Major Sergei Dmitrevich Runkov of the GRU--the Soviet Military Intelligence--left the communications center in the basement of the Lubyanka Prison and waddled down the corridor toward the elevator, his 160-kilogram bulk stuffed impressively into his bedraggled army uniform.
Major Runkov was in a foul mood this evening, and was sweating heavily, despite the damp chill that permeated the lower levels of the prison compound.
He was carrying a bundle of message forms in a file folder with two red stripes diagonally across its front, signifying top secret material.
At the elevator, two officers, neither of whom he knew, glanced at the file folder and then scowled at Runkov. It was a mistake on their part.
Runkov's right eyebrow arched. "You have a problem, captain?" he growled at one of the officers.
The other man, a lieutenant colonel, stepped forward. "It is you who apparently have the problem, major," hesnapped. "What is your name and your unit, and what exactly are you doing carrying top secret material out of here?"
"Runkov. GRU. And what I am doing with these messages is none of your goddamned business, comrade."
The elevator had arrived, and Runkov reached out and pushed back the iron gate. The lieutenant colonel tried to stop him by placing his hand on Runkov's arm. The GRU officer spun around out of the officer's grasp, surprisingly light on his feet, and, centimeters away from the man, he said menacingly, "Do that again, comrade colonel, and you will likely lose your arm and very probably more."
The other officer paled. "See here ..." he started to say, but his superior officer stopped him.
"Sergei Runkov?" the lieutenant colonel asked, his voice now polite.
Runkov glared at him and barely nodded his head.
"I see, major," the officer said. "Please forgive us the intrusion."
Runkov snorted, turned, reentered the elevator, and, without waiting for the two officers to join him, crashed the iron gate shut and slammed the control lever to the right. The elevator rose with a lurch as the captain, who now looked definitely ill, turned to his colonel.
"The Bear?" he asked. The colonel, who looked no better, nodded.
At sixty Runkov had well earned his nickname, the Bear, which in no way was a reference to the Soviet Union's symbol, but rather an indication of his impressive bulk, as well as his ferocity.
At the time of the Revolution, Runkov, who had come from poor peasant stock along the Volga northwest of Moscow, was a member of the Red Army, and in the fighting had proven himself over and over again. At that time his nearly two-meter frame had been packed with 125 kilograms of meat, and he could andoften had crushed men to death with his arms in a bear hug. Thus his title.
After the Revolution he had transferred out of his regular army unit into the newly formed Cheka Registry Department, the forerunner of the GRU. And his reputation spread so that during the purges of the late thirties he survived without even a hint of trouble.
He had been married, but his wife had died two years ago, and his childless marriage was now nothing more than a vague, indistinct memory.
Upstairs, he charged out of the elevator and moved down the wide corridor toward his office like a battleship crashing through the sea, neither moving aside nor slowing down for any obstacle.
His chief assistant, Sergeant Vladimir Doronkin, who had been with him since shortly after the Cheka had been formed, jumped up from his desk when Runkov barged into the room. The man, normally almost as unflappable as Runkov, looked definitely shaken. "I tried to get you downstairs, but you had already left," he said breathlessly.
Runkov ignored him as he crossed the outer office and went into his own cubicle, slamming the file folder down on his desk. He slumped into his specially built chair, loosened his tie, and poured himself a stiff shot of vodka from a bottle in one of his desk drawers.
When he had thrown back the drink and taken a deep breath to calm himself, he looked up at his aide, who had followed him into his office. "What hell has broken loose now, Vladimir Nikhailovich?" he asked gently.
"Comrade Beria's office sent over a messenger for you. He is waiting downstairs."
"That fairy!" Runkov exploded, pounding his massive right fist on the desk top. "What in hell does he want?"
"No, Sergei ... no ... it is not him. It is Marshal Stalin himself. He wants to see you."
Runkov snapped up. "When?"
"Now," Sergeant Doronkin said. "Immediately."
Runkov smiled. "So," he said, sitting back in his chair. "The 'man made of steel' has deigned to send for me at long last."
Sergeant Doronkin, who had served his major well over the years, and who loved and respected the man, had to look nervously over his shoulder. What the major was saying was treasonous, punishable by death. But Runkov was totally unperturbed. "There is a car waiting for you downstairs," said the aide.
"Yes." Runkov was smiling. He got ponderously to his feet and began straightening his tie. "Quickly now," he said. "Get me the current files on Klaus Fuchs and on the American Manhattan District Project."
"Yes, sir," Doronkin said, pleased that his boss was not going to completely ignore the summons, as he had other summonses before. When Stalin himself called, a man either moved fast or lost his head. It was simple.
A light drizzle was falling in the warm evening as Runkov emerged from one of the side doors of the prison and climbed into a waiting car. It was an American lend-lease Chevrolet painted an olive drab. The U.S. insignia on the doors had been covered over with a red star, and red flags adorned both front fenders.
An air force colonel was waiting for him in the backseat, and as soon as Runkov closed the door, the man indicated for the driver to take off.
The car proceeded through the courtyard, past the black statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the State Secret Police, and then sped through the gate and headed toward the Kremlin along the deserted Yaroslavskoye Road.
"So, Sergei Dmitrevich, what do you think of our new summer offensive?" the colonel asked pleasantly.
Moscow was still under a blackout, despite the Nazi setbacks, and Runkov could barely make out the colonel's features. "If you've asked me that to be polite,colonel, don't. I do not engage in pleasantries. And if you've asked that because you desire my military assessment, also don't. My opinions go through channels."
The colonel chuckled. "The Bear," he said, half to himself. "Why is it, comrade major, that you feel you must constantly live up to your fierce reputation?"
"Stupidity," Runkov growled, looking directly at the man. "Inefficiency. Mendacity."
The colonel interrupted him. "You would do well to curb your tongue, or you may lose it along with the rest of your head."
"There would be none to shed a tear, least of all me," Runkov snapped, and both men fell silent as the car rushed through the night.
It had been two weeks now since he had sent his summary of intelligence operations in the United States directly to Marshal Stalin. For the first couple of days afterward, he had braced himself for the expected storm of protest. What was a GRU major trying to do by sending such a report directly to Stalin? Was the man mad?
But nothing had happened. Absolutely nothing. And as the days had stretched into the first week, Runkov's mood had blackened.
And, now that Stalin had finally acknowledged him, he thought bitterly, it was only to send a car and driver from the NKVD. Beria would be at the meeting, he supposed, and so would that fool Merkulov. But with Stalin he was going to have to watch his tongue.
A few minutes later they were admitted through the Kremlin gate. The driver took them slowly past the Great Palace, and then parked in front of the main administration building.
Inside the ground floor their credentials were checked, as was Runkov's bulging briefcase, before they were allowed to continue along a wide, spotlessly clean corridor to another pair of guards at the elevator.There they were required to submit to another complete security check.
On the third floor a third check was required, and a civilian aide escorted them down another wide corridor and into a large suite of offices, where a second civilian aide took over the escort duty.
Finally they were led through a wide set of double doors into a huge room furnished with nothing more than a long conference table under an ornate chandelier. There were no paintings on the walls, no sideboards or cabinets, no chairs, only the table and thick wine-red drapes completely covering the several large windows along one wall.
Two older men in baggy, unpressed, gray suits stood around the table, and when Runkov and the air force colonel entered the room, they both looked up.
"Marshal Stalin will arrive momentarily," their aide told them, and he left, quietly closing the large doors after him.
The colonel escorted Runkov to the table, but he did not have to make any introductions. All three men knew each other. The older man to the right was Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, who was the head of the Internal Affairs Police--the NKVD--which watched over all Soviet industry, as well as Siberia. The man to his left was Vsevolod Nikolaevich Merkulov, the chief administrator of the State Secret Service, or the NKGB.
That these three men were together in one room--the heads of the NKVD and the NKGB, as well as a high-ranking officer of the GRU--was extraordinary, and Runkov's pulse quickened. All three services maintained an intense, often bloody rivalry. It had been Stalin's contention from the very beginning that such rivalry would keep the separate security apparatuses on their toes. But it also fostered intense distrust and hatred.
The two men nodded to Runkov, who set his briefcase on the table, which was strewn with maps thatobviously outlined the recent Nazi setbacks.
Beria looked at the air force colonel. "That will be all, comrade. Thank you for your kind assistance."
The colonel nodded stiffly, turned, and left the room. A moment later a rear door opened and Joseph Stalin, wearing a neatly fitting, plain military tunic and well-pressed gray trousers, entered the room and crossed quickly to stand at the head of the table, Beria to his left, Merkulov to his right, and Runkov directly across.
Stalin appeared to be in high spirits; his complexion was ruddy, his health good. His ebullience, Runkov thought, was no doubt due to the way the war had been going this past month. But the most striking figure of the supreme Soviet leader was the aura of absolute power that seemed to surround him, or rather radiate from him like heat from an open-hearth furnace.
Runkov did not let Stalin's apparently good-natured mood delude him into thinking that this was going to be easy. The dungeons here in the Kremlin itself were filled with the screams of dying men who had misjudged their leader.
"I've passed on copies of your report to Comrades Beria and Merkulov," Stalin said to Runkov without preamble. "It is their studied opinion that your contentions are nonsense."
Runkov stiffened. This was starting out badly, dangerously, but he managed a very slight smile, nevertheless. "Their reaction is understandable, comrade marshal, because they simply do not share your unique perception."
Something flashed deep inside of Stalin's eyes, but then the supreme Soviet leader threw back his head and roared with laughter. Beria looked incredulous, and Merkulov was white.
For just a moment Runkov was certain he had seriously blundered, but it was too late now to turn back.
"I did not call you together this evening for bloodshed," Stalin said when he had recovered. "Convinceus, Sergei Dmitrevich, that we are wrong and you are right."
Stalin was the only man on this earth whom Runkov feared and respected. He was going to have to play this carefully--very carefully.
"If by some chance the Americans are successful in their efforts to build this new super weapon--it is being called an atomic bomb--then the war will end to our disadvantage."
"The German scientists ..." Merkulov started to protest, but Runkov cut him off.
"No longer have the industrial resources necessary to manufacture such a weapon. They are working on it at this moment, but very soon they will be preoccupied elsewhere."
"The Germans are no threat?" Stalin asked softly. There was a dangerous edge to his voice, and Runkov could feel the sweat rolling down his sides from his armpits.
"I did not mean to imply such a thing, comrade marshal," he said. "The Germans are still a serious threat, but not in this."
"Will the Americans succeed in their efforts to construct such a weapon, or will they not?" Stalin demanded, raising his voice and thumping his right fist on the table top. Beria flinched.
"The Americans may be successful," Runkov answered. "And if they are, it will make our position unacceptable."
Stalin turned to Beria, his eyes flashing. "What about our efforts in this matter?"
The Internal Affairs chief seemed on the verge of fainting. "Such a weapon is impossible in the near future," he said carefully.
"What if Major Runkov is correct ... . What then, my dear Lavrenti Pavlovich? What then?"
At first Beria said nothing, although his mouth was working, but Stalin's iron gaze remained locked into theman's eyes, and he finally had to shake his head. "I do not know," he said softly.
"What about you?" Stalin shouted, turning to Merkulov.
"The first I heard of such a weapon was through Major Runkov's reports," the NKGB chief said quickly. "My opinion is that the idea of such a device is farfetched at best. Perhaps someday, far in the future, such a weapon could be perfected. But surely not in time to make any significant difference in the war with Germany."
"But what about after the war, comrade marshal?" Runkov asked.
Stalin leaned forward, his clenched fists on the table in front of him. "What about after the war, Sergei Dmitrevich?"
"If the Americans should manage to develop this weapon, our position after the war will be unacceptable."
"They are our allies, we should demand to share in their research," Beria said.
Stalin ignored him, his attention completely on Runkov. "What is it you suggest?"
Runkov felt a little thrill of triumph, and he reached out to open his briefcase, but Stalin stopped him.
"I don't care about your maps or your timetables. I want your suggestion." Stalin straightened up. "Given a free hand, what would you do?"
This was it. "Two things, comrade marshal," Runkov said without hesitation. He had been waiting for this moment for two weeks now, ever since he had received word from Klaus Fuchs that there was a possibility that he and other British scientists might be sent to the United States to help with the American efforts to build the new weapon. "Or rather a two-pronged attack." He paused briefly.
"Continue," Stalin roared in impatience.
"The first would be to dramatically increase our U.S.network to gain as much information as we possibly can in as short a time as possible. This information would be instantly relayed to our own scientists, which would greatly accelerate our work."
"And the second?" Stalin asked, his voice like ice.
"Stop the American efforts, or at least slow them down, which would give our scientists time to catch up or perhaps surpass their efforts. Whoever controls this weapon could control the world."
Stalin seemed to draw inward for a moment, deep within his own thoughts. "It would also guarantee that the Americans would have to continue the war with conventional weapons, ultimately weakening their position when it's over," he said absently. And then he looked up. "The spy network is understandable, but how would you slow the project?"
"There are two men deeply involved with the American efforts, which is called the Manhattan Project. The first is its chief scientist, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Jr. And the second is an army general, Leslie R. Groves. I propose that both men be assassinated as soon as possible."
"Come now, Runkov," Merkulov snapped. "Even I expected more than that from you. In your report you estimate that there may be as many as ten thousand people working on the project. What would the assassinations of two men accomplish? Very little, I'd say. Why not sabotage their production facilities?"
"The production facilities are too diverse. Dozens of American industries are working on the project, so far as we can determine. But there is a hierarchy with the project's scientists. Dr. Oppenheimer is so important that many have left their university posts just to come work with him. He is highly respected in this field."
"That from the traitor Klaus Fuchs?" Merkulov said angrily.
"Fuchs is a traitor, but he is a knowledgeable scientist.Even the British, as stupid as they are, understand that."
Merkulov glanced at Stalin, whose gaze remained locked on Runkov.
"Go on," Stalin said softly. It was impossible to read anything from the hooded expression in his eyes.
"Eliminating Oppenheimer would not stop the project. Certainly not. But it would seriously hamper the American efforts."
"And the general?"
"General Groves works for the Army Corps of Engineers. No doubt he has the ear of Roosevelt in this. He is a man who gets things done. He also is a man who has no effective second in command. Eliminate him, and the project would again be seriously affected. Eliminate both men at the same instant, and the project would perhaps never fully recover."
Again there was a long silence as Stalin seemed to ponder what Runkov had told him. It almost seemed as if he was somehow troubled. When he looked up at last, there was a grim expression on his face that made Runkov very uncomfortable.
"Spying is one matter, Sergei Dmitrevich. We are their allies and we deserve the information. But assassination is something totally different. Such an act could never be traced to us. Never. Do I make myself perfectly clear?"
"Valkyrie," Runkov said in a hushed tone.
"You would bring him back for this?"
"Yes, comrade marshal," Runkov said. "But in such a way that no one outside this room other than my assistant would know about it."
"Indeed," Stalin said.
"Then I have a free hand in this, comrade marshal?" Runkov dared to ask.
Beria and Merkulov started to protest, but Stalin ignored them. "One provision," he said ominously. Theroom was again absolutely silent. "Your head, Sergei Dmitrevich, should you fail, will be served up on a pike atop St. Basil's so that all may gaze upon the features of the most infamous traitor since the czars."