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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lost Briefcase Brings Visions Of Hard Labor

Once upon a time in the old country of the Soviet Union there was a photographer we will call E. He was a good photographer. So good that an American publishing house decided to print a collection of his photographs. E agreed and at the appointed time went to meet a representative of the publishing house at the appointed place. Being a Soviet citizen, expecting always to have to prove that he is who he says he is, E put his internal passport, his expired foreign-travel passport, his journalist identification card and every other piece of paper he could find into his attache case.

Contract signed, E had some other business to attend to: His good friend F, also a photographer, was coming to town in order to leave for Germany with some Party delegation. E met F, and they celebrated F's arrival, their meeting, F's departure and even E's book contract, which he concealed from F but drank to nonetheless. Then E walked F to the train station, saw him to his compartment, and the friends celebrated there until E had to get off the train and wave to F from the platform.

E awoke with a hangover and the feeling that something was missing: his attache case, complete with his internal passport, his expired foreign-travel passport, his journalist identification card and every other piece of paper he could find. E had visions of labor camps and Siberian exile; in fact, most likely, for signing a contract with an American publisher, E would merely have lost his job, but in his visions, E was given to hyperbole. So gripped was he by fear that over the following week he didn't even attempt to restore his documents.

At the end of the week, E met F's train. Imagine his relief when F appeared with E's attache case in his hand. Hell, imagine F's relief at not having the case checked at any border on the way in or out of the country -- and imagine his fear when he looked inside the case when he awoke on the approach to the first border.

F, as I said, was also a photographer. By all accounts, he was not as good as E, but he was well connected. He photographed everybody who was anybody in his town, so for all intents and purposes he was a member of the nomenklatura. So when E came on assignment to F's town, F decided to send him off the way the nomenklatura did: with all the food a country can eat.

That town was famous for its tomatoes, so no matter how much E protested that he hated them, F directed the local minions to pack his car with boxes of the things. E didn't attempt to object again until it seemed like there would be no room for the last box. "But it's the best of the best tomatoes," argued the loader. "For you to eat on your way home." With that he removed an attache case from the car and placed it on the ground so he could fit the last box of tomatoes inside.

F didn't realize his case was missing until the photographer friends were already somewhere else, picking up jars of caviar. The case contained all the documents F had procured through his connections: Interior Ministry identification cards, military papers, permits to get in anywhere anytime. This case they never found.

Masha Gessen is a staff writer for Itogi magazine.