Alexei’s office at 55 Poslediny was the only building in Starigorsk left standing after the Great Patriotic War. Other than this history, the building was altogether unremarkable—two stories, white bricks, drafty windows. It alone had survived the blitz in 1941. Soon thereafter its basement and lower level had served as a holding area for the Jews of Starigorsk, who were eventually trucked in groups from the building to a nearby marsh where they were unloaded in shallow water and machine gunned by four Germans with MG 34s.
A lesser Red Army general had made the building his headquarters during the 1942 counteroffensive, but had fled with his mistresses just before the Germans reoccupied Starigorsk in 1943. The town was liberated for good in in 1944, and despite shell and bullet pocks on every side, 55 Poslediny had miraculously avoided destruction, either at the hands of the retreating Germans or those of the celebrating victors as they raped their way to Berlin.
Every morning, as he entered the building, Alexei walked past two enormous men whose guns showed beneath their tight suit jackets. They checked his badge but never spoke to him.
His office might have been confused for a converted closet if it weren’t for the small window—frosted to deter curious eyes—near the desk. The office was hardly big enough for one person, but he shared it with Verusha. He found her amusingly and sometimes annoyingly antisocial, with odd hygiene habits and demeanor that made her age indeterminable. Despite working across from Alexei and sometimes bumping his knee beneath the narrow desk, she seldom spoke—a fact for which he was grateful, since generally when she opened her mouth he could identify her most recent vodka by the smell.
Though technically his equal, Verusha was inept. Necessarily he came across her posts from time to time—was required even to respond to them by his LFR Reports. But they made him cringe. “I am Daniel, American citizen,” began one. “I like baseball and pies of apple. This policy is foolish for me and will hurt my American people.”
Alexei’s friend Pyotr worked in the basement with the other hackers and the bot farmers and hated when she responded to his fake news articles. He was always afraid she would blow it. “They will hire anyone right now,” Pyotr spat one time. “The whole world works for St. Petersburg.”
As for the American girl, she was a social media nobody with virtually no friends, following just a few authors and motivational bots. She had sent a handful of shy tweets at celebrities she admired, but none had responded. Her profile name was Random_Zebra11. He had first engaged her during a tweetblitz; he was trying to convince Americans they could vote from home and avoid the long lines by tweeting a hashtag plus their candidate’s name. She had argued with him—not that he was lying, but that he was mistaken. He found that charming. All Alexei knew about her at first was that she lived in Duluth, Minnesota. And he was in love with her.
“Against the rules,” said Verusha, halfway through his confession, exceeding the two words that were generally her limit for a workday. She spent most of her time entranced in automatonic typing.
Verusha clicked her tongue. Alexei shrugged. He didn’t know much about love, but he knew it was impossible to explain.
“Babushka, I’ve met someone,” he said that night back at the cold high-rise where he shared a flat with his grandmother. His grandmother smiled.
“How was school today?” she asked.
“I’m not in school anymore, Babushka.”
“That’s nice,” she smiled. “I know your parents are proud of you.”
“They’re dead, Babushka,” he said. “In the accident with the car, remember? They’re dead like Dedushka.”
She never spoke of his grandfather. He had lost his mind and drank himself to death when Alexei was very young. Alexei had only a dim memory of him sitting outside in the snow in his underwear with a loaded Mosin-Nagant hugged to his chest.
She looked at him in confusion for a moment, then smiled again.
“So proud,” she said. She slurped her ukha.
She pointed her spoon at him and said solemnly, “You’ll be a Grandmaster soon, before you know it.”
Some of the watery soup leaked down her face. He dabbed at it with a napkin.
“The next Botvinnik,” she said, beaming.
“I think I’m more like the next Karpov,” he said. She wrinkled her nose and shook her head, returning to her soup.
Alexei had been in love only one other time. It had been when he was fifteen, almost ten years ago, with a girl at his school named Klavdiya Kuznetsova. She never smiled. Dark haired and beautiful, she had brown eyes that were usually cast down. Damaged. He was quite sure no one else at the school knew about her. She was the gem he had discovered.
He wrote her poetry. Anonymously, at first. He tried calling on the phone. They would talk endlessly, hours into the night. But Klavdiya would not acquiesce to a date with him, even though she always seemed to be on the verge of saying yes. Her refusals were a source of continuous melancholy during his schooling years.
The courtship had lasted several months. When he couldn’t take it anymore and his heart was on the verge of breaking, he unloaded by confessing this love to his trusted friend, Dmitry. A strange look had passed over Dmitry’s face. Dmitry had, it turned out, been on a date with her, as had many of the boys at the school. In fact, sometimes, Dmitry said with a wink, Klavdiya would date the boys two at a time.
Though just across the street from 55 Poslediny, the Café Volkovsky was another universe to Alexei, as unreal in some ways as the Americans he antagonized online. Always clean and bright, with the winter slush mopped promptly from the floor tiles, no matter how hard it was snowing or how cold. A small gas fireplace in the center of the room provided radiant heat and a pleasant background for the customers, who sat in overstuffed chairs that reminded Alexei of Kirk’s chair on the Enterprise, scrolling through screens on their computers, tablets, and phones while they sipped their coffees.
“You shouldn’t use QUASIMODO,” said Pyotr. He crossed his spindly legs—skinnier even than Alexei’s. Pyotr was a scarecrow.
“It’s old software,” said Alexei. “No one will know. Some bureaucrat forgot to uninstall it before they handed the computer down. Besides, it’s just this once.”
“What did you find out?”
“Her name is Colleen Sanders. She’s 29. She just finished her PhD in history but can’t find a permanent job.”
“American universities,” sneered Pyotr.
“A single mother, recently divorced.”
“He deserved it. A lawyer from the South who—”
“American lawyer? Say no more. Is she seeing anyone?”
“Someone she met online. It isn’t serious. He has several profiles.”
“Ha!” said Pyotr. “So at least you are her type.”
“Enough,” said Alexei. “We are here to celebrate your accomplishment.” They tapped their cardboard coffee cups together.
“At least three major sites carry it,” Pyotr said.
“You’re a genius,” said Alexei.
“The secret,” said Pyotr, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “is to include a grain of truth. Responding to police violence—totally believable.”
“You’re being modest.” said Alexei.
“Well, the real secret is titillation. Like a horror movie. People love to be scared and angry. They act like they don’t but they do. So you make up something they want to be afraid of. Immigrants or disease or blacks or Nazis. After that—once you’ve tapped in—facts don’t matter. If they want it to be true, in their brains, it is true. They are fooled because they want to be.”
“You’ll be working in St. Petersburg soon,” said Alexei.
“We both will,” said Pyotr. “Donna Trilling is doing very well, too, I hear.”
Alexei felt himself blush.
“I should get back to work,” he said. “I still have to get through my LFR Report before lunch.”
Alexei’s boss, Demyan, held all Performance Reviews at the Café Volkovsky. It was a gross breach of security protocol, but Demyan didn’t care. It made him feel important for the eavesdroppers to hear him evaluating (or devaluating, as they joked) his employees.
“This Donna Trilling,” he said. “This has been very good, yes? She is getting very popular. 28,000 follows?”
“30,000,” said Alexei, adding almost apologetically, “She gained 2,000 over the weekend.”
“Yes, she is getting noticed. In St. Petersburg even she is getting noticed.” Demyan paused, eyebrows raised, to let that sink in. If it was meant to impress Alexei, it only made him more nervous. Demyan wore a shiny blue tracksuit and expensive sneakers.
Demyan asked Alexei the Performance Review Questions but Alexei had trouble focusing. His mind kept wandering back to the American girl. He had found her dissertation, A Savage Journey: Three Civil Rights Leaders in the 1960’s (and Their Demises), that morning. The research was excellent but that wasn’t what kept his attention. She wrote like she cared what she was writing about, like it mattered. Like any of it did.
He’d never met anyone like her.
“Good,” said Demyan at the end of the Performance Review, standing and raising with him a fog of stale coffee and old cologne. “You keep doing what you do. I see big things for you. And Donna Trilling,” he said, shaking his head in admiration.
Alexei had been developing Donna Trilling for three years. Donna had begun as Donald Trilling, a god-fearing Christian man from the country who had been forced to move from his farm to big city New York and was shocked by the moral depravity he witnessed there. He described welfare queens, prostitutes, drugs. Everyone in the city was taking government money—taxpayer money—and nobody worked.
But Alexei had quickly found a problem. He couldn’t get followers. No matter how he built up the character, or who he linked to and followed, no one cared what he had to say. The rejection began to weigh on him.
“I can’t figure it out,” he had said to Pyotr one day.
“What? Why you hate America?” said Pyotr, not particularly interested.
“I don’t hate America, Pyotr. I don’t really think about it at all.”
Pyotr leaned in and motioned for him to lower his voice.
“Don’t let Demyan hear you say that.”
“I mean, it’s just a name on a screen. Doesn’t even seem like a real place. And the people! Just flat characters, types. I’m not even sure sometimes if I’m interacting with real people or more St. Petersburg trolls.”
“You aren’t supposed to be sure,” said Pyotr. “They don’t want you to be.”
“I used to like America,” said Pyotr. “Before this job. In the movies it seemed great.”
“I think I would even like to go there. Someday.”
“Where would you go?”
“Iowa,” said Alexei. “I think Iowa. Kirk is from Iowa.”
“Captain Kirk of the Enterprise. And there’s that baseball movie, in the cornfield. Iowa seems like a lovely place.”
It was also close to Minnesota, he knew.
“Iowa?” Pyotr said. “It’s full of racist old people who don’t know what’s going on in the world. It would be like living inside a windowless house.”
Alexei sighed. “Or working inside a windowless office?”
“The thing I can’t figure out is how to get people to follow me.”
“Don Trilling. One hundred fifty followers. After three years. Most of them are bots and advertisers.”
“Tell me about him,” said Pyotr.
Alexei explained the character, his elaborate history. He talked about how the character was funny and charming, had been complimented by the bosses. But somehow he couldn’t amass a following. As he explained, a slow grin leaked across Pyotr’s face, his teeth tumbling out of his mouth.
“You know what your problem is,” said Pyotr. “you have to know your audience, what they like. What they go online for.”
“Sports? News? Jokes? I do all those things.”
Pyotr shook his head.
“No. Make your character a woman. Give him a sexy profile pic. You’ll probably have to delete some old posts, but watch what happens.”
“But I’ve spent years developing him as a man. If I change…”
“Trust me. No one will even notice.”
Within a week of changing Don to Donna and adding a picture of a sexy woman (courtesy of the model database in St. Petersburg), he had 1,000 followers. The woman was blonde and attractive, Alexei had to admit, with just enough cleavage in her picture to entice without being immodest, her arms folded confidently under her chest and a knowing expression on her face. He didn’t even have to change her profile: God-fearing, Christian. #America.
It took some time to get used to the men sending him messages to ask for dates. Most of them were polite, but a few were more forceful—“I know what a woman like you needs,” “I’ve got something those liberal cucks in NY can’t give you,” etc. He responded to some of them at first, but soon the volume and persistence forced him to give up and ignore them. He even acquired a couple of stalkers who were determined to track down Donna Trilling in the city of New York.
In the last three months—once he hit 20,000 followers—he had started to get media requests from conservative radio and podcast hosts. This was a more delicate matter. They wanted a phone number to do interviews. He had referred the requests up the chain of command. That must have been how St. Petersburg knew about Donna Trilling.
After his coffee with Pyotr, the rest of Alexei Smirnov’s week went well. On Tuesday he helped spread Ebola in Texas and New Mexico. By the time the internet caught on, the thousands of comments blaming immigrants for bringing in the disease helped conceal the original posts and the links to Pyotr’s article went dead. On Thursday it was a federal invasion in Arizona and Southern California.
“I don’t get it,” Alexei said to Pyotr. “The American government will invade itself?”
“To take away their guns! And their freedom,” said Pyotr.
Alexei shrugged but Pyotr was right, and it took the internet half a day to straighten out that story. Friday was a slow day, but they managed to circulate a rumor that a local fast food chain in Oklahoma was selling white children into prostitution in Middle Eastern countries. Once the conversation heated up, Alexei creaked back in his chair and watched the comments scroll by.
“They believe anything,” he said to Verusha. “Then they fight about it.”
“So do we,” she said, hardly looking up. She had just finished typing a comment saying, “As longtime American citizen in the great state of Oklahoma I am appalled that these Sharia Laws are taking over our Good Christian Values. What has become of our Glorious Motherland?”
“At least we are paid to do it,” he said. “A man has to support his family.”
At night in bed, Alexei would pull the blankets up over his face to block the ukha smell and think about Colleen Sanders, hoping to inoculate his dreams with her image. It was hard to find photos of her; her social media photos tended to be just of her daughter.
In his favorite picture of Colleen, she was with her daughter at an ice dancing show, watching cartoon characters skate in clumsy, oversized costumes. She was crouched low to be in the frame with her daughter, and her denimed thighs looked irresistible to Alexei. The ice behind her made her blue eyes shine.
How could he make it work?
In his best dreams, he invented another social media account and courted her as an American. When she was won over, he flew to America to reveal the truth to her, showing up at her apartment with daffodils. They were her favorite flowers.
Those were sweet nights. But in the cold morning the alarm on his phone woke him, and the warm glow that protected him in his sleep eroded to a dull pang of longing and emptiness. He would stand over the stove, warming his hands by the same fire that heated the kasha he shared with his grandmother for breakfast.
He did not like the mornings. They were the task-heavy part of the day, the ritualistic part of the job. Predictable, like chess openings. In the afternoons, the board opened up and he got to be more creative. He endured his mornings to get to his afternoons.
In his newer accounts he wrote “establishing” comments: links to sports articles or fashion, depending on the gender of the account. He was required to have six (but he liked to have at least nine) months of history on an account before using it to engage any political or cultural ideas. Less than that and a curious person might get suspicious.
But his mind began to wander in the mornings. Checking that Verusha was preoccupied with her own work (“Only more guns can make us as american citizens living in america safe from the great proliferations of more guns here in america.”), he logged on to QUASIMODO.
Colleen had been busy. But something was different. Her mood was shifting.
“Nothing seems to be working out,” she emailed to her mother. “I try to stay positive about all of it, but it seems the deck is stacked against that sort of thing.” It was her sister she really confessed to. There was much there, too much to read, about suffering and indifference, distraction and apathy, empathy and hope. There was more but Alexei heard footsteps groaning up the stairs. With two lightning clicks, he shut down QUASIMODO just before Pyotr stuck his grinning head into the room.
“I have something that will make you happy,” he said.
“A new publicity packet from St. Petersburg just arrived,” he said, dramatically producing his phone from his pocket. “Donna Trilling has been very busy. I will send it to you… now.”
Almost instantly, Alexei’s email chimed.
He scrolled through the pictures of Donna Trilling that he was to post, spread out over the next 6–8 weeks. At a Giants game. At a Broadway musical. Making a sour face in Times Square (only a tourist would smile there). At a new restaurant. Pictures of food (Donna was a foodie in addition to being a sports fan). Many were taken to look like selfies.
Alexei wondered about her. The one in front of her Christmas tree on Christmas morning in her Manhattan apartment, her nipples just visible through the tight Hamilton t-shirt she wore. He knew they were posed, carefully staged to look spontaneous and authentic. St. Petersburg had a whole department for it.
The pictures gave his heart a twinge for Colleen. This model was just another operative from St. Petersburg, maybe being forced to do these happy shots against her will because they had kompromat about her or her family. He didn’t know any more about her than the men who claimed to love her. He certainly didn’t know more about her than he and QUASIMODO knew about Colleen.
But what people felt for her—for Donna Trilling—was real. Wasn’t it? How could they pity and love a character, a creation? Something that didn’t exist? Maybe the mind played tricks; it saw her in her skimpy outfits and rationalized lust with a deeper emotion. An incomprehensible one. He had felt love for Klavdiya once, too, and that had turned out to be fake. Klavdiya had never existed, either, at least not the vision of her that he had constructed.
He had looked Klavdiya up with QUASIMODO not long ago. She had settled down with a much older man, thinning gray hair and portly belly, who didn’t seem to know a thing about her school days. They had a daughter. On VKontakte she posted bizarre airbrushed paintings of animals—dolphins changing into angels, clouds that look like smiling saints, whales glowing beneath the sea. Her friends all complimented her for her spirituality.
At home Alexei was distracted.
“How is that girl?” asked his grandmother, splashing her spoon in her ukha. He looked up.
“You know,” she said. “The one you like. Klavdiya?”
“Oh,” said Alexei. “I don’t think that one is going to work out, Babushka.”
“What a pity,” she said, shaking her head. “You should always take risks.”
“What do you mean, Babushka?”
She turned to him as though he were crazy.
“For love. What if your grandfather had never dared anything?”
“How much would he have missed if he had risked nothing? It’s all that keeps us from dying alone in the snow.”
She looked up at him and smiled, ukha dribbling out of her mouth.
“I know your parents are proud of you. You’ll be a Grandmaster soon. Before you know it.”
The next day at the Café Volkovsky, he slid his phone from his pocket. He logged in and searched until he found her account. Then he began to type. It all came out. It was nearly an hour later when he finished. The response was so quick he thought at first it was an accident. He had a message waiting from Colleen.
“Dear Alex,” it said. “You sound nice, and I’m very sorry to hear about your parents. To answer your question, yes, of course you can write to me again.”
Outside, it was snowing and he felt as light as the snow. His feet hardly touched the ground as he crossed the street back to 55 Poslediny. He planned his next email, the things they would talk about. But he had to be careful—he couldn’t reveal, of course, the things he knew from QUASIMODO.
He didn’t know where it would lead. Of course he didn’t. It was something new. Something new that wasn’t lies. For the first time, he felt something to look forward to. And if this one little thing could be true and real, then who knows what the future could hold?
When he walked, smiling, through the doors at 55 Poslediny, he froze. Before him stood Demyan in a silver track suit, arms folded, and just behind him, over either shoulder, were Verusha and Pyotr. Behind them stood the two men in the tight jackets.
He felt his stomach drop into someplace cold and black. He looked for an easy escape but it was too late.
“You knew we would find out, didn’t you?” asked Demyan. “You had to know. It’s what we do.”
“I didn’t see the harm—”
“In misusing our resources? In privately contacting an American? In using unauthorized software for personal reasons? There is much harm in these things, Alexei Smirnov,” said Demyan, shaking his head sadly. “Of course I will need your badge. You will never set foot in this building again. You will not work for us. Say goodbye to St. Petersburg. You will never work anywhere.”
“What will happen to Donna Trilling?”
“That isn’t your concern anymore.”
Behind him, Pyotr shook his head. Verusha looked only at her feet and wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“Will Pyotr get her? Will it be you, Pyotr?”
“It isn’t for you to worry about,” said Demyan.
Had Pyotr been the one to say something? About QUASIMODO? And even if he was, how could they know about this so quickly? Unless—
“Was she real? You have to tell me if she was real.”
“You will leave the building now,” said Demyan. “Shame on you.”
“I have to know. Was she real? Is she? Don’t tell me. Please don’t tell me. Not St. Petersburg.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Demyan.
“It does matter! It matters to me. Please. Everything I’ve done here. Verusha. Pyotr, all we’ve done together. Just tell me if she is real.” Hot tears blurred his vision.
Demyan signaled for the two suited men and they moved forward. One tore Alexei’s badge from his shirt, taking part of the cloth. Then they lifted him roughly.
“Please! Please! I have to know! I have to know if she’s real!”
The last thing he saw before being flung into an icy puddle on the street was the face of Verusha. Even in that moment, something about it perplexed him, stunned him into silence.
It was Verusha’s gaze he thought of years afterward, after his grandmother had passed and he stood alone on the roof of the high-rise flat he could no longer afford. Instead of the lethargy that had for years varnished Verusha’s face, there was in that instant an expression of limitless empathy—a bottomless and secret understanding of him, his career, his loneliness… of a whole planet that had puckered at its own sourness. It was a look he only vaguely remembered from when his parents were still alive.
In that moment, being dragged out, he had finally understood: Verusha’s English wasn’t bad, her posts weren’t accidentally incomprehensible. It had all been done with purpose. She had been right all along and he had been wrong. She didn’t want anyone online to think she was an American. She didn’t want anyone to believe she was a real person. She never had.
Far beneath him, the landscape of Starigorsk stretched out in miniature. Cars skidded by on the slushed street, honking, their headlights just taking effect in the early darkness. He could see the blank face of 55 Poslediny, the yellow glow from the Café Volkovsky glazing the street. Klavdiya was down there somewhere, too, perhaps happily reading a story to her daughter before supper. He turned up his collar and cocked his head at an angle to keep the windblown snow from biting into his eyes.
He thought of his grandfather, a man he barely knew, alone in his underwear, the loaded rifle propped beside him. Alexei saw snow now, curved high on the eaves of the buildings below. He wondered if it fell how heavy it would be, if it would be enough to bury him, to wrap him into its stillness.
One spring, when Alexei was a little boy, melting snow had slid off an angled rooftop, landing on him as he played koldunchiki below. It did no good to yell for help; the snow absorbed his voice like a frigid tomb. It took some time for his friends to run and bring the rescuers, his grandmother leading their charge, tears of worry streaming down her face. He was surprised by the calm then, how bright and un-cold it seemed, how comfortable—how easily, if you closed your eyes, you could just relax and fold into the silence.
Alexei hoped it would be like that.