The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Six

COLONEL TENGIZ Alavidza of the KGB paced up and down anxiously by the gate. ‘Come on,’ he muttered. ‘For God’s sake, hurry up.’

At last he saw approaching headlights, and the familiar shape of a Volga 21 came into view. Alavidza waved and the car stopped. The passenger got out, the thick, heavy briefcase of a doctor in his hands. He and Alavidza exchanged four kisses.

‘Sorry to drag you out at this deathly hour.’

‘It’s my pleasure to help, Comrade Alavidza, sir. What would you like me to do?’

‘Come inside and I’ll show you.’

Inside the house stood Communist Party big fish Aleksander Mingrelsky and his wife. Alavidza introduced the doctor to them.

‘Thank you for coming.’

‘It’s my pleasure, sir.’

‘There’s a young man upstairs,’ said Alavidza. ‘I want you to examine him. He’s been shot in the foot. Don’t ask him how he got shot. Just examine him and tell us what state he’s in. Can you do that for me?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘And I can rely on your discretion?’

‘Of course.’

Alavidza led the doctor upstairs to one of the bedrooms. Vakhtan Mingrelsky was inside, standing by the window. The injured man lay on the bed, his foot in a pool of blood.

‘Vakhtan, let’s leave the doctor alone with him.’

Alavidza led Mingrelsky junior out of the room, and the two of them waited together in the landing. Vakhtan Mingrelsky was unable to keep still. He kept biting his knuckles and darting anxious looks towards the bedroom door.

‘Does your father know how it happened?’

‘It was an accident.’

‘Don’t donkey shit me, Vakhtan. I know exactly what happened. Now, does your father know?’

‘No.’

‘Good. Make sure it stays that way.’

When the doctor came out, Alavidza signalled him to go downstairs. Whatever he had to say was for the ears of Mingrelsky senior, not his son, who went back into the bedroom.

Alavidza and the doctor went into the dining room where Mingrelsky senior and his wife were waiting. Alavidza closed the door.

‘Well?’ asked Mingrelsky senior.

‘He’s been shot in the foot,’ said the doctor.

‘I know that.’

The doctor took a deep breath. ‘You have to get him to hospital immediately or else he’ll die.’

‘Isn’t there anything you can do?’ asked Mingrelsky senior.

‘No, I’m afraid not. He’ll be dead by morning if you don’t get him to hospital.’

They were silent for a minute, then Alavidza spoke to the doctor: ‘Thank you very much, comrade. You can go back home now.’

The doctor nodded.

‘And I don’t need to remind you: absolute discretion. Don’t even tell your wife what you saw here tonight.’

‘Of course.’

Alavidza escorted him to the car and then went back inside.

‘Can you trust that doctor?’ Mingrelsky senior asked.

‘Don’t worry. He wouldn’t dare cross me.’

‘So what do we do now?’

Alavidza looked at Mingrelsky senior. ‘We have to do as the doctor says. We don’t want a dead body on our hands.’

‘But what if the police find out?’ Mingrelsky senior was on the verge of tears.

‘Leave it with me.’

‘Vakhtan’s all we’ve got left,’ said Mingrelsky’s wife. ‘Please Tengiz, do what you can.’

‘Don’t worry. Just leave everything to me.’

Comrade Besiki Zikladza, the General Secretary of the Party in Ksordia-Akhtaria, stood up to greet his visitors. There were only three men in the whole republic that enjoyed his full confidence: Aleksander Mingrelsky, Sergo Lionidza and Shakman Korgay. Today he had summoned these latter two to an urgent meeting.

The thickset Lionidza came in first, his hair, as ever, combed over his balding head. Korgay followed, a burly figure who still had the shape of the wrestler he had been in his youth.

Comrade Zikladza kissed them and then introduced the other man in the room. ‘Do you know Colonel Alavidza from the KGB?’

‘Yes,’ said Lionidza. ‘Tengiz and I go back a long way.’

He and Alavidza embraced and kissed, and then Alavidza and Korgay shook hands and introduced themselves more formally.

‘So how do you two know each other?’ said Comrade Zikladza.

‘We were in the Communist Youth League together,’ said Lionidza. ‘Rather longer ago than I care to mention.’

Comrade Zikladza motioned everyone to sit down. He invited Alavidza to speak.

He told them how he had been called to Aleksander Mingrelsky’s house in the middle of the night only to find a young man who had been shot in the foot and was slowly bleeding to death. The injured man was now in hospital, guarded by the KGB.

‘Tell them the other thing you told me,’ said Comrade Zikladza.

‘Yesterday afternoon there was a rather incompetent armed raid on a post office in Pashkovskiy. One of the robbers shot himself in the foot.’

‘But what’s the connection with Aleksander?’ asked Korgay.

Comrade Zikladza nodded to Alavidza.

‘We’re pretty sure Comrade Mingrelsky’s son was involved.’

‘In armed robbery?’

‘Yes.’

Korgay and Lionidza looked at each other in astonishment.

‘I think that will be all,’ Comrade Zikladza said to Alavidza. ‘If you’d like to wait in my reception area. Ask my secretary to get you a glass of tea.’

With Alavidza out of the way, Comrade Zikladza walked up to the window. For a moment he looked down into the courtyard below. Then he turned round: ’As you know, I’ve had to warn Aleksander several times about that son of his. But what you don’t know is that we had a near miss last summer. Literaturnaya Gazeta threatened to kick up a fuss when him and his gang attacked some students. The students fought back and beat him up, and Aleksander tried to have them prosecuted for battery. Fortunately, my brother-in-law tipped me off about it. He’s a senior journalist on the Gazeta, and he said the editor would publish if I didn’t step in and get those students released.’

‘You’re joking,’ said Lionidza.

‘No I’m not. And now this.’

‘I knew Aleksander’s son was a bit of a tearaway,’ said Lionidza, ‘but I had no idea...’

‘We have to be very careful,’ said Korgay. ‘If this gets out, it could do a lot of damage.’

Lionidza nodded, ‘Yes, but there’s no way we can allow him to get away with armed robbery, not even for Aleksander’s sake. That would be very wrong.’

Comrade Zikladza thought for a moment. Then he asked, ‘What about this Colonel Alavidza, Sergo? Can we trust him?’

‘Not farther than we could kick him,’ said Lionidza. ‘I bet he told Aleksander he was going to hush everything up, and then first thing he does is come running to you. He’ll happily tell Moscow if he thinks it suits him.’

‘Well we don’t want that,’ said Korgay.

‘No,’ said Comrade Zikladza. ‘So what do we do?’

‘How long can the KGB keep Aleksander’s son locked up without charge?’ Korgay asked.

‘Nine months, I think.’

‘So why don’t we get them to do that?’ said Korgay. ‘Apart from anything else, it would teach him a lesson.’

Lionidza shook his head. ‘We have to be seen to do the right thing.’

‘What? Put him on trial?’

‘Yes.’

‘Too damaging. It would be a massive scandal.’

‘In that case,’ said Comrade Zikladza, ‘we have to sacrifice Aleksander. I always thought it would be his womanising that brought him down, but in the end it’s his bloody son. We’ll get Aleksander to resign now. We can say it’s on health grounds. Then we delay the trial for at least a year, and by then Aleksander will be history and nobody will care when his son gets sent down.’

Korgay agreed.

Comrade Zikladza looked at Lionidza and raised an eyebrow.

‘It’d be a tragedy for Aleksander. He’s been through a lot the last couple of years, what with one son dead and the other off the rails.’

‘I know.’

‘Will you at least let Aleksander and his wife stay in the Party?’

‘Yes. We can do that much for them.’

Lionidza sighed. ‘It makes me sick to my stomach, but I don’t suppose we have much choice, do we?’

It was Nina who spotted the news and showed it to Ruslan, a one-paragraph story on page four of Kerda Ksordia-Akhtaria: Aleksander Mingrelsky had resigned from the Ksord-Akhtarian Politburo and the Central Committee in Moscow because of poor health.

Ruslan was astonished. ‘Do you think it’s true?’

‘What? His health? No way. Since when has any Soviet leader ever resigned because of poor health?’

‘So I wonder what happened.’

‘Whatever it is, it’s excellent news from your point of view.’

Ruslan laughed. ‘I just hope his son’s in trouble too.’

He and Nina had told nobody about their relationship, and whenever they met at the university, she was always ‘Comrade Begishveli’. But apart from when he was running, Ruslan spent most of his free time at Nina’s flat. He would take his books there to study, and then they would make love and talk late into the night.

They went public after two weeks, but only to their closest friends, holding hands when they met them for the Saturday promenade.

‘Hi everyone.’

‘Hello you two. Long time no see.’

As usual with Ksords, the greetings took a long time: two kisses on each cheek all round, man to woman, woman to woman and man to man.

Josep winked at Ruslan and mouthed the words, ‘I already knew.’

The women in the group asked Nina all about Ruslan, while the men, after a little joshing, turned to the far more important topic of football.

Ruslan introduced Nina to his family by stages, starting with his half brother Giorgi.

‘Is she at the university?’

‘Yes.’

‘What does she study? History?’

‘History yes, study no.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘She’s an instructor.’

‘Oh, so you’re getting an education in more ways than one?’

Ruslan brought Nina round a week later and she and Giorgi took to each other at once. Giorgi’s wife Venera was a little more cautious, perhaps because of the age difference.

Ruslan mentioned Nina in his letters to his mother but said nothing about her being an instructor. He waited until the weekend after his birthday, when he, Giorgi and Venera, their four sons and two lots of wives and children all went to visit her.

Ruslan casually slipped it into the conversation as they had dinner.

‘Actually, she works at the university.’

‘What does she do?’

‘She’s an instructor.’

There was a stony silence as everyone waited to see how his mother would react.

‘She’s an instructor?’

‘Yes.’

‘Is she your instructor?’

‘Well yes, sometimes I go to her lectures.’

‘So she’s an instructor and she’s having an affair with one of her students?’

‘Yes, you could put it that way.’

‘Is that allowed?’

‘Well, we have to be a bit discreet.’

‘It wouldn’t have been allowed in my day. How old is she?’

‘Twenty-six.’

‘Twenty-six? That’s quite a difference.’

‘It’s less than you and Papa.’

Ruslan’s mother smiled: ‘You always have an answer for everything. With me and your father at least the age difference was the right way round.’

‘Is there a right way round?’

‘Yes.’

‘We’ve met her and she’s very nice,’ said Giorgi. ‘Isn’t she Venera?’

‘Yes, she is.’

‘And she helped Ruslan first time he got into trouble.’

‘Did she? What did she do?’

‘She persuaded me to back down, I suppose.’

‘Then at least she’s got a head on her shoulders. Tell me this, Ruslan, could you get expelled for sleeping with one of your instructors?’

‘In theory perhaps, but I’m not worried. We’re very discreet, and if anyone accuses us, we’ll just deny it. They can’t prove anything.’

‘You mustn’t get into trouble again.’

‘Mama, it didn’t stop you marrying Papa.’

‘There you go again, Ruslan. I suppose I should be proud to have such a bright boy.’

Everybody laughed.

The following Sunday, Ruslan and Nina drove up on her moped to meet his mother. Ruslan wished Giorgi were around to lend his support, but in the event, the afternoon was very pleasant. His mother was clearly anxious not to offend, and the fact that Nina came from nearby Timashevsk seemed to soothe her worries that her son had been seduced by a slick city woman from Ronkoni.

For his part, Ruslan realised just how proud he was to be with Nina. She was all woman and he felt she had made a man of him.

When he and his mother had a moment together, he asked her what she thought.

‘I don’t suppose you’d listen to your old mother if she told you to drop her and find a nice girl your own age, would you?’

‘And if your mother had told you to drop Papa and find a nice man who hadn’t been in trouble?’

‘I’d have told her to go and jump in a lake.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t say that to you, Mama.’

‘You’d think it though, wouldn’t you? I can see why you like her. Just make sure you stay out of trouble, that’s all.’

‘Don’t worry.’

‘Ruslan, you’re a constant worry, believe me. You always have been and you always will be.’

On the first Saturday in May, the Moscow-based weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta revealed the truth about Aleksander Mingrelsky’s resignation and his son’s arrest. Nina showed the story to Ruslan just after he came back from his morning run. He was ecstatic and read and reread the article, laughing and cheering at almost every paragraph.

‘See the guy who wrote it?’ he said to Nina. ‘Sergei Ivanov. He’s one of the journalists I told you about, the ones who got us out of prison. Christ, this is so brilliant. I just can’t believe it.’

Ruslan bought four more copies of the Gazeta: he gave one to Giorgi and sent one to his mother. The other two he posted to Murad, asking him to get Fatima to send one on to Tamara.

‘This is the best thing that could ever have happened,’ he said to Josep. ‘Not only is that half dick locked up, there’s also no way his father can come after us now. We’ve heard the last of Vakhtan Mingrelsky.’

When the new sports season began that month, Ruslan hoped to do well enough to get noticed by Goskomsport and put on an élite athletics training programme. The two Spartakiads in which he was to compete were a kind of Soviet mini-Olympics. The authorities saw them as a vehicle for the transmission of socialist ideals and would give both Spartakiads plenty of airtime on TV.

In the Ronkoni University Spartakiad, Ruslan competed in the 10,000 metres and a twelve-kilometre cross-country run. He was confident of winning both races, but he needed to win convincingly so the university coaches would point him out to Goskomsport during the Ksord-Akhtarian National Student Spartakiad in June.

Ruslan’s strategy for the 10,000 metres was to disrupt the pace of the other runners by staying in front and setting a very fast pace, then slowing down for a few laps, speeding up again and then slowing down. This worked brilliantly, and soon after the half way stage, he was able to pull ahead. By the end of the race, he had lapped every other runner in the field at least once, most of them twice and two unfortunates three times.

He was delighted with his performance, but it was essential to also do well in the cross country two days later. He felt his glycogen stores were too low for him to break his opponents in the way he had in the 10,000 metres. Instead, he would concentrate on maintaining a good, steady pace for the first nine kilometres. Then he would catch up with the leaders and finish them off with a sprint just before the end.

Everything went according to plan and he won by more than fifty metres. His coaches were very impressed.

The Ronkoni University team travelled to Khosume, the capital of Ksordia-Akhtaria, three weeks later. The first day of the Spartakiad was mostly taken up with the elaborate rituals of the opening ceremony, after which Ruslan was left with little to do but walk the twelve-kilometre cross-country course and think about timings.

On the Tuesday evening, he went to a Tatar bar to meet Murad and Fatima, his friends from the previous summer. They were due to graduate from their drama institute soon and would then join a Tatar ensemble. They toasted the demise of Mingrelsky’s father, and then Murad showed Ruslan the photographs he had taken in Bogmaperdi. Ruslan spent some time looking wistfully at the pictures of Tamara.

‘Are you still in touch with her?’ he asked Fatima.

‘On and off. She dropped me a line after we sent that article. I meant to bring the letter tonight, but I couldn’t find it. She says she’s fine and studying hard for her exams.’

‘That’s good.’

‘She says she doesn’t miss you at all,’ said Murad.

Fatima elbowed him in the chest. ‘She said a lot of nice things about you.’

‘Thank you, Fatima.’ Ruslan thought of asking exactly what Tamara had said, but he decided not to.

‘Do you miss her?’

‘I did for a long time but I’m seeing someone else now. Let me show you. Her name’s Nina.’

He took out his wallet and showed them the photograph he always carried.

‘She looks nice. Is she a student too?’

Ruslan smiled. ‘She’s one of my instructors.’

Murad grinned and Fatima looked shocked. ‘Ruslan, you are a naughty boy.’

‘This is the real thing. I’m going to marry Nina and have children.’

Fatima smiled. ‘Talking about getting married…’

‘What? Are you engaged?’

‘Not yet. We’re going to get engaged as soon as we graduate. Then we’ll get married next summer.’

‘Congratulations. That’s fantastic news. Don’t forget to send me and Josep an invitation.’

In the 10,000 metres, Ruslan had decided to concentrate on his pace for the first fifteen laps. He planned to catch up with the leaders by lap twenty and pull ahead for the final five. Much to his annoyance, however, he found himself in front after less than one lap, with a large pack of runners on his shoulder. This situation continued unchanged until the end of the fifteenth lap, leaving Ruslan with a need to rethink his strategy, something he hated having to do.

He pulled ahead and two runners stayed with him. He couldn’t shake them off and they began to worry him. He was a good finisher, but what if they were better?

With four laps to go, he increased his pace again. Still they stayed with him. By the time he reached the bell, one had faltered, but the other remained on his shoulder. Ruslan waited and waited for him to make his move but it didn’t come. Then, as they approached the final bend, Ruslan steeled himself and set off. The chaser stayed with him, and out of the corner of his eye, Ruslan could see that he was making progress. With 100 metres to go, they were level. Ruslan somehow found it within himself to give one more kick and draw ahead again. From the reaction of some Ronkoni teammates by the side of the track, he knew that he had broken him. With victory in his grasp, he kicked again and crossed the line a good five metres in front.

Mobbed by his teammates, Ruslan was relieved to have won but deeply disappointed by his margin of victory. He would need a better result in the cross country.

The next day, he walked the course again, making notes, guessing distances and thinking about timings. He decided he had no option but to take the race by the scruff of its neck and break his opponents. On such a flat course, the only way to do this was to run throughout at a pace nobody else could match, a very risky strategy with his glycogen levels low after the 10,000 metres. But then again, his opponents wouldn’t expect it. The best runners would think he was an idiot when they saw him taking a commanding lead in the early stages, and with luck they wouldn’t do anything about it until it was too late.

When the race started, he ran fast for the first two kilometres. Only one runner stayed with him, but Ruslan sensed that he wasn’t a threat, so he slowed down a little. His challenger receded and, to his surprise, none of the others seemed to be catching up. Even so, he was worried that he might have miscalculated and the lactic acid building up in his legs might prevent him from finishing the race at all. With two kilometres to go, the pain was almost unbearable, but when the TV camera van moved from ahead of him to behind, he knew that he only had to finish the race to win it.

Every step was a war in itself, but with victory in sight, there was no way Ruslan was going to give up.

He entered the stadium to enormous applause and didn’t see another runner until almost a minute after he ran through the winning tape. As he lay on the track, exhausted and in agony, he knew he had done it. They couldn’t fail to notice him now.

Sure enough, after his victory ceremony, he was approached by a thickset man whose hair was combed over his balding head. Ruslan recognised him at once: it was Sergo Lionidza, one of the most senior Party leaders in the republic.

Lionidza shook Ruslan warmly by the hand and patted his shoulder. ‘Very impressed by your two performances,’ he said. ‘Very impressed indeed.’

‘Thank you very much, Comrade Lionidza, sir.’

‘Would you be interested in doing some proper training over the summer? We’re always on the lookout for people with potential.’

‘There’s nothing I’d like more, Comrade Lionidza, sir.’

The training regime in Khosume was just what Ruslan needed to become a top-class athlete. In the exercise physiology laboratory, they measured his maximal oxygen uptake and anaerobic threshold and developed precise routines to improve his aerobic and lactic anaerobic systems, his running style and his strength and mobility. The coaches were excellent, and in Ruslan had a highly motivated student who listened to and followed their advice on every matter except one: ‘My event is the marathon,’ he told them. ‘I’m not interested in anything else.’

‘Let us do tests,’ they said. ‘Our job is to find potential medal winners. We’ll try you out in different events, and we’ll tell you which event is your best.’

‘Okay, as long as it’s the marathon.’

Sergo Lionidza frowned. He folded his arms and leaned back.

‘This is bad news. Very bad news.’

‘Well, we just thought you should know,’ said KGB Colonel Tengiz Alavidza, barely able to suppress a smirk.

‘Yes, you’re absolutely right to tell me and I’m very grateful to you.’ Lionidza leaned forward: ‘You say you’ve met young Shanidza too?’

‘Yes. Aleksander Mingrelsky asked me to help out when Shanidza beat his son up.’

‘From what I heard, Mingrelsky junior had it coming.’

‘It was six of one and half a dozen of the other.’

‘But this business of Shanidza’s instructor – shouldn’t she be sacked for sleeping with one of her students? I mean, it’s absolutely scandalous.’

‘In a perfect world, she would be. The problem is, we might compromise our sources if we moved against her over this. We’re interested in rather more serious matters than her morals.’

‘Yes, of course. You’re right. People like her are very dangerous. Now, what about young Shanidza? Do you want us to stop him running?’

‘Can you just drop him without giving a reason?’

‘Easily. When his training finishes, we just don’t invite him back again.’

‘Perhaps that’s what you should do.’

‘Yes, I suppose so. It’s a pity though: he’s a bloody good athlete. Very promising. And a good student too, from what I hear. I suppose you know about the article he’s had published in a very prestigious historical journal.’

‘Yes, indeed. But is he the kind of person we should be promoting?’

‘Obviously not.’

‘Not unless he changes his attitudes.’

Lionidza leaned back. ‘You know what Comrade Zikladza once said to me? He said, “You don’t change people’s behaviour by changing their attitudes. You change their behaviour first and then their attitudes follow.” He’s right about that, you know. I’ve seen it so many times.’

Alavidza raised an eyebrow.

‘Now you said he keeps his opinions to himself when he’s training?’

‘Yes.’

‘He behaves himself?’

‘Yes. But not because he’s loyal. He just knows which bit of bread’s been dipped in oil.’

‘Exactly. That’s my point. So let’s give him the chance to keep behaving himself and eventually he may come round.’

‘How do you mean?’

‘We train him, we let him run, we show him the glittering prizes that can be his if he mends his ways, and then we make him choose between his future and his slut of an instructor.’

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