Guardians

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Chapter 19

“The M-1s in Iraq did all right against T-72s, but they forget that what the Iraqis got was an export model,” Oleg said. “Even an old T-64 with good reactive armor and up-to-date missiles in its racks could hold its ground against them.

“The real reason why the Iraqi T-72s didn’t perform better was that so many of the crews ran, as the examinations after the war which showed them to be empty when destroyed demonstrated. They preferred to flee rather than fight.

“Even the Americans knew about the fact, crowed about how the enemy ran – and then refused to put two and two together. Yet, they make it sound as if beating Iraq was tantamount to beating a miniature version of the Soviet military, and the cream of it at that. The report the Ministry’s been working on will set the record straight, but it will not get the attention it deserves in the West.”

“No, I suppose not,” Zuyev allowed as he shifted on the park bench on which they sat. He’d spent enough time in that part of the world to know what Westerners were like, how unbelievably smug they could be.

And how dangerous.

Without the collapse of their sphere in Eastern Europe and the retreat of the Soviet armed forces, without Gorbachev’s acquiescence in their response to Saddam Hussein, the Americans would never have dared send a half million men to the Persian Gulf. Because they knew what Soviet arms could do.

Zuyev pictured their old division up against American tankers, smiled grimly at a mental image of the auto-loaded cannons on his tanks zapping U.S. Army M-1s with laser-guided missiles. The Americans would haven’t been so arrogant then.

“Instead they throw their weight around,” Oleg continued. “They occupy Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, they air police Iraq. Meanwhile the Germans are breaking up Yugoslavia. They’ve pulled Croatia and Slovenia out, probably will pull the rest soon enough, like the old German empire coming back.

“It’s actually created opportunities for a few of my old acquaintances.”

That surprised Zuyev. “How so?”

“Where there’s war, there are opportunities for people with the skills to wage them. Some are actually in Yugoslavia now.”

It was an old pattern, Zuyev knew; an empire collapses, and its soldiers become mercenaries, serving new masters. And he supposed they were that now, a collapsed empire.

The shock of the last five years still staggered Zuyev – the break-up of their alliance, and then the country itself. In that time their frontier had moved a thousand kilometers east, from the middle of Germany, to the eastern border of Belarus. In the process half the Soviet nation’s people, half its production, now belonged to other countries.

Some pointed out that Russia had suffered setbacks before, Times of Troubles again and again and again so that it seemed like all of Russian history was nothing but one long Time of Troubles. They’d borne the yoke of the khans for centuries, and faced the Northern Crusades, and the onslaught of the Poles and Lithuanians, who came awfully close to erasing Russia from the map in the seventeenth century, all long before Napoleon marched on Moscow with his Grand Army. And Brest-Litovsk. And Hitler.

Zuyev wished he could find in that record grounds for confidence in his country’s future, but he couldn’t. The world seemed a less-forgiving place than it had once been. The margins for error were much smaller, the potentials for losses larger, and it was possible to fall much further behind.

Zuyev thought of his eldest son Mitya, tall, healthy, warmly dressed and with a full belly, watching the television and listening to his cassettes and playing video games. Mitya had a better, more comfortable life than he did growing up twenty-odd years earlier, just as he was better off than his own father, coming of age when the nation was rebuilding after the war with the Fascists.

But what awaited them now in a country run by gangsters? When there were not only beggars on the streets, but beggars were paying the Mafia protection money? When the country was reduced to an exporter of minerals and foodstuffs to the West, little better than a colony of the Americans and the Germans?

When everything the Russian people had achieved in the last seventy years had been undone by betrayal on a colossal scale?

Betrayal – he’d learned about that, very early on. During the Great Patriotic War Zuyev’s grandfather was captured in the Battle of Kiev, and as a prisoner, joined the “Russian Liberation Army,” serving under the traitor General Vlasov alongside the Fascists.

It was inconceivable to Zuyev that his grandfather could have chosen to do what he did, mind-boggling. The Hitlerites had meant not merely to conquer his country, but to liquidate its inhabitants; to do with them as the descendants of British colonists had done to the natives of North America and Australia.

And yet, the fact was not in dispute. After being flung back from the Oder, his grandfather’s unit retreated down to Prague, where partisans captured his grandfather and turned him over to Soviet forces. They promptly executed him.

His wife and child had lived under a cloud because of what he’d done, suffering in ways Zuyev had never had to know himself, which Zuyev’s son never had to know.

The new betrayal exceeded even Vlasov’s. It came in a time when they were not desperately fighting an invasion, but secure in their borders, and yet, unlike Vlasov’s betrayal, it finished them as a power in the world.

Zuyev knew there had never been anything he could have done about it, but it still seemed to him that he might have been better off if he’d stayed a tanker, confined his concerns to a handful of men and machines rather than the broader matters with which he was charged now. But he’d been persuaded that he might accomplish something in intelligence, and even if he’d think nostalgically about earlier times he’d never seriously considered leaving his position.

He still didn’t think of leaving it.

But he was thinking of doing it differently.

Zuyev’s break was coming to a close, so he said goodbye and headed back to work along Leningradsky Prospekt. He passed a couple, a man and a woman, speaking English with an accent he took to be American or perhaps Canadian, rather than British or Australian. They were middle-aged, well-dressed – affluent tourists, perhaps. Married for a long time, fifteen, maybe twenty years.

If they struck up a conversation with a local they’d no doubt remark about how wonderful the changes were, tell the Russians they now had freedom. If he told them what he really thought, what so many Russians really thought, those tourists would be visibly confused. Or they might turn the Ugly American, get indignant, and presume to tell him the Truth about his own country when they’d only been in it for a week, living in the bubble rich tourists always traveled in, staying in the finest hotels and eating in the finest restaurants and coming into contact only with people who were paid to kiss their asses, or who were similarly privileged like themselves. If they were more polite than that, they might pretend sympathy, counsel patience and walk away thinking that these poor dumb Slavs didn’t know what to do with the “freedom” which the Westerners had so generously bestowed upon them.

Zuyev had heard it all before, and it reminded him that even for someone whose career had been devoted to out-thinking the Enemy, truly comprehending the way another people thought and felt – especially these people – was no small feat.

He crossed the boulevard and continued southwest, toward the entrance to Khodinka field, the old Moscow Central Airport. Zuyev thought of the buildings surrounding the field, for which the streets he was walking were named in many cases: the headquarters of Aeroflot; the Ilyushin, Mikoyan-Guervich, Sukhoi and Yakovlev design bureaus; the Gaz-30 aircraft plant; the Moscow Aviation Institute; the Institute for Cosmic Biology. They were the crown jewels of the Soviet aerospace sector that had awed the world, appropriately sited here at the field where the first Russian aviator had taken to the air.

What would remain of them in ten years? In twenty?

When they were gone, it would be impossible to rebuild them, with all their engineers emigrated, with the schools ruined so they could not train new engineers, with the country’s coffers empty.

There were times when Zuyev had thought the slide might be reversed, the deterioration arrested. He’d watched the events of the past August with great interest, and great hope. He had seen members of his old unit trundle into the streets of the capital in their battle tanks and wished he were in his old tank with them.

After that, everything had unraveled. He still didn’t know how it happened exactly, he didn’t think anyone knew exactly, but they all knew that the system fell apart very quickly, at very slight pressure. The diktat of the government had withered away after that, not in the way it was supposed to as the dictatorship of the proletariat gave way to Communism, but by collapsing outright. Then that treacherous buffoon Yeltsin began to act like he was in charge. And not long after that the Soviet Union just didn’t exist anymore, even in name.

Now here they were, State property that had once seemed inviolate – secrets that were perhaps all the more important because of the position the country had fallen into – was very likely in the hands of foreign agents.

Zuyev thought again of the death of the Chief of his Directorate in a plane crash (there were rumors about poor maintenance of his plane, a scandal in itself though not one for which he would have been responsible), and the Dunba incident, and the connection between the two he had intuited. Pursuing the hypothesis would ruffle a great many feathers, but he could have cared less about that. The traitors would not get away with their crime on his watch.

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