Lesley Lebkowicz: The Petrov Poems

'I couldn't put it down...I delighted in the narrative thrust, the insights, the poetic imagery...these poems gave me great pleasure.'  Robert Dessaix

NAA:A6201, 62
Dusya at Mascot, April 19 1954

She sees lights flash over the crowd and
glint off the plane. People are screaming:
Let her stay. Why do they care so much
about her? The mass swells and jostles –
crashes its voice into her ears.
Buttons are snatched from her suit '
she loses a shoe. She must limp.
Beneath her bare foot the tarmac is rough.

The couriers lock her arms through their own.
They shove her along. They stink
through their clothes – sweat, fear,
rancid, sour. If only she could focus her mind
on one thing –her dead daughter’s fine hair or
a white cup, its tea warming her palm.

The Petrov Poems tells the story of the Petrov Affair from the inside. In the voices of Volodya Petrov and his wife, Dusya Petrova, the novel tells what it was like for the career KGB operatives to reach their decisions to defect, and what their lives were like after they had, in their eyes, betrayed their own country.

The Petrov Affair had enormous ramifications for the course of Australian history in the 1950s. While the labor movement tore itself to pieces and Australia entered into its own McCarthyist period, Volodya and Dusya had to work out how to live with the consequences of their decisions.


They lean on the rail of the Orcades as she sails
into Sydney. The wind buffets Dusya's hair into her eyes,
flattens Volodya's shirt to his skin.
Around them the sea seeks out inlets where it
slaps the stone walls. The water flirts with the yachts.
Light bounces off everything.
The liner holds them safe from the waves and,
for this moment, from the political tides
that run their lives.
Their last posting was Sweden
where she learnt how the cut of fine clothes
flattered her body - and how to train spies.
She loved the art - whom to woo,
how to dangle the sharp bait of treason -
and when to abandon an agent. They had done well
in Stockholm and back in Moscow. Fear had cast
each cell for survival. As a child
Dusya had been drawn by the bright red
of the young communists and worked her way up
in the Party while her innocent brother
was condemned to a camp.
They had grown up in darkness.
The state snatched their farms. Moscow snaffled the food.
Hungry farmers fled after it. Empty houses
opened their roofs to the sky. The country
was a landscape of bones.
In the capital
people were walled into sad rooms
with other families' children and rows. Harsh grunts
in the night betrayed sex. Babies squalled -
but no-one complained - spies
breathed in dissent and passed on your words
and your name. When you've scrambled to survive
you know how to fear.
She learnt fast but still lost her first love
to the secret police. They knocked loud - before dawn
as always. After that she watched even harder.
Volodya had been a safe choice.
Volodya is solid - more than a husband - an ally.
She touches his arm, feels its warmth, the play
of slack flesh over bone. Softness has long fled
his mind. He had seen hundreds shovelled
into their graves, thousands destroyed like ants
swept away by hot water. When he was in Sinkiang
the KGB shot their own spy - dug a hole
in the dirt floor, levered him in (a big man)
and burnt him. Then stamped down the soil.
Volodya knows: better to stamp than be stamped on.
They had covered the grave with a rug. (The region
was famous for rugs.) Such things mark the shape -
not the sum - of the horrors they've lived.
In a few minutes they'll dock at Wharf 13 Pyrmont
and walk down the gangplank.

Published by Pitt Street Poetry


Jess Hamilton of 2SER interviews Lesley Lebkowicz

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