandson. The latter fact remained unconfirmed.
– Well, I denounced it privately, rather than publicly, – Zilber rushed to clarify. – In the privacy of the young lady’s bedroom. It’s not like I staged a one-man protest next to Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
– The details are not important. Posterity will remember you as someone who happened to reside on the right side of history. You may not realize this at present, but what you did transcends bedrooms and even Harvard itself. It transcends time.
– You really think so?
– I am confident of it.
During her nearly eighteen months in the US, Anastasia’s list of acquaintances was dismally low. Whether in the larger Boston area or on campus itself, she barely knew anyone who could comfort her in times of emotional upheaval. She developed a number of short-term relationships with various young men; there were no non-sexual friends, however.
Once the affair was over, there were feelings of emptiness, vagueness, and overall detachment from her surroundings. At times, she felt depressed, at times despondent. Those feelings usually receded whenever Anastasia began to evaluate a new candidacy toward potential matrimony; thankfully, her good looks granted her the powers to be the chooser, rather than the beggar. However, with six relationships during her relatively short Harvard sojourn, she felt that the modus operandi of seeking a prospective husband required an evaluation, an adjustment of sorts.
There was Leva M., a graduate student from MIT, who promised to marry her on their fifth date, but soon backed out upon stern opposition from his mother. The latter made a case against the union for the reasons of Frolova’s non-Jewish identity and her likely appetite for the US citizenship.
There was Sasha L., an undergraduate student from Boston University and an ardent guitar player, with his repertoire mainly dedicated to the Russian bards from the mid-20th century. Sasha serenaded Anastasia with countless mellow songs of Bulat Okudzhava and Yuri Vizbor, but appeared timid about physical engagement. After a few weeks of singing, he disappeared.
Quite the opposite took place with Pavel K., a law student from Boston College. Pavel possessed an insatiable sexual elan, obliging Anastasia to a string of continuous sleepless nights, which soon transitioned into fits of back pain and even constipation for Frolova. There were days when she could barely walk. Those nocturnal encounters obviously had to end.
Konstantin, as it happens, was the normal one, compared to others. Or, so she initially thought.
– When a woman is unable to find a peace of mind with a man, she has no choice but to turn to a fellow woman.
She often heard this fateful conclusion from Professor Miriam Weinstock, whose seminar, “The Lesbian Ego of Marina Tsvetaeva”, was quite popular in the department.
He, too, yearned to meet a soulmate and get married, hopefully before finding a permanent faculty position. While Konstantin lived in the United States since the age of ten and had plenty of opportunities to forget the native tongue by assimilating into the American mainstream, he remained faithful to his roots and was looking for a lifetime partner with Russian heritage, ideally for someone who recently came from his home country.
That in itself presented a challenge.
There was always something peculiar about those spoiled, long-legged, model-looking Muscovite girls. Some insisted on having their wardrobe sourced by New York’s 5th Avenue boutiques; others were fanatically in love with Vladimir Putin’s regime. Then there were those who represented an unhealthy mix of the two.
Anastasia’s positive attitude toward the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact took Konstantin’s experience with women to a new level.
This incident took place six years ago. I chose to commit it to paper only now, in late 2014, when neither Zilber nor Frolova is affiliated with Harvard.
Since then, Frolova has returned to the Krasnodar region, where she found work as an English translator for an energy firm. I don’t believe she is married yet.
Zilber failed to find a job in the academia and is currently teaching Russian language in one Boston’s private schools. Earlier this year, he got engaged, though I don’t know much about his fiancée.
As for others – Joachim von Ribbentrop was obviously hanged in Nuremberg for war crimes in 1946.
Vyacheslav Molotov outlived the pact’s co-signer by forty years, dying in quasi-oblivion during the waning days of the Soviet era.
Alexander Veytsman writes poetry and prose in both English and Russian languages. His original poems, translations, as well as short stories and essays, have appeared in more than 30 publications in Russia and the United States. Over the years, he served on the editorial boards of The Word and Interpoeziya literary journals, in addition to chairing the Compass Translation Award under the auspices of Cardinal Points journal.