The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Ten

THE NEXT morning, Ruslan was given a suit and tie that he hadn’t worn since before his arrest. When he put on the trousers, he was astonished at how much weight he had lost. He had been thin enough to start with.

Next, he was driven to the central courthouse with several other prisoners, among them Yakub Bovin.

‘You okay?’ Yakub asked. ‘I hear you got beaten up yesterday.’

‘Did I? First I’ve heard of it.’

Yakub gave Ruslan a quizzical look but enquired no further.

Ruslan had first bumped into Yakub six months after his arrest. Yakub had held out for all that time, and he had been transferred to the prison after he finally crumbled. When Ruslan first came across him, he had been extremely depressed and more than a little cagey. It had taken a long time to win his trust.

Eventually he told Ruslan about the conspiracy: ’We nearly split into two camps the first day, just after you left. Me and Nodar wanted to concentrate on trying to get some kind of Solidarity-style trade union off the ground. Nina and Uta argued against it. They were more in favour of a kind of samizdat for the masses. We had a real row and eventually we went away and wrote position papers and went back to my dacha for another meeting the next weekend.

‘Nina and Uta won the argument hands down. Basically me and Nodar had no practical proposals for how to go about organising the workers. Nodar was really angry and I thought he was going to walk out, but I could see that Nina was right. She said our obsession with Solidarity was repeating the Marxist fallacy of the historic role of the proletariat. So that’s how we became the Ronkoni Committee for Truth.’

‘So what were you going to do?’

‘Didn’t Nina tell you?’

‘No, we never discussed it.’

‘We made up a leaflet: “Ten things the Party doesn’t want you to know.” We couldn’t get hold of a photocopier, so we ended up writing it out again and again using carbon paper. We wrote in capitals so as to disguise our handwriting.’

‘Did you give any leaflets out?’

‘No, they got us just before we started. You were right, by the way. The KGB had two sources in with us right from the start.’

‘Two? God’s nails. Do you know who?’

‘I know one of them.’

‘Who?’

Yakub closed his eyes and breathed such a heavy sigh that for a moment Ruslan thought he was going to say it was his wife Marta. Eventually, without looking at Ruslan, he said the mole’s name.

‘Nodar.’

‘But he was one of the leaders. Isn’t that entrapment?’

‘They got just about everyone to say I was the real leader. I’ve seen their statements. They even managed to make me say it.’

Giorgi had found a lawyer for Ruslan, who met him two weeks before the trial. Ruslan was initially wary of his lawyer, but he told him what had happened at Yakub’s dacha and how he had come to be arrested.

The lawyer took away a mountain of documents and came back to see him the day before his first encounter with Mingrelsky. ‘As far as I’ve been able to determine, the prosecutors don’t have a case against you. You were present at the meeting where the conspiracy was hatched, but you argued against it and left. You met one of the conspirators twice after that, on both occasions under KGB observation. Their reports make it clear that you weren’t engaged in subversive activities on either occasion.’

‘What? Did they bug us?’

The lawyer smiled. ‘No, but it’s obvious that the transcripts would be somewhat pornographic if they had.’

‘Do you seriously think you can get me off?’

‘Indeed.’

‘Isn’t it all sort of…pre-determined?’

’Young man, in this country there exists a legal profession which is jealous of its prerogatives. There’s no reason why this case should not be tried solely on the evidence. In the case of your friends, a not inconsiderable body of evidence. In your case, however, there is none.

’I suspect that the only reason that you have been charged is that Aleksander Mingrelsky still has friends with blat. I’m very confident of securing an acquittal. However, you’ll have to get your friends to testify that you weren’t involved in their rather foolish little conspiracy.’

‘I don’t want to testify against them.’

‘Yes, I noticed that.’

‘Do you think I’ll get done for contempt of court or anything like that?’

‘It’s difficult to say. Some judges take a hard line on this, others don’t. In any case, the maximum sentence for contempt of court is less than the time you have already spent as a guest of the authorities.’

Ruslan smiled. He was beginning to like his lawyer.

Once Ruslan and Yakub got to the courthouse, they were ushered into a small room where they found Arslan the wordy philosopher and Uta the priest, guarded by two policemen. They embraced and exchanged kisses and news.

After a few minutes, they were joined by three women: Yakub’s young wife Marta, Iya the economics instructor and Nina. Ruslan hardly recognised her. Her hair was cut short, her skin was pallid and she too had lost a great deal of weight.

The two of them embraced and kissed.

‘Oh God, Ruslan, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry to drag you into this.’

‘It’s okay.’

‘No it’s not, Ruslan. I really am so sorry. When you came round that night I should have told you to go away. It was too dangerous. I’m so sorry. The last thing I ever wanted was to bring you down.’

She stroked his face and they kissed again.

They sat down and Ruslan winced slightly at the bruise on the base of his spine.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yes, just a bit sore, that’s all.’

‘Why?’

‘I got into a fight yesterday,’ he whispered.

‘What?’

‘Shush. Don’t tell the others.’

‘What happened?’

Ruslan put his finger to his lips. ‘Guess who’s been transferred to my prison?’

‘Who?’

‘Aleksander Mingrelsky’s son.’

‘You’re joking.’

‘No. About a week ago.’

‘So he did this to you?’

‘I gave as good as I got.’

Uta the priest interrupted them, calling the group together: ‘Comrades, we don’t have a lot of time before the trial begins.’

Everyone gathered round.

Uta continued, ‘The first thing I have to say is very painful for me, very painful. You’ll notice that Tsatsa isn’t here. I now know that she’s been giving information to the KGB for several years.’

Uta paused. Ruslan could see that it was a struggle for him to maintain his composure.

‘I understand that her motivation was to protect me, and I’m trying to think about this as a Christian and a loving husband, but I have to say it’s very hard. And I must apologise to you all for bringing doom upon our enterprise from the very start.’

He bowed his head. Marta and Arslan put their hands on his shoulder. Everybody offered sympathy and condolences.

‘There’s one other thing you should know,’ Uta added. ‘I’m afraid I cracked under interrogation. I told them everything I knew and signed it, and they’re going to use my statements against you. I’m sorry, comrades. I’ve failed you in so many ways.’

After a moment, Yakub spoke, ‘Uta, none of us is angry with you at all, and all of us offer you our deepest sympathy over your wife’s betrayal of your trust. Just remember that we’re all your friends.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Does everybody know about Nodar?’ Nina asked.

They all nodded.

‘Comrades,’ said Yakub, ‘there’s one other thing we all have to do. Perhaps we all need to follow Uta’s example and say what we told them under interrogation. For my part, I have to say I told them everything and signed it. I’m sorry, comrades. I’m very sorry indeed.’

Marta, Iya and Arslan spoke next. They had done the same.

Ruslan followed them: ‘I’m sorry, comrades. I told them everything I knew.’

At this, they all burst out laughing. ‘But you didn’t know anything!’

‘And what about you, Nina?’

‘Sometimes they tripped me up. You know how it is? You don’t actually say it but you give them the information they want and they can use that in court. Most of the time though, I just told them to go and fuck their mothers.’

Everybody laughed. Ruslan felt so proud of her.

Yakub spoke again, ‘Comrades, there’s one other thing. When we started the Committee, we spent a lot of time discussing the possible consequences. I suppose we all thought we’d get away with it, but we knew, didn’t we? But Ruslan wasn’t in on those discussions. He’s probably only here because of that business with Mingrelsky’s son. Comrades, whatever strategy we adopt in court, we have to make it clear that Ruslan wasn’t involved.’

Everybody agreed and Ruslan and Nina thanked them.

Yakub continued, ‘Nina and Ruslan, I know you don’t want to be separated now, and I know every minute together is precious for you, but can I propose that we ask for Ruslan to consult his lawyer separately from us, in a different room? His situation’s completely different from ours.’

Ruslan looked at Nina in alarm.

‘I’m sorry, Ruslan, but he’s right.’

The courtroom was large and airy, with the noise of traffic entering through an open window. As well as the police, there were several bored looking officials, plus nearly fifty people on the public benches at the back. Ruslan spotted his mother and Giorgi. He waved cheerfully and they waved back. Nina’s parents, both of whom were Party members, sat near the back, not far from some big shots from the university. They didn’t smile or return his wave.

A policeman made a desultory search of the dock for concealed weapons before the prisoners were allowed to enter. Nina sat next to Ruslan and put her hand on his knee. ‘We’ll get you off, don’t worry.’

‘All rise,’ said the clerk of the court, and the judge and his two lay advisers came in and sat down under a hammer and sickle emblem and portraits of Lenin, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Comrade Zikladza, the Party leader in Ksordia-Akhtaria. The charges were read out and the accused all entered a plea of not guilty.

The prosecutor then stood up: the defendants had conspired to distribute anti-Soviet propaganda in breach of Article 70 of the Criminal Code. He would present incontrovertible evidence to show that all the defendants had taken part in this activity.

Ruslan felt more than a little jealous when he realised that his friends’ lawyer was a certain Zourab Orbeliani, who had already made quite a name for himself in human rights cases. Orbeliani said his clients would admit that they had prepared leaflets for distribution but would argue that they were entitled to do this under the terms of Section Three of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, in which the Soviet Union had made a commitment to respect the rights to freedom of thought and freedom of information.

(Ruslan was surprised he hadn’t argued that since Nodar, one of the initiators of the conspiracy, had been working for the KGB, they were victims of entrapment. Nina later explained that since they were certain to be found guilty anyway, they had unanimously decided it was better to go down as martyrs rather than dupes.)

Ruslan’s lawyer then made a very brief opening statement. ‘If it will please the court, I will seek to demonstrate that my client Ruslan Shanidza was not involved in any way in the activities of the Ronkoni Committee for Truth.’

The rest of the day was taken up by legal arguments and by submissions from the prosecutor. For the most part, these consisted of statements the defendants had made under interrogation, the most incriminating parts of which were read out.

This was a very uncomfortable process for all the defendants except Nina. Ruslan also suffered from a more literal discomfort, what with all his bruises, which became more and more painful as the afternoon progressed.

The other defendants noticed and asked Ruslan about it in the first recess. He repeated what he had said to Nina, but Yakub later told her what had really happened.

Ruslan denied it: ‘What does Yakub know? He wasn’t there.’

During the frequent recesses, Ruslan spent as much time as possible with Nina. They held hands and talked about their hopes and fears, kissing occasionally when nobody was looking.

‘I’m not afraid of prison,’ Nina said. ‘I know I can take it.’

‘Me too.’

‘We’re going to make sure you get off. There’s no way you’re going back to prison.’

‘Nina, if I’m released before you, I’ll wait for you.’

‘Just try and get back into university.’

‘There’s no way I’m going to give up on you.’

She squeezed his hand and kissed him. ‘Oh, God, I hope I’m worth it, Ruslan. I really do.’

On the second day, the prosecution witnesses were called. Nodar and Tsatsa gave fairly thorough accounts of all the events surrounding the Committee. Orbeliani, the dissidents’ defence lawyer, barely cross examined them at all. Ruslan’s lawyer was content with making them say that he had opposed any dissident activity at the first meeting and that they had never seen him at any subsequent Committee meeting.

In the afternoon, Ruslan’s friend Josep took the stand and talked about the events at the first dacha meeting. Apart from when he identified them, he never once looked at Ruslan or the other defendants.

‘When Shanidza argued against the proposal, what was his main reason?’ the prosecutor asked.

‘He said the conditions weren’t right.’

‘Did he say anything about his attitude to the Party and the Soviet Union?’

‘Yes, he said he detested the Party.’

There was a murmur all round the court.

‘And the Soviet Union?’

‘He said he wanted to see Ksordia-Akhtaria independent and capitalism restored.’

There was a gasp from the public benches and shouts of ‘Traitor!’ ‘Lock him up!’

‘And did he propose an alternative strategy to the creation of a Solidarity-type organisation?’

’Yes. He said if we really wanted to undermine the system, we should write samizdat.’

The prosecutor paused to allow this to sink in, then he asked about a different topic.

‘Has Comrade Shanidza ever been in trouble at university?’

Ruslan’s lawyer shot to his feet. ‘Objection. Comrade Shanidza is on trial for his alleged role in the Ronkoni Committee for Truth, not for anything that may or may not have happened before that.’

The judge raised his eyebrows at the prosecutor.

‘If it will please the court, I’m attempting to show that Shanidza has lied his way out of trouble in the past, just as he’s likely to try to lie his way out of this one.’

The judge turned to Josep. ‘The witness will answer the question.’

‘Yes.’

‘When was it? Do you remember?’

‘The spring of 1978. I think it was May.’

‘May 1978. What happened?’

‘He was put on trial by the whole class because he’d said that the Bolshevik takeover of Ksordia-Akhtaria wasn’t a liberation or a revolution but a foreign invasion.’

Cries of ‘Shame’ from the back of the court.

‘Was he punished?’

‘Not really. He recanted, and the class let him off with a reprimand.’

‘Was his retraction genuine?’

Ruslan’s lawyer objected again. ‘This is just conjecture.’

The judge nodded. ‘Yes, don’t answer that question.’

The prosecutor tried again. ‘Did Comrade Shanidza ever tell you whether his retraction was genuine?’

Josep paused. ‘He told me what he said about the Bolsheviks was true. He only recanted because Comrade Begishveli persuaded him to.’

The prosecutor smiled triumphantly at the judge and sat down.

Ruslan’s lawyer stood up. ‘I shall confine myself to the case that is being tried here.’ He glared at the prosecutor for a moment and then turned towards Josep: ‘Comrade Machutadza, did you encounter Comrade Shanidza subsequent to the twelfth of October meeting at Comrade Bovin’s dacha?’

‘Yes, loads of times. We were roommates at the student hostel, and we were in the same class at university.’

‘Did you discuss the activities of the other defendants with him?’

‘Yes.’

‘And what did Comrade Shanidza say about them?’

‘He said they were a bunch of idiots.’

‘And how was his deportment during this period?’

‘Well, he was pretty miserable.’

‘Why?’

‘Because he’d split up with Comrade Begishveli.’

‘Thank you. No further questions.’

That afternoon and the next morning, the prosecution called half a dozen KGB officers, who described the activities of the members of the Committee as they assembled their information and materials and created their leaflets. The KGB had even observed them as they rehearsed giving out their leaflets by standing up, walking quickly down trolley buses and commuter trains just before they stopped, getting off and disappearing into the crowd.

Ruslan’s lawyer had just a few questions for the officers who had observed Ruslan and Nina. ‘In your report, you describe the events which occurred after Comrade Shanidza called at Comrade Begishveli’s apartment on the thirteenth of October?’

‘Yes.’

‘What happened after Comrade Shanidza arrived?’

‘They went and sat on a bench outside.’

‘And how did you describe their conversation?’

‘It was quite animated.’

‘Were they having a row?’

‘Yes, I suppose you could say that.’

‘That’s exactly what you did say in your report, isn’t it?’

‘Yes.’

‘And then what happened?’

‘They went back into the apartment.’

‘Prior to that, if you please.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Did they kiss?’

‘Yes.’

‘So, if I may sum up, they had a row and then they kissed and made up?’

‘Yes.’

‘And then they returned to the apartment?’

‘Yes.’

‘And after that?’

‘Erm…’

‘Let me refresh your memory. Something connected with the lights.’

‘Oh yes, they turned them off after a minute or so.’

‘So our two lovebirds met, had a row, kissed and made up, went upstairs and turned off the light. What do you think they did next?’

There was laughter all around the court.

‘Perhaps, if the court will indulge me, I will not insist on an answer to that question. Suffice it to say that it is unlikely that my client and Comrade Begishveli spent the rest of the evening discussing the finer points of a plot to undermine the Soviet Union.’

Ruslan’s lawyer dealt in similar fashion with the KGB officers who had observed his arrival at Nina’s flat on the evening of his arrest. Ruslan was delighted with his performance. He thought Giorgi had done a great job finding him.

On the afternoon of the third day, the defendants took the stand. The first was Yakub, who described how they had assembled their facts, checked their accuracy and created their leaflets. When his lawyer Orbeliani asked him why, he said that they were exercising their right to freedom of information as enshrined in the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

‘Would you describe your motivation as anti-Soviet?’

‘No. Soviet democracy will be enhanced if the people are well informed.’

When Orbeliani had finished, Ruslan’s lawyer asked Yakub one question, ‘What was Comrade Ruslan Shanidza’s role in the activities of the Ronkoni Committee for Truth?’

‘None. He wasn’t involved at all.’

Next Yakub was subjected to a ferocious cross examination by the prosecutor, who attempted to paint the Committee as intent on breaking up the Soviet Union and restoring capitalism. Yakub did his best, but Ruslan thought the prosecutor won hands down. All their confessions had given him lots of ammunition.

Much the same happened when Marta, Iya, Arslan and Uta gave their evidence. With Nina, Ruslan’s lawyer asked further questions to establish how little the two of them saw of each other during the Committee’s activities. He had to demonstrate that she hadn’t recruited Ruslan to the Committee.

‘Why did you and Comrade Shanidza go and talk on the bench on the thirteenth of October?’

‘I thought my flat might be bugged, so I never discussed Committee business there.’

‘If it may please the court, I would like to refer you to five depositions presented by the prosecution in which various defendants, among them Comrade Begishveli, told their interrogators that they had agreed never to discuss their conspiracy indoors for precisely this reason. I have a list of depositions and paragraph numbers here. Would you like me to read them to the court?’

‘That will not be necessary,’ said the judge.

Ruslan’s lawyer handed the list to the clerk of the court, who passed it on to the judge. Then he turned his attention to Nina.

‘What did you and Comrade Shanidza discuss on the bench?’

‘He tried to persuade me not to get involved in dissident activities and we had a row.’

‘Did you reveal to him what had happened at the twelfth of October meeting at the dacha after his departure?’

‘No, I didn’t want him to be involved. I just wanted him to let me do what I thought was right.’

‘Why didn’t you want him to be involved?’

‘I suppose I wanted to protect him. But in any case, he doesn’t want to be a dissident. He wants to be an athlete.’

‘Then you went into your apartment. What did you discuss after that?’

‘Nothing. We made love.’

‘And then?’

‘He fell asleep.’

‘Did you talk about your dissident activities?’

‘No.’

‘What did you talk about the next morning?’

‘Nothing much. It was still very tense between us. We just had a quick breakfast and went.’

‘When did you next speak to Comrade Shanidza?’

‘The night we were arrested.’

‘What happened when he came to your apartment that night?’

‘He changed his clothes. He was soaking wet. We spoke for a couple of minutes and apologised to each other.’

‘And then?’

‘We made love and then we went to sleep.’

‘Did you at any time discuss the activities of the Ronkoni Committee for Truth?’

‘No, I wanted to protect Ruslan.’

‘So, what was Comrade Shanidza’s role in the Committee?’

‘None. He wasn’t involved.’

The prosecutor didn’t spend much time in his effort to ensnare Nina and show that she was an anti-Soviet enemy of the people. He was more interested in proving that she had recruited Ruslan to the Committee.

He found it very difficult to get her flustered. All she had to do was stick to the truth. He made several barbed comments about her morals, but she brushed them off: ‘I’m not on trial for my personal relationships.’

‘Do you seriously expect this court to believe that you did not want this man, who you say you loved and intended to marry, you didn’t want him to be involved in your great undertaking.’

‘No, I most definitely did not. When he didn’t contact me for three weeks, I was heartbroken, but I was also relieved. I didn’t want to expose him to any danger. When he came to me that night my first reaction was one of pure horror. I wanted to send him away but…’

She paused and looked at Ruslan. For the first time, she had lost her composure.

‘I just couldn’t do it. I wish to God I had, but I just couldn’t do it.’

She started to cry. The prosecutor shook his head. Nina was stood down and the judge ordered a ten-minute recess.

‘I’m going to attempt to have your case dismissed here and now,’ said Ruslan’s lawyer. ‘Wish me luck.’

He motioned the prosecutor and they approached the judge together.

The recess lasted twenty minutes. Ruslan and Nina sat in silence with their friends. They were all drained by the tension of the afternoon and were longing for the trial to be over.

Ruslan’s lawyer hurried in and crouched down in front of him. ‘The prosecutor won’t allow the judge to dismiss your case. He says that if you’re not prepared to take the stand and testify against your friends, that will prove that you were party to the conspiracy.’

‘It proves that they’re my friends. It doesn’t prove that I was involved.’

‘You had better hope the judge sees it like that. At the very least, he’ll find you guilty of contempt.’

‘But you said I wouldn’t be sent back to prison for that.’

‘No, but you will have acquired a criminal record. That would make a very great difference to your prospects in the years to come. And if the prosecutor can persuade the judge that you were party to the conspiracy, back to prison you will go.’

‘Testify, Ruslan,’ said Yakub. ‘It won’t make any difference to what happens to us.’

‘No. If I testify against you, I’ll never be able to face myself again.’

‘To hell with that. Just testify.’

Iya and Uta agreed. ‘Testify, Ruslan.’

‘We won’t mind at all.’

Ruslan looked at Nina.

‘Do you know something?’ she said. ’I’ve often thought about what you said to me that time. Do you remember, when we had that big row about me getting involved. You said, “Only do this if you’re sure you’ll never regret it.” And do you know what? I don’t regret it. In a funny way, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I regret dragging you into it, God knows I regret that, but it’s the only thing I do regret.

‘But what about you, Ruslan? You think the Party will still be in control in ten or twenty years’ time, don’t you? So think about then, when you’ve got no university Diploma and no medals for running, you’ve never had the chance to be a brilliant athlete or a brilliant historian and you’re stuck in a dead-end job.

‘Will you still be glad you sacrificed your future for the sake of your self respect? Will you? Because if the answer’s yes, then go ahead, self destruct and make a martyr of yourself. It’s something you’ve always wanted to do, and a lot of people will admire you for it until they forget all about you. But if the answer’s no, if you’ll eventually come to regret it, then you’ve got no choice. You have to testify against us.’

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