The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Twenty-Two

Nina spotted the crowd soon enough, nearly forty people, almost all of them Tatars, standing together half-way along platform three. Many of them greeted her with hugs and kisses. She knew only a few of them but everyone knew her. She had been a legendary figure among Ksord-Akhtarian dissidents ever since the day she marched into KGB headquarters and lodged an official complaint that the officers who were following her were drunk.

The train pulled in after another ten minutes, by which time the crowd had more than trebled in size, making it the largest crowd that had greeted any dissident so far.

The police glowered at them and station guards nagged them to make sure they left enough space for the other passengers to get past, but that did nothing to dampen everyone’s excitement.

‘There they are,’ the cry went up. ‘Yakub Bovin! Yakub Bovin!’

Yakub and Marta Bovin, the one a Tatar, the other a Ksord, had stepped off the train. Nina was quite shocked by how old Yakub looked after his latest spell in a labour camp. He was painfully thin, and what little hair he had left had gone white. Marta looked young enough to be his daughter, and the weight she had lost had given her back some of the glamour of her youth.

The crowd surged towards them, and Yakub and Marta were lost in a flurry of hugs and kisses. It was some time before Nina got a chance to embrace and kiss Yakub herself.

‘You’re looking well,’ he said. ‘A bit skinny, though.’

‘Look who’s talking.’

In an instant Yakub was swept away again. Nina found Marta, and they hugged each other with tears in their eyes.

‘Have you been okay?’ Nina asked.

‘God’s nails, it was hell, but I’ve survived. And you?’

‘Same as you, I’ve survived. How was the journey?’

‘Long, but I’ve been on the same train as Yakub since Kazan, so that made it bearable.’

Nina grinned.

‘Don’t look at me like that.’

They burst out laughing.

‘It’s so good to see you again, Marta.’

‘You too, Nina. So when did you get back?’

‘Six weeks ago.’

‘Six weeks? How did you manage that?’

‘I flew.’

‘What? You’re joking.’

‘No. I had help. Do you know Leila Meipariani?’

‘No?’

‘She’s a singer. She flew out to Siberia and brought me back by plane.’

‘Wow, lucky you. I didn’t know you knew any singers.’

‘I don’t. Well, I do now.’

‘So what’s the connection?’

‘She knows Ruslan.’

‘Ruslan? Are you in touch with him?’

Nina shook her head. ‘He’s living in England now.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. In any case, he’s married. I’ll be keeping out of the way.’

‘Is it true he got gold in the Olympics?’

‘Yes.’

‘That’s fantastic.’

‘Yes, I’m really pleased for him. A bit less pleased about his marriage, though.’

‘I thought you were over him.’

‘I am. It’s just who he married.’

Marta looked nonplussed.

‘Remember that Akhtarian girl the year before he started going out with me?’

‘I don’t think I ever met her.’

‘You didn’t. Well he’s gone and married her.’

‘Let him go, Nina.’

‘Don’t worry, I already have. I just wish it wasn’t her. She was before me, you see, so I’ve been relegated from tragic lost love to unfortunate incident.’

Marta put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

‘I’ll be all right.’

‘Anyway, what have you been up to?’

‘We’re trying to turn the old Helsinki Watchdog Group into a political party.’

‘That’s brilliant.’

‘We’re rather hoping you and Yakub will join us.’

‘Sorry,’ said Marta. ‘Yakub’s planning to start a party for the Tatars.’

‘Oh?’

‘You sound disappointed.’

‘I am. We’re trying to get something multi-ethnic off the ground.’

‘Yakub says you’ll never have a multi-ethnic party with mass appeal. That’s why he wants to be first to set up a party for the Tatars, so he can keep it moderate.’

‘But what about you? You can hardly join a Tatar party, can you?’

‘I’m not really planning to get involved.’

‘No?’

‘I’m an artist, not a politician, and anyway, I’ve got other priorities. I’m not getting any younger, and it’s like we’ve been given one last chance to have children.’

‘Oh, so Yakub’s not going to start putting on weight any time soon.’

Marta laughed. ‘But isn’t it great? I mean, this is everything we always dreamed of.’

‘Well, yes and no. Don’t imagine the Communists have changed their spots. They haven’t. If it weren’t for Moscow, they’d lock us all up again in an instant. As for us having the right to publish newspapers, that fat pig Sergo Lionidza controls the supply of newsprint, and he won’t let us have any. And airtime on TV or radio? Forget it.’

‘So it’s an uphill struggle then?’

‘You bet.’

Comrade Zikladza’s trusted advisor Shakman Korgay thanked his host. ‘It smells good. What did you say it was called?’

‘Jack Daniels,’ said KGB Colonel Tengiz Alavidza. ‘Have you had it before?’

‘No.’

‘We can have it with Coca Cola or neat.’

‘Let’s try it neat.’

‘Okay. Ice?’

‘No thanks.’

‘Would you like to propose a toast?’

Korgay thought for a moment and then said, ‘To Comrade Gorbachev...may he hurry up and fall under a bus.’

Alavidza laughed and the two men clinked their glasses.

‘Mmm, it’s very good.’

‘I thought you’d like it.’

Korgay put down his glass and accepted an American cigarette. ‘Between you and me, Comrade Zikladza’s like a rabbit in headlights. He doesn’t know what to do now that our friends in Moscow have decided to give free licence to every demagogue in the Ksordia-Akhtaria. If we want to stop this republic going down the pan, we’re going to have to come up with some new ideas.’

‘I have plenty of friends in the KGB who share your analysis.’

Korgay took a sip of his Jack Daniel’s. ‘And have your friends got any suggestions about what these new ideas should be?’

‘Yes.’

‘For example?’

Alavidza leaned forwards. ‘Number one: we can’t censor their newspapers...’

‘No.’

‘But what’s to stop us sabotaging their printing presses?’

Korgay shook his head. ‘We’d get into trouble if Moscow found out.’

‘That’s not a problem. We contract it out, and then if anyone gets caught, we just say it wasn’t us.’

‘How do you mean, contract it out?’

‘Trust me, you can always find people to do this kind of thing. Let’s call them auxiliaries.’

‘Okay, that sounds good.’

‘Number two, we can’t ban their political parties, but we can make sure we infiltrate them. Get people right in there, as high up as they can go, so we always know what they’re up to.’

Korgay nodded.

‘And we get our infiltrators to take a very sectarian attitude to other opposition parties. That way we can sabotage their efforts to collaborate.’

‘I like that idea.’

Alavidza flicked ash from his cigarette. ‘Number three: just because we can’t arrest our enemies doesn’t mean we can’t deploy a little intimidation.’

‘How are you going to do that?’

‘Send in auxiliaries to rough them over a bit. Disrupt their meetings, throw a few chairs around, that kind of thing. And maybe dish out the occasional thrashing on a dark night.’

‘You mustn’t go too far.’

‘No. We give our people strict instructions: bruised ribs are okay, but no cracked skulls. And no broken noses or smashed teeth for that matter.’

Korgay smiled.

‘Now, when we send in our friends, we make sure the right group attack the right people.’

‘How’s that?’

‘Well, if we’re disrupting a Tatar meeting, we make sure the auxiliaries who do it are all Ksords. That kind of thing.’

‘Divide and rule.’

‘Exactly. What’s the next number? Number four?’

Korgay nodded. ‘I think so.’

‘So, the opponents we harass most are the moderates. When it comes to the head bangers, we go easy on them. We even slip them some cash and give them a little bit of access to TV.’

Korgay raised an eyebrow. ‘Why would we do that?’

‘It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book. We don’t want the enemy to be led by nice people who say sensible things. We want nutters. That way, the masses will take one look at them and decide they’re better off with us.’

‘Isn’t that a bit risky?’

‘Yes,’ said Alavidza. ‘It can blow up in your face, but there is a way of minimising the risks.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘You create a few tame head bangers you can control. Shall I tell you who’d make a good one?’

‘Who?’

‘Aleksander Mingrelsky’s son. Get him to start a Ksordian ultra-nationalist party. Then we can use him to intimidate the Tatars and the Rebels, but it would be nothing to do with us because everyone would know he was a nationalist.’

‘Can we trust him?’

‘Oh yes. I’ve got so much on him that we can put him away for a long time if he ever steps out of line.’

‘And have you got any tame Tatars and Rebels you can use?’

‘I’m sure we have.’

‘But it is a dangerous strategy.’

‘It’s not without risk.’

Korgay thought for a moment and then nodded. ‘Okay, but be very discreet. Comrade Zikladza doesn’t need to know about this, and certainly not that sanctimonious half dick Lionidza.’

‘Talking about Lionidza, it’s a good job his pet athlete’s gone to piss his pants in the West. He’d be very dangerous if he smelled an opportunity and got involved in politics over here.’

‘You think so?’

‘Very. God only knows what Lionidza thought he was doing promoting someone like that.’

‘Well, I tell you what,’ said Korgay with a grin. ‘If he ever does come back, you can always set Alexander Mingrelsky’s son on him.’

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