Suddenly I heard him saying "We are in need of a diagram for the secondary commutation for the city of Kirov. That is your task."

My heart sank. But an instinct for self-preservation stopped me from flinching or making any sign of surprise or dismay. I did not have the foggiest idea what a secondary commutation was.

[Later, he meets with the foreman of the generator room.]

"What's new," he said, lifting his chin up and pointing at my rolled drawing. "Not much. They want to go ahead with a secondary commutation."

"What kind of shit is that? They better get new ball bearings or the whole caboodle will grind to a halt one day Those shitheads will always think of some stupidity just to get away from the real stuff they can't cope with."

He spat on the floor. I asked what he thought about the secondary commutation. "Nothing. I don't even know what it means. And I bet that not one of them knows either. Office nitwits. That's what they are. Wasting good Soviet paper and pencils. The parasites."

I spent half of the following day going through the dusty rolls of technical drawings stacked on shelves in my office. Among them was one blueprint from prerevolutionary times. It somewhat resembled the drawing brought by Sergei Sergeyevich. The title on it had something to do with "Directional Reversing," which was just as puzzling for me as "Secondary Commutation." But it was a beautiful print with white lines and letters, contrasting with the cobalt blue of the print's surface. The draftsmanship and the lettering were exquisite. A work of art. I have never seen anything like it before or since in my many years as an architect.

But what was I going to do? "Tufta!" shot through my mind and within seconds I knew. I would divide each drawing into several parts, shuffle them around, and combine the tsarist and current drawings into one, using my imagination about how to link the lines to form an integral design. Symbols and rectangles filled with fictitious notes would cover the jarring juxtapositions. That work could take a few days, maybe weeks, before anybody would discover my total ignorance of the subject.

I also knew that sooner or later I was going to leave TES-2 and Kirov to seek the Polish Army that was being formed in a yet undisclosed place. So if they fired me, it would simply speed up my departure. I decided to take the risk.

Sergei Sergeyevich was impressed with my makeshift tracing paper, which I made from the only available white paper. It was of poor quality-something like the white wrapping paper that is used nowadays in deli shops. This I soaked with linseed oil to make it transparent and then rubbed it dry with old newspapers. A very laborious process it was. It took hours and hours of rubbing until the paper was dry enough to take India ink. He nodded approvingly when he saw me using the slide rule, drafting instruments and especially the small rotating compass which Russians aptly call ballerinka. But as my drawing became more and more intricate, his visits became less frequent and soon he stopped coming at all.

I was pleased with my work. The drawing looked very professional and, for me, finding a new connection in the labyrinth-like design for an unfinished line that stopped in the middle of nowhere was a challenging and entertaining pastime. The abstruse design went ahead faster than I expected and, as I could not take the increasing anxiety any more, I decided on a showdown. I called on Sergei Sergeyevich and told him that the diagram was ready for his approval and signature. He did not show up for two days, claiming other important engagements. On the third day, I cornered him in his office. He would not even unroll my chef-d'oeuvre but said, "Let's go see Tovarish Nachal'nik."

When Sergei Sergeyevich spread the "Diagram of the Secondary Commutation of the City of Kirov" on the boss's desk, the moment of truth had arrived. My heart was racing like that of a captured sparrow. Both of them bent down over my drawing. Sergei Sergeyevich was sliding his bejewelled index finger from one place to another saying, "That's correct. Just as I suggested." Tovarish Nachal'nik was hmming and dassing like a steam locomotive.

Suddenly my tension disappeared. It was clear to me that neither of them knew anything about the "Secondary Commutation." They could not even read a technical drawing. The foreman from the generator room was right.

The meeting was soon over. I was told that some adjustments would have to be made in the diagram, but on the whole that the job was well done and that it might well reflect on my salary revision scheduled for the coming year. Although it was nice to hear that I might get a raise, it wouldn't help much. Apart from our bread rations, there was almost no food for sale.

--- From Without Vodka
Aleksander Topolski
©2001, Steerforth Press


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