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Dr. Mantas Adomėnas (b. 1972) is a Classical scholar, translator, essayist, and, recently, a writer. Mantas Adomėnas was educated as a Classicist at Vilnius University. He wrote his doctorate on Plato and the Presocratic philosophers at Cambridge University, where he was also a Fellow at Gonville & Caius College. For three consecutive terms (2008-2020) he served as a Member of Parliament at the Lithuanian Seimas where he was one of the architects of the Lithuanian higher education reform, author of relations with diaspora strategy, as well as a consistent supporter of fight for democracy and human rights in Russia, Belarus, China, and Hong Kong. In 2021-2023 he served as Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs of Lithuania. He currently teaches Classics at Vilnius University and is Senior Research Fellow / Chief Strategic Officer at the Baltic Institute of Advanced Technology.

Mantas Adomėnas writes and publishes essays and scholarly articles on topics ranging from Classics and architecture to political philosophy and current affairs. His first novel, “Moneta & labirintas” (The Coin and the Labyrinth), an intellectual spy thriller, was published in 2023. He served as a Private in the Lithuanian Army Volunteer Corps in 2015-2018. He has been decorated with the Presidential Order of Excellence of Georgia (2013). His hobbies are travel, horse-riding, croquet, and Baroque.

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reflections on belonging

a palmers chronicle right bw

Graphic Novels

Digital labyrinth carved on a pillar of the portico of Lucca Cathedral, Tuscany, Italy.

 

 

From the novel The Coin and the Labyrinth

Translated by Jeremy Hill

 

 

2.      The First Chapter

 

Nizhnedvinsk, Northern Russia, 2018

He woke up not from the hum, crash and thunder of the construction crane outside the window, nor from the groans and curses of the hungover neighbour from behind the thin wall. For a few seconds, he couldn’t work out what had woken him, or where he was, or how he’d got there, or even who he was. The walls painted chest-high with light green paint, the plastered ceiling stained with traces of damp, the rusty radiator pipe protruding from the wall, and the creaking of the metal bed, brought back memories of his childhood travels – nights spent in inhospitable hotels in provincial towns, long walks from the station through unfamiliar streets, shadowy menacing stares of passers-by, endless, often incomprehensible negotiations between parents and cashiers, hotel administrators and train managers, for a ticket, a room, or a seat on a train. No one was willing to concede anything. At every turn you faced obstacles that seemed insurmountable – every step opened up a new Zenonian paradox. It was always a surprise when, after lengthy wrangling and dispute, after jostling in the queue, you finally managed to achieve something: to buy the train ticket or book the hotel room. He had completely forgotten that world. Now he was struck by the full force of it – he felt as if he was trying vainly to run away in a nightmarish dream, or was engulfed in a fantasy from a Kafka novel.

But there was something more lingering in the air than the nightmare of childhood memories – there was a barely discernible anxiety, a feeling hovering at the margins of perception, that something was not as it should be. He sat up, put his feet down on the rough, not very clean linoleum floor and, when the bed creaked, he realised what had woken him up: the silence reigning in the corridor. His room was at one end of it, close to the landing, where a couple of intermittent lifts opened out. He remembered the sounds of the previous night: footsteps, raised voices of drunken people, an unexpectedly loud woman’s laugh, and steps again – the heavy, masculine, slightly uneven footsteps of a person not quite sober, then the clatter of high heels, back and forth, – to the right, towards the stairs, and to the left, into the long gloomy tunnel of the corridor, marked at equal intervals by greyish-blue doors. Before he fell asleep, he was thinking how intense and lively the night life seemed in this hotel – when he checked in, everything appeared dead. But now the footsteps had stopped. Even the whirl of doors slamming from the neighbouring room had died away. If it wasn’t for the humming of the crane, you might have called it a ringing silence. And he realised exactly what that meant: they had recognised him, they had tracked him down. That, of course, was to be expected.

Anyone who ventures into the depths of Russia cannot expect to stay unnoticed for long. No matter how hard you try to adapt and fit in, sooner or later foreigners give themselves away by their dress or their speech, and ultimately by their manners, by smiling at a passer-by or by thanking someone over-politely in a shop. He remembered how, many years earlier in St. Petersburg, he tried to buy tickets for the Hermitage – for himself and his hosts’ daughter, a thick-haired beautiful Jewish girl called Lena, who was taking him around the city. Having mentally rehearsed his lines in order to hide his Baltic accent – he couldn’t afford the rate for foreigners – he uttered what he thought were impeccable phrases. The cashier gave him a languid look and lethargically handed him the tickets, - but they were barely round the corner when he got a scolding from Lena: ‘They can see straightaway you’re not a local! We never say ‘please’. Don’t forget!’ All the more so in a deserted, dying provincial town, where everyone watches and knows everything. It was only a matter of time before he’d be noticed and reported to the authorities. Besides, he didn’t even try to hide too much, just enough to avoid being caught by a bullying policeman or a skinhead. He wasn’t one of those trained to have a perfect cover, to be re-embodied as a local, to assume another person’s carefully constructed identity. He was not a real secret agent.

Having pened the bathroom door, so he could hear if anyone tried to lock the door from outside, he unhurriedly showered under an anaemic jet of water in the yellowed bath.

He shaved quickly and, in the grey plastic-framed mirror above the sink, as he did every morning, he critically assessed the image that appeared before his eyes: the flabby but still regular shape of the face, replicating the oval outline of the mirror, the muddy sand-coloured hair, thick, not yet grey, roughly cut, separated by a slightly untidy parting – it took a lot of effort and money to make it look so cheap – the resolute, cold, large eyes, the strong chin. His features looked fairly Slavic, but a trained eye could see the difference at once, and it wouldn’t be easy to confuse or dissimulate: the nose was straighter, the cheekbones not so prominent, the whole impression of the face was softer, the slant of the blue eyes slightly different. The name which had grown up with these facial features was also not Russian: Tomas.

He wore tattered clothes, shabby, with vestigial damp: grey suit trousers, which the fateful goddesses of worn clothes had at some point separated from their jacket, a half-tailored striped shirt, a black leather jacket which had also seen better days, and thick-soled, shapeless shoes. The outfit had been carefully put together back in Vilnius. Now that bags of second-hand clothes from affluent countries were distributed throughout the world, inculcating the same worn-out fashions and dress standards everywhere, finding a suit for a secret mission to Russia had become much easier. ‘Another form of globalisation’, he thought. At least we don’t have to scratch around for Russian-made clothes, or sew hard-to-come-by labels on the items, in the hope that no one will spot a fake – a headache in the Cold war era. Compared to clothing and household goods, it was easy to obtain a valid Russian Federation passport with the right photo – even when he wasn’t in the Office’s employ. Now, all you had to do was fill in an application ten working days in advance.

He quietly got dressed, then quickly opened the door onto the corridor and looked around. There was the sound of a door slamming somewhere, and footsteps clumping off. Two young men were smoking on the elevator landing, almost pointedly ignoring him. That was to be expected. Another one would be waiting downstairs in the hotel lobby, probably reading a newspaper, and another one – a woman, perhaps? – outside. Somewhere nearby, on opposite sides of the street, two teams would be loitering in their cars – in case he took a taxi, which was unlikely in such a town. He locked the door – a meaningless gesture, they would still search his things as soon as he left, and find nothing, no elusive incriminating detail. Except, of course, his very presence here in this town incriminated him. But there would be nothing that might reveal the purpose of his trip – no notes, no letters, no photos, no media. It’s impossible to betray what you don’t know yourself. And Tomas didn’t know the point of his journey.

***

He had arrived in Nizhnedvinsk from St. Petersburg when it was already evening, as dusk was falling, on a suburban train, changing twice on the way. He made sure no one was following. He went straight to the hotel; the lobby smelt of stale cigarette smoke – from whole generations of Kosmos and Kazbek, Pamir and Prima. At the reception desk, he took the key from a nonchalant hotel manager, who immediately returned to the small TV set on the corner of the desk, broadcasting some local talk show on half-volume. He put his meagre belongings away and went outside. Turning to the right, he found a phone booth two blocks away, the location of which he’d noted in advance. He dialled a Moscow number, uttered a terse phrase and, hanging up the receiver, walked briskly back to the hotel via a roundabout route. He didn’t feel like walking in this city for long after dark. Although he wasn’t afraid of a gang of drunken teenagers or knife-wielding thugs – a common threat in such Russian provincial towns - he didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention to himself.

As he made his way back along the dark streets and broken pavements, he finally saw what he hoped to see – a grocery store on the ground floor of an apartment block, created by knocking together two adjacent flats. He went inside, looked over the humdrum products and pointing with his finger, indicated to the middle-aged saleswoman the items he wanted: bread, Greek yoghurt, sausages, cheese, green tea. He paid with a few banknotes and pocketed the change.

Back in the hotel, he emptied his trouser pockets on the table and poured out the coins. He got a thicker, heavier ten-rouble coin in change at the store. He remembered the feeling when he first picked up a pound coin – small, thick, weighty, with archaic formulas on the edge. He observed how the coins were decorated with different coats of arms: the English coat-of-arms, the Scottish thistle, the Welsh – what was Welsh? Maybe leopards? He established that the distinct coins with the different coats of arms were a legacy of the British Empire, over whose territory the sun never set. Just like in the Roman Empire, a variety of coins circulated side by side at the same time.

He looked at the ten-rouble coin, and examined it carefully, as if hoping to read something in it. For some reason, he remembered Borges’ short story about Zahir, a mystical object: once you see it, you can’t forget it, and eventually it obsessively captures all your thoughts. Zahir’s reincarnation was a coin that Borges’ character received as change in the suburbs of Buenos Aires. He smiled – one could hardly imagine a less memorable object than a ten-rouble coin. He took it, thinking idly to himself that even such an insignificant artefact was a fairly accurate expression of the state that had created it, its ideology or mentality – whatever you call it.

The reverse side was reminiscent of the 1990s – a supposedly classical acanthus envelopping a centred number of supposedly modern design surrounded by vertical strokes. Inside the zero sign were secret spatial markings that become visible when the coin was tilted at an angle: this was very advanced for the time, almost cutting edge. The obverse was, of course, more important. The crownless double-headed eagle of the last decade – resembling a plump hen – had been replaced two years previously by a new eagle with the trappings of monarchy: three crowns, a sceptre and a globe, although formally Russia was a republic. The coin was surprisingly heavy for money of this value. And, like Russia, it was contradictory: on the reverse it depicted a modern state, on the obverse a historical tradition that no longer existed. A double-headed eagle attesting a claim to the succession of the Third Rome. The three crowns were not an attempt to return nostalgically to Romanov Russia – no, it was an assertion of Moscow’s status as the Third – and last – Rome. That was where it really all began.

Absorbed in these thoughts, Tomas smeared yoghurt on the bread he’d bought, laid on pieces of spicy sausage like tiles and had his dinner, washed down with green tea. After dinner, he carefully locked the room, put a millimetre-sized piece of toilet paper in the keyhole – the paper would be displaced if you tried to turn the lock, and it was hard for the uninitiated to see it – and went down to reception. He needed to find out where the man whose footsteps he was following had stayed in Nizhnedvinsk a year ago. Perhaps this would help to reconstruct the man’s route and the last days of his life.

He went downstairs in the lift and caught the eye of the receptionist, a grizzled middle-aged man in a dark brown suit and cherry-red tie over a shirt of the same colour. The tie stuck out above a bulging beer belly: his prominent roundness launched the broad end of the stiff synthetic tie into space, as if it represented the trajectory of a rocket lifting off from the globe. Looking into the receptionist’s puckered, sly-eyed face, Tomas unceremoniously explained what he wanted and immediately reinforced his request with a fifty-dollar bill, which he placed on the counter and pressed with his thumb.

The note quickly moved to the hotel clerk’s inside pocket. The man sat Tomas down at a desk in a cramped office, accessed by a door behind reception, and piled the registration books on it: thick, oblong, bound in brown wrinkled leather – old-fashioned items – and returned to his post. Tomas was happy – it seemed that the matter would be resolved quickly and easily.

He rejoiced too soon. He started flipping through the books and immediately discovered there were no entries at all for April 2017. One volume ended at the end of March and the other began on 1 May, and on that day, judging by the records, an unusually large number of people had checked in. At first, Tomas didn’t believe his eyes, and combed the books from cover to cover, flipping through the pages in the cramped, stuffy room. He couldn’t find the missing month.

Apart from that fact, both volumes looked authentic, they could hardly have been hastily falsified: the pages were numbered, filled in with different handwriting, there were seemingly different signatures, different pens, faded pages, tears, random stains... The whole series of attributes and consequences of natural life that you could and should expect.

Turning the first volume over, he began to examine the spine, and pressing on the page, he carefully examined the binding. The pages were uncut and untorn, but the last sheet was incomplete. Someone had unpicked the binding, removed the April pages and painstakingly re-bound the book in the same leather. He compared the number of pages – yes, the second volume had seven more pages. This meant the pages were removed before the beginning of May, because the May entries had already begun in the new volume.

     -   Very strange, - the hotel clerk expressed surprise when Tomas pointed out the deficiency to him, but he couldn’t get anything more out of him. The only reply was an indifferent – I don’t know anything; the offer of an extra fifty dollars didn’t help either: - Don’t offer it, it’s not necessary, I can’t tell you anything else anyway.

     -   Is the absence of proof, proof of absence – or concealment? – Tomas asked himself ironically. And does the man’s не могу – ‘I cannot’ – mean I cannot, or I may not?

Only much later would Tomas reflect on what he hadn’t immediately appreciated: such concealment was absurd, it showed more than it concealed. After all, it would have been possible to falsify the page he needed, simply without the registration record of the person sought – unless...

Unless the people who tampered with it didn’t know under what name and on what date the person had checked into the hotel – and assumed that he would have left a message in his check-in record for those who would follow in his footsteps.

But Tomas didn’t think of it then – he wasn’t thinking straight, he was tired after his trip – and shrugged his shoulders and went to bed, after taking all the precautions he could: he locked the door of the room as securely as possible, he stuck a chair under the handle, and placed a tin rubbish bin on the chair – any attempt to open it would cause a huge noise. He woke up from the awkward silence only when it was completely light.

Now, in the morning brightness, the town didn’t seem to have changed. The same monotony of shabby architecture of a dormitory district, the same amorphous space of a town without a centre, extending in all directions in an equally senseless way. There were more passers-by – they were moving as if they were cowering, lost in their own thoughts and affairs, hurrying, but seemingly without a purpose. The concrete sky matched the greyness of apartment blocks whose colours had faded – or maybe they never had any. Even the vegetation – leafless birch trees, and bushes scattered unevenly between the pavement and the street – didn’t add any life, but rather only accentuated the sense of disorder.

He glanced across the street – there weren’t many people, so it wouldn’t be hard to spot anyone tailing him – and turned left with a businesslike stride, dodging potholes in the pavement slabs and stagnant puddles with one or two patches of ice.

First, he had to get rid of those tracking him. Tomas knew what the textbooks and experienced teachers said in such cases: don’t let on that you’ve noticed you’re being followed, and don’t try to shake off the trackers – unless you’re at risk of falling into the clutches of an adversary with compromising documents or evidence. But now he simply had no choice. His very presence here was evidence.

He walked down one of the central streets, looking round, until his eyes, closely focused on the changing landscape of people, buildings and traffic, spotted an opportunity. Now he could see clearly who was following him. A man in his 40s and a woman of a similar age, acting as a married couple out shopping: the man was holding a plastic bag with their purchases. From time to time, they stopped at shop windows and pointed out something to each other, as if they were chatting – but they were too wooden, too synchronised, with movements that resembled parade ground exercises. And there was a young man in jeans and a leather jacket on the other side of the street, walking in parallel, occasionally forging ahead, keeping an eye out in case Tomas thought to make an unexpected turn into a side street. The tracking was unprofessional, textbook. Tomas already knew how he would get rid of them – he just needed the right opportunity.

Finally, after walking ten minutes down a long monotonous street, he saw what he was looking for – two identical shops in a typical Soviet-era building, separated from the street by a wide stretch of trampled land – the architects had planned to put a flower-bed here. One shop sold food, the other, on the right, curtains. Both in a long building that stretched along the street, the ground floor of which was occupied by offices, shops, dilapidated, musty premises, and the other floors by small apartments, old balconies with rusty railings piled high with household junk, and taut lines which were used in summer to hang laundry. A Khrushchyovka.[1] The entrances to the courtyard, which ran along the other side of the building, were a few hundred metres away – that was the critical thing.

Two shops side by side, like mirror reflections of each other. After a moment’s consideration, Tomas turned left, towards a grocery store: at this time of day, goods would be delivered through the back entrance, which meant there was a better chance that the key would be left in the door to the yard. The shop was small, the trackers wouldn’t dare to follow him within, and the windows were covered with adverts affixed from inside – it was impossible to see from the street what was going on within.

Tomas entered slowly, nodding silently to the shop assistant, a fifty-year-old lady with red chestnut hair, who, without taking much interest in him, continued to flip through a horoscope magazine with colourful covers. He stopped at the drinks shelf, as if pondering what to choose, waited, and looked around the premises. As he had expected, the agents following him didn’t enter the shop, they were probably waiting outside, perhaps trying to peer through the cracks in the advertisement posters.

He couldn’t stay choosing for very long, pretending to read the descriptions of the flattened brandy bottles. Those waiting outside would soon wonder where he’d got to. Fortunately, the door of the shop soon opened, and in walked a pensioner with a lively face and bushy black eyebrows contrasting with his completely grey hair. He had no sooner entered when he shouted cheerfully to the shop assistant, who beamed and put away the horoscopes.

     -   Great – there will be some conversation, - Tomas thought, and went to the counter to pay for a quart of brandy. While she was still handing him his change, the shop assistant turned away and started talking to the old man. Taking advantage of her distraction, Tomas made an unhurried but confident turn into the passageway leading to the warehouse and the service quarters. In the door to the courtyard, as he had guessed, a key was inserted from the inside. Turning it quietly, Tomas slipped out, noiselessly closed the door behind him, and looked around.

The yard was empty. The agents hadn’t thought to go around the other side of the building. When, in a few minutes or so, the trackers realised he’d been spending a suspicious amount of time in the shop and entered to check, he would already be far away. A quick step, but not a run – why draw attention to yourself unnecessarily? – Tomas headed further in between the apartment blocks. After a while, he came out onto another street, perpendicular to the first, he crossed that one too, and passing through the courtyards, reached a further parallel street. Finding there a second-hand clothes shop, he bought a black half-length coat – it would change his silhouette, he would be more difficult to recognise. He changed his clothes on the spot in the yard of the apartment block, left his jacket folded by the rubbish bin, and put the recently purchased brandy quart on top.

     -   Some homeless person will be happy, – he thought. – Or not necessarily homeless. In this country it’s not just homeless people and beggars who rummage for goodies in rubbish bins.

He walked out into the main street, and looked which way to turn – left or right? He felt like the detective in the Chesterton story, puzzling over where to go and where to start, because he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. So, just like the detective, he simply walked down the endless street, hoping that his gait, his posture, his gestures wouldn’t betray his inner uncertainty. He waited for something to catch his eye, for an unexpected building, signboard or face to touch the edge of his consciousness and give direction to his thoughts and steps.

It was hard to believe that this whole odyssey of searching, discovery and hard-earned insights had led him here, to an amorphous, aimless city among the northern plains and marshes. He didn’t come here of his own free will – would anyone come here of their own free will? He was following someone’s steps – completely cold, year-old footprints. He still couldn’t forgive himself for the fact that, a year ago, when it happened, he had left, disappearing to the other end of the continent, without a trace and out of contact. As if by staying behind he could have made a difference.

***

Vilnius, 2017

After returning from a week-long tour of Kandahar province – investigating a network smuggling heroin, people, and weapons from that Afghan region through Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania into Europe – he finally washed off the sand, caked dust and stench of military camps at a hotel in Kabul. Sipping an iced Coca Cola in a cool air-conditioned room, he opened his special inbox and saw a single message, which had been waiting for him for several days now: a seemingly innocent message about a delayed transaction and a request personally to specify the details of a commercial product. A series of code phrases sent a chill down his spine, and squeezed something inside him like a pair of pliers – at first, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t erred in deciphering it: - Leon is dead. Confirm receipt. Return to the Centre immediately.

No, he couldn’t have made a mistake. With shaking hands, he acknowledged the message, asked for confirmation of the information – and, without even waiting for it, booked a ticket online. Twenty hours later, he landed in freezing Vilnius. It was already evening, but he drove straight from the airport to the Office.

Leon was Lev to his friends, and nicknamed Leo by his zodiac sign. A nickname conceived by younger colleagues at a birthday party as a tease. They knew he hated astrology, so they deliberately wrote a horoscope for his birthday in the style of a women’s magazine. (Thank God I’m not Virgo, - he muttered as he listened to the horoscope being read out.) It was Leon’s body that had been pulled from a river on the outskirts of Nizhnedvinsk.

A couple watching the ice floes from a bridge saw something that didn’t look like ice by the bank and immediately called the police. The police team took an hour and a half to arrive. Five hours later, while examining the body, Nikolai Poliakov, a criminal police investigator, found a foreign diplomatic passport and realised he wouldn’t get home for dinner.

    -   Oh shit! – he cursed under his breath, and then addressing heaven knows who, complained: - It seemed like such a simple case – an unidentified drunkard, probably without a permanent residence. But now, we can expect the attention of the authorities and all sorts of trouble.

The morgue doctor, a middle-aged pathologist and anatomist, looked on steadfastly with indifference – he wasn’t bothered. The investigator first phoned his wife to tell her he wouldn’t be back, then his chief. The clumsy bureaucratic machine slowly cranked up. Somewhere along the way, quite quickly, the local FSB unit was informed, but its representative showed little interest. He merely listened to the information and advised the head of the territorial CID who called him to contact the embassy of the foreign country concerned.

     -   Even this is strange – they usually stick their noses in, whether they need to or not, - the chief expressed surprise.

But he didn’t think any more about it. He told his secretary to find the number of the Lithuanian Embassy – the investigator didn’t know how to use the internet, even though he promised every time he would start to learn and read emails himself. The Embassy was no longer open, but the duty security guard took the call, listened carefully to the information, wrote down the number, and called the Ambassador.

His Excellency was at a reception, which continued until well after midnight; he had, as was his custom, left his mobile with the driver. When he arrived back at the car on unsteady legs, he stared with dismay at the missed call message flashing on his phone. The security guard hadn’t given any information over the phone – that was the instruction – but only said he had important news and politely asked if the Ambassador could come to the Embassy. After some hesitation, the Ambassador ordered the driver to take him to the Arbat district, where the three-storeyed, unlit mission building loomed in a secluded alley near Novy Arbat.[2] The news that the owner of a diplomatic passport had died was unpleasant, but the name of the deceased meant nothing to him. There was no answer from the telephone number of the Nizhnedvinsk CID which the security officer had written down.

     -   We’ll have to leave the matter until the morning. I’ve driven here for nothing,’ - the Ambassador grumbled and left for his residence, now somewhat more sober.

As the front door banged closed, the Ambassador’s wife woke up, looked at her watch and sighed and, when the Ambassador curled up quietly next to her, trying not to wake her, she pretended to be fast asleep. She knew exactly when the reception was due to end. – he’s been with that redhead again,’ - she thought resentfully, this time without any justification. Next morning the news of Leon’s death reached Vilnius.

***

Tomas had meticulously read through all the case files – more than once – to see if some inadvertently dropped phrase would reveal something more, something that none of the people who had read the file had spotted before. And there were many of them, a whole crowd.

     -   Is there any footprint that the herd hasn’t trampled over? – he thought, when he first opened a thick folder with stiff black covers and reinforced metal corners. In a window in the middle was the file number – the first and most important volume in an increasingly full shelf of identical black folders.

The news of Leon’s death swept through springtime Vilnius like a whirlwind; reports of the tragedy, condolences and obituaries were replaced by reflections, speculations, and finally conspiracy theories. After all, the dead man was not just any civil servant or secret service officer, but an intellectual, a fairly public and somewhat controversial personality. The death brought to the surface a whole swarm of debris from life, people from different parts of Leon’s past – former students and pupils, comrades from the dissident days, eccentric, shadowy figures. Memories poured in, of greater or lesser banality – almost none of them, in Tomas’s eyes, capturing what was real, distinctive and unique in that person; and, of course, inferences about what had led one of the pillars of the Lithuanian intelligence service to a backwater of Northern Russia. A separate genre consisted of ‘last words’, as Tomas called them, - Leon’s various utterances, which one or other interlocutor had heard (or claimed to have heard) just before his last journey, and in which they were now trying to discern the mystery of his fate.

As soon as he got back, Tomas bought all the newspapers at the airport kiosk, sat in the back seat of the waiting BMW, and started reading. It was the second week after Leon’s death and the news was still on the front pages. Reports of an unfortunate accident – Senior Lithuanian civil servant... security officer... died in Northern Russia in an accident... when the ice broke... death of the official in icy waters – had already been replaced by hints that not everything in the story was clear and transparent; the headlines referred to a ‘baffling’, ‘unexplained’ death in ‘mysterious circumstances’; ‘unfortunate accident’ appeared for the first time accompanied by a question mark. A few days later, the question marks were replaced by exclamation marks and accusations.

Tomas later saw clippings of these articles stapled in a file. He also flipped through an analytical note in which his colleague from the Office analysed the information dissemination scenarios. A diagram attached to the note illustrated the path of the spread of information, the possible sources, the interpolations, the path of the real or imaginary details of the case from the prosecutor’s office to blogs and Facebook, from there to media portals, and from there to newspapers; finally, it all turned into a never-ending stream of words on TV and radio programmes.

     -   Just like the lines of transmission of some manuscript of St. Augustine, - Tomas thought, and immediately noted this spontaneous outburst of the medievalist in himself: - It can’t be helped, an occupational illness.

While the scandal was unfolding in the Lithuanian press, like the stages of a nuclear explosion filmed in slow motion – first, a shocking flash, then an impact, then a rapidly expanding mushroom, finally turning into a cloud of radioactive sediment – another line of transmission, another genealogy of public memory, was forming in Tomas’s head. He saw how first one, then several other hacks, suddenly burst into pious sadness and posthumous eulogies – those who only a few weeks before had been slinging mud at Leon, attributing to him god-knows-what heinous sins, making insinuations in hushed tones, such that, if Leon had started to defend himself from insinuated accusations, he would have only sunk deeper into the quagmire of rumours. Tomas recalled words he had once read, words that had stuck in his mind so much that he’d written them down in a notebook, where he collected quotes, thoughts that popped into his head, and titles of books he wanted to read – anything that was not related to work. When he flipped through it, he found the words written in dark green ink: - The media seem to soperate some sort of insect intelligence. They all get the same delusion at the same time. Then they swarm out of the hive and sting someone to death. I hope it’s not going to be you this time.

Several colleagues, whom he’d previously considered to be close, trusted associates, suddenly became worried that the scandal would damage the reputation of their departments, and began to use what leverage they had to try to divert media attention away from their patches. A silent fury was also induced by those who were until recently indifferent or even hostile to Leon, but now declared themselves his closest friends, virtually confidants, and took it upon themselves to disseminate what was tantamount to his ‘secret testament’ – Leon’s supposedly orally communicated insights into the work of the Office, his warnings about this or that policy, gloomy and accurate predictions of Leon’s own impending doom. Vaticinium ex eventu[3] - the medievalist in him sarcastically commented. It didn’t make things any easier.

Anger was gradually replaced by a cold, crushing despair, as the voices in the public sphere, after reflecting on the possibly recognisable pattern of the FSB’s crimes, rushed like a shoal of piranhas to find another, more easily accessible culprit. The file was shelved with the verdict of ‘accident’, while the country’s largest daily newspaper – which, according to the adverts, ‘has room for all your thoughts’ – relying on an unnamed source in the prosecutor’s office, added ‘after drinking’. That version didn’t take long to spread, although the test showed 0.17 per mille. By this stage, the truth wasn’t important to anyone.

Most of all, everyone was concerned with who was to blame for Leon going there in the first place. Why did a man hated by the FSB, who hadn’t set foot in Russia for a decade (‘or at least not in his own name’, the authors of the article were elliptically corrected by an Office colleague), find himself in a desolate Russian province, alone, without an escort, and without diplomatic cover? Or was he sent there deliberately, knowing that they would deal with him? Maybe he was betrayed to Russian security agencies with the collusion of the Office’s administrative elite, for whom Leon rarely showed respect and didn’t spare harsh words or criticism? Maybe the Office was run by an infiltrated network of Russian agents? With each passing day, the conspiracy theories reached deeper and deeper, and the clumsy attempts of the Office’s representatives to explain themselves only added to the suspicions. It didn’t help either that a couple of months before the fateful trip, in a routine administrative reshuffle, Leon had been, in bureaucratic terminology, ‘transferred to related duties’, but, in fact, demoted in rank. He didn’t give much heed to this himself, he only grumbled in an old-fashioned way about the drop in salary and the rising cost of gas. But this was difficult to explain to journalists who sniffed blood.

Still, Tomas knew something others didn’t. Leon took on this task when he could have – should have – gone for several weeks to an important NATO working group. When everything was arranged, and the tickets were bought, Leon called Tomas in Brussels. At first, with surprising persistence, he tried to persuade Tomas not to fly to Kandahar, but to return directly to Vilnius: - We need to talk.

 

 

1. A Khrushchyovka was a large apartment building built in the Soviet Union when Nikita Khrushchev was party leader.

2. New Arbat Avenue, a main street in Moscow.

3. Prophecy after the event.

 

 

 

 

 

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