VAKHTAN MINGRELSKY sat with his feet on the desk and waited for five minutes, seven, ten. His pose must have become very uncomfortable after a while, but he didn’t move. It was as if the most important thing was to show them that he didn’t care. He was stronger than them. He could take whatever they chose to dish out to him.
So he kept his feet on the desk even when the door opened and a guard entered, followed by a tall, skinny man wearing a three-piece suit.
‘Hello, Colonel Alavidza. I suppose my father sent you here.’
Alavidza nodded at the guard, who left the room, shutting the door behind him.
‘No your father didn’t send me. I’m here on official business.’
‘Well, whatever it was, I didn’t do it.’
Alavidza sat down opposite Mingrelsky. ‘Tell me, how long have you got to go?’
‘Yes, four years and three months to be precise.’
‘You’ve done your homework.’
‘That’s a long time, isn’t it?’
‘You get used to it.’
‘I bet there are things you miss.’
‘Good food? Drink? I bet you miss them.’
‘You can get them here.’
Mingrelsky looked unconcerned.
‘I hear you make do with pretty boys. It’s not the same though, is it?’
Mingrelsky brought his feet down to the floor and sat up straight. He glared at Alavidza and said, ‘So what’s your official business?’
Alavidza took out a packet of Marlboro cigarettes, handed one to Mingrelsky and took another for himself. He lit his own cigarette first and then handed his sleek Dunhill lighter to Mingrelsky. He waited for him to light his cigarette and return the lighter before he spoke.
‘I want to get you out of here.’
‘You could do that?’
‘I can do whatever I want.’
‘And why would you want to get me out? What would you want in return?’
Alavidza smiled. ‘Shall I tell you my theory about organised crime? Did you know that nobody’s ever succeeded in wiping it out? Not even Stalin. He came close – he arrested just about every gangster in the Soviet Union and had them all shot. But guess what happened: another lot just stepped forward and took their place.’
Mingrelsky raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
’I mean, let’s face it, there’ll always be whores and gambling and people smuggling foreign cigarettes and pornography. There’ll always be a black market for chicken and sausages. So why fight it? That’s what I say. Why don’t the KGB manage it instead? Why don’t we have a relationship with certain people and let them run these things?
‘Let them have their whorehouses and their American cigarettes.’ He looked at the Marlboro in his hand. ‘But put a limit on it. Take armed robbery, for example, that’s a nasty habit you’d have to lose. Drugs would be out too, and so would any dealings with nationalists or counter revolutionaries. And if there was a gang who went in for that kind of thing, then one option might be to get a friendly gangster, perhaps someone like you, to give them a seeing to.’
Mingrelsky smiled: ‘God’s nails. I wasn’t expecting this.’
‘Of course not.’
‘And you can get me out?’
‘Easy. The authorities like to release model prisoners early from time to time. It shows that prison works.’
‘Yes, and everyone knows that’s because they’ve turned informer.’
‘True, but that’s where your father comes in useful. He could come and visit you, and there could be a touching reconciliation between you. First visit you shake hands, second visit you embrace, third visit he brings your mother and you let her cry on your shoulder. And when we free you, you go and live with your parents. Your father will get you a nice job somewhere or other, and you turn up to work for at least a month.’
‘Sounds as bad as being here.’
‘Yes, well you won’t have to bugger pretty boys, will you?’
Mingrelsky’s smile disappeared.
’The point is, everyone will think it’s your father’s blat that got you out of here, but your father doesn’t have much blat any more, thanks in no small part to you. It’ll be my blat that gets you released, so just you remember that.’
‘Then in August, I’ll get in touch. I might even give you a little assignment.’
‘I might want you to say hello to somebody for me.’
‘Anyone I know?’
‘Funnily enough, yes, but I’ll tell you more about that nearer the time.’
If prison had been a trauma for Ruslan, the final day of the trial and its aftermath had been far worse. He had been the last witness to be called, and when the prosecutor asked him to describe the proposal put forward by Yakub, he had steeled himself and said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m happy to talk about what I did, but I’ve decided not to testify against my friends.’
This earned him an instant conviction for contempt of court and a token one-week sentence, though since he had already spent fifteen months in prison, its length was immaterial.
The prosecutor and the defence lawyers then made their closing arguments, and the defendants were sent out while the judge and his lay assessors deliberated.
Nina could hardly bring herself to look at Ruslan. The only thing she said to him was that it would always be her greatest regret that she had taken him down with her. Ruslan wondered if she was preparing to end their relationship. He said nothing, but he thought it was a poor reward for the sacrifices he had already made for her, never mind the risk he was taking for her now.
Back in court, the verdicts were read out one by one: Nina Begishveli: guilty of conspiracy to commit anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda, Marta Bovin: guilty, Yakub Bovin: guilty, Iya Cristavi: guilty, Arslan Maqashveli: guilty, Uta Chavchavadza: guilty, Ruslan Shanidza: not guilty.
The other defendants cheered and clapped. Ruslan burst into tears and Nina hugged him and kissed him.
The judge called for order and then passed sentence. Ruslan’s friends all received four years’ prison and hard labour, apart from Yakub who, as leader of the conspiracy, was sentenced to six years.
The trial over, the authorities gave Ruslan and Nina just a few minutes to say goodbye.
They embraced and kissed.
‘I’ll wait for you.’
Nina shook her head. ‘I won’t hold you to that promise.’
‘I’ll hold myself to it.’
‘No, please don’t. My course is set. I’ll never be able to change it now, but you’ve got a chance to get your life back on track. Go back to university and make something of yourself. You’re going to be a brilliant historian or a brilliant athlete, remember?’
‘I won’t give you up. They can’t make me do that.’
‘I can’t bear what I’ve done to you, Ruslan, honestly I can’t. I nearly destroyed you.’
She put her finger on his lips. ‘Yes, my love. I’m not worth it.’
‘No I’m not. You’ve got your life to live.’
Ruslan bowed his head and said nothing.
‘I love you with all my heart,’ said Nina. ‘I really do, but I have to set you free. You can see that, can’t you?’
‘Oh God, Nina. Don’t do this to me.’
‘I have to. It’s the only way I can live with myself.’ She stroked his face. ‘Kiss me for the last time and then go.’
They kissed and embraced. They cried and wiped each other’s tears with their fingers.
‘Be strong,’ said Ruslan.
‘Don’t worry about me. I’ll survive.’
‘Remember,’ she said, ‘I’m expecting great things of you.’
‘I’ll do my best.’
The guards shifted uneasily. It was time for Nina to go.
She kissed Ruslan once more. ‘Goodbye. I’ll always love you.’
‘I’ll always love you too.’
And with that, they parted, and Ruslan found himself at liberty once more, handed over to the protective embrace of his family.
He stayed with his half brother Giorgi and a deep despondency settled upon him. For several weeks, he did nothing but sleep, eat and watch TV. He wouldn’t speak unless spoken to and he didn’t run even once.
But one morning, he decided to force himself to get on with his life. Giorgi found him work inspecting textiles, and he joined a trade union gym and started running again.
At the beginning of June, he went to visit one of his instructors to see if there was any chance of returning to university for the final year of his Diploma. He had been expelled for sleeping with Nina and there was nothing his instructor could do. Ruslan tried Khosume and Zeda’Anta, but nobody would have him. His instructor suggested looking farther afield, and Ruslan finally managed to secure a place at Rostov-on-Don.
But just three weeks before he was due to start, the university wrote to him to say that his application had been rejected. Ruslan was devastated. It was too late for him to try anywhere else, and he knew full well the consequences of his failure: he would now be conscripted into the armed forces.
This put him in an impossible position. He felt there was no way he could participate in the subjugation of Afghanistan, which meant he would have to become a conscientious objector. But that would cost him another three years in prison and would end once and for all his chances of any kind of career within the system.
His relatives tried to persuade him to join up, but Ruslan insisted that he had to put his principles first. He didn’t budge until two weeks before call up, when Murad and Fatima came to visit him.
‘Why don’t you join up and get yourself noticed as an athlete?’ Fatima said. ‘This is your big chance.’
Ruslan could see that she was right. Conscription was an opportunity, but it was also a gamble. What if they didn’t let him run? The penalties for a soldier who disobeyed orders were far more severe than those for refusing to sign up in the first place.
There was always the thought that if he committed himself to a lifetime of struggle, Nina might have him back. His soul ached for her, but he knew that it most definitely did not ache for the endless persecution that would inevitably follow.
The day before Ruslan was due to report for duty. Murad came back to Ronkoni, got him blind drunk and then dragged him round to the recruiting office in the morning. Before he knew it, he found himself whisked off to a mobile artillery unit not far from the Chinese border.
Much to his relief, it took him next to no time to get himself noticed and transferred to Soviet Azerbaijan, where he became a full-time military athlete.
So there he was, ten months later, by the Caspian Sea. Just another day, just another run, his companions unable to keep up, as usual.
Ruslan was so caught up in his running that he paid little attention to the traffic that was coming towards him and even less to the cars on the other side of the road. He scarcely saw the black Volga that pulled up ahead of him or the four men who got out.
He first noticed them as they crossed the road just before he reached them, but as long as they kept out of his way, he wasn’t bothered. As he approached, they spread themselves across his path. He made to go round them but one of them grabbed hold of him.
‘Got you!’ he said in Ksord-Akhtarian.
They all went for him. One of them punched him in the face. Another thumped him in the stomach.
He fell to the ground and they were upon him.
They rolled him over onto his back and held him down, one taking his arms, two of them a leg each.
Ruslan looked up and saw Mingrelsky standing above him.
‘Hello, Shanidza. You know what? I think I owe you this, don’t I? Well, never let it be said that I don’t pay my debts.’
He took a hammer out from under his jacket and held it up for Ruslan to see.
‘No! Oh God, please no.’
Ruslan struggled vainly to free himself as Mingrelsky crouched down beside him and raised the hammer.
Mingrelsky brought the hammer down hard on Ruslan’s shin.
The bone cracked loudly, and Ruslan cried out with pain and rage and despair.