Anthony Marra's first book, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, painted a portrait of Chechnya so real and compelling, readers might have felt they'd actually visited that war-torn land. His new collection follows a real painting, a mysterious image of a dacha, and all the lives it touches over seven decades of Russian history.
In "Granddaughters," we meet Galina — the granddaughter of a prima ballerina exiled to Siberia — who eventually buys the painting after her boyfriend, a soldier, goes missing in the area it depicts. But in this excerpt, she's still young, an aspiring (if ill-fated) ballerina herself. The Tsar of Love And Techno will be published October 6.
Best to begin with the grandmothers. Galina's was the labor camp luminary, while ours were the audience. Ours had been bakers, typists, nurses, and laborers before the secret police knocked on their doors in the middle of the night. It must be an error, they thought, a bureaucratic oversight. How could Soviet jurisprudence remain infallible if it failed to recognize innocence? Some held on to the misbelief as they stood pressed against one another in train cars heading east across the Siberian steppe, the names of previous prisoners haunting the carriage walls in smudged chalk. Some still held on to it as they were shoved aboard barges and steamed north on the Yenisei. But when they disembarked onto the glassy tundra, their illusion burned away in the glare of the endless summer sun. In distant cities, they were expurgated from their own histories. In photographs, they donned India ink masks. We never knew them, but we are the proof they existed. A hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, they built our home.
There we go, talking about ourselves again. Let's start with Galina's grandmother, the prima ballerina of the Kirov for five seasons before her arrest for involvement in a Polish saboteur ring. She was a long, lean splinter of beauty embedded in the gray drab of any crowded city street. Though she crossed the same rails and rivers as our grandmothers, she wasn't destined for the mines. The labor camp director was a ballet connoisseur as well as a beady-eyed sociopath. He'd seen Galina's grandmother perform Raymonda in Leningrad two years earlier and had been among the first in the theater to stand in ovation. When he spied her name on the manifest, he smiled — a rare occurrence in his line of work. He clinked shot glasses with his deputy and toasted, "To the might of Soviet art, so great it reaches the Arctic."
Anthony Marra's previous book was A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
During her first year in the camp, Galina's grandmother was received as a guest rather than an inmate. Her private room was austere but clean, a single bed, a bureau for her wardrobe, a wood-burning stove. Several times a week, the camp director invited her to his office for tea. Across a desk cluttered with registers, quotas, circulars, and directives, they would discuss the Vaganova method, the proper femur length for a prima ballerina, whether Tchaikovsky really had been so afraid his head would fall off while conducting that he had held it in place with his left hand. Galina called the camp director "a loyal citizen of the People's Republic of Bullshit" for his insistence that Swan Lake contained Marius Petipa's most sophisticated pas de deux. No one but the camp director's six-year-old nephew spoke to him so bluntly, but he didn't cut her rations or put nine grams of lead through her head. He offered more tea and sug- gested they might reach a consensus the following week, to which she declared, "Consensus is the goal of the feeble-minded." We can't help loving her just a little. Neither could the camp director.
The following year, he asked Galina's grandmother to create, train, and lead a small ballet troupe for his personal pleasure and for camp morale. The ensemble rehearsed for three months before making its debut. Some of its members had taken ballet classes as children and the rest were versed in peasant dances. After several long afternoons, the camp director and Galina's grandmother decided on an abridged treatment of Swan Lake. The ensemble rehearsed turns with questionably cosmopolitan French names until blisters pocketed their feet. Muscle memory was reeducated as Galina's grandmother browbeat elegance into these enemies of the people. It became increasingly unclear whether she was captive, captor, or both. After pulled muscles tightened and swollen toes deflated, after the curtain was drawn and a camp searchlight lit the far end of the canteen, it was evident to all that the stage was set for something extraordinary.
Our grandmothers sat on canteen benches in the audience, and the production was, as you can imagine, a fiasco. The nearest orchestra was eighteen hundred kilometers away, so the score played through the rusted horn of a gramophone previously used to store onions. The choreography required dozens of dancers; the ensemble had ten, and four of them wore charcoal-drawn mustaches to play Siegfried, Von Rothbart, and various footmen, tutors, and court gentlemen. The lake itself was rather thin on waterfowl; later some would joke that NKVD huntsmen had arrived first. There were slips and missteps, the music speeding past dancers left flailing in its wake.
But then Galina's grandmother, alone onstage, slid into a pool of light. Her hair washed and laureled in feathers, her shoulders polar-summer pale, her feet laced in real silk slippers. In the crowd, our grandmothers went silent. Some were transported back to the concert halls, anniversaries, and champagne flutes of their former lives. Some used the reprieve to nap. But most, we suspect, were astounded. After working fourteen-hour shifts in the mines, inhaling so much nickel they sneezed silver glitter, none could have expected a private performance from the prima ballerina of the Kirov.
Despite the many mishaps, the camp director was thrilled. For the next eight years, he sponsored ballets on the summer and winter solstices; but he hadn't risen through the ranks by giving anything away for free. For a man determined to wring maximum productivity from his prisoners before they died, the ballet proved an effective coercion. Seats — and with them up- graded rations — were reserved for those who exceeded their ever-increasing quotas. Galina's grandmother helped shave years off the lifespan of her audience.
It all ended in the ninth year. Galina's grandmother had less than three months until her release date and the camp director had fallen in love. Can someone like him actually love another human being? We're pained to admit that yes, he might delude himself into believing so. We have some experience with this kind of man, not bureaucratic mass murderers, of course, but with alcoholic boyfriends, violent husbands, strangers harboring the misconception that their unwanted advances are compliments. Galina's grandmother was the only woman for thousands of kilometers who wasn't one hundred percent repulsed at the sight of the camp director. Perhaps he mistook her lack of utter contempt for infatuation? Whatever his reasons, he summoned her to his office eighty-five days before her release date. The office door closed behind her and what happened next we only know from rumors spread by the guards. There was a declaration of love followed by a moment that still astonishes, these many decades later, when Galina's grandmother refused the camp director. At this point in the story, our dried-up admiration for her floods back, and we feel a little bad about accusing her of collaboration. But the camp director was unaccustomed to rejection. The guards overheard a muffled struggle, a scream, the tearing of cloth. As the rest of the camp slept, the camp director became Galina's grandfather.
Or maybe they had been sleeping together the whole time. Who are we to say?
Years passed. Stalin's death and denunciation led to the decommissioning of the prison. Camp administrators transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Ferrous Metallurgy Ministry without even changing offices. The same people pulled nickel from the ground. Our grandmothers married miners, smelter techs, even former prison guards. They stayed for profit and practicality: The Arctic nickel mines paid among the highest wages in the country, and its former prisoners had difficulty obtaining residency permits to go back home. Galina's grandmother was among them. She raised her daughter and taught schoolchildren the tenets of communism. The camp director was demoted and replaced with a party boss. On her deathbed in May 1968, she clutched the arm of the attendant nurse and whispered, "I see, I see, I see." She passed before she could tell the nurse precisely what she saw.
But hers is the story of our grandmothers. Galina's story is ours.
She was born in 1976. The obstetrician didn't care for children, and so when he didn't frown at the sight of her, all took it as a prognosis of future beauty. As Galina grew, we all acknowledged the prescience of the doctor's early appraisal. Galina was more her grandmother than either of her parents.
She was born to a miner and a seamstress for a local textile factory, and yes, our mothers did approve of them in the early years of the girl's childhood. They managed to remain unremarkable in all the proper ways. They worked long days, adhering to the second principal of the Moral Code of the Builder of Communism: conscientious labor for the good of society — he who does not work, neither shall he eat. At home they spoke loudly enough for our mothers to hear through the wall that they harbored no perverse secrets. But strangely, they didn't allow Galina to play with us as children. They declined invitations to birthday celebrations, left early from International Day of Solidarity of Youth festivities. It raised our mothers' suspicion. "They are haughty at best, subversive at worst," our mothers whispered as they scooped jam into their tea. This was the late seventies, early eighties, and though the purges had receded into memory, glasnost was still years away. Our city was small and whispers easily became verdict. Who has forgotten the story of Vera Andreyevna, who unintentionally denounced her own mother, and was heralded in newspapers from Minsk to Vladivostok? Galina's mother might have suffered a similar fate, had not the lung cancer taken her first.
We didn't understand why Galina had been kept from us until our third year of primary school. We left for lunch after reciting our multiplication tables — no difficult task, for we excelled at memorization and recitation. Galina tripped over a loose shoelace and lurched, her books sailing through the air as she tumbled under them. We'd never seen a shoelace cause such a commotion before.
"Not quite living up to your grandmother's reputation," our teacher said. We laughed with the spite of those without legacies to honor.
"What do you mean? " Galina asked. She didn't know. We couldn't believe it. We gushed, speaking over one another, telling her about the ballet ensemble, the evil camp director, the remarkable fate of Galina's grandmother. She shook her head with confusion, incredulity, and, eventually, pride.
At home that evening, she demanded ballet lessons. "Ballet?" her father asked, his voice a sore-throated rasp of nickel dust. He would die at the age of fifty-two, exceeding the life expectancy of a miner by three years. "You'll join Young Pioneers this year. You'll be busy with learning leadership and team-building skills."
But Galina was adamant. "I want to dance ballet like my grandmother."
Her father sighed and ran his hands through the scalding beam emitted from a reflector space heater. Over the years he had questioned why he and his wife had concealed the family celebrity, but the answer was simple: They were faithful communists, children of the labor camp, with a daughter who looked like her grandmother. Galina's father knew her best hope for prosperity would come from dulling all that made her exceptional until the plural voice accepted her as one of its own. No doubt he had heard Lenin's famous reaction to Beethoven's Sonata No. 23: It is wonderful, ethereal music. But I am unable to listen to it. It moves me to stroke the heads of my fellow beings for being able to produce such beautiful things in spite of the abominable hell they are living in. It is necessary to smash those heads, smash them without mercy.
But ever since his wife had passed, he had grown indulgent and rather fatalistic. "Of course, Galya," he said. The next day she told us all about it.
Gorbachev came to power the year Galina began ballet training, and brought with him glasnost, perestroika, and demokratizatsiya. Our mothers whispered a little louder, and, as we passed from early to late adolescence, we found our voices. We started softly and we were wise to be wary; the city party boss was every bit as cruel as the camp director had been, and like new pop songs, political reforms reached us long after they were first broadcast in Moscow. In the winter, when the sun disappeared beneath the three-month night, we gathered in parks and deserted lots, under the rusted metal limbs of White Forest, warmed ourselves in deserted apartment blocks and cafeterias where we passed around tattered samizdat pages of Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, danced to the Queen LPs someone's second cousin's violin instructor brought back from Europe, and wore black-market Levi's that always looked better than they actually fit. We traded old ryobra — rib records, bone music, skeleton songs — banned fifties and sixties rock and roll inscribed by phonograph onto exposed X-rays that could be played on gramophones at hushed volumes. Radiographs of broken ribs, dislocated shoulders, malignant tumors, compacted vertebrae had been cut into vague circles, the music etched into the X-ray surface, the center hole punctured with a cigarette ember, and it was glorious to know that these images of human pain could hide in their grooves a sound as pure and joyful as Brian Wilson's voice. Our parents called the music capitalist pollution, as if the cancerous masses on the X-rays had been caused by a song recorded on the other side of the world, rather than by the pollution that flowed from the smokestacks just outside our windows, free for us all.
In the summertime, the devastation of the earth permeated the clouds. Yellow fog enshrouded the city like a varnish aged upon the air. Sulfur dioxide rose from the Twelve Apostles, the dozen nickel smelters ringing a lake of industrial waste. Rain burned our skin. The pollution congealed into a dense ceil- ing blocking the starlight. The moon belonged to the past our grandmothers spoke of. We made the most of our summers: days without school, nights without darkness. First dates, first kisses. We were so awkward, morning pimples in the mirror, hair where we never wanted it, and we thought of the lung cancer X-ray that was the album art for Surfin' Safari, considered the ways a body betrays its soul, and wondered if growing up was its own kind of pathology. We fell in and out of love with fevered frequency. We constantly became people we would later regret having been.
On clear days we trudged through White Forest, a man-made woods of metal trees and plastic leaves constructed in the boon years of Brezhnev when the party boss's wife had grown nostalgic for the birches of her youth. By the time we trudged beneath them, however, the years had ravaged both the forest and the party boss's wife, and the plastic leaves above were as sagging and liver-spotted as her face. We went on. The mud was a mustard we plodded through. On the forest's far side we looked across the expanse of sulfurous waste stretching to the horizon. We shouted. We proclaimed. We didn't need to whisper out here. For a few short weeks in July, red wildflowers pushed through the oxidized waste and the whole earth simmered with apocalyptic beauty.
But the only color belowground was a silvery metallic luster. Our fathers blasted the ore in the most productive nickel mine in the world in twelve-hour shifts. Mine shafts ran a kilometer and a half into the ground below us, and at the bottom the air was so sticky that even in January they stripped to undershirts, and hours later when they came home they'd stumble toward the shower, shedding their overcoats, sweaters, shirts, trousers, and the nickel dust that had dried onto their chests, their backs, their legs, and for a few moments before they showered our fathers were indestructible, men of metal, men who gleamed.
Other metals were mined — gold, copper, palladium, platinum — but northern nickel was our lifeblood. The Twelve Apostles burned it from the ore in two-thousand-degree heat and the falling snow was tinged with color depending on what had been in the furnaces the previous day: the red of iron, the blue of cobalt, the eggy yellow of nickel. We measured economic prosperity by the spread of rashes on our exposed skin. Even those who had never lit a cigarette had a smoker's cough. But the mining combine took care of us: vacations at mineral spas, citywide festivals on International Workers' Day, and the highest municipal wages of any city in the six time zones. When our fathers fell ill, the combine provided hospital beds. When they died, the combine provided coffins.
Through it all, Galina disappointed our expectations faster than we could lower them. The ballet instructor's initial excitement at seeing her name on the class list turned to dismay. Despite inheriting her grandmother's beautiful figure, Galina danced with the subtlety of a spooked ostrich. Basic barre exercises upended her. During performances, she was, thank goodness, relegated to the most minor ensemble role. But we really shouldn't be so harsh: If she were anyone else's granddaughter, we wouldn't think twice about her dancing like the victim of an inner ear disorder. Besides, we're free from the burden of expectation — no one has ever predicted that we would distinguish ourselves in any way — therefore we can't understand what it's like to fail where one might seem destined to succeed. So stop prodding us. We really do want to be kind.
With our newfound spirit of generosity, let's talk about something Galina was good at: making herself the center of attention. She arrived to a party our first year of secondary school wearing an olive-green miniskirt stitched together from the ugliest of her mother's headscarves. We had never seen any- thing like it — this most demure of garments transformed into a scandal wrapped around her hips. The skirt ended mid-thigh, hardly larger than a washcloth, and goose bumps covered the rest of her legs. Boys stared with open-mouthed thanksgiving, then turned away, as if acknowledging Galina's presence was an unlawfully lewd act. No one knew what to say. There was no precedent for miniskirts in the Arctic. We whispered among ourselves that Galina had become a prostitute, but when we arrived home, we began stitching miniskirts of our own.
The miniskirt attracted the attentions of Kolya. If we could we would airbrush him from our story as thoroughly as the censors airbrushed Galina's grandmother from photographs she had once populated. You see, Kolya was a hundred meters of arrogance pressed into a two-meter frame, the kind of young man who makes you feel inadequate for not impressing him. He was forever leaning, slanting, sidling, his existence italicized down to his crooked hat. In another country, he might have grown up to be an investment banker, but here he grew up to be a murderer, the worst kind of murderer, the kind who murdered one of us.
Galina couldn't have foreseen this. None of us could. For his first date he invited Galina for a romantic stroll around Lake Mercury. Yes, that Lake Mercury. The man-made lake that holds toxic runoff from the city's smelting facilities. For a first date. No kidding. But this is too sad to think about. Forget Kolya, even if we haven't.
Though her scarf miniskirt scandalized the school, it didn't prevent Galina from dancing at the fifty-year anniversary of the mining combine. Kremlin officials arrived by prop plane to celebrate our party boss. Our most inept bureaucrats received medals and commendations. Gorbachev's men told us that we lived atop the globe so that the rest of the world could look up at us. Our fathers beamed as the general secretary himself thanked them by video recording. You not only mine the fuel of the Soviet Union, he proclaimed, you are the fuel of the Soviet Union. The final night of celebrations ended with an outdoor ballet performance in the city center. Dancers from the Bolshoi and Kirov flew in for the leading roles. Against all expectations, Galina was chosen for the backing ensemble. The Twelve Apostles had been turned off two weeks earlier, and the July sun pierced the remnant cloud cover, spotlighting Galina for us.
A wall fell in another continent and soon our Union of Soviet Socialist Republics dissolved. Oleg Voronov, a "new Russian" and future oligarch, replaced the party boss. For the first time in seventy years, our city opened and some of us left. One found work as a ticket collector on the Omsk-Novosibirsk rail line, eventually marrying an engineer and having three boys. One received a scholarship to study physics in Volgograd. One left for America to marry a piano tuner she'd met online. But most of us remained. The world spun the wrong way around. It was no time to stray from home.
Kolya — like most of the boys in our year who couldn't bribe their way into university — was called up for his mandatory military service just as the conflict in Chechnya was beginning. Before he left, he'd proposed to Galina in the grocery store vegetable aisle, which tells you all you need to know about his idea of romance. Also, she was pregnant. The army granted deferments to fathers who bore sole responsibility for one child, and to fathers of two or more children, so this gave Galina and Kolya a few options: They could marry immediately and then get divorced to work the sole responsibility angle, or they could get married and hope for twins. We urged Galina to do neither. She was only eighteen years old. She had the rest of her life to make rash, irrevocable decisions. Do the sensible thing. Take care of the pregnancy and the deadbeat boyfriend with a single trip to the doctor. But despite all our well-reasoned advice, she still loved Kolya. The television dramas we grew up on, stories of star-crossed lovers, stories of love overcoming all obstacles, well, they're all fairy tales, obviously, like the television news; but the obvious is only obvious when it happens to someone else. We've all ended up with men we'd pity others for marrying. After Kolya's deployment, Galina seemed diminished, strained, just less. Could we have misjudged the seriousness of their relationship? Galina had been as vivid as stained glass, but we hadn't imagined that Kolya might have been the sunlight saturating her.
We had walked her to the clinic and had walked her home afterward. We were proud of her. We were sorry for her. We were there for her.
Galina worked as a telephone operator for the nickel combine and took computer classes on Tuesday evenings. She was with us when we saw the first poster for the inaugural Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant plastered on the wooden bus stop. It called for women of youth, beauty, and talent for a nationally televised event. We looked to Galina. She looked to her waist.
Auditions were held two weeks later in the events hall of our old school. We climbed onstage one at a time, our makeup layered, our legs bare. The casting director circled us, patting our thighs, squeezing our hips, testing out the firmness like a babushka at the beet bucket. Most of us were dismissed after he made a single revolution. Not Galina. When the casting director saw her in her headscarf miniskirt he gave a relieved sigh. He circled her again and again, grazing the hem of the skirt without touching her skin. "What is your talent? " he asked. "Ballet," Galina replied. He nodded. "Bring your toe shoes to Novosibirsk."
Soon Galina was everywhere. Her name appeared in the newspaper for fifty-seven consecutive days. She was not only our representative in Novosibirsk, but also one of three contestants selected to advertise the Miss Siberia competition, and we encountered her face more frequently than the faces of our parents and boyfriends, we saw her face more often than we saw our own in the mirror; it was our flag.
Galina may have still loved Kolya, but it didn't keep her from climbing into the nickel-silver Mercedes every Friday night. "She's done well," our mothers said, and though we had never seen the two together in public, we agreed. At thirty- five, Oleg Voronov was young to be the fourteenth richest man in Russia. When the nickel combine was auctioned, he purchased a majority stake with funds cobbled together from foreign investors, crooked officials, and gangsters. The auction lasted all of four and a half seconds. He paid $250,100,000, just one hundred thousand dollars over the opening bid. How could a state industry that yielded several billion dollars annually be bought for two hundred and fifty million? Its ownership had been converted to stock and divided among the combine employees. The stock, however, could only be sold or traded at full value in Moscow, in person. Our fathers had no choice but to sell their shares at kiosks on Leninsky Prospekt manned by Voronov's underlings who bought back the shares at a fraction of their stock price. It was enough to cover the hospital visits for chronic respiratory ailments. Soon after we heard the rumors of Voronov's silver Mercedes waiting outside Galina's apartment block, Miss Siberia advertisements began appearing in the windows of the share-buying kiosks.
Given that we were standing in the background of Galina's life, the spotlights fell on us as well. A newly opened salon gave us free manicures, hoping the presence of Galina's former classmates would give it an aura of success and sophistication. Ex-boyfriends called, apologizing. Our mothers began eavesdropping on us. We hope we don't sound petty saying we relished it while it lasted.
No one worked the evening of the beauty pageant. We huddled around television sets to watch Galina take the stage with young women from Siberian towns better known for closed military sites and uranium mines than for beauty. It was mid-September and frost filled the outer pane. Sugary cham- pagne chilled in the refrigerator, vodka warmed in our glasses, and we drank and shushed each other as the orchestra began "The Patriot's Song." We hummed along, but didn't sing. Our country was three years old and the lyrics to the national anthem weren't yet composed. The host strode across the stage and welcomed the audience to the first annual Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant. His rosy-cheeked optimism suggested that he hadn't spent much time in Siberia. He introduced each contestant, but we saw only Galina.
The show broke for commercials and when it returned the contestants wore high heels and swimsuits; the minority among us who saw the event as glorified smut pointed out that only in pornographic films are swimwear and stilettos paired together. We hissed at the other contestants, willing them to trip, break a heel, spontaneously combust, wishing them nervous breakdowns, emotional collapse, dismemberment, decapitations, Old Testament torments, and this eruption of barely submerged cruelty felt appropriate, even proper because we shared it together. When the swimsuit contestants crossed the stage without breaking a heel or tripping, we decided they must have had much practice as pornographic actresses. Only on Galina was the outfit as graceful as an evening gown.
In the interview section, we derided the rehearsed eloquence of the other contestants and quieted when Galina approached the microphone. The host introduced her and consulted a set of green index cards with a long downward stare that drew out the suspense of the moment and made him appear illiterate. "What does the Miss Siberia Beauty Pageant mean to you?" he finally asked.
With a demure smile Galina turned to the nearest camera. "It means a great deal to represent my hometown on a national stage. I am pleased this pageant is bringing attention to the rich cultural heritage of Siberia. For centuries European Russia has used Siberia as a prison for its criminals and exiles. But we are not criminals and we are not prisoners. We are the citizens of a new country and soon the world will recognize that Siberians not only mine the fuel of the Russian Federation, we are the fuel of the Russian Federation."
The host flashed one of those peculiar frowns that express both approval and surprise. "And what will you do if you are chosen as Miss Siberia?" he asked.
"I will become famous, of course," Galina said and winked at the camera. For the two-second pause before the audience cheered and the backing band trumpeted, Galina didn't need a tiara because she had already crowned herself with that wink.
During the talent portion a withered cornstalk from Vladivostok played Rachmaninoff on a balalaika. Fake nails, breasts, eyelashes, and hair extensions alchemized into the real woman from Barnaul who donned a blindfold and solved a Rubik's Cube. Who were these bombshell savants? The judges were as surprised as we were. When it was announced that Galina would dance Odette's solo from Swan Lake, we fell silent. What was she trying to prove by selecting the solo from the first ballet her grandmother had performed on the canteen stage sixty years earlier? Why would Galina, our icon of the new Russia, dance from the USSR's most widely performed ballet? Photoflashes detonated. White tulle swathed her waist. Her head rested between the parentheses of her raised arms, and rising to her toes, noosed in spotlight, she began.
The cellos trilled. Galina stood en pointe, her waist ringed in a white tutu. She lifted her left leg and traced a parabola in the air with her slipper. Her foot landed just as the violins came in, and oh, how we wished our grandmothers had been alive to witness it. For the two and a half minutes she danced, all the city was silent. Seventeen hundred kilometers from the auditorium and we'd never felt closer to our friend. The attendees from Moscow, Petersburg, and Volgograd only saw the woman flapping her arms onstage, but we saw her in her first ballet auditions when the instructor had given a spirit-sapping sigh. We saw her jaw slacken when we told her stories about her grandmother. We saw her fly through the air when she tripped on her shoelace in third-year arithmetic. But we couldn't blame any shoelace for the fall Galina took in the final fifteen seconds of her routine. It could only be attributed to a series of formidable grand jetés, the polished stage floor, excessive ambition, and insufficient talent. She leapt from the ball of her right foot but landed on the side of her left. The microphones didn't pick up the fracturing of her medial malleolus above the orchestral din. We only heard the host's exclamation, a short scream from Galina as she slammed to the floor, and the stubborn melody of a viola player who continued playing to the end of the page, long after his colleagues fell silent. When Galina pushed herself upright, her face was red. Her tutu spread around her on the stage, filling every centimeter of spotlight, and she looked at the camera with a beseeching whimper of defeat so familiar, so intimate we could feel it in our own throats.
Galina received medical treatment while the other contestants demonstrated their talent through song, acrobatics, and party tricks. We slouched, too bereft to do Galina the honor of ridiculing her rivals. She was pushed onstage in a wheel-chair for the crowning ceremony, her ankle packed in ice. We couldn't not watch her not win. We'd come too far. The night had given us something to talk about for years. Already we'd begun criticizing her poor preparation, her arrogance, her hubris for not consulting us when we could've warned her that she was destined to fail. The host received an envelope from the judging panel and opened it onstage. He frowned. It wasn't one of his suspenseful pauses; he was reading and rereading the name in genuine disbelief. Though we would later learn that the oligarch had been one of the chief financiers of the contest, and that the winner's name had been written on the stationery and sealed in the envelope three days before the pageant began, it wouldn't dilute the memory of the joy that rushed through us when the host smirked at the camera and said, "It gives me great pleasure to announce that the Miss Siberia tiara goes to none other than Galina Ivanova." We clapped and we shrieked. We stomped on the floorboards and danced in the halls. We'd known she could do it. We'd never had a moment of doubt. Photoflashes sparkled back from Galina's wet eyes. She couldn't climb to the podium so stagehands lifted her and the host set a golden tiara on her head. Within a month the gold leaf would chip to reveal alloyed nickel underneath.
Excerpt reprinted from the book The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Copyright 2015 by Anthony Marra. Published in the United States by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.