RUSLAN, NINA and their friends were pretty brazen about their contempt for the system. They attended unofficial art exhibitions and poetry readings, they slagged off the Party whenever they got together, and a select group of them passed round samizdat journals and novels in secret. But if a disdain for Real Existing Socialism united them, they agreed about little else. They argued incessantly about anything and everything: capitalism, socialism and the ‘Swedish model’, bourgeois democracy and the one-party state, religion and nationalism, Lenin, Stalin and Bukharin. Their debates were passionate, interminable and often fuelled by considerable quantities of alcohol.
Nearly all of them were Ksordian nationalists of one kind or another. Ruslan’s nationalism was of another hue. He hoped that eventually Ksords and Akhtarians could rediscover a shared Pan-Kuban identity, and he longed for a revival of the Pan-Kuban republic that had flickered into existence in the chaotic years after the Bolshevik Revolution.
Nina disagreed. She regarded nationalism as a malignant bacillus that would wreak havoc if it were ever allowed to infect multi-ethnic regions like Central Kubania and southern Akhtaria. Like her Tatar friend Yakub Bovin, a senior philosophy instructor married to a Ksordian artist fifteen years his junior, Nina hoped that the Soviet Union would survive but would evolve into a genuine version of what it pretended to be: a confederation of free peoples.
The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan at the end of 1979 gave them something else to argue about. Yakub was convinced that this was the beginning of the end of Soviet Communism. ‘For the first time in its history, the Soviet Union’s going to lose a war. The consequences will be incalculable.’
‘What are you talking about?’ said Ruslan. ‘The Soviet Union’s lost wars before. The Finns gave Stalin a bloody nose and the Poles smashed Lenin’s face in.’
‘You wait and see. Afghanistan’s going to be Russia’s Vietnam.’
As the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and the USA cut off grain supplies, Nina too came to believe that the war might have major repercussions.
Far more interesting for Ruslan was the trial of Vakhtan Mingrelsky, which dominated the news for three days in March. It turned out that Mingrelsky had for some time been leader of a notorious gang of football hooligans, and the press hinted that it was only his father’s blat that had prevented the police from arresting him. Mingrelsky and his gang had graduated first to racketeering and then to armed raids on post offices. They carried out three successful raids, until one of Mingrelsky’s gang had managed to shoot himself in the foot in the fourth.
The usually tame Ksord-Akhtarian press revelled in the story of this young thug who had brought his father’s illustrious career to an end, and Ruslan delighted in the sentence of the court: two years’ hard labour followed by six years in prison.
He and Josep toasted it with two beers and six very large vodkas.
News of the Polish strikes that led to the formation of Solidarity came while Ruslan was training in the mountains of West Ksordia. He saw the Soviet version of events on television but wasn’t able to get his hands on a radio and tune in to Western stations for an alternative perspective. He found this extremely frustrating, and he was also frustrated by his inability to discuss the situation with anybody. He kept his opinions very much to himself when he was with other athletes.
When he returned to Ronkoni at the end of August, Nina was in a state of great excitement. ‘The Polish Communists have agreed to the formation of an independent trade union. This is just fantastic.’
Ruslan was more circumspect: ‘Let’s just hope the Russians don’t invade.’
‘The amazing thing about this is that it’s the Polish proletariat that’s rebelled against the Party. Their own core support’s turned against them. I don’t see how they can survive this.’
‘They survived the Kronstadt Mutiny in 1921.’
‘This is different.’
‘That was their core support.’
‘No, Ruslan. They’re in trouble. The economy’s contracting, they’re getting sucked into an unwinnable war and now this. It’s a very different situation from anything we’ve ever known.’
‘I wish you were right, Nina, but I don’t think the Communists are just going to roll over and die.’
In late September, Ruslan went to Moscow to compete in the marathon at the All-Union Student Spartakiad. He felt that his fitness had peaked at just the right moment and he was confident of winning.
For the first hour, he concentrated on his pace, and then he gradually moved up the field. With five kilometres to go, he took the lead and pulled some distance ahead. Then he realised from the noise of spectators lining the streets that another runner was gaining on him.
With two kilometres to go, he was overtaken by a Georgian he had beaten the previous year. The Georgian had timed his run perfectly and was soon too far ahead for Ruslan to catch. He had to settle for silver, the best result any Ksord-Akhtarian runner had ever obtained in an All-Union competition, but definitely not good enough to satisfy him.
A few weeks later, Nina’s friend Yakub Bovin invited a large group to his dacha in the mountains. Ruslan and Nina arrived on her moped just in time for lunch.
‘Yakub and Nodar are up to something,’ Josep told them.
‘I don’t know.’
Yakub’s young wife Marta, a Ksord, had prepared a delicious Tatar meal with dumpling broth and chicken and duck stuffed with eggs and milk. Only after everyone had finished eating did Yakub make his announcement: ‘Comrades, I’d like us to all meet outside in the garden. Please bring your coats, because it can be a bit chilly up here when the sun goes in.’
Everybody trooped outside, taking their coats and their drinks. Marta and Nina had spread several mats on the ground, and they all sat down, with the exception of Yakub and a tall postgraduate student called Nodar, who stood a little outside the group.
‘Comrades,’ Nodar began, ‘I’d like to start by thanking you all for coming. Yakub invited you here because he and I have a proposal to put to you. We’ve asked you to come into the garden because…well, I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but it occurred to us that the dacha might be bugged, but not the garden. So, without further ado, I’d like to call upon Yakub to outline our proposal.’
Nodar sat down and Yakub stepped forward. ’Comrades, we’ve spent many happy hours moaning about the Soviet Union and the Party and so forth. We pass samizdat around and go “tut tut” when someone gets arrested. And I suppose we think we’re very brave. But do you know what I think? Basically it’s just a form of masturbation. It makes us feel good for a time, but it makes no difference to anything, as long as we’re careful to do it in private.’
Some of those present tittered, but not Ruslan.
‘Well, if I can stick with my sexual metaphor for a while longer, I think masturbation is all well and good if you haven’t got a girlfriend. But if your situation changes, then perhaps your behaviour needs to change too. And I think we’ll all agree that the situation has changed dramatically of late.’
Yakub regurgitated the same old points: Afghanistan, the contracting economy and the breakthrough by Solidarity in Poland. Ruslan looked around to see how the others were reacting. Everyone seemed to be listening intently, including Nina.
Soon Yakub reached the climax of his little speech: ’The Communists are scared, because Solidarity undermines all their lies, their claim to represent the working class. Because Solidarity is the Polish working class. All the Party’s lies and all their hypocrisy are shown up for what they are.
’So if we want to really do something to undermine this rotten Party, what is it we have to do? We have to find ways to connect with the workers. We have to prove that the Party no longer represents them, if it ever did. We have to take the first steps to creating a Solidarity here, in Ksordia-Akhtaria.
‘And that’s what Nodar and I are proposing: it’s time for us to act and it’s time for us to act now. We propose that today, here, we constitute ourselves as the Ronkoni Committee for Solidarity, and we begin the task of creating an independent trade union.’
Yakub sat down to enthusiastic applause from some of the guests and stunned silence from others. Nina was among those who applauded.
Nodar stood up, thanked Yakub and invited comments from the floor. The first to speak was a young economics instructor who rarely agreed with Yakub about anything. On this occasion, however, she expressed complete support. Then a full-bearded young priest echoed her comments. Next was a philosophy instructor, who spoke at some length about the dialectics of the situation. For several minutes, Ruslan had no idea what he was saying, but eventually he realised that he too supported Yakub and Nodar’s proposal.
Ruslan could bear no more. He put up his hand and Nodar called on him to speak. He stood up and moved to the front as the others had done.
’Comrades, I’d like to inject some realism into this discussion. First some historical realism and then some political realism. Let’s start with the history. Communism has faced serious challenges before. Do you want a list? The East Germans, the Poles, the Hungarians and the Czechs, and don’t forget the Croats: they’ve all challenged the Party, but which of them have ever succeeded? Yes, I think Solidarity is fantastic, the best thing since the Prague Spring. But the Russians crushed that, and the Polish crisis isn’t over yet.
’And what you have in Poland is their way of resisting. Do you imagine Solidarity was conjured out of nothing? No way. Polish workers have wrung concessions out of the regime before. When Lech Walesa climbed over that wall and said, “Come on lads, if you stick it out, they’ll give in,” the workers knew from experience that he was talking sense.
‘You know, don’t you, that there have been strikes in the Soviet Union? Novocherkassk in 1962. You know what they did, don’t you? They sent troops in and shot them up.’
‘Things have changed since then,’ Yakub interjected.
’Okay then is 1970 recent enough for you? That’s when they sent troops in to crush strikes in Donetsk. Or 1978, just two years ago? You’ve all read your samizdat. What happened to Vladimir Klebanov when he tried to set up an independent trade union? They locked him up in a psychiatric hospital. You need to think about that, comrades. You need to think about that very carefully.
‘And there’s two more things. First of all, just look at us. Me, Josep, Asmat, Manama: all university students. And you too, Nodar. What about Yakub, Nina, Iya and Arslan? All university instructors. And then there’s Marta: an artist, Uta: a priest, Tsatsa a piano teacher and Masha a lawyer. We’re not exactly a cross-section of the proletariat, are we? We’re intellectuals. Do you imagine that all we have to do is say, “Arise ye starvelings,” and the workers will all come out on strike? I don’t think so.’
‘We’re not saying that,’ said Yakub. ‘What we’re saying is that we have to start the process of making contact.’
‘Oh yes?’ said Ruslan. ‘Do you know how the Polish intellectuals made contact? They offered practical support to workers already engaged in struggle. Do you know any workers already engaged in struggle? I’m afraid I don’t.’
Yakub made as if to speak, but Ruslan refused to be interrupted. ‘There’s one more thing, comrades. How many of us are there? Twelve? Thirteen? Well I bet the KGB have got thick files on most of us. I’m sure they have on me. What about you Yakub? Nina? Uta?’
The three of them nodded.
’Remember what I told you about when they arrested me after that fight with Aleksander Mingrelsky’s son? They knew about us. They even knew I was a Pan-Kuban nationalist. Do you seriously imagine a dozen of us can get together without at least one informer among us? You can bet your last rouble that this time tomorrow the KGB will know everything that’s happened here today. Everything.
’Comrades, there’s nobody here who detests the Party more than me. There’s nobody here who longs to see them overthrown and our independence restored more than me, with capitalism and democracy restored too. But don’t ask me to put my head on the block for nothing. Don’t ask me to get myself locked up in a labour camp or a psychiatric hospital for nothing. Because if you try to take on the Party head-on like this, that’s exactly what’s going to happen to you. Reading samizdat isn’t actually against the law. Your Ronkoni Committee for Solidarity would be, and don’t imagine they’ll let you get away with it, because they won’t.’
His whole body pulsating with adrenalin, Ruslan sat down between Josep and Nina. He felt Josep’s hand pat his back but Nina didn’t even look at him.
There was silence. Yakub got to his feet and thanked Ruslan. ‘I’m sure we all agree, Ruslan has given us something to think about. But I have to ask the question, what else can we do?’
‘The same as we always do,’ said Ruslan. ‘Ignore them. Refuse to listen to them. Slag them off. Create a space in your life that doesn’t belong to them, but for God’s sake don’t ruin your life by trying to oppose them directly.’
‘I don’t want to be rude,’ replied Yakub. ‘But what you’re saying is that we should confine ourselves to masturbation.’
’Don’t knock masturbation. Under certain circumstances it’s better than a cold shower. If you really want to do something, if you’re really feeling brave, write for samizdat.’
Nina raised her hand and stood up.
Without once looking at Ruslan, she said, ’Comrades, I think we should take what Ruslan has said very seriously. As he said, Solidarity is the result of peculiarly Polish conditions. And he’s quite right to say that Communism has survived other challenges, just as it may well survive this challenge. The story of Solidarity isn’t over yet and may well end with a Russian invasion.
’And yes we are intellectuals with no connection to the workers. I don’t really know how we’re going to make contact with workers who are ready to struggle. Yakub, you’ve very much been talking in generalities so far. I’d like to hear some concrete suggestions.
‘Okay. What Ruslan says about the KGB is worrying, isn’t it? I mean, if there is an informer here, we’re all in big trouble. But you know, I’m not sure if they really are so omnipresent. Ruslan,’ she looked at him at last, ’I keep saying this to you: just because they know you’ve got friends who are anti-Party doesn’t mean they know any more than that. As for that bit about you being a Pan Kubanist, maybe that KGB officer was just a quick thinker. He thought you might be a Ksordian nationalist, but then you said you had an Akhtarian girlfriend, so he said the first thing that came into his head.
’And what about us? We’ve been together for eighteen months now and nothing’s happened. Nothing. Don’t you think something would have happened by now if the KGB really spent all their time worrying about us? You seem to think the KGB are this super-efficient machinery of repression, but they aren’t. They’re a shambles, just like everything else in the bloody Soviet Union.
‘And Ruslan, I think there’s one thing you haven’t addressed, and that’s what Yakub was talking about. The situation has changed. The Soviet economy is in crisis. Afghanistan is turning into the Soviet Vietnam. And as Yakub says, I don’t think you should underestimate the impact of Communism being challenged by the Polish proletariat. They’ve got no answer to that. There’ll never be a better time than now. I’m convinced of it. The situation’s so unstable. We have to try and be a catalyst for change, and yes we might all end up in Siberia, but we might be successful and the consequences could be incalculable.’
She sat down next to Ruslan. He didn’t look at her.
The arguments went on and on and got more and more heated. Again and again, Yakub, Nodar, Nina and others argued that now was the time to act. Again and again, Ruslan, supported by Josep and Asmat, replied that Communism had shown a capacity to survive and that a direct challenge would be suicidal.
Eventually, Nodar stood up and said, ‘Comrades, I think we’ve heard the arguments. Some of us want to go ahead with this project and some of us think it’s too dangerous. Fine. So let’s stop arguing. What I propose is that those who don’t want to get involved go away and leave the rest of us to get on with it.’
‘I’ll second that,’ said Yakub.
‘Okay,’ said Nodar. ‘Let’s have a show of hands. All those in favour of asking those who don’t want to get involved to leave, please raise your hands.’
Seven people raised their hands.
Ruslan and Josep raised theirs. After a moment’s hesitation, Nina did so too.
Three hands went up.
‘Then the motion’s carried,’ said Nodar. ‘May I suggest that those who don’t want to get involved now retire to the house? We’ll arrange transport for you when the meeting’s finished.’
Ruslan, Josep, Asmat and Manama stood up and started to walk towards the house. After a moment Masha, the only one of those present who had remained silent throughout, stood up too.
‘I’ll take them back in my car,’ he said. ‘I’m afraid I won’t be joining you as I don’t think you’ll get very far. Ruslan’s right: the authorities still have very sharp teeth. I admire your courage, though, and I wish you well. Goodbye, comrades.’
He followed the others, and after a few minutes, they walked out of the front door of the dacha and got into his Volga. Just as Masha was reversing, Nina came running towards them.
Masha opened his window.
‘Ruslan,’ she said. ‘Come and see me tomorrow evening.’
He hesitated for a long time. ‘I’ll be round at nine.’
Masha wound up his window and drove away.
Just before ten thirty the following evening, Ruslan climbed the stairs to Nina’s flat and knocked on the door.
She opened it: ‘Haven’t you got your key?’
‘We need to talk.’
‘Not here. Let’s go outside.’
They walked down the stairs and went to a bench on the lawns behind her apartment block.
‘Are you angry with me?’ Nina asked in a hushed voice.
‘Don’t I have the right to disagree with you?’
‘Of course you do. It’s not that.’
‘Then what is it?’
‘For Christ’s sake, Nina. You know what it is.’
‘No, I don’t.’
‘The person I love the most in all the world is going to destroy herself, and she won’t listen to me when I try to stop her.’
‘Who says I’m going to destroy myself?’
‘How long do you think it’ll take the KGB to crush your little conspiracy?’
‘Keep your voice down. Look, what if I’m aware of the risks involved but I think it’s worth it?’
’I just don’t get it. I mean, writing samizdat is risky enough, but there’s no way you’re going to get away with this.’
’This time last year, samizdat was the only thing I could do. Now the situation’s changed, and if we push harder, we can make a difference.’
‘But you won’t make the slightest difference.’
‘That’s what you think.’
‘Oh, come on.’
‘Let’s not fight, please.’
She took his hand in hers, and they sat in silence for a long time. Ruslan didn’t know what else he could say.
‘Let me do what I think is right. You don’t have to get involved.’
‘I just have to sit back and let you ruin your life.’
‘This is what I want to do with my life, you know that.’
‘I tell you what, Nina, you just go ahead and do what you want, but only if you’re sure you’ll never regret it. What about when they lock you up, will you still be glad you did it? When you’re in a labour camp or you’re pumped full of drugs in a psychiatric hospital, will you still be glad you did it then? Or do you think maybe you’ll be starting to regret it?’
‘It’s a gamble Ruslan, okay? I’m gambling that the Communists won’t last another ten years. Honestly, I don’t think they can. It just needs the right push in the right place at the right time and the whole lot will come tumbling down.’
‘It’s a very big gamble.’
‘Yes, well I’m prepared to take the risk. I think the world’s about to change and I want to be a part of that process.’
Ruslan said nothing.
Nina held his face and kissed him.
They walked back to the flat, where they went to bed and made love, but all through their lovemaking Ruslan knew their differences hadn’t been resolved. Even as he kissed and caressed her, he felt angry. Even as he entered her, he was aware of the distance between them. Even as he reached his climax, he resented her. It was the most empty and mechanical sex he had ever experienced in his life, and it left him bleak and despondent.
They hardly spoke the next morning. After a quick breakfast, Nina got on her moped and Ruslan walked to the bus stop. Neither of them saw the two men sitting in a black Volga watching them. Ruslan didn’t notice the one who got out and waited for the bus near him. Nina didn’t realise that the other followed her all the way to the university, always four cars behind her, never too near, but never allowing her out of his sight.
Ruslan felt that by not doing anything, he was betraying Nina, but he had no idea what he should do, so for three weeks he avoided her as much as he could. On Wednesday mornings when he had to attend her lecture, he made a point of arriving just before the start, sitting at the back and leaving as soon as the lecture finished. In the third week, he didn’t turn up at all.
That Sunday evening, he went for a long run in the sleet of a cold November evening. For an hour he ran away from the city centre along the bank of the River Kuban. He felt calmed by the slow pace of the river, by the way it absorbed the onslaught of rain and sleet as if it were nothing.
And then it struck him: perhaps he was in the wrong. Nina was in deep trouble, and it wouldn’t be long before the KGB caught up with her. That was when she would need him. That was when he could make a difference.
He had to let her know that he loved her, that he respected her right to do as she chose, that he would always be there for her, no matter what. He decided to tell her at once, before it was too late. It would take only forty-five minutes to run to her flat, so he turned away from the river and ran north through the suburban streets, cars splashing him all the time as he ran through the sleet and the rain.
As he approached her apartment block he could see that her light was on. He opened the door and squelched his way past the caretaker’s disapproving glare and up the stairs five floors to her flat. Nina opened the door and for an instant stared at him in apparent horror.
‘You’d better come in.’
Ruslan was still out of breath.
‘You should get your wet things off. Do you want to have a shower?’
‘No not yet…mustn’t cool down too quickly.’
She led him to the bathroom. ‘Use the towel in there.’
Ruslan took off his running clothes, squeezed the water out of them and hung them over the bath. He dried himself, wrapped the towel around his middle and walked out to find Nina.
‘Here’s some of your clothes.’
He retreated to the bathroom and got dressed. Nina was standing in the living room when he came out.
‘Nina, I’ve just come to say I’m sorry. I want you to know I love you and I’ll always be there for you, no matter what happens.’
‘You don’t have to apologise for anything.’
‘Yes I do. I’ve treated you so badly. Can you forgive me?’
‘There’s nothing to forgive.’
‘I’m so sorry, Nina.’
She stepped forward and they embraced.
They held onto each other for a long time. Then they kissed, but this time, their kiss was no ritual. They kissed again and caressed, and all the anger that had divided them was gone. She undressed him and took him inside her, and all the distance between them had disappeared. They climaxed together and lay exhausted on her bed, each of them overwhelmed by feelings of love and tenderness towards the other. There had been nothing mechanical or empty about their lovemaking that evening. It had been one of those rare and precious times when the connection between two people is absolute, and Ruslan would remember it as such for many years to come.
As they lay in each other’s arms, Ruslan knew nothing about the leaflets hidden in Nina’s wardrobe, waiting to be distributed on trolley buses and commuter trains the following week. The plan was to hand them out quickly just before a bus stop or a station and then get off before anyone could react.
Nina fell asleep first, and Ruslan held onto her as he drifted off, warm and comfortable with the touch of her flesh and the gentle sound of her breathing.
Three hours later, the KGB smashed the door in.