The Price of Dreams

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Chapter Nine

ON THE fifth day of his captivity, they interrogated Ruslan for just two short sessions. Apart from that, they left him alone. From the meals they brought him, he was finally able to guess at the time of day and begin to regain his bearings.

He felt utterly despondent, a mess of self pity and self loathing. He couldn’t understand how he had been broken so easily. How could he betray Nina like this? Would she ever forgive him? He had always thought he would willingly give his life for her, but in truth he couldn’t even keep his mouth shut for a few days.

And what a pitiful contrast with his father. They had tortured him, but he had stood up to them. And now his pathetic son had been broken without so much as a blow being struck.

Towards late afternoon, however, Ruslan’s mood began to change. He resolved to stop feeling sorry for himself and find a way to fight back. There was nothing he could do about the statements he had made and signed. They would be used in court. But if he refused to testify, Nina would at least know that they had been extracted against his will.

He knew that he wasn’t sharp enough to outwit his interrogators. He would have to find another strategy, and he would need time to think it through before he started. So when they interrogated him again that evening, he continued to play along with them.

The next morning, however, he was ready. ‘Can I ask a question?’ he said as they began yet another session.

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Will you be expecting me to testify against the Committee for Truth?’

‘We will, yes.’

‘Well, I’ve thought about it and I’ve decided not to.’

‘And what’s brought this on all of a sudden?’

‘Basically those people are my friends and I don’t want to betray them.’

‘What you mean is you’re worried your instructor won’t open her legs for you any more. Well, for the next few years she isn’t going to be opening her legs for anybody.’

‘No, it isn’t about that. It’s about looking in the mirror every morning and having some respect for the person you see.’

‘You fucking imbecile! We don’t need you to testify, do you know that? The only person who needs you to testify is you. You’ve already told us everything and signed it. All we have to do is submit your statements to the trial. You just need to think about this: if you testify, you can find yourself a new university, finish your Diploma and get on with your life. If you don’t, I’ll tell you quite clearly, we’ll have your fucking balls.’

‘I’ve thought about it. I’m not going to testify, and I’m not going to answer any more of your questions.’

There followed half an hour of angry interrogation and threats, but Ruslan politely but firmly refused to answer their questions. Finally, the interrogator walked out of the room.

The assistant looked at Ruslan: ‘It must all be very upsetting for you.’

Ruslan didn’t reply.

‘I can understand your situation but the Captain’s right. It really doesn’t make any difference to our case whether you testify or not. You’ve already given us all your evidence, and you’re only a day or two away from being released. You have to think of your future.’

Still Ruslan said nothing.

‘From what I understand, you were the outstanding student of your class. Obviously you’ll be expelled from Ronkoni for sleeping with your instructor, but I’m sure another university will take you on for one more year to finish your Diploma. It’ll be good for you to have a fresh start. And after that, two years national service teaching in a village somewhere, and then the world’s your breakfast buffet. You could have a great future. And I hear you’re a very promising athlete too. It would be such a shame to throw everything away. Think about it.’

Ruslan turned to the assistant: ‘I’ve decided not to speak to you.’

The next four days were extremely difficult. The three teams of interrogators questioned him round the clock. They threatened him, yelled at him, bullied him and cajoled him, but he moved not a millimetre. He repeated his standard mantras.

‘I don’t want to answer any more questions.’

‘I’m not saying anything.’

‘I’ve made up my mind. There’s nothing you can do.’

They tried a visit from his mother. They left them to talk unsupervised, but Ruslan assumed that their conversation was being monitored.

‘Hello, Mama.’

‘Hello.’

They embraced and exchanged four kisses.

‘Are you okay?’

‘Yes, I’m fine. What have they told you?’

‘They say Nina was up to something, and you’re throwing away your future by trying to protect her.’

‘I wasn’t involved in anything.’

‘But you’re still going to throw away your future.’

‘I know what I’m doing.’

‘They say you’ve already told them everything, and it doesn’t make any difference if you refuse to testify. They say you just want to impress Nina.’

‘It’s not a question of impressing Nina.’

‘What is it then?’

‘It’s a question of doing what’s right and earning some self respect. How many people drink themselves into oblivion every night because it’s the only way they can cope with all the compromises they’ve had to make?’

‘Compromise is part of life, Ruslan.’

‘And testifying against my friends would be a compromise too far. I won’t do it. It’ll destroy me if I do.’

‘And they’ll destroy you if you don’t.’

‘I’m your son, Mama: I’m the same as you. You didn’t compromise when they tried to stop you marrying Papa.’

His mother looked at him and sighed. ‘I’ve always been afraid of this. You hate them so much and you think you’re so clever. I always knew you’d get into trouble one day. Do you really think you can beat them?’

‘Yes I can, I know it. When they first arrested me, I wasn’t ready for them. But I’ve got my strength back now. I’m not afraid of them.’

‘You should be. I remember the state your father was in when they released him. He was a broken man: there was nothing left of him. I had to put him back together piece by piece, brick by brick. You’ve never seen a man in such a state in all your life. Who’s going to put you back together, Ruslan? I can’t see Nina doing it. She’ll be too much of a wreck herself.’

Ruslan hoped they would give up after that, but his interrogations became even more intensive, and he began to wonder how long he could hold out. Then, two or three days after his mother’s visit, a particularly difficult session was interrupted by the arrival of a tall, skinny man in a three-piece suit who Ruslan hadn’t seen since the two nights he had spent in custody more than two years earlier.

Ruslan’s two interrogators stood up. ‘Hello, Colonel Alavidza, sir.’

Alavidza smiled. ‘Hello, comrades. Do you think I could speak to Shanidza alone for a minute?’

‘Yes, of course.’

The interrogators left, and Alavidza sat down opposite Ruslan and took out a packet of American cigarettes.

‘Smoke?’

‘No thank you.’

Alavidza lit a cigarette.

‘So it really is you?’

Ruslan said nothing.

‘I knew you’d get into trouble again sooner or later. Only this time, you won’t have any Russian journalists rushing to your rescue.’

Ruslan still said nothing.

‘So you don’t want to testify against your friends?’

‘No.’

‘That means you were one of them.’

‘I haven’t broken the law.’

‘Well, let’s see if you can convince a judge of that. Enjoy your little holiday.’

He got up and left, and a bemused Ruslan was returned to his cell.

Alavidza asked to meet with the head of the investigation and the commander of the Ronkoni KGB.

‘First of all, comrades, I’d like to congratulate you on a job well done.’

‘Thank you,’ said the local commander. ‘And thank you for the tip-off. In fact, we’d had our eye on them for a long time, and we had our own source in with them right from the start.’

‘Yes, and with my source, you had two.’

The three men laughed.

‘Still,’ said Alavidza, ‘you’ve handled it very well, and don’t imagine it hasn’t been noticed.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Presumably you’re going to make sure everyone says the real leader was this Tatar, Yakub Bovin?’

‘Don’t worry. That can be arranged.’

‘Good. Now one other thing, this young athlete…’

‘Ruslan Shanidza?’

‘That’s the one. The powers that be are very keen to put him behind bars.’

‘He wasn’t really involved,’ said the local commander. ‘He was just shagging one of the conspirators.’

‘Be that as it may, I’ve been told to make sure he gets locked up.’

‘Why? Why not just make him testify against his friends?’

‘We’re just a day or two off breaking him,’ said the head of the investigation.

Alavidza shook his head. ‘We have our orders.’

The Ronkoni KGB officers argued no further and agreed to do as they were told. Once Alavidza left, however, the head of the investigation gave vent to his feelings: ‘Blood and damnation,’ he said. ‘This was a textbook operation and now we’ve got to compromise it.’

‘Believe me,’ said his commander, ‘I’m just as frustrated as you are.’

‘You know why, don’t you? It’s because of that business with Aleksander Mingrelsky’s son.’

’It’s disgusting. I don’t see why Mingrelsky should still have so much blat.’

‘Well obviously he does.’

And so Ruslan’s interrogation came to an end. He spent two days unmolested in his cell and had a brief interview with a prosecutor, after which he was charged with conspiracy to commit anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda under Article 70 of the criminal code. He then spent the next fifteen months in prison awaiting trial.

At the beginning of his second March inside, less than a week before his trial, Ruslan got a very unpleasant surprise when a tough looking prisoner stepped out in front of him as he was running round the exercise yard. It was Vakhtan Mingrelsky.

‘Well, well, well. If it’s not our Rebel-loving friend.’

‘God’s nails, Mingrelsky. I thought you were doing hard labour.’

‘Just finished. What about you? Let me guess: political?’

‘Yes.’

Mingrelsky laughed. ‘Half dick. You know what, though, you really are an annoying little turd, running round and round like that. Do yourself a favour: stop running and keep out of my sight. Okay?’

‘Yes, I was getting tired anyway.’

‘Good. Now go and bugger a donkey.’

However much he tried to hide it, the sight of Mingrelsky threw Ruslan into a panic. He knew Mingrelsky would want revenge for the humiliations heaped upon him in Bogmaperdi. Although he was safe in his cell, Ruslan was extremely vulnerable whenever he left it to slop out, shower, eat or take exercise. It wasn’t just a case of keeping out of Mingrelsky’s way: he could easily get someone else to beat him up or stab him, or to put a razor blade or a shard of glass in his soap or his food.

Ruslan told his cellmates and several other prisoners about Mingrelsky: ‘He’s got a grudge against me, and if I get killed, you have to tell the guards it was him.’

They gave noncommittal nods. Ruslan knew they wouldn’t say anything that compromised their own safety.

He asked one of the guards if he could see his lawyer again.

‘You’ve already seen him twice, haven’t you? Why the fuck should you get special treatment?’

‘I’ve got something really important to tell him.’

‘Go fuck a goat. You can tell him when your trial starts.’

Who else could he speak to? The obvious answer was Yakub Bovin, one of Nina’s co-conspirators, who Ruslan saw every day in the exercise yard. But when it came to it, Ruslan found himself unable to confide in him. He had no idea why, but the words just wouldn’t come out.

He didn’t dare to say anything to the guards. Many were in the pay of the serious gangsters in the prison, and there was every chance that they would go straight to Mingrelsky and tell him what he had said.

He thought of throwing himself down the stairs and getting admitted to the hospital wing, but there was no guarantee he would be safe even there. He had heard stories of other prisoners who had done the same thing only to end up beaten to a pulp or murdered on the wards.

He managed to write a note about Mingrelsky on a scrap of paper and leave it in his pocket, just in case. For three days he trod warily and checked every bar of soap and mouthful of food he came across, but nothing happened.

Then, on the last day before his trial, the warder refused to let Ruslan out of his cell for the exercise hour. ‘We hear some of the lads want to give you a thrashing,’ he told him. ‘Stay here for your own safety.’

‘Thanks.’

Ten minutes later, another warder unlocked the door, and in strode Mingrelsky and two of his toughs.

‘What do you want?’

‘I’ll give you one guess.’

‘Brought your mates in case I’m too hard for you?’

Mingrelsky laughed. ‘You’ve got a very inflated opinion of yourself.’

He nodded to his men, and in less than no time one of them had Ruslan in a half nelson. Ruslan squirmed as best he could and kicked at his shins with his heels, but Mingrelsky’s other friend punched him twice in the stomach.

The first one let him go, and Ruslan fell to his hands and knees, gasping for breath.

The second kicked him so hard he was thrown across the cell, crashing against his bunk.

Then the two of them leapt at him, thumping him and kicking him.

Mingrelsky stood above it all with just the occasional admonition: ‘Not the face, lads. Not the face.’

He called them off after a few minutes. Then he bent down, lifted Ruslan up by the scruff of his neck and pushed him against the wall, twisting his arms behind his back. Ruslan was astonished by his strength and his dexterity.

‘Get this straight, you Rebel-loving piece of shit. Nobody has the last laugh against me.’

‘I’m not laughing.’

‘Good. And you’d better hope you don’t come back here after your trial. Because if you do, I’ll be waiting for you.’

He punched Ruslan in the small of the back and pushed him to the floor. He kicked him exactly where he had punched him, and then he and his cronies opened the cell door and walked out.

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