“A Circle of Friends,” a story in the collection In Plain Russian: Stories, is set in the Kremlin on the night of June 21, 1941, a few hours before Germany invaded Russia. Joseph Stalin has cultivated an image as a tireless servant of his people, but actually his silhouette before a lighted office window is a foam-rubber dummy. His moustache and pipe are props intended to make him look avuncular. Stalin actually lives in a doorless, windowless room reached by crawling through a safe with a door at both ends. His need for the companionship of a woman is satisfied by periodic sexual encounters with a cleaning lady whose identity is not known and does not matter.
Entertaining a belief in the emotional health of gathering with a few close friends, Comrade Koba receives a group who, like Koba himself, are easily identified with officials of the Soviet Union in the early 1940’s. For example, Koba’s Ukrainian peasant friend is someone called Nikola Borshchev, that is, Nikita Khrushchev. The circle of friends undertakes to entertain Comrade Koba while controlling their fear that they will somehow displease him, Koba’s displeasure being irrational, unpredictable, and very dangerous.
Early in the evening, strain results from the absence of Comrade Zhbanov, whose wife is dying in a hospital. When Koba has mastered his anger, he turns to a crossword puzzle. Unable to come up with the name of a huge prehistoric animal, Koba telephones an...
(The entire section is 474 words.)