On a cool night, lit by an immaculate display of soft lighting in the main courtyard of the Anichkov Palace in St. Petersburg, Kelly’s contestants were introduced to this season’s bachelor in this order: bridal stylist, fitness model, personal organizer, fashion model, hair stylist, community organizer, cruise ship entertainment director, graphic designer, salon owner, cosmetics consultant, yoga instructor (these women always made the first rounds of cuts), entrepreneur, another fitness model, graduate student in geology, political consultant, poker dealer, substitute teacher, jumbotron operator, real estate developer, advertising executive, health club manager, DJ, yet another fitness model, “professional” soccer player, and dental student. Unlike previous seasons, the bachelor was not waiting for the women, meeting them one on one, but they were collectively waiting for him and the fleet of black Mercedes SUVs that the Presidential Security Service said was arriving in two minutes.
Kelly watched the excited shuffling of these twenty woman through various screens in front of her. She was nowhere near the courtyard, but in a recently slapped together control room in the northern wing of the palace. Only two women were minorities, both of whom Kelly knew would immediately be discarded by the bachelor. It was her sixth season as the show’s producer, and she knew part of the pleasure of the show was its predictable rhythms.
“Thirty seconds,” said LeBron, her Russian attaché who spoke, oddly, with an Italian accent. He kept his index finger up to his earpiece.
“Okay,” Kelly said into her headset. “Entrance camera, SBP is here. Cameras five and six, don’t miss anything. I want to see the whole fleet.”
A caravan of black Mercedes SUVs rolled in, wrapping around the courtyard like a boa constrictor. From the car closest to the entrance, a man in a dark suit exited the passenger seat, held open the back door, and out came Vladimir Putin. He wore sunglasses, though it was an overcast day, and while buttoning his suit jacket closed, he surveyed the Anichkov. His lips moved, and all four doors of the Mercedes behind his opened, and men in black suits hurried inside ahead of Putin. He stood with his hands at his side, his head dipped as if in prayer, and then he squared his shoulders and pulled his shoulders back. An agent whispered something in his ear and he nodded, and before being guided toward the women, Putin dipped his chin and bit his lower lip.
The gesture, Kelly thought, seemed shy.
Several days later, well after midnight, Kelly stood from her workstation and wandered into the courtyard. It was too late to go for a run, and she hoped this restlessness in her hands would simmer down and she could go to sleep. However, sitting on a stone bench in the northern garden, wearing a Puma track suit, was Putin. He saw her immediately, as if he could smell her presence from across the concrete, and waved her over.
She had never spent time alone with the bachelor; she wasn’t sure if this was breaking the rules, if this was in his contract, or hers. This season’s living arrangements were unusual: the contestants in one part of the place, her staff and Putin’s sharing the other. Putin’s chief-of-staff explained how much the prime minister needed to work between filming, that having her crew offsite was a security risk, and that only by remaining in proximity would this season be possible. Shane, the show runner and her boss, cooked up this idea through the help of his brother-in-law, a Congressman on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Putin stood up, held his torso very erect, his hands clasped behind him, and theatrically turned away. She considered the fact that he wasn’t much taller than her.
“I have been told,” he said. “That polar bears are going extinct.”
She frowned. “Oh?”
“The melting ice caps. Carbon emissions destroy the poles. No ice. Polar bear drowns.”
“You know who is responsible for the deaths of these polar bears? Oil and gas companies. The oligarchs. Sometimes, I put them in jail.” He glanced at her like a nervous schoolboy.
“Isn’t Russia’s economy based on oil and gas production?”
He turned, his smirk spreading. She took one step back, and he raised his right hand, wagging his index finger.
“I cannot fool you! You are prepared! Yes, of course, we do. Russian fossil fuel production powers the globe. Without us, the world’s economy does not work. We are instrumental to your cars, your roads, your air conditioners.”
“I research all our bachelors. I don’t like surprises.”
“Neither do I! You and I are much alike.” He laughed, a booming rattle like a truck crushing gravel. “Still. I do love the polar bears. Right now, we are building a refuge, a zoo only for polar bears in eastern Russia. Once all the bears are drowned throughout the world, people will flock to eastern Siberia to see those beautiful, dangerous creatures. I am also building new modern airport in Kamchatka.”
“I’ve been talking to the contestants,” she said. “They’re having a fabulous time. Twenty-five very interesting women. Have any of them caught your eye?”
He looked over her shoulder at the rows of the freshly planted garden. “Do you like orchids?”
“Nasty things,” he nodded. He turned his cobalt eyes on her. He’s oddly charming, she thought. In a totalitarian, power hungry tyrant sort of way.
“I should get some sleep. Good night, Prime Minister,” she said. She walked across the courtyard, his guards in sleek suits standing at attention, all the while aware that Vladimir Putin was still standing in the courtyard with his hands behind his back, watching her walk away.
In the morning, Kelly discovered all the orchids on the grounds had been removed.
She spooned her yogurt and studied the monitors. Putin was in the gym; he had just finished lifting weights and was now skipping rope. Two of the contestants were also in the gym, spending more time observing Putin surreptitiously through the mirrors rather than actually working out. An hour later, her PA entered the production studio where Kelly was watching the raw footage from the first week and told her that Putin demanded a fighting exhibition with the contestants.
“I don’t understand,” Kelly said. “Like, judo?”
He shrugged. “I think there are weapons.”
“What are you talking about?” When the kid shrugged for a second time, Kelly said “Fuck off” and waved him away, grabbed her phone, and headed toward the contestants’ wing.
One of the grand ballrooms of the palace, a room with eight fireplaces, now had its floor covered by a long thick blue wrestling mat. The women were sardined into two groups, all of them wearing expensive workout clothes and light makeup, their hair pulled back into tight identical ponytails. Putin entered the room in a judo outfit, his bare feet pounding the mat with boyish malevolence, and jiggling a set of nunchucks in his right hand. Two men in gray suits behind him, each carrying a briefcase. From a goon in the corner, Putin received two quarterstaffs and spinning them absently in his hands, he bounded to the center of the room. Three cameras followed Putin as if he had a gravitational pull on their lives, and Kelly found the first unit director standing next to a cameraman with an expression of horrified confusion.
“Is this a good idea?” the director asked her.
“Probably not,” she said. Kelly absently tapped her chin with a single finger. “Keep filming.”
Putin raised one staff, palm up, to one group of contestants. The jumbotron operator raised her hand and raced forward, took the quarterstaff from Putin, her hand resting on his for a beat too long, then twirled the weapon with surprising dexterity (Kelly seemed to recall she had been drum major in high school), parading before the other women before turning to face Putin. He held the staff perpendicular to the ground, waited for her to come set, then lifted the quarterstaff in his right hand, flexed his hips and knees, and held his weapon at chest level.
“What if he hurts her?” the director asked.
“What if he kills her?” Kelly replied.
“I’m not fucking kidding.”
“Neither am I.”
The contestant jabbed and Putin batted away her attack. He countered; she defended herself, stepped back, attacked again. Her expression of amusement aggravated Kelly and, it seemed, Putin too, whose eyes narrowed and lips thinned, and he kept the charade for another moment or two before striking. He drove the woman back with two strong jabs, barely missing her head with the second, swung high to get her arms up, then bent and swung low, striking her hard behind the knee, and she fell, landing on her back with an audible cry of pain.
“What the fuck?” she yelled, clutching her leg.
Putin smiled. “Who is next?”
Kelly crossed her arms, dipped her chin to hide her smile, and muttered asshole. Two more contestants braved a match, each with the same glossy determination of a person who knows she is on camera, only to be struck hard (abdomen, calf again) by Putin. Then, a Russian in a judo outfit stepped forward, and while the match was clearly more rigorous and challenging, Putin eventually beat him too. He dropped his quarterstaff, pointed toward the doorway Kelly had entered through, and exited without looking at her.
The next day, Putin sent half the contestants home, including all three women he defeated in combat. He studiously avoided eye contact with Kelly, and for almost two weeks, she only saw him through the video footage she edited.
Then, he was back. Putin strode toward her, almost smiling, a giddy schoolboy attempting to hold back his delight. His right arm was tucked behind his back.
“I will show you something,” Putin said. He swung his right arm around, knuckles out, and held his hand to her face. On his right ring finger was an ornate ring the size of an egg.
“I had to have sized,” Putin said. “It was gift to me from larger man.” He tilted his palm toward his body as if to pound his chest, then pushed his hand back toward her. The ring was platinum and bejeweled, a gargantuan and gaudy blend of blue and red jewels. On the edges it read WORLD CHAMPIONS and in the middle, four trophies aligned almost like brass knuckles.
“Where did you get this?” Kelly asked. In her research, she came across an unconfirmed story that Putin had a stolen NFL championship ring, just one of many absurd and unproven stories that had made her softly laugh.
“He gave the ring to me,” Putin said. “Robert Kraft.”
Putin tsked. “He admires me. He said, Mr. President — I was President Putin then — Mr. President, the Russian people so love you, so respect you. They are vigorous and strong. They are like my Patriots. So he gave me the ring. He has plenty. Do you like it?”
She frowned at his knuckles. “Seems like a museum piece.”
Putin smiled tightly. “It is a big large, yes.” He pulled both hands to his body, and lowered his chin. “A museum piece. I can see that. Yes.” He raised his chin, expression still blank, icy eyes unblinking. “A great thing to display.” He nodded to himself, turned away, and gave sharp commands in Russian; one of his guard nodded, pulled a cellphone from his pocket, and furiously whispered in a low, steady cadence.
The next day, in the foyer alongside period pieces from Catherine the Great’s reign, a display case with soft lighting showcased Putin’s championship ring.
Tonight was another big cut, when Putin eliminated all but six of the women. Kelly sensed she knew which three finalists he would pick, and had already started exploring travel arrangements for their families to fly to St. Petersburg to meet their potential future son-in-law. She was thinking of them as commodities. The price of everything, the value of nothing: that’s what her father would have said. She wondered what her parents were doing back in Indiana at that very moment, and tried to calculate what the time difference would be in eight hours when the day’s work would be over. The numbers made her head full of spiders.
It was before dawn. She yanked on running tights, zipped up a lightweight jacket. She grabbed her running shoes, which were sitting on top on the dining table atop a stack of papers and manila folders next to the remnants of last night’s salad, and crept out into the hallway. Outside, the morning air was harsh in her lungs. The city’s boulevards were wide and beautiful, open like a yawn, and this early, there were few people on the streets. They weren’t invisible — the homeless, the prostitutes, the drunks stumbling out of bars, the clubgoers blinking in the new dawn light and their alcohol-buzzed minds focused on food and sleep — but no one troubled her, and after the first week in Russia, her fear of being mugged had vanished. When her watch vibrated that her first three miles were finished, she circled back and at the Anichkov Bridge, she stopped, set her hands on her hips, and strolled past the Horse Tamers, those beautiful Klodt sculptures, and stood at the center of the bridge, looking down into the Fontanka River. More than once, standing on the bridge, the wind chilling her sweaty skin, she thought, I could live here.
Upstairs, she showered and changed, picking from her suitcase full of non-threatening outfits. On her first season on the show, one of the women had turned on Kelly because of her shirts, her peppermint gum breath right underneath Kelly’s chin, a menacing finger jabbed toward her throat, screaming at Kelly about her buttons being open and her shirt cut too low and clearly the producers were just fucking with all of them and, bitch, what was your problem? Two days later, that season’s bachelor sent the girl home. Now Kelly can’t even remember her name, but she must admit, she has taken to minimal makeup, flats, and glasses she had picked because her optometrist had called them “matronly.”
The next morning, she was a block from the compound when she noticed two men on the corner ahead of her. They looked wrong. Sunglasses, even though the sun wasn’t yet out, and long black overcoats, their hands at their sides, and their unsmiling faces were turned in her direction. Her heartbeat echoed in her ears. She then heard the cadence of footsteps. She twisted her head to the right. Three men with close cropped haircuts and matching Dolce & Gabbana jogging suits ran in cadence, just steps behind her. She swung her head to the other side. Running step for step with her was Vladimir Putin.
“Dobroye utro,” he said.
“Good morning to you, too.”
“Do you mind I join you for your run?”
“Do I have a choice?”
Putin barked a laugh. “Yesterday, yes. Today, no.”
They ran in silence; when her watch trilled the mileage point to turn around, they spun back together. He picked up the pace; she stayed in lockstep with him. He said something in Russian, and then laughed. Fuck you, Vlade, she thought. But she said nothing when he joined again the next day, and the next, and the next until it was clear this was their routine.
On the show, they were down to the final three contestants. Kelly had correctly guessed exactly which one he kept.
Kelly examined the contents of the fridge and decided she wasn’t hungry. She reached in and plucked a Diet Coke from the shelves, and sat down at the island. In shadows, illuminated by the lights from outdoors that creeps through windows at night, her eyes adjusted to the shapes and sizes around her. She touched her forehead and leaned down on her elbows.
She wasn’t surprised to see Putin lingering in the doorway. She was surprised that he was dressed like a politician putting in late hours: blue dress shirt with the top button undone and his sleeves folded up his forearms, dress pants losing its creases.
“Where’s your security?” she asked.
“He will not wake up.” He strode into the room. “That sounded bad. I did not have him execute. He is sound asleep but will wake in morning. He is fine.” From the freezer he pulled out a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, then sat across from Kelly at the island. “Why are you awake?”
“I was just thinking about that,” Kelly said. “I’m not really sure.”
They were silent. Putin spooned two scoops of half-baked, then put the lid back on. He stood and walked around the island, behind Kelly. All the muscles in shoulders tensed. Behind her, kitchen sounds. Water running. A clatter of cabinets opens and closed. Hissing steam. She refused to turn around. Then it hit her: the smell of freshly brewed coffee. She held in a smile and Putin came back around the island holding two steaming mugs by the handle in one hand, and a bottle of Kahlua in the other. He set the mugs down and then cocked the bottle in a gesture of a question. Kelly nodded, and Putin poured a shot into both of their cups.
“I do not particularly like liqueurs,” he said. “But I tried this with vodka, and it is not the same.”
“What could be wrong with chocolate flavored alcohol?”
“Spoken like a true American woman.”
“Excuse me?” “You hear me fine. Why do Americans give their models titles? Fitness model. Fashion model. Cosmetic model. All are still models. Why not just say what they are?”
“Not a fan of models?” She, of course, knew that Putin had voted off all the models the first chance he got.
“A wife cannot prioritize her appearance. Looks fade.”
“What about attraction?”
He wagged a finger. “These are different things. Take you. What attracts you?”
Nothing: that’s the first word that enters her head. She puffed out a breath of air and looked over Putin’s head. Control. Interest. Who knows? She had never found the men she met in Los Angeles particularly interesting or emotionally available, and at some point, she stopped thinking much about them and their problems. For years she had watched contestants behave in the way the bachelor implicitly demanded, only to be discarded with melodramatic music, crocodile tears, and a limousine ride to the airport.
“We aren’t talking about me,” Kelly said.
Putin stared at her chin, and pressed his thin lips into a line. He lifted his cup — a Bert & Ernie mug — and gulped down his scalding concoction, set it down on the marble counter, turned on his heel, and stormed out.
The sounds of the bachelor fucking the final three womenseparately, of course — weirdly always sounded the same. She supposed that they all knew the sex noises they were supposed to make: grunts, sighs, gasps, squeals, and exclamations of profanity (the latter two always edited out). All these moments felt the same: the slow camera pan away from closed doors with the kind of nonspecific sexual noises one might hear in PG-13 movies.
Naturally, Kelly listened to the unedited copy. Russian Secret Service shrugged–“This, we have heard before many times”–and let Kelly slip noise-cancelling headphones on, hit play, and stare at the static image of the closed bedroom doors of the Presidential Suites of hotels in Kiev, Belarus, and Minsk. With the first girl, Putin was playful, maybe even joyous; they laughed quite a bit between sex (three times) though Kelly noted the girl did most of the talking. Sex with the second girl was more aggressive and athletic and — if she could determine this truthfully, which she did not know if she could do — better for them both. Palms slapped sweaty skin; breathing was pleasantly labored. The third and final session was almost boring; the girl was pathologically vocal and Kelly imagined Putin was quite bored. If nothing else, when the three girls were brought back together in St. Petersburg, Kelly studied the second one and detected smugness. She thought she had won.
They had two hours before filming the final episode with Putin’s choice for his new fiancé. It didn’t make sense to ever think of her as a bride; they almost invariably never made it that far, and of course, six months is a long time to keep the marriage prospects of one of the world’s dictators. Kelly removed her headphones. Dictator. That’s what she thought of him as. Dictator. A man who gives speeches with uniformed generals behind him, rabid crowds of followers cheering below him, while the rest of the country slid into poverty and despair. She had read all the economic data on Russia’s mortality rates, standards of living, and economic growth. He was a craven, vindictive monster.
She crossed her arms and leaned back, the chair squawking.
As if she had summoned him, a tuxedoed Putin entered the control room without knocking. He was cast in shadow, but his pale oval face shined in the glow of all the television monitors.
Behind him, two FSB agents in dark suits swept the room with their eyes.
“Everyone out,” Putin said, looking at Kelly. Her staff looked at her. She stood up and set her hands on her hips, stared at his wide porcelain forehead. Her staff shuffled out, the soft whorl of rolling chairs pushed back and headsets dropped on makeshift counters filling the room, until, finally, the last assistant left, and then the FSB agents stepped out, and the door’s hydraulic wheezed to a close. Through the door window, Kelly could see the back of the agents’ heads, their neat hairline and clean white colors.
“I need you out on the floor,” Kelly said. “Ballroom number three.”
“I am not going.”
“Like hell you’re not.”
He batted his hands against his thighs and pretended to walk aimlessly through the room. His lapels seemed to shimmer in the glow of the screens. He kept his hands at his side, elbows rigid to his ribs. He walked down the aisle across from her, gazing at the laptops and monitors as if they were works of art. Kelly crossed her arms.
“I had my attorneys review the contract,” he said. “I do not have to choose these women.”
“No, you don’t.”
“Your viewers do not mind?”
“That’s not why they watch.”
Putin smirked. “I understand this. It is like voting. Russians like to vote but do not like choices. It is like American carnivals. They come, freaks do song and dance, then they go away. Move to next town.” He wiped his hands together, then opened his fingers. Poof, gone.
“My show isn’t a circus.”
“I said carnival. Very different.”
“Mr. Prime Minister–” “Please,” he said, coming to the end of the aisle. He stepped down and turned to face her. “There is no need to use formal.”
“What are you doing?”
“I am asking the woman I love to be my wife.”
All around her were screens through which she worked, an artificial glow of light. From the surrounding darkness, Putin smiled wryly, as if he understood the joke, and he walked to her as if summoned, hypnotized, and pulled from offstage and into the harsh light. His face looked cool as he advanced toward her.
From his suit pocket, Putin removed a ring case. He held it in front of him like a dagger. A powerful humming comes from somewhere in the room. If he takes a knee, she thought, I’ll refuse. But if he remains standing, like this. In front of her now was only this dagger and she thought of what will she could do, what she might do, with his power.