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tearing the rag off the bush again
Lenin's Brain by Yuriy Tarnawsky PDF E-mail
To Sashko Dubovyk
with thanks for the tip

For fifty-four years Wally Uhland had led a normal, unexciting life and then one day an event took place that put an abrupt end to all that.

It was Columbus Day, the shopper’s holiday, and, having the day off from work, Wally decided to take the train to the city and look through some stores.  He hadn’t been to the city for a long time and thought it would be nice to see how things had changed there.  After a rainy and cold stretch, the weather was beautiful, warm and sunny, with a pure blue sky and a tantalizing smell of fall in the air, so Wally took a leisurely walk to the station, caught the train to Grand Central, cut across to Fifth Avenue along Forty-Second Street, and proceeded to stroll down it.  The yearly parade was still in swing but crowds were thin and he had no problem navigating between the people.  He was surprised at the profusion of junk stores that had sprung up along that once fashionable street.  He didn’t go into any of them and looked in only at a couple of rug stores, and when he came to Thirty-Fourth Street, decided to cut across to Herald Square and check out Macy’s and Gimbel’s, to see how the two arch rivals compared.  When he got there, he saw that Gimbel’s was gone, however, and recalled it went out of business years ago; he had merely forgotten about it.  He didn’t find anything interesting at Macy’s, so he decided to stroll down Seventh Avenue to the Village.  He also hadn’t been in that part of town for years and the prospect of walking through the quaint, narrow streets with the small shops in them sounded wonderful to him.  He couldn’t wait till he got there.

The Village turned out to be as nice as Wally had expected, and he was glad he had decided to see it.  He strolled through the streets, from time to time looking into the stores he passed, and twice sat down in sidewalk cafes -- once to have a beer and once for a coffee.  It had gotten really warm and the outside places were packed with customers.  The stores he had gone into dealt mostly in antiques.  Wally had been always interested in antiques, in particular old glass, and he had picked up a beautiful Venetian vase once in the Village and toyed vaguely with the idea of finding a companion piece for it.

It was getting late after the coffee, and Wally was feeling tired and started thinking about heading back home.  The fact he hadn’t bought anything didn’t bother him.  He really didn’t need anything and the Venetian vase could wait for its companion when one turned up.  He started thinking where he should catch the subway to Grand Central from; getting there by bus was too complicated for an out-of-towner like he.  But just then he was passing a store that appeared to deal in antiques, which looked bigger and busier than most of the others.  Wally decided to step into just that one before finally heading home.  The store actually dealt in all sorts of things old and new, but it looked interesting to Wally and he proceeded to look through it.  It was really crowded and Wally had to fight his way trough the narrow passages in which people thronged around tables with wares displayed on them.  One such table contained bargain items, reduced in price, and Wally stopped at it to see if something would catch his fancy.  An item immediately attracted his attention.  It was roughly the size of a small loaf of bread or a meatloaf, and was wrapped in a newspaper and tied together with a thick, coarse twine.  Wally picked it up and looked at the price tag.  It said $1.75.  Wally hadn’t seen anything as cheap as that for years -- the coffee had cost three dollars! -- and he decided to buy it.  The fact that he didn’t know what it was didn’t seem to bother him.  At such a price he couldn’t go wrong!

He was afraid the price was a mistake and the real price was $17.50, but when he laid the package down before the cashier, she rung up the price as it was marked.  With the tax, the item cost $1.90.  Feeling he had really gotten a bargain, Wally walked out of the store with the package under his arm and a smile in his soul.

As it happened, he was near Christopher Street and after he had walked a block, he saw the entrance to the subway station just around the corner.  He caught the train to Times Square, took the shuttle to Grand Central, and from there the train back home.  He was tired and it had started to get dark when he got out of the train, so he took a cab home rather than walking.

On coming into the house, Wally went into the kitchen and started fixing himself a sandwich.  He hadn’t eaten anything since before leaving his house earlier that day and was famished.  The package he had bought rested on the kitchen counter before him.  As he had bitten into the slice of bread he was going to put some mayonnaise on and a piece of ham, unable to hold himself back with hunger, his eyes fell on the package and he realized for the first time the newspaper it was wrapped in wasn’t in English but in some other language, in a strange alphabet.  Something made him think it was Russian.  He was expecting to see the reverse “R” in the rows of the mysterious, insect-like characters.  And then he saw one of them and then another one....  The newspaper was Russian!

Intrigued, even excited, Wally took a quick bite out of the slice of bread he held in his hand, put it down on the counter, and proceeded to unwrap the package.  What did it hold?  Clearly, something from Russia.

The twine was tied into a hard knot and it took Wally a while to undo it. Cutting it with a knife seemed to him out of the question.  He hadn’t seen a twine like that ever and was sure it was Russian.  He suspected it was made from hemp and was probably an antique in itself!

Inside, Wally found a bag made out of thick plastic that had grown opaque with age like a window that hadn’t been washed for years.  It was too big for the object it held and was wrapped a few times around it.  As he unwrapped the slack end of the bag, Wally finally discerned the object inside it.  It was rounded and brownish in color and really looked like a small loaf of bread or a meatloaf.  Wally concluded it was more likely the former than the latter -- a dried up loaf of dark Russian rye bread, and not a meatloaf -- for it felt light.  He quickly opened wide the bag and let the object slide out of it onto its inside edge.  He peeled back the other edge of the bag and looked at the object.

For an instant he thought it was a little animal cowering before him -- a hedgehog, as he imagined one to look from the drawings in children’s stories he had read in his childhood, since he had never seen a live hedgehog before.  Then, however, he began to realize that what lay before him on the counter was a brain -- a human brain, surprisingly small and with its right side withered up, so that it was no more than a quarter of the side on the left.  It appeared to be cut up lengthwise into slices about a quarter of an inch wide and tied together with the same kind of twine as the one on the outside.  It was brown, almost the color of bronze, and was covered by some liquid which looked like oil.  The latter glistened in the strong light of the fluorescent lamp on the ceiling, especially in the grooves which covered the whole surface of the brain.

Wally’s first reaction to what he saw was shock -- fear, actually -- and he instinctively leaned away from the counter as if afraid the brain would explode in his face or harm him in some other way -- bite him -- but then a feeling of curiosity prevailed over his fear, spreading through him like warmth.  Whose brain was it and how did it get to the store?  Forgetting the lingering reserve, Wally slid the brain out onto the counter, leaned over it again, and started to untie the twine gingerly with his fingers, careful not to touch the brain too much and not to get too much of the liquid onto his fingers.

The knot came apart much more easily than the one on the outside, and Wally carefully loosened the twine so as not to let the brain come apart.  It stayed in one piece, however, apparently held together by the capillary force of the liquid.  Wally carefully separated two of the slices close to the left edge and looked into the crevice.  The crosscut showed an intricate pattern of layers parallel in places, diverging in others, beautiful in its complexity and perfect in execution, looking in all not unlike the crosscut of a head of cabbage.  Large empty gaps between the layers could be seen in a few spots, oozing the oily liquid like involuntary tears.  Wally closed the brain and looked a few layers further toward the center.  The picture was the same in the overall effect although a little different in detail.  Wally repeated the process a few more times, finding each new crosscut not unlike the preceding ones except in the withered part of the brain.  There, the layers were very dense and less pronounced; in places they could barely be distinguished.  There were also no empty spaces between them.

His curiosity satisfied, Wally left the brain sitting on the counter and pondered.  Whose brain was it?  Some criminal’s?  Their brains were frequently studied to find clues for their behavior.  Was that why the right side was withered?  Something told him, however, this was not the case.  He felt it was the brain of a famous person.  He immediately thought of Einstein.  The reason for that was probably because he remembered reading somewhere Einstein’s brain had been discovered to be small.  But part of Einstein’s brain couldn’t have been withered.  Besides, something else told him the brain couldn’t be Einstein’s, although he didn’t know what.  Was it a famous writer’s?  He recalled reading one of the famous American writers had been discovered to have had a small brain?  Was it Melville, Whitman, or Thoreau?  He felt it was most likely Whitman, but also felt sure it wasn’t Whitman’s brain.  It wouldn’t have been wrapped in a Russian newspaper....  That was it!  That was the reason it couldn’t also be Einstein’s.  It had to be a Russian person’s....  Something began to stir in Wally’s memory.  He recalled reading somewhere about one of the Russian leaders’ brain being studied.  Was it Stalin’s?  He didn’t think so.  Beria’s?  Perhaps.  Beria appeared to have a criminal mentality, so maybe that was why his brain had been studied and why it was atrophied on one side.  Likely candidate though that Beria was, Wally still wasn’t satisfied.  He felt instinctively the brain wasn’t his.  He searched further.  Lenin?  Yes, he thought Lenin’s brain had been removed from his body.  The body was embalmed and lay in the Kremlin, so the brain must have been removed.... Old Egyptians removed all internal organs of bodies they embalmed....  And he was almost certain he had read that Lenin’s brain had been carefully studied.

Wally felt excited.  He had a feeling he was onto something.  He bent down and started scrutinizing the brain as if hoping to find there a clue to its identity.  Then, as his initial excitement began to wear away and he was beginning to come to the conclusion that it was silly to look for a label on the brain, to his utter amazement he saw something that looked like a string of letters on the lower left side of the brain, which was closer to him.  They seemed to have been chiseled into it as if into a sculpture, or pressed into a piece of ceramic.  Unable to breathe with excitement, Wally looked closer.  There were seven capital letters there -- a “B” and an inverted “N,” each followed by a period, and then an “A” without the horizontal bar, an “E,” an  “H,” another inverted “N,” and finally another “H.”

Wally swallowed hard with excitement.  It was clearly a name -- the person’s initials and last name.  How was he going to decipher them?  He started to feel hopeless but then recalled his Webster’s dictionary had various alphabets under the entry “Alphabet,” and he was sure Russian -- Cyrillic -- was one of them.  He quickly washed his hands under the kitchen faucet, using detergent to make sure he had gotten all the liquid off his fingers, wiped them dry, ran into the living room where he kept his books, got the dictionary, ran back to the kitchen, and found the entry in question.  Reading off the letters one by one and comparing them to those in the dictionary, he decoded the name as “V. I. LENIN.”  He was stunned.  Yes -- “Vladimir,” then the initial of the patronymic, which he was reasonably sure was “I,” “Lenin.”  It was amazing.  He had the brain of one of the greatest figures of the twentieth century on his kitchen counter before him!  He had never been an admirer of Lenin, nor even a Communist sympathizer, but now that the man’s brain was in his possession he couldn’t deny the fact his impact on the twentieth century was enormous, perhaps the greatest of any other person’s.

How did the brain get to the US?  He suspected it had something to do with the corruption which was so rampant in post-Communist Russia.  He recalled now distinctly that Lenin’s brain had been removed for study because he was deemed to be a genius by the Communists.  They wanted to see if there was a physical basis for his purported intellectual brilliance.  There clearly wasn’t one, and the brain must have been kept somewhere in an obscure place, as people didn’t know what to do with it.  With the fall of Communism, there was even less reason for keeping track of it.  It must have been sold off to someone for a pittance with some other Communist stuff.  Perhaps the seller and the buyer didn’t even know what was involved in the trade -- even that it was a brain.  It could have been part of a bulk deal....  And the Mafia had very likely played a role in all this.

What was he going to do with the brain?  He pushed the thought out of his mind.  It didn’t matter.  He didn’t have to do anything with it.  A few hours ago he was without it and he was fine, so now the worst thing that could happen would be if he got rid of it.  He would then be where he was before buying the brain, except for being poorer a measly $1.90.  But he was sure he could do something useful with it.  For the time being he would leave it alone. Having it was like having a wining lottery ticket.  You keep it until you are ready to claim the prize.  Returning to practical considerations, Wally decided he would store the brain in the refrigerator.  That was the best place for it.  It would keep better there.  Although, Wally continued thinking, the liquid somehow had to preserve the brain since it had kept well just being wrapped in a plastic bag.

Wally rewrapped the brain as it had been, put it on an empty shelf in the refrigerator, and went back to fixing himself the sandwich.  He washed his hands carefully first, however, to make sure he had gotten all the liquid off them, for obvious reasons.  He ate in the living room, sitting on the sofa and thinking about the brain as if watching television.  In the course of the evening, he looked into the refrigerator a few times, as if wanting to make sure the brain hadn’t somehow gotten away, and did this one more time just before going to bed, and as he was falling asleep, he felt safe and cozy, as if someone close and well-disposed toward him was staying in the house, a house in which he had lived all alone until then.

He spent a restless night, however, bothered by strange dreams -- dreams about run-down, unpainted wooden houses, their rooms illuminated by dim lightbulbs hanging on frayed electric wires, cluttered with ramshackle furniture, wallpaper coming off their walls, bedbugs crawling under it, sometimes swarming in big families, the windows in the rooms permanently shut, the air in them bad, smelling of damp clothes, dirty feet, sweaty bodies, cabbage soup, rotten herring, piles of frozen snow, like bodies of giant hunchbacks, outside the windows, or impenetrable mud in the street, boards sometimes thrown over the mud to facilitate walking, also mud-covered roads in the countryside, wide, almost not roads but fields, stretching nearly to the horizon, with tracks of carts in them, carts that had managed to pass, sometimes a cart stuck in the mud, abandoned, with no horse or person by it, the land flat, stretching monotonously to the horizon, such that you could almost see its curvature, the sky low, gray, with no glimmer of hope in it....  He woke up with a splitting headache, his body covered with huge red welts that itched terribly.

Where did these dreams come from?  They were clearly dreams of Russia, but how did they find their way into his mind?  Had he seen movies or pictures of such scenes?... read descriptions in books?...  heard stories about them?  He was sure none of this was true, yet the images were so vivid.  How could he have created them out of nothing?  Strange as it was, he could find an explanation for the physical symptoms -- the welts.  They could be a psychosomatic reaction to the dreams.  But the images themselves, although imaginary, were inexplicable.  Clearly they had something to do with the brain in the refrigerator.  But how?  Did the brain radiate information stored in it?

Wally got an uneasy feeling and decided to look at the brain, as if this could resolve the question.  He quickly went to the refrigerator, took the brain out, and unwrapped it.  To his amazement, he found it had decomposed somewhat during the night -- a little moist, crumbly stuff, black in color, had gathered around it and there were pitted spots on the outside surface of the brain, apparently where the matter had crumbled from.  Was it because the brain had been exposed to the air?  Wally doubted that.  The plastic bag was by no means airtight.  It also couldn’t be because it had sat in the refrigerator.  Cold temperature prevents decomposition rather than accelerates it.  And the brain certainly didn’t get frozen, which could have damaged it.  Had the brain decomposed then because the information had radiated from it into his brain?  He grew cold at the thought as if becoming aware of something dangerous.  But then a warm, pacifying feeling again came over him -- if it did, he wouldn’t be the poorer for it.  Lenin was definitely a great man, and getting the contents of such a person’s brain into his could only be beneficial.  He only hoped as much of the contents would get transferred as possible.   But he was sure not all of it would get transferred -- some of it must have already gotten lost.

Excited, he decided to call in sick and go instead to the library and read up on Lenin to see what possible changes he might expect to take place in him.

In the library Wally found out that Lenin’s real last name was “Ulyanov” and his patronymic “Ilyich.”  He had been born in 1870, in the town of Simbirsk in southern Russia, studied at the university of Kazan and then St. Petersburg, joined the illegal Communist party, was exiled to Siberia, then fled to Europe, came back in a sealed train, headed the revolution, got nearly assassinated, was the central figure in creating the Soviet Union, and so on and so forth, and died in 1924.  

As Wally read this information, he was stunned.  “Ulyanov” and “Uhland” -- practically identical.  His regular first name was “Waldemar,” again practically the same as “Vladimir.”  And in German, which is what he was on his father’s side, it was pronounced “Valdemar” -- even closer!  Now, it was true that his father’s name wasn’t anything like Lenin’s father’s name “Ilya” -- it was “Rudolf.”  But it didn’t mean that there had to be a similarity in everything.  On the other hand, his middle name was “Leonard,” which had been chosen by his Italian maternal grandmother in honor of Leonardo da Vinci, and he used to be called by her, until the day she died, as “Lenny” -- almost exactly “Lenin!”  And what’s more, Lenin died at the age of fifty-four, which is what he was at the moment!  Clearly, there were higher forces involved in his life and he was predestined from the day he was born for what was happening now.

He wondered what exactly was going to happen to him.  He was sure again that all the information that had been stored in Lenin’s brain wouldn’t get transferred because some of it must have gotten destroyed, but much probably would.  Would he get some of the physical characteristics -- would he look like Lenin?  He rubbed his chin and realized that he hadn’t shaved that morning and that his beard had grown out much more than normally and was shaping itself naturally around the tip of his chin, similar to the way it did with Lenin.  He had read about Lenin’s’ syphilis.  Would he inherit it?  He was convinced he wouldn’t.  For one thing, as he understood it, Lenin was essentially cured of syphilis, and what would be the purpose of making him the successor to Lenin, so to speak, while giving him a potentially mortal disease?  No, there was no fear of that.  For an instant he thought of the welts and wondered if they were symptoms of syphilis.  He checked himself, and they were almost gone.  Besides, he didn’t recall that welts were a symptom of syphilis.  They were bedbug bites, he suddenly realized.  Yes, he had dreamed of bedbugs, so that was why he got the welts.  That is what you get when they bite you.  Lenin must have been bitten by bedbugs sometime while staying in the kind of house or houses he had dreamed about.  This had probably happened when he was in exile in Siberia, or in the underground, hiding from the Czar’s police....

While he was driving home, the name “Volodinka” popped up in his mind, which he realized was a diminutive form of “Vladimir.”  He kept saying it to himself over and over, as well as the regular name “Vladimir,” unable to hold himself back because they sounded to him so nice.  In “Vladimir,” he particularly delighted dwelling on the “r,” which he pronounced in the velar fashion, thinking this was the way Russians pronounced it, unaware of the fact this was a speech defect Lenin suffered from.

On coming home, he got the brain out of the refrigerator and saw that more of it had disintegrated.  He could read a little of the newspaper -- it was Pravda, from October 1989, in which a long article by Gorbachev was featured dealing with the perestroyka.  He had no difficulty with the letters and at the beginning the meaning of many words came to him through looking similar to English, for instance, pravda (truth)-proven, partiya-party, oktyabr-October, dva-two, tri-three, nyet-not, and so on.  But as he read on, more and more words somehow took on correct meaning, for instance on-he, oni-they, and so on.  As he read on, the meanings of sentences would somehow shape themselves in his mind even if he didn’t understand the words in them, as if by intuition.

Throughout the day, as he moved about doing house chores and later running errands,  he felt more and more comfortable with the notion of Russia, and from time to time would unexpectedly burst out with a Russian word or phrase.  He also started humming melodies he had never heard before, which he assumed were Russian songs Lenin had liked.  And of course, The International was constantly on the tip of his tongue.

For lunch he cooked himself cabbage soup, trying to approximate as best he could Russian shchi, the taste of which buzzed around like an annoying fly in his memory.  He wanted to have salted herring with it but couldn’t find it anywhere in the stores.  Instead of savory dark Russian bread he had to be satisfied with bland commercial pumpernickel.

In the afternoon his beard had grown in thick, and he trimmed it so that it looked just like Lenin’s.  His hair started to come out in droves, which pleased him, and he began thinking that bald was beautiful.  As he was going to bed, he looked in the mirror and winked at himself slyly with eyes that had a definite Mongolian slant to them.  He told Volodinka -- himself -- in Russian that the world hadn’t seen the last of him yet.

That night his dreams were all about power.  A child, he was tearing off limbs and heads of toys given to him, as well as his sister’s dolls, disemboweling the latter in addition with a kitchen knife.  A teenager, he was on an island in a river flooded in spring time, full of rabbits that had gotten stranded there, and was shooting them at his pleasure with a rifle.  They didn’t even try running away and rolled over obediently like toys.  He loaded them all up in the boat so that its sides were on the level with water and was terrified it would sink if he rocked it just a little bit as he punted back to the river bank.  Soft and heavy, they warmed his feet like an expensive, shuba (fur coat) reaching all the way to the floor.  Grown man, he spoke at huge rallies in Krasnaya ploshchad (Red Square), his voice hoarse and breaking at times with strain, his cap clutched in his determined, catatonic hand, the spell-bound, catatonic crowd at his feet all around him.  The sound of his mispronounced “r’s” went to his head like wine.  He signed death warrants, stacks and stacks of them, without looking at whom they applied to.  He barked into emptiness “Rasstrelyat!” (Shoot him/her/them!).

He was up before dawn, full of energy, not knowing what to do with himself.  The brain in the refrigerator was now a pile of black matter, like a devil’s food cake all mashed up, and he threw it away into the garbage can.  When it got to be later, he stared calling up airline companies about the next available flight to Russia.  He began with Moscow but soon switched over to St. Petersburg, which he referred to time and time again as Leningrad, even after being reminded the city’s name had changed long time ago.  He spoke with a heavy Russian accent and tried to use Russian wherever possible.  With time, it became difficult for him to understand English.

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