This week, I finally finished a project I’d been working on for some months. To relax a bit, I went back to New Jersey for a few days. The plan was to unplug, visit with my family, see an old friend of mine who’d moved back to our hometown, float in the pool, and read.
So of course it was when I was there that the Luke Harding story broke in The Guardian: the paper had acquired Kremlin documents that appeared to show that Putin and his top brass met in January of 2016 to discuss how to install their compromised asset Donald Trump in the White House. Which, like, makes perfect sense. Given that the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that “the Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election,” it is reasonable to assume that Putin and his lackeys met at some point to discuss said aggressive, multifaceted effort. The Russians are very good at psy-ops, but even they have not mastered telepathy.
Rather than take the story at face value—it tracks with what Steele, Mueller, HRC, national security journalists, and the entire U.S. Intelligence Community have been saying for five years, and what Senate Intelligence concluded in Volume 5—folks were alacritously looking the Kremlin gift horse in the mouth, tripping over themselves to go on record being skeptical.
The documents are unverified. Harding is being played. This is a Russian counterintelligence plot. There’s no way anyone at the meeting would risk leaking it. And so on. There was precious little of, “Hey, Luke Harding is really good, they did their best to vet this thing, they found it authentic enough to share, it confirms a meeting that must have happened, and for all we know, Senate Intelligence had these documents ages ago, and that’s why they arrived at their conclusions.”
Mainstream media, needless to say, ignored the story entirely.
It made my head ache. It “cut my eye.”
So it’s appropriate, for this weird week, to run a short story that my friend Zarina Zabrisky—whose work was featured at “Sunday Pages” previously—completed this weird week. How much is fact? How much is fiction? Where do we draw the line? I have no idea, and that’s part of the allure of this literary form…
The KGB Jinx
By Zarina Zabrisky
It started during my interview with a legendary—you may even say, a cult—artist from St. Petersburg. The interview had the feel of a 20th-century séance: “The spirit of Pushkin, if you are there, talk to us! Are you there? Are you there? You are on mute! Unmute yourself!” The artist's laptop had crashed the night before the show. Zoom kicked me out of my own conference. My new video camera flashed and died, and the fan turned on and off and sounded as if my laptop was about to take off and fly away. The sound disappeared and the audience was calling, “Zarinaaa, Zarinaaa...”
The artist talked about his own art and drinking eau de cologne in the 80s (the alcohol was in a short supply.) I had the PowerPoint presentations of his work. One slide was Nabokov’s alphabet. Nabokov had synesthesia—saw letters in colors. So do I. Only Nabokov’s colors for letters are drastically different from mine.
So, I said, “His alphabet cuts my eye.”
(We spoke Russian. There is a saying in Russian—when you hate something, you can say, “It cuts my eye.” Like a knife. No big deal.)
Right after the interview, I felt a stabbing pain in my right eye. As if it was being cut by a knife. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t look. The light turned into a blade slicing my eye—I thought briefly about the Andalusian Dog…then I couldn't think anymore. I had to rush to the hospital.
“Strange,” said an ophthalmologist. “Did you cut your eye with anything?”
Outside, the sun shone brightly. I felt like a confused vampire. The rest of the week I spent at home in complete darkness. In the darkness, I hosted another poetry reading. In the darkness, I made kasha. I can make kasha with my eyes closed, apparently. I didn’t have much appetite, anyway.
On April Fool's Day, I checked my correspondence with my one good eye. I got a Facebook event invitation: A Russian-American journalist I knew interviewed a former Soviet “intelligence officer” who discussed “how to become a good KGB agent.” I couldn't believe my eye.
A couple of weeks before the ordeal, I refused to have the said “intelligence officer”—a euphemism for the “KGB”—on my show. There are many reasons why I feel this way about KGB officers. One is obvious: Putin. In case you missed it, he was a KGB officer. Not high in rank, but still. The second reason is less obvious. One KGB officer I knew was involved in sex trafficking of minors (and I was the minor in that story.) Also, my father taught me that decent people didn’t do certain things. There was a list, almost. Decent people didn’t gossip about pop stars’ private lives. They didn’t offend the weak. They didn’t call other people names. Talking to the KGB officers was on the top of the list. (Even if talking to them could bring you “likes,” followers, subscribers—these are no different from dachas [summer cottages], Russian-made cars named Ladas, and trips to Eastern Berlin, just fast-forward a few decades.)
I commented that I didn’t go to events with the KGB involved and moved on to my emails. Five messages from a man named Mr. Phanindra, writing on behalf of a great Indian guru, Sanghuru. Mr. Phanindra called me a few weeks ago and asked to put together a show for Sanghuru. I Googled the guru. The guru loved expensive motorcycles and jewelry, and his wife had accidentally died during meditation. In addition, the guru was an inspiration to one of Putin’s allies, the CEO of Russia’s main state bank. That CEO fell in love with the Indian practice of castes and the idea of the poor people serving the rich. So, the CEO dragged the guru to the World Economic Forum, to meetings with very important people around the world. My one good eye started to hurt.
Why did the guru, a friend of Putin’s friend, with seven million subscribers on YouTube and three million followers on Twitter, want to appear on a small bookstore’s show? According to Mr. Phanindra, the guru wanted to support independent bookstores.
Great, I thought; but our independent bookstore didn’t want to support cults.
Mr. Phanindra continued writing and calling. Facebook continued sending me notifications from the enraged admirers of the KGB officer. My email box exploded with demands to read manuscripts and host shows. My eye burned. Before closing my laptop and locking myself in a dark room, I replied to Mr. Phanindra:
“Dear Mr. Phanindra,” I wrote, “Thank you for your many messages. We will not be able to host Mr. Sanghuru. However, I can recommend you to try and contact the journalist who leads a popular Russian-language YouTube channel. I think he might be interested.” And I attached the information of my KGB-loving colleague.
Maybe it was not Nabokov’s fault that my eyes have turned into wounds, after all. I don’t believe in jinxes, and, unlike Mr. Sadhuru, I don’t think that water has memory and that someone can infuse my cup of tea with negative energy and make me sick.
No, but I know that the KGB officers put polonium in people’s tea and infuse people’s clothes with Novichok. That’s what makes me sick. Maybe, my eyes just can’t watch what is happening in the city where I grew up. My eyes hurt from seeing those who dare to stand up to the KGB officers rot in prison. People who glorify killers and thugs make me sick. Slice my eyes open, a silly world stuck on repeat. Pour me some eau de cologne, turn my laptop into a rocket ship, fly me to the moon, for I can’t see this shit anymore.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Zarina Zabrisky is the author of three short story collections, a book of collaborative poetry co-written with Simon Rogghe, and a novel, We, Monsters (Numina Press). Her prose was featured worldwide in over thirty literary magazines, including The Nervous Breakdown, A Capella Zoo, Eleven Eleven, and Red Fez. Interviews with Zabrisky and reviews of her books appeared in The Rumpus, Guernica, PANK Magazine, decomP and more. Zabrisky received multiple nominations and awards, including 2013 Acker Award for Achievement in The Avant-Garde. She is a co-founder of The Arts Resistance, a collective creating a passionate thinking space by the means of the arts.
Photo credit: Simon Rogghe Photography. Zarina at the bookstore.