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“What are you going to do when you leave school?” asked Alexander.
“I’m hoping to join the KGB,” Vladimir replied, “but they won’t even consider me if I don’t get a place at the state university. How about you?”
“I intend to be the first democratically elected president of Russia,” said Alexander, laughing.
“And if you make it,” said Vladimir, who didn’t laugh, “you can appoint me as head of the KGB.”
“I don’t approve of nepotism,” said Alexander, as they strolled across the schoolyard and out onto the street.
“Nepotism?” said Vladimir, as they began to walk home.
“It derives from the Italian word for ‘nephew,’ and dates back to the popes of the seventeenth century, who often handed out patronage to their relations and close friends.”
“What’s wrong with that?” said Vladimir. “You just exchange the popes for the KGB.”
“Are you going to the match on Saturday?” asked Alexander, wanting to change the subject.
“No. Once Zenit F.C. reached the semifinals, there was never any chance of someone like me getting a ticket. But surely as your father’s the docks’ supervisor, you’ll automatically be allocated a couple of seats in the reserved stand for party members?”
“Not while he still refuses to join the Communist Party,” said Alexander. “And when I last asked him, he didn’t sound at all optimistic about getting a ticket, so Uncle Kolya is now my only hope.”
As they continued walking, Alexander realized they were both avoiding the one subject that was never far from their minds.
“When do you think we’ll find out?”
“I’ve no idea,” said Alexander. “I suspect our teachers enjoy watching us suffering, well aware it will be the last time they have any power over us.”
“You have nothing to worry about,” said Vladimir. “The only discussion in your case is whether you’ll win the Lenin Scholarship to the foreign language school in Moscow, or be offered a place at the state university to study mathematics. Whereas I can’t even be sure of getting into university, and if I don’t, my chances of joining the KGB are kaput.” He sighed. “I’ll probably end up working on the docks for the rest of my life, with your father as my boss.”
Alexander didn’t offer an opinion as the two of them entered the tenement block where they lived, and began to climb the worn stone steps to their flats.
“I wish I lived on the first floor, and not the ninth.”
“As you well know, Vladimir, only party members live on the first three floors. But I’m sure that once you’ve joined the KGB, you’ll come down in the world.”
“See you in the morning,” said Vladimir, ignoring his friend’s jibe as he began to climb the remaining four flights.
As Alexander opened the door to his family’s tiny flat on the fifth floor, he recalled an article he’d recently read in a state magazine reporting that America was so overrun with criminals that everyone had at least two locks on their front door. Perhaps the only reason they didn’t in the Soviet Union, he thought, was because no one had anything worth stealing.
He went straight to his bedroom, aware that his mother wouldn’t be back until she’d finished her shift at the docks. He took several sheets of lined paper, a pencil and a well-thumbed book out of his satchel, and placed them on the tiny table in the corner of his room, before opening War and Peace at page 179 and continuing to translate Tolstoy’s words into English. When the Rostov family sat down for supper that night, Nikolai appeared distracted, and not just because …
Alexander was double-checking each line for spelling mistakes, and to see if he could think of a more appropriate English word, when he heard the front door open. His tummy began to rumble, and he wondered if his mother had been able to smuggle any tidbits out of the officers’ club, where she was the cook. He closed his book and went to join her in the kitchen.
Elena gave him a warm smile as he sat down on a wooden bench at the table.
“Anything special tonight, Mama?” Alexander asked hopefully.
She smiled again, and began to empty her pockets, producing a large potato, two parsnips, half a loaf of bread, and this evening’s prize, a steak that had probably been left on an officer’s plate after lunch. A veritable feast, thought Alexander, compared to what his friend Vladimir would be eating tonight. There’s always someone worse off than you, his mother often reminded him.
“Any news?” Elena asked as she began to peel the potato.
“You ask me the same question every night, Mama, and I keep telling you that I don’t expect to hear anything for at least another month, possibly longer.”
“It’s just that your father would be so proud if you won the Lenin Scholarship.” She put down the potato and placed the peel to one side. Nothing would be wasted. “You know, if it hadn’t been for the war, your father would have gone to university.”
Alexander was very aware, but always happy to be reminded how Papa had been stationed on the eastern front as a young corporal during the siege of Leningrad, and although a crack Panzer division had attacked his section continuously for ninety-three days, he’d never left his post until the Germans had given up and retreated to their own country.
“For which he was awarded the Defence of Leningrad medal,” said Alexander on cue.
His mother must have told him the story a hundred times, but Alexander didn’t tire of it, although his father never raised the subject. And now, almost twenty-five years later, after returning to the docks he’d risen to Comrade Chief Supervisor, with three thousand workers under his command. Although he wasn’t a party member, even the KGB acknowledged that he was the only man for the job.
The front door opened and closed with a bang, announcing that his father was home. Alexander smiled as he strode into the kitchen. Tall and heavily built, Konstantin Karpenko was a handsome man who could still make a young woman turn and take a second look. His weather-beaten face was dominated by a luxuriantly bushy mustache that Alexander remembered stroking as a child, something he hadn’t dared to do for several years. Konstantin slumped down onto the bench opposite his son.
“Supper won’t be ready for another half hour,” said Elena as she diced the potato.
“We must only speak English whenever we are alone,” said Konstantin.
“Why?” asked Elena in her native tongue. “I’ve never met an Englishman in my life, and I don’t suppose I ever will.”
“Because if Alexander is to win that scholarship and go to Moscow, he will have to be fluent in the language of our enemies.”
“But the British and Americans fought on the same side as us during the war, Papa.”
“On the same side, yes,” said his father, “but only because they considered us the lesser of two evils.” Alexander gave this some thought as his father stood up. “Shall we have a game of chess while we’re waiting?” he asked. Alexander nodded. His favorite part of the day. “You set up the board while I go and wash my hands.”
Once Konstantin had left the room, Elena whispered, “Why not let him win for a change?”
“Never,” said Alexander. “In any case, he’d know if I wasn’t trying, and leather me.” He pulled open the drawer below the kitchen table and took out an old wooden board and a box containing a set of chess pieces, one of which was missing, so each night a plastic salt cellar had to substitute for a bishop.
Alexander moved his king’s pawn two squares forward, before his father returned. Konstantin responded immediately, moving his queen’s pawn one square forward.
“How did you do in the match?” he asked.
“We won three nil,” said Alexander, moving his queen’s knight.
“Another clean sheet, well done,” said Konstantin. “Although you’re the best goalkeeper the school’s had in years, it’s still more important to win that scholarship. I assume you still haven’t heard anything?”
“Nothing,” said Alexander, as he made his next move. It was a few moments before his father countered. “Papa, can I ask if you’ve managed to get a ticket for the match on Saturday?”
“No,” admitted his father, his eyes never leaving the board. “They’re rarer than a virgin on Nevsky Prospect.”
“Konstantin!” said Elena. “You can behave like a docker when you’re at work, but not at home.”
Konstantin grinned at his son. “But your uncle Kolya has been promised a couple of tickets on the terraces, and as I have no interest in going…” Alexander leaped in the air as his father made his next move, pleased to have distracted his son.
“You could have had as many tickets as you wanted,” said Elena, “if only you’d agree to become a party member.”
“That’s not something I’m willing to do, as you well know. Quid pro quo. An expression you taught me,” said Konstantin, looking across the table at his son. “Never forget, that lot will always expect something in return, and I’m not willing to sell my friends down the river for a couple of tickets to a football match.”
“But we haven’t reached the semifinal of the cup for years,” said Alexander.
“And probably won’t again in my lifetime. But it will take far more than that to get me to join the Communist Party.”
“Vladimir’s already a pioneer and signed up for the Komsomol,” said Alexander, after he’d made his next move.
“Hardly surprising,” said Konstantin. “Otherwise he’d have no chance of joining the KGB, which is the natural habitat for that particular piece of pond life.”
Once again, Alexander was distracted. “Why are you always so hard on him, Papa?”
“Because he’s a shifty little bastard, just like his father. Be sure you never trust him with a secret, because it will have been passed on to the KGB before you’ve reached home.”
“He’s not that bright,” said Alexander. “Frankly, he’ll be lucky to be offered a place at the state university.”
“He may not be bright, but he’s cunning and ruthless, a dangerous combination. Believe me, he’d shop his mother for a ticket to the cup final, probably even the semifinal.”
“Supper’s ready,” said Elena.
“Shall we call it a draw?” said Konstantin.
“Certainly not, Papa. I’m six moves away from checkmate, and you know it.”
“Stop squabbling, you two,” said Elena, “and lay the table.”
“When did I last manage to beat you?” asked Konstantin as he placed his king on its side.
“November the nineteenth, 1967,” said Alexander, as the two of them stood up and shook hands.
Alexander put the salt cellar back on the table and returned the chess pieces to the box while his father took down three plates from the shelf above the sink. Alexander opened the kitchen drawer and took out three knives and three forks of different vintages. He recalled a paragraph in War and Peace that he’d just translated. The Rostovs regularly enjoyed a five-course dinner (better word than “supper”—he would change it when he returned to his room), and a different set of silver cutlery accompanied each dish. The family also had a dozen liveried servants who stood behind each chair to serve the meals that had been prepared by three cooks, who never seemed to leave the kitchen. But Alexander was sure that the Rostovs couldn’t have had a better cook than his mother, otherwise she wouldn’t be working in the officers’ club.
One day … he told himself, as he finished laying the table and sat back down on the bench opposite his father. Elena joined them with the evening’s offering, which she divided between the three of them, but not equally. The thick steak that along with the parsnips and the potatoes, had been “repatriated”—a word Alexander had taught her, had been cut into two pieces. “Waste not, want not,” she could manage in both languages.
“I’ve got a church meeting this evening,” said Konstantin as he picked up his fork. “But I shouldn’t be back too late.”
Alexander cut his steak into several pieces, chewing each morsel slowly, between mouthfuls of bread and sips of water. He saved the parsnip till last. Its bland taste lingered in his mouth. He wasn’t sure if he even liked it. In War and Peace parsnips were only eaten by the servants. They continued to talk in English while they enjoyed the meal.
Konstantin emptied his glass of water, wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his jacket, stood up, and left the room without another word.
“You can go back to your books, Alexander. This shouldn’t take me too long,” his mother said with a wave of her hand.
Alexander happily obeyed her. Back in his room, he replaced the word “supper” with “dinner,” before turning to the next page and continuing with his translation of Tolstoy’s masterpiece. The French were advancing on Moscow …
As Konstantin left the apartment block and walked out onto the street, he was unaware of a pair of eyes staring down at him.
Vladimir had been gazing aimlessly out of the window, unable to concentrate on his schoolwork, when he spotted Comrade Karpenko leaving the building. It was the third time that week. Where was he going at this time of night? Perhaps he should find out. He quickly left his room and tiptoed down the corridor. He could hear loud snoring coming from the front room, and peeped in to see his father slumped in his ancient horsehair chair, an empty bottle of vodka lying on the floor by his side. He opened and closed the front door quietly, then bolted down the stone steps and out onto the street. Glancing to his left he spotted Mr. Karpenko turning the corner and ran after him, slowing down only when he reached the end of the road.
He peered around the corner, and watched as Comrade Karpenko went into the Church of the Apostle Andrew. What a complete waste of time, thought Vladimir. The Orthodox Church may have been frowned on by the KGB, but it wasn’t actually banned. He was about to turn back and go home when another man appeared out of the shadows, whom he’d never seen at church on Sundays.
Vladimir was careful to remain out of sight as he edged his way slowly toward the church. He watched as two more men came from the other direction and quickly made their way inside, then froze when he heard footsteps behind him. He slipped over the wall and lay on the ground, waiting until the man had passed before he crept between the gravestones to the back of the church and an entrance that only the choristers ever used. He turned the heavy door handle and cursed when it didn’t open.
Looking around, he spotted a half-open window above him. He couldn’t quite reach it, so using a rough stone slab as a step, pushed himself up off the ground. On his third attempt, he managed to grab the window ledge, and with a supreme effort pulled himself up and squeezed his slim body through the window before dropping to the floor on the other side.
Vladimir tiptoed silently through the back of the church until he reached the sanctuary, where he hid behind the altar. Once his heartbeat had returned to almost normal, he peered around the side of the altar to see a dozen men seated in the choir stalls, deep in conversation.
“So when will you share your idea with the rest of the workforce?” one of them was asking.
“Next Saturday, Stepan,” said Konstantin, “when all our comrades come together for the monthly works meeting. I’ll never have a better opportunity to convince them to join us.”
“Not even a hint to some of the older hands about what you have in mind?” asked another.
“No. Our only chance of success is surprise. We don’t need to alert the KGB to what we’re up to.”
“But they’re certain to have spies in the room, listening to your every word.”
“I’m aware of that, Mikhail. But by then the only thing they’ll be able to report back to their masters will be the strength of our support for forming an independent trade union.”
“Although I have no doubt the men will back you,” said a fourth voice, “no amount of rousing oratory can stop a bullet in its tracks.” Several of the men nodded gravely.
“Once I’ve delivered my speech on Saturday,” said Konstantin, “the KGB will be wary of doing anything quite that stupid, because if they did, the men would rise as one, and they’d never be able to squeeze the genie back into the bottle. But Yuri is right,” he continued. “You’re all taking a considerable risk for a cause I’ve long believed in, so if anyone wants to change his mind and leave the group, now is the time to do so.”
“You won’t find a Judas among us,” said another voice, as Vladimir stifled a cough. The men all stood as one to acknowledge Karpenko as their leader.
“Then we’ll meet again on Saturday morning. Until then we must remain silent, and keep our counsel.”
Vladimir’s heart was thumping as the men shook hands with each other, one by one, before leaving the church. He didn’t move until he finally heard the great west door slam shut, and a key turn in the lock. He then scurried back to the vestry, and with the help of a stool, wriggled out of the window, clinging to the ledge before dropping to the ground like a seasoned wrestler. The one discipline where Alexander wasn’t in his class.
Aware that he didn’t have a moment to lose, Vladimir ran in the opposite direction to Mr. Karpenko, toward a street that didn’t need a NO ENTRY sign, as only party officials ever considered entering Tereshkova Prospect. He knew exactly where Major Polyakov lived, but wondered if he had the nerve to knock on his door at that time of night. At any time of the day or night, for that matter.
When he reached the street with its leafy trees and neat cobblestone pavement, Vladimir stood and stared at the house, losing his nerve with every second that passed. He finally summoned up enough courage to approach the front door, and was about to knock when it was flung open by a man who didn’t like to be taken by surprise.
“What do you want, boy?” the major demanded, grabbing his unwelcome visitor by the ear.
“I have information,” said Vladimir, “and you told us when you visited our school last year looking for recruits, that information was golden.”
“This had better be good,” said Polyakov, who didn’t let go of the boy’s ear as he dragged him inside. He slammed the door behind him. “Start talking.”
Vladimir faithfully reported everything he’d overheard in the church. By the time he’d come to the end, the pressure on his ear had been replaced by an arm around his shoulder.
“Did you recognize anyone other than Karpenko?” Polyakov asked.
“No, sir, but he mentioned the names Yuri, Mikhail, and Stepan.”
Polyakov wrote down each name before saying, “Are you going to the match on Saturday?”
“No, sir, it’s sold out, and my father wasn’t able to—”
Like a conjurer, the KGB chief produced a ticket from an inside pocket and handed it to his latest recruit.
* * *
Konstantin closed the bedroom door quietly, not wanting to wake his wife. He took off his heavy boots, undressed, and climbed into bed. If he left early enough in the morning, he wouldn’t have to explain to Elena what he and his disciples had been up to, and even more important, what he had planned for Saturday’s meeting. Better she thought he’d been out drinking, even that there was another woman, than burden her with the truth. He knew she would only try to convince him not to go ahead with the prepared speech.
After all, they didn’t have too bad a life, he could hear her reminding him. They lived in an apartment block that had electricity and running water. She had her job as a cook at the officers’ club, and Alexander was waiting to hear if he’d won a scholarship to the prestigious foreign language school in Moscow. What more could they ask for?
That one day everyone could take such privileges for granted, Konstantin would have told her.
He lay awake, composing a speech in his mind that he couldn’t risk committing to paper. He rose at five thirty, and once again took care not to wake his wife. He doused his face in freezing water, but didn’t shave, then dressed in overalls and a rough, open-neck shirt before finally pulling on his well-worn hobnailed boots. He crept out of the bedroom and collected his lunch box from the kitchen: a sausage, a hard-boiled egg, an onion, and two slices of bread and cheese. Only members of the KGB would eat better.
He closed the front door quietly behind him and made his way down the stone stairs before stepping out onto the empty street. He always walked the six kilometers to work, avoiding the overloaded bus that ferried the workers to and from the docks. If he hoped to survive beyond Saturday, he needed to be fit, like a highly trained soldier in the field.
Whenever he passed a fellow worker in the street, Konstantin always acknowledged him with a mock salute. Some returned his salutation, others nodded, while a few, like bad Samaritans, looked the other way. They may as well have had their party numbers tattooed on their foreheads.
Konstantin arrived outside the dock gates an hour later, and clocked on. As works supervisor, he liked to be the first to arrive and the last to leave. He walked along the dockside while he considered his first assignment of the day. A submarine destined for Odessa on the Black Sea had just berthed at dock 11 to refuel and pick up provisions, before continuing on its way, but that wouldn’t be for at least another hour. Only the most trusted men would be allowed anywhere near dock 11 that morning.
Konstantin’s mind drifted back to the previous night’s meeting. Something hadn’t felt quite right, but he couldn’t put a finger on it. Was it someone and not something, he wondered, as a vast crane at the far end of the dock began to lift its heavy load and swing slowly toward the waiting submarine on dock 11.
The operator seated in the crane’s cab had been chosen carefully. He could unload a tank into a ship’s hold with only inches to spare on either side. But not today. Today he was transferring barrels of oil to a submarine that needed to remain submerged for days at a time, but the task also demanded pinpoint accuracy. One piece of luck—no wind that morning.
Konstantin tried to concentrate as he went over his speech once again. As long as none of his colleagues opened their mouths, he was confident everything would fall neatly into place. He smiled to himself.
The crane operator was satisfied that he had judged it to an inch. The load was perfectly balanced and still. He waited just one more moment before he eased a long heavy lever gently forward. The large clamp sprang open and three barrels of oil were released. They crashed down onto the dockside. Inch perfect. Konstantin Karpenko had looked up, but it was too late. He was killed instantly. A dreadful accident, for which no one was to blame. The man in the cab knew he had to disappear before the early shift clocked on. He swung the crane’s arm back into place, turned off the engine, climbed out of the cab, and began to make his way down the ladder to the ground.
Three fellow workers were waiting for him as he stepped onto the dockside. He smiled at his comrades, not spotting the six-inch serrated blade until it was thrust deep into his stomach and then twisted several times. The other two men held him down until he finally stopped whimpering. They bound his arms and legs together before pushing him over the side of the dock and into the water. He reappeared three times, before finally disappearing below the surface. He hadn’t officially signed on that morning, so it would be some time before anyone noticed he was missing.
* * *
Konstantin Karpenko’s funeral was held at the Church of the Apostle Andrew. The turnout was so large that the congregation spilled out onto the street, long before the choir had entered the nave.
The bishop who delivered the eulogy described Konstantin’s death as a tragic accident. But then, he was probably one of the few people who believed the official communiqué issued by the dock commandant, and only then after it had been sanctioned by Moscow.
Standing near the front were twelve men who knew it wasn’t an accident. They had lost their leader, and the promise of a thorough investigation by the KGB wouldn’t help their cause, because state inquiries usually took at least a couple of years to report their findings, by which time their moment would have passed.
Only family and close friends stood beside the grave to pay their last respects. Elena sprinkled some earth onto the coffin as the body of her husband was lowered slowly into the ground. Alexander forced himself to hold back the tears. She wept but stepped back and held her son’s hand, something she hadn’t done for years. He was suddenly aware that, despite his youth, he was now the head of the family.
He looked up to see Vladimir, whom he hadn’t spoken to since his father’s death, half hidden at the back of the gathering. When their eyes met, his best friend quickly looked away. His father’s words reverberated in Alexander’s mind. He’s cunning and ruthless. Believe me, he’d shop his mother for a ticket to the cup final, probably even the semifinal. Vladimir hadn’t been able to resist telling Alexander that he’d got a stand seat for the match on Saturday, although he wouldn’t say who had given it to him, or what he’d had to do to get it.
Alexander could only wonder just how far Vladimir would go to make sure he was recruited by the KGB. He realized in that instant they were no longer friends. After a few minutes Vladimir scurried away, like Judas in the night. He’d done everything except kiss Alexander’s father on the cheek.
Elena and Alexander remained kneeling by the graveside long after everyone else had departed. When she finally rose, Elena couldn’t help wondering what her husband had done to cause such wrath. Only the most brainwashed party member could have accepted the official line that after the tragic accident the crane operator had committed suicide. Even Leonid Brezhnev, the party’s General Secretary, had joined in the deception, with a Kremlin spokesman announcing that Comrade Konstantin Karpenko had been made a Hero of the Soviet Union, and his widow would receive a full state pension.
Elena had already turned her attention to the other man in her life. She had decided she would move to Moscow, find a job, and do everything in her power to advance her son’s career. But after a long discussion with her brother, Kolya, she reluctantly accepted that she would have to remain in Leningrad, and try to carry on as if nothing had happened. She would be lucky even to hold on to her present job, because the KGB had tentacles that stretched far beyond her irrelevant existence.
On Saturday, in the semifinal of the Soviet Cup, Zenit F.C. beat Odessa 2–1, and qualified to play Torpedo Moscow in the final.
Vladimir was already trying to work out what he needed to do to get a ticket.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey Archer