The terrifying, lengthening list of Russia’s use of lethal poisons against its critics has inspired acclaimed author Sergei Lebedev’s latest novel. With uncanny timing, he examines how and why Russia and the Soviet Union have developed horrendous neurotoxins. At its center is a ruthless chemist named Professor Kalitin, obsessed with developing an absolutely deadly, undetectable and untraceable poison for which there is no antidote. But Kalitin becomes consumed by guilt over countless deaths from his Faustian pact to create the ultimate venom. When the Soviet Union collapses, the chemist defects and is given a new identity in Western Europe. In this fast-paced, genre-bending tale, Lebedev weaves suspenseful pages of stunningly beautiful prose exploring the historical trajectories of evil. From Nazi labs, Stalinist plots, and the Chechen Wars, to present-day Russia, Lebedev probes the ethical responsibilities of scientists supplying modern tyrants and autocrats with ever newer instruments of retribution, destruction, and control.
Sergei Lebedev discusses UNTRACEABLE with leading historian and expert in Russian spycraft Amy Knight and translator Antonina W. Bouis in an online event sponsored by 192 Books/PCG Studio in New York. Click here to watch a video recording of the program.
Excerpt from Untraceable
Once the dancing began the children were sent off to play. That was what the boy had been waiting for. They played hide-and-seek, ever since he was little: only Uncle Igor’s apartment had enough hiding places for them truly to hide and seek, for a long time and without giveaways.
The children were older now and kept up the old custom reluctantly, seemingly out of boredom. However, in fact, the game had a new meaning now: the boys listened to the girls’ breathing, the girls hidden behind drapes, sometimes hopping in order to be found. In the dimly lit rooms, their first feelings arose. Only one room, at the far end of the corridor, was always locked.
The boy liked these hours of play. He hid better than the others, he could remain unnoticed in full view. The girls’ silhouettes did not excite him; his lust was for something different.
The person hiding sees space inside out, with the eyes of subjects, walls, photographs. He tries to merge with the place, become part of it. For him, hide-and-seek was merely the prologue to a voyage, immersion in the attractive otherness, the life of and space inhabited by Uncle Igor.
He held his breath, surrounded by things that had lost their corporeality, had turned into velvet ghosts, that might speak in the dark, convey something tactile. The distant locked room did not interest him; he did not think that Uncle Igor could have literal secrets hidden behind the door. Besides, he did not want to uncover some part of his hidden life; he wanted to know his everyday existence, his dashing, undisguised freedom of action and opinion, his ability to live without fear, treat everyone independently and at the same time be needed and universally respected.
They played for a long time that evening. The thrill was gone. Hiding one more time, the boy noticed that the usually locked door was ajar, weak light coming through the crack.
The sudden sense that this was no accident made him catch his breath.
“I’ll just peek in,” the boy told himself. “Just a peek, that’s all.”
The desk lamp was on. Probably Uncle Igor or the help left it on and forgot to come back in the flurry of holiday preparations. Its light, so personal, secret, the setting of Uncle Igor’s solitude and thoughts, beckoned irresistibly.
“I wasn’t told not to go in here,” thought the boy. “I’ll say we were playing hide-and-seek. The door was ajar.”
He walked around the room slowly, attentively looking at the cupboards, bookshelves, desk. A grandfather clock ticked loudly in the corner, marking the brief time he could spend here unnoticed.
He wanted to leave and took three steps toward the door; he grew anxious. He realized that all the books here were about chemistry. The same ones that his father had. But Uncle Igor had more books; his father knew only German and here there were volumes in English and French. The boy took one off the shelf—yes, the same stamp of the Institute library.
His father, when he worked at home, cleared his desk when he was done. If the boy needed to come into his room, he knocked first, and his father turned the work pages over. Uncle Igor left his desk as if he had walked out for a minute; tea in a glass, a viciously sharpened pencil on top of the pages. Typed pages, heavy honeycombs of formulas speckled with corrections.
The boy turned away. He felt a mix of disappointment and vague hope. Uncle Igor could not be his father’s colleague. Yet he was. The books were evidence that he was merely a civil scientist, one of hundreds in the City.
Suddenly the boy noticed a small triangle of fabric that stuck out of the doors of the clothes closet, like the corner of a bookmark. Military green. With embroidered gold leaves. A sleeve, probably.
The boy pulled on the end but the doors were shut tight.
“I’ll say that I wanted to hide in the closet,” he decided. “They didn’t forbid it.”
The boy slowly opened the doors.
The bulb in the closet glowed like a treasure hunter’s torch in a cave.
The gold embroidery blazed. The buttons were golden flashes. The orders shimmered in gold, scarlet, steel, and silver; the orders and stars made of bloodred enamel, the gray steel hammers and sickles, plows and bayonets, a soldier with a rifle; gold sheaves and leaves, the gold letters of LENIN.
A uniform hung in the closet. Covered in the heavy, round, scalelike discs of orders and medals from chest to navel. A major general’s lonely big stars sparkled on the shoulder boards.
The uniform was small, almost a child’s, just right for Uncle Igor. Without the awards it might have looked comical. But the golden, ruby, and sapphire reflections imbued it with supernatural might. The boy could not imagine what a man had to do to earn so many awards. Was he even a man? A hero? A higher being?
A cap on the shelf. Belt. A pair of boots.
A different Uncle Igor. The true one. Who had the right to a special life.
The boy had never seen such precious things up close. He ran his fingers over the gold, silver, and ruby scales, cold and heavy. The mirror on the inside of the door reflected a face made strange by confusion.
The uniform, hung with medals that seemed an integral part of it, radiated pure, absolute power. The boy could not control himself. He didn’t think about being caught, punished, banished from Uncle Igor’s house. He so wanted to commune with that power, feel himself inside it, that he took the uniform off the hanger and with an unexpected, agile move, as if stolen from the owner, slipped his arms into the sleeves.
His shoulders bent under the weight. You had to stand under the uniform as if under barbells at the gym. But the weight was inexpressibly pleasant, it both burdened and protected, it clad you in its thin silk lining.
The boy stood and did not recognize himself, as if he had not put on someone else’s clothing but someone else’s features and character. The embossed symbols he had internalized in childhood made him part of something immeasurably bigger, as vast as the starry sky.
He took a step toward the mirror. Blinded by the dazzling sparkle, he noticed the military emblems on the lapels almost accidentally.
Not crisscrossed artillery barrels.
Bowl and snake.
A golden bowl with a snake wrapped around it, its head raised as if to take a sip or to protect the forbidden vessel.
He had never seen an emblem like that. He didn’t know what it meant.
In the midst of stars, sickles, hammers and bayonets, the weapons of war and the weapons of labor welded into one, he thought, by the history of his country and therefore embossed on medals, the bowl and snake came from another, most ancient world when man was just beginning to name constellations. The boy suddenly understood that this inconspicuous and obscure symbol was the key; hidden, secret, it explained the orders, the general’s rank, Uncle Igor’s scientific path, combined it all into the secret of exclusivity, power, and strength.
The boy carefully took off the uniform and hung it back in the closet, leaving a corner of the sleeve sticking out between the doors. The obsession did not go away. Blessed heaviness. Complete protection.
He had found his idol. His path to becoming like Uncle Igor.
The bowl and snake.