IT HAD taken Ruslan the best part of a year to recover from Mingrelsky’s attack, but in the 1985 season, he had once again established himself as the Soviet Union’s leading cross-country and marathon runner, probably its best long-distance runner since Vladimir Kuts, who had won two golds at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
In July 1986, Ruslan had his first opportunity to take part in a truly international tournament: the Goodwill Games, organised by the Soviet authorities and American media mogul Ted Turner. Ruslan relished the opportunity to compete against athletes from the West, but he was careful never to practise his English with them. He wanted to do nothing that might arouse suspicion.
The marathon, however, turned out to be something of an anticlimax. More than half the runners were Soviet athletes Ruslan knew he could beat. None of the thirty-two Americans in the race were a major threat, and there were no West Europeans and just three Africans. Only one of these, the Ethiopian Belay Shimales, provided any real competition, but with more than seven kilometres to go, Ruslan was able to pull ahead and win the race comfortably.
He desperately hoped that four years of impeccable behaviour in public and in private would have convinced the authorities that they could trust him and send him abroad for the European Championships in Stuttgart. His coaches were keen for him to go, and two senior Goskomsport officials he spoke to expressed their support. But Ruslan knew it wasn’t up to them.
Sergo Lionidza placed his elbows on the polished surface of his desk. ‘Did you investigate this Akhtarian girl as I suggested?’ he asked, speaking Russian in deference to the official from Goskomsport.
‘Yes,’ said Colonel Tengiz Alavidza of the KGB.
‘Six out of ten.’
‘Just six?’ asked a West Ksordian Major who represented the Soviet Army.
Alavidza and the Major glared at each other.
‘Okay,’ said Lionidza. ‘Let’s start with the good news.’
‘Well, at least this one isn’t a dissident.’
‘Apparently she’s a very keen doctor. She does a half-day clinic every other Saturday and she doesn’t demand bribes.’
‘Really?’ said Lionidza. ‘I wish my doctor didn’t. Anything else?’
Alavidza shrugged. ‘She isn’t religious.’
‘Good. Anything else?’
‘Not that I can think of.’
‘So tell us the bad news.’
‘She and him go back a long way. She helped him beat up Comrade Mingrelsky’s son.’
‘Oh? I didn’t know that. So you must have met her back then?’
‘Yes, I suppose I did.’
‘And what did you think of her at the time?’
Alavidza seemed startled by the question. ‘I don’t know. A bit of a frightened little mouse, really.’
‘Well, I don’t think we should hold this business with Mingrelsky junior against her. We all know about his reputation.’
The Major and the Goskomsport official agreed. Alavidza said nothing.
‘So is she an old flame?’ Lionidza asked.
‘Have they been in touch all this time?’
‘No. We’re not really sure how they got back together.’
‘He told his coaches a mutual friend bumped into her,’ said the Goskomsport official.
‘Quite a coincidence, don’t you think?’ said Alavidza.
Lionidza shrugged. ‘These things happen. Now is there anything else you don’t like about her?’
‘She’s not what you’d call a virgin.’
‘Has she had many lovers?’
‘Eight that we know of. They tend not to last very long.’
‘That’s interesting. Any more?’
‘When she was a student, she was with a crowd who took drugs.’
‘What kind of drugs?’
‘Amphetamines? Did she take them?’
‘Possibly once, we aren’t sure.’
Lionidza sat back in his chair. ‘Is there anything else?’
‘She was very abusive to two of our people when they approached her last month.’
‘Yes, I heard about that,’ said Lionidza. ‘He put her up to it. In a sense I don’t blame him. It’s natural not to want your close friends to report on you.’
‘People who’ve done nothing wrong have got nothing to hide.’
‘Point taken. Anything else?’
Alavidza hesitated for a moment and then said, ‘Attitude. Like in her political education classes at medical institute: she spent half the time sitting at the back doing homework for other subjects. Not as bad as Shanidza, mind. He did the same thing quite ostentatiously on the front row.’
Lionidza frowned. ‘Was that in Ronkoni or Baku?’
‘Before he went to prison.’
Alavidza said nothing.
‘He behaved himself at Baku State University, didn’t he?’
‘He behaved impeccably when he was in the army,’ said the Major.
‘We’ve never had any trouble from him,’ said the Goskomsport official. ‘None whatsoever.’
‘He isn’t loyal’ said Alavidza. ‘He behaves himself, but he isn’t loyal.’
Lionidza leaned forward. ‘Don’t you think this Akhtarian girl means he’s put Nina Begishveli behind him?’
‘Too soon to say.’
Lionidza turned to the Goskomsport official: ‘What do you think?’
‘His coaches tell us he’s crazy about her.’
‘I think she’s good news,’ said the Major.
‘Do you know what I think?’ said Lionidza. ‘I sometimes feel sorry for Shanidza. He’s basically quite a nice young man, but he fell in with the wrong crowd at university. I mean, an instructor like this Begishveli woman is any parent’s nightmare. And now, slowly, he’s coming round. We have to be careful. We mustn’t place temptation in his way. If we decide to let him compete abroad, we should make it very clear that he has to be on his best behaviour or there won’t be a next time. But I do feel we should try to bring him back into the fold. He’ll never be a candidate for Party membership, but maybe his children will.’
‘Hear hear,’ said the Major.
The Goskomsport official nodded.
‘It’s too soon,’ said Alavidza.
The Goskomsport official pointed out that Ruslan was becoming a big embarrassment. ‘He’s by far our best long-distance runner, and people are asking why he isn’t allowed to compete abroad.’
‘Well, it’s his own fault,’ said Alavidza.
‘He’s never been found guilty of any crime,’ said the Major.
Alavidza snorted. ‘The KGB won’t agree to him competing abroad until we’re completely sure about him.’
‘Well what if he ends up marrying this girl?’ said Lionidza.
‘That would show that he’d put his past behind him, wouldn’t it?’
‘We can’t wait that long,’ said the Goskomsport official. ‘I mean, even if he does marry her, it probably won’t be until after she finishes her national service.’
‘Next summer. We can’t wait that long. This situation needs to be resolved and resolved now.’
Lionidza looked at Alavidza’s scowl. After a moment, he said, ‘Well, I’m afraid we seem to have reached an impasse, comrades. I was hoping I could find a solution we could all agree on, but we haven’t. I’ll have to consult Comrade Zikladza and see if he can come up with something.’
He wrapped up the meeting and, as the others got ready to leave, he turned to the Major. ‘Oh, while you’re here, can I have a word about those GRU reports?’
‘Yes, of course.’
When the others had gone, Lionidza patted the Major on the shoulder. ‘So you finally managed to fix him up? Congratulations.’
‘Fat lot of good it’s done.’
‘Give it time. So how did you get them together?’
’Just like the comrade from Goskomsport said: a mutual friend. There’s this singer who knows both of them. We arranged for her to do a bit of touring.’
Lionidza laughed. ‘Make sure the KGB don’t find out it was you.’
Comrade Zikladza, the leader of the Party in Ksordia-Akhtaria found nothing amusing about the situation. ‘The longer this issue drags on, the bigger the danger of one side or the other getting Moscow involved. That’s exactly what we do not want. I’ve spoken to Elman,’ (Elman Abdullayev, the Party leader in Soviet Azerbaijan) ‘and he’s told me he’s happy to leave it to us as long as we sort it out before the Russians stick their noses in. And that’s what we have to do, here in Ksordia-Akhtaria. Agreed?’
Zikladza turned to his other trusted advisor, the burly ex-wrestler Shakman Korgay. ‘What do your KGB contacts say?’
‘A lot of them aren’t that bothered. They say he was never really a dissident and this Colonel Alavidza is pursuing a personal grudge.’
’Does Alavidza have much blat?’
Korgay shrugged: ‘He has his friends but he’s seen as a bit of a maverick.’
‘So the KGB would let this athlete compete abroad if he married this Akhtarian girl?’
‘I would have thought so, apart from this Colonel Alavidza.’
Comrade Zikladza turned to Lionidza, ‘Sergo, do you think Alavidza might go running to Moscow if the local KGB overruled him?’
‘Knowing him, yes.’
‘Well that’s what we have to avoid. So this is what we’ll do: Shakman, I want you to befriend this Colonel Alavidza. Wine him and dine him, invite him and his wife round to meet your family, that sort of thing.’
‘Sergo, you speak to this athlete. Tell him he has to marry this girl before the start of the next running season. If he does that, we’ll let him compete abroad.’
’Now if he marries her and starts to compete abroad, Shakman, it’ll be your job to mollify this Colonel Alavidza. Make him feel loved, make him feel he has a lot to gain from having a friend with your kind of blat.’
Korgay smiled. ‘I can do that.’
‘But if he doesn’t marry her, then tell Alavidza he has a free hand to stop him running altogether.’
Lionidza started: ‘How’s he going to do that?’
‘Well, it’d have to be something a bit more subtle than breaking his bloody leg. They’d have to discredit him, like maybe a spate of thefts from other athletes, and then they find something in his locker. Something like that.’
‘That would be outrageous.’
’Then you’d better make sure he marries this girl, because if he doesn’t, it’ll be your job to persuade his backers in the army and Goskomsport to abandon him.’
‘I hope to God it never comes to that.’
‘Sergo, you always were a sentimental fool. What matters here is sorting this out before someone drags Moscow into it. Just remember this: the Russians leave us alone because they know they can trust us to keep the ship steady. But we can’t afford another scandal like Aleksander, and the fact that his son’s involved again makes it even worse. We have to keep the Kremlin off our backs.’ He thumped the table as he spoke. ’That’s far more important than some stupid athlete with a dodgy past. If we have to stop him running, then that’s what we have to do, and it’ll be your job to get the army and Goskomsport onside. Understood?’
Lionidza nodded. ‘Yes, Comrade Zikladza.’