Go on Pretending

Go On Pretending: There’s a Reason I Work in Fiction

Chapter #26: I want a world where everything is better.

collage of early soap operas for go on pretending serial

Jonas walked Rose towards Red Square, following the same path they’d taken when with their Komsomolnik friends. If possible, the streets were even more clogged with people now that the festival was officially underway than it had been during the run-up. It was impossible to take a single step without bumping into a group of citizens and visitors in the midst of some convivial activity.

Within a span of just a few minutes, Rose glimpsed a girl with Ukrainian ribbons in her hair handing a girl with an Indian dot in the middle of her forehead, a bouquet of flowers from a basket carried by a dog in matching festive attire, a man in a turban playfully rubbing the head of a man in a colorful tunic with hair identical to Jonas’s, and a boy in a three-cornered hat pulling a girl in a smart business suit, not unlike one Rose would wear to the office, out of a crowd and into his dance while those around them clapped and cheered. They put a white scarf on the ground, both knelt down on their knees, and the boy kissed the girl on both cheeks in a ceremony Rose didn’t understand but fervently wished she could be a part of.

It was Rose’s greatest regret that, despite having arrived in Moscow ahead of most visitors, she hadn’t had the chance to truly experience the festival. She’d been locked inside the theater, working on her own project.

She’d been forced to hear second-hand about the bonfires on the water, the American jazz concerts, the English brass bands, the French chemists’ demonstrations, the International Exhibition of Fine and Applied Modern Art, and, of course, the song, Moscow Nights, which was being sung and played everywhere, translated into foreign languages seemingly on the fly. As with so many other things in her life, Rose still felt like an outsider, standing on her tip-toes, bobbing between taller heads, trying desperately to peer into what was happening at the center of the action.

As if to drive home that point, Jonas led Rose toward the front entrance to Lenin’s Tomb. A crowd of hundreds, maybe as many as 2,000, had gathered around what appeared to be a lone man, medium height, stocky, dark-haired, Jewish, if Rose had to guess. She’d been hearing Russian around her for so long that it took Rose a minute to realize he was speaking English; New York accent with just a touch of Boston. Harvard, if Rose had to guess.

“No,” Rose began shaking her head, backing up simultaneously, a task made impossible by the fact that, as soon as they’d arrived, more Russians swarmed in behind them, forming an impenetrable wall of bodies. “I heard about this – him. Eleanor Roosevelt, she even commented on it. She said that Americans who visited other countries should consider themselves guests. They shouldn’t deliberately go out of their way to antagonize and provoke.”

“Eleanor Roosevelt,” Jonas repeated the name, amused. “Didn’t you call her husband a Fascist for refusing to accept Jewish refugees and for his internment of the Japanese?”

“Yes,” Rose confirmed emphatically, then, just as emphatically, added, “This is different.” With growing horror, she gasped, “Have you been coming here to listen to this man?”

“I’m hardly the only one. Look around. It’s fascinating. Soviets have so many questions about the outside world. I’ve seen him standing here, 10, 12 hours, just answering whatever anyone throws his way. The other day, somebody wanted to know: Is there much of a difference in America between the workers and the bourgeoisie?”

“And what did he say?” Rose was curious in spite of herself.

He said, “In America, the workers are the bourgeoisie!”

Rose crossed her arms along her chest, “That’s not funny. Or accurate.”

Grinning, Jonas changed the subject. “They ask him about his family, about law school, about how much money he’s going to make, where he lives, what New York looks like. It’s the most fascinating thing. We espouse the brotherhood of man in theory, but this is it, right here. No censors, no press, no government, no gatekeepers, just people talking to one another.”

“Why did you bring me here?” Rose needed to know.

“I thought you’d find it interesting. How could a writer not find this interesting? This is an incredibly literate crowd. Yesterday, someone brought up the author Howard Fast, how he was a proud American Communist. George — his name is George, by the way, George Abrams, he’s a Harvard student –” So Rose had been right about the Harvard and the Jewish — “George had to tell them how Fast quit the Party last February after Khrushchev revealed everything Stalin did in its name. They didn’t believe him. They tried to shut him down. But, at the end of the night, after he’d been here so long, the Metro trains had stopped running, a bunch of people chipped in so he could take a cab back to his hotel.”

Jonas was practically beaming. “Isn’t this amazing? This is everything we’re always talking about. Self-organizing, mutual cooperation. And today — today! There was a huge argument yesterday about the Hungarian uprising. The crowd insisted the Hungarian government invited the Soviet Union to come in and help them quash a Fascist rebellion and restore the People’s Government. When George referred to the United Nations report contradicting that, he was shouted down. So George said he’d come today and read the entire report out loud. It’s a historic moment. I wanted to share it with you.”

Even as Jonas spoke, Rose could see the crowd doing what he’d said, self-organizing. They split into four groups. At the head of each one stood a young man or woman. As George began to read the UN report out loud in English, each of the four translated it into Russian for the people in front of them. 

From deep inside the crowd, a voice cried out in English, “It’s true, it’s true. What he says is true. I work for the railroad. After the revolution, I found bottles that had been dropped along the tracks. There were notes inside from Hungarian students. They said they’d been protesting the USSR’s control of their government. They wanted our Army gone from their land, they wanted self-determination. And now they were on their way to Siberia for it!”

“No.” Rose pivoted and pushed her way through the mob, Jonas in hot pursuit, their abandoned spaces quickly and gratefully filled in by those who wanted to draw closer. “We can’t stay here. We can’t keep listening to this.”

He waited until she’d broken free, until Rose was no longer trapped amongst the tightly packed bodies. As she gulped for air, Jonas gently asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Don’t you see?” She gasped as if she’d just run up all the flights in St. Basil’s Cathedral. “Can’t you see what they’re doing? That man, he’s clearly a provocateur. Sent here deliberately to spread misinformation and discredit the Soviet Union. What other reason would a person have for exposing a government’s action than to cause trouble and dissent among the citizens?”

“Like those troublemakers riding buses down in Alabama?” Jonas asked innocently. But Rose could hear the real question behind the guileless one.

“No. Oh, no.” Rose grabbed both of Jonas’s hands, looking him in the eye, willing him not to misunderstand. “Not like that at all. Dr. King and the rest, they’re forcing the Americans down South, all Americans, really, to confront the ugliness of Jim Crow. Dr. King is fighting for positive change. He’s fighting to make our country a better, less racist place. This man — this man is just here to inflame and turn Soviet citizens against their country. Segregation is happening right now. The Hungarian Uprising is over. What good does it do to autopsy the past? We should be looking forward. That’s what this whole festival is about. Youth…the future…”

“He’s telling the truth,” Jonas said softly. “Doesn’t that matter?”

“So what if he’s telling the truth?” Rose demanded, hearing her voice growing shriller but feeling helpless to rein it in. “So what? There’s a reason I don’t work in news, Jonas. There’s a reason I work in fiction. I am so tired of hearing about how the world is. I know how the world is. I see how the world is. I saw it in how you were treated. I saw it in how we were treated. What I want, even if it’s just for a moment, I want a world where everything isn’t the way it is. I want a world where everything is better. Where everything is calm and perfect and safe and decent.

“I want a world where I’m not always looking over my shoulder, wondering what horrible thing is creeping up to jump me from behind. I want to just breathe. Is that such a terrible, selfish thing to want? One single, solitary breath during which I’m not worried about the future or guilty about the past, or too frantic to even notice the present? Where I know what I know, and I believe what I believe, and it isn’t constantly being challenged and turned on its head? So what if he’s telling the truth? Can’t the world just stay,” she fumbled for a word and only managed to come up with, “still? Can’t the word just stay still for one minute?”


Their Komsomolnik handlers were waiting when Rose and Jonas returned to the theater; the two girls who’d greeted them the first day, along with a heavily mustached man who looked old enough to be their father. 

“We heard,” the first one began, “that you were caught up in our shameful happening in Red Square today, on accident.” The way she posed the final two words made it clear that Rose and Jonas were being offered an out. And that they’d be wise to take it.

“Yes,” Rose nodded, the expression growing more fervid as she went on. “We wanted to take in some of the Festival’s sights. It’s our first free afternoon since we arrived. We had no idea that –“

“The boy from America, he is speaking all lies.” The second one said, her demeanor as cheerful as if reciting a celebratory poem. “We know you would wish to know truth. So we bring you head of Hungarian delegation to Youth Festival. He explain what is honest.”

“Youth?” Rose heard Jonas blurt out. She didn’t have to turn her head to know he was struggling to suppress a smile. The gentleman who stepped forward was clearly in his mid-30s, if not older. The overflowing mustache was also turning gray just beneath his nose.

“We prepare, for Americans,” he said, barely able to keep the sneer from his voice as he shoved a pair of books, one in each of their hands, “in English. So you can understand.”

Rose gingerly opened to the first page, where she instantly spied the phrases, “events of past October” and “fascist counter-revolutionaries.”

“Also photographs,” both girls were smiling now, even as they showed Rose and Jonas a horrific black and white photograph of a half dozen Államvédelmi Hatóság, Hungary’s Secret Police, officers lined up against the wall of their station as rebels opened retributory fire. “In Life Magazine,” they said. “Your American Life Magazine shows this.”

Rose nodded. She’d seen the images when they came out the previous year. Before the uprising was quickly crushed by Soviet tanks.

“This is he,” the girl said, pointing to the mustached man. “He is AVH officer. This is him in photo. He survive this attack. He will to tell you what truly happened, who to attack him and his country.”

“They are nationalists,” he droned, reciting from memory without any variation in tone. “Hooligans, criminals, fascists from The Great War, who wish to overthrow our democratically elected government. They use Molotov cocktails, shoot women and children in street, march into villages, and rip them apart. They call strike to cripple and starve us. Almost 3,000 people dead. We cannot let our people suffer like this. We beg Soviet Union to come and help us to retake our country. USSR is our great hero.”

“You are great hero,” one of the girls patted his arm and beamed at him. She told Rose and Jonas. “It is miraculous he survive shooting attack. He is much venerated in his country.”

“Thank you for telling us.” Rose attempted to hand back her book, but the man stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge her actions.

“Are gifts for you,” the second girl explained. “Hungary to bring many boxes of books in many languages so they can to show truth for those who ask questions.”

“You’ve certainly thought of everything,” Jonas said. 

“Yes,” the girl agreed, then, in the same cheerful chirp, advised, “You should think of everything, too.”


It was hours later when Jonas was getting into his costume for the night’s performance, and Rose stopped by to wish him luck that they were left alone long enough for her to whisper, “What do you think will happen to that boy from America?”

“He’ll be fine.” Jonas was an excellent actor. Very few people could tell when he was putting on an act. Rose was one of them. “The Soviets won’t want to make a scene. Not while throwing a festival to demonstrate how open and non-repressive they are. They’ll probably just send him home and prevent him from ever coming back.”

“What about those who were listening to him?”

Jonas was an excellent actor. But even he couldn’t hide the concern on his face.


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Alina Adams is the New York Times best-selling author of the As the World Turns tie-ins, Oakdale Confidential and The Man From Oakdale, and Guiding Light’s Jonathan’s Story. Check out her new historical fiction, My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region, out now! 

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