State of the Union
THREE WEEKS PRIOR
Winter has come too early this year,” Sergei Stavropol complained as he threw his long overcoat onto a chair near the door. He was the last of the four men to arrive. “I think this will be one of the coldest we have seen in a long time.” Crossing over to the bar, he withdrew a decanter of brandy and filled a delicate crystal snifter. He was an enormous man with dark hair and a large nose that bore evidence of having been broken many times. At six-foot-three inches tall and two hundred seventy-five pounds, he was bigger than any of the other men in the room, but it was his dark, penetrating eyes that drew all of the attention and that had long ago earned him his nickname. Though he hated the “Rasputin” moniker, he found that it instilled in his enemies and those who would oppose him a certain degree of fear, and therefore he had allowed it to stick. His salt-and-pepper-colored hair was trimmed in a military-style crew cut. His skin was
severely pockmarked and his left eye drooped slightly due to a grenade that had exploded in his face as he was pushing one of his men out of danger’s way. While he was twice as brave as his assembled colleagues, he was easily less than half as refined, and as if to demonstrate that very fact, he downed his brandy in one long swallow.
The men around the table smiled at their friend’s behavior. Stavropol was as constant as the northern star. In over forty years, nothing had changed him—not money, not power, not even the knowledge that he would go down in history as one of the greatest soldiers Mother Russia had ever produced. In combat, he had saved the life of each man in the room, some more than once, but they had not gathered in this remote wooded area forty miles west of Moscow to relive the past. On the contrary, the four men seated around the worn oak table were there to shape the future.
Outside, a breath of icy wind blew across the gravel driveway of the centuries-old hunting lodge. From its stone chimney, tendrils of gray smoke could be seen only for an instant before being sucked upward into an ever-darkening sky. As the cold wind pressed itself against the formidable structure, it moaned deeply.
Stavropol, the group’s leader, walked over to the fireplace and spent several moments prodding the glowing embers with an iron poker as he pretended to search for the appropriate words to say. It was an
empty gesture. He knew exactly what he was going to say. Spontaneity was not one of his attributes. It led to mistakes and mistakes were the harbingers of failure. Stavropol had rehearsed this moment in his mind for years. His raw determination was equaled only by his capacity for cold, detached calculation.
After a sufficient show of introspection, he raised himself to his full height, turned to his colleagues, and said, “It pleases me to see you all here. We have waited many long years for this. Today we embark upon a new and glorious chapter in the history of not only our beloved Russia, but of the world. Fifteen years ago we—”
“Were much younger,” interrupted one of the men.
It was Valentin Primovich, the plodder, the worrier. He had always been the weakest link. Stavropol fixed him with a steady look. He had anticipated the possibility of dissension in the ranks, but not straightaway. Subconsciously, his hand tightened into a fist. He reminded himself to relax. Wait, he told himself. Just wait.
Stavropol attempted to soften the features of his face before responding. “Valentin, we are still young men. And what we may have lost in years, we have more than gained in experience.”
“We have good lives now,” said Uri Varensky, coming to the defense of Primovich. “The world is a different place. Russia is a different place.”
“As we knew it would be,” said Stavropol as his
eyes turned on Varensky. He had grown soft and lazy. Had Stavropol been told fifteen years ago that the thick narcosis of complacency would one day overtake such a great man, such a great soldier, Stavropol never would have believed it. “You forget that the change came because of us. It was our idea.”
“It was your idea,” replied Anatoly Karganov. “We supported you, as we always have, but Uri and Valentin are correct. Times have changed.”
Stavropol couldn’t believe his ears. Was Karganov, one of the greatest military minds the country had ever seen, siding with Primovich and Varensky? The Anatoly Karganov?
Despite all of his careful planning, the meeting was not going the way Stavropol had envisioned. He stopped and took a deep breath, once again trying to calm himself, before responding. “I have seen these changes. Driving here from Moscow I saw them up and down the roadsides—old women sweeping gutters with homemade brooms, or selling potatoes and firewood just to make enough to eat, while the new rich drive by in their BMW and Mercedes SUVs listening to American rap music.
“In crumbling houses beyond the roadways, young Russian children smoke crack cocaine, shoot up with heroin, and spread tuberculosis and the AIDS virus, which are decimating our population. Where once we celebrated the deep pride we held in our country, now our posters and billboards only promote all-inclusive vacations to Greece, new
health clubs, or the latest designer fashions from Italy.”
“But Russia has made gains,” insisted Karganov.
“Gains, Anatoly? And what sort of gains have we made?” asked Stavropol, the contempt unmistakable in his voice. “The Soviet Union was once a great empire covering eleven time zones, but look at us now. Most of our sister republics are gone and we are locked in pitiable struggles to hold on to those few that remain. Our economy, the free-market economy so widely embraced by our greedy countrymen, teeters daily on the verge of collapse. The rich have raped our country, hidden their money in safe havens outside of Russia, and sent their children to European boarding schools. Our currency has been devalued, our life expectancy is laughable, and our population is shrinking. What’s more, not only does the world not need anything we have to sell, it also does not care to listen to anything we have to say. Where once we were a great world power—a superpower—now we are nothing. This is not the legacy I plan to leave behind.”
“Sergei,” began Karganov, the ameliorator, “we have all devoted our lives to our country. Our love for Russia is above reproach.”
“Is it?” asked Stavropol as he slowly took in each man seated around the table. “I sense that your love for Russia is not what it once was. This is not a matter for the weak or the fainthearted. There is much
work yet to be done and it will not be easy. But in the end, Russia will thank us.”
An uncomfortable silence fell upon the room. After several minutes, it was Varensky who broke it. “So, the day we had all wondered about has finally arrived.” It was not so much a statement of fact, as one of apprehension, tinged with regret.
“You do not sound pleased,” replied Stavropol. “Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you no longer are young men. Maybe you have grown old—old and scared.”
“This is ridiculous,” interjected Primovich, normally the most cautious of the group. “Most of what you predicted would happen to the Soviet Union did happen, but it has not all been for the worse. You choose to see only what you want to see.”
Stavropol was beginning to lose his temper. “What I see are three lazy pigs who have fed too long at the trough of capitalism; three senile old men who forgot a promise made to their comrades, a promise made to their country.”
“You do yourself no favors by insulting us,” replied Karganov.
“Really?” asked Stavropol with mock surprise. “The moment we have waited for, the moment we have worked so hard for, is finally here. We are finally ready to awaken the giant and on the eve of our greatest accomplishment, after so much sacrifice, so much waiting, so much planning, my most
trusted friends are having second thoughts. What would you suggest I do?”
“Why don’t we put it to a vote?” offered Varensky.
“A vote?” replied Stavropol, “How very democratic.”
“It was fifteen years ago when we agreed to your plan, Sergei. We are not the same people now that we were then,” said Karganov.
“Obviously,” snapped Stavropol, “as oaths no longer mean anything to you.” He held up his hand to silence Karganov before the man could respond. “I have to admit, I am disappointed, but I am not surprised. Time can dampen the fire in a man’s soul. As some men grow older, it is no longer ideals but blankets that they rely on to keep them warm at night. I blame myself for this. We’ll put this to a vote, as comrade Varensky has suggested. But first, let’s attend to one other piece of business.”
“Anything,” responded Primovich. “Let’s just get this over with.”
Stavropol smiled. “I’m glad you agree, Valentin. What I want is a full list of the assets we have in place and how to contact them.”
“Why is that necessary?” demanded Karganov.
“Since I am the one who started this, I will be the one to finish it. There must be no loose ends.”
“Surely you don’t intend to do away with them?” queried Varensky. “These are not mere foot soldiers.”
“Of course not, Uri,” said Stavropol. “The assets will simply be recalled to Mother Russia. That’s all. That would make all of you happy, wouldn’t it?”
A dead silence blanketed the table.
“And what if they don’t wish to be recalled?” asked Primovich.
“I’m sure they can be persuaded. Come, we are wasting time. I know there are warm beds waiting for all of you at home. Tell me what I need to know so we can move to a vote,” said Stavropol.
The men reluctantly provided the information while Stavropol took meticulous notes. He was loath to commit sensitive information to paper, but trusting so many important details to his aging memory was an even greater risk.
While he wrote, he walked slowly around the table, his boots echoing on the wooden floorboards. The rhythm was much like the man himself—meticulous and patient.
When the necessary details had been collected, Stavropol allowed the men to vote. To a man, they all agreed to abandon the operation. It was just as he had feared. Primovich, Varensky, and even Karganov had gone soft. There was only one option available now.
“So, it has been decided,” he admitted, stopping before the fireplace.
“Trust me, it is for the best,” replied Karganov.
Primovich and Varensky voiced their agreement as they stood up and retrieved their coats.
“You can still do great things for Russia,” continued Karganov. “I am certain the Defense Ministry would be glad to have your talents at their disposal. Maybe even a military academy position teaching the soldiers of tomorrow what it means to be a fearsome Russian warrior.”
“You should take up a hobby,” offered General Primovich, coming over to shake his old colleague’s hand.
“A hobby?” asked Stavropol. “That’s quite a suggestion. Maybe golf?”
“Certainly,” said Primovich, a smile forming on his lips as Stavropol picked up the iron poker and pretended to hit a golf ball with it. Stavropol seemed to be taking things better than he expected. “I hear it can be very relaxing.”
Primovich’s smile quickly disappeared as Stavropol swung the poker full force against the side of his head and cracked open his skull.
For a moment, the man just stood there, then his lifeless body collapsed to the floor.
“Very relaxing indeed,” sneered Stavropol as he let the bloody poker fall from his hands.
“What have you done?” screamed Karganov.
“You didn’t actually think this would be as easy as taking a vote and simply walking away, did you? We have been working on this for over fifteen years. I have planned everything, everything—right down
to the very last detail. I expected some resistance from Primovich and maybe a little from Varensky, but not you, Anatoly. Never you,” said Stavropol.
“You have lost your mind,” Varensky shouted as he made an end run around the table for Stavropol.
Stavropol drew a beautifully engraved, black chrome-plated Tokarev pistol from the small of his back and shot him before he had even made it three feet.
Karganov couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Stavropol was insane, he was sure of it.
“So, what will it be, Anatoly?” asked Stavropol. “Will you join us? Or will you go the way of Valentin and Uri?”
The look on Karganov’s face was answer enough.
“As you wish,” responded Stavropol, who then fired a single round into Karganov’s head.
Upon hearing the gunshots, a second man, bundled in heavy winter clothing, exited Stavropol’s car and calmly strode inside to assist his employer. “With these men dead, we will have much more work now,” he said as he helped Stavropol drag the three bodies out the back door.
Stavropol smiled. “Our list of assets in America is quite long. Over the years, we have lost an Aldrich Ames here, a Robert Hanssen there, but there are many more still in place. Everything will continue as planned and you, my friend, will have to
clear space on your old uniform. I am sure Russia will create a brand-new medal for what we are about to accomplish.”
The two men then worked in silence, digging shallow graves and burying the bodies behind the secluded lodge. They were not alone. Perched high above, on one of the area’s heavily wooded trails, someone was watching.