Photo by Pavel Neznanov on Unsplash
January 3, 1973
Born and raised in Voronezh, nearly 300 km south of Moscow, Major Viktor Kirov of the KGB had never come to terms with the winters of Leningrad. He told himself that he could bear the cold if only the sun would shine. Was that asking too much? Apparently so, for even on those few days without snow or sleet, the winter sun did not rise in Leningrad until 10 AM and it set by 4 PM. It was even harder on his wife, Galina, who had taken to drink within months of their arrival in the autumn of 1970.
But tonight, he would have his spirits lifted by the bright lights and excellent food for which the American consulate was known. Viktor had been invited — ordered, actually — to hear Emily Ash, the consulate's new cultural attaché, perform Chopin.
The evening began with Miss Ash's performance of Fantaisie Impromptu, which Kirov enjoyed immensely. Its familiarity puzzled him as he could not remember hearing it performed live or recorded. If given the chance, he would ask Miss Ash about it during the reception to follow. She next performed the Andante Spianato which Kirov found to be anything but andante. The final piece of the evening was Chopin's rousing Polonaise which brought everyone to their feet.
It was nearly an hour into the reception before Viktor had an opportunity to speak with Miss Ash, who cheerfully explained why Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu seemed familiar. The piece contained elements of rhythm and melody that resembled Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, so much so that Chopin never intended to have it published. The music world became aware of the composition only years after Chopin's death when it was released by a colleague.
Emily Ash appeared genuinely charmed by Viktor's interest and seemed open to further contact, but her engaging smile and body language only confirmed what he suspected. American cultural attachés were like their Soviet counterparts — most were spies. The attractive Miss Ash must certainly be what the trade called a honeypot.
January 4, 1973
Colonel Gennady Vorodin again reviewed the special blueprints and specs for the newest Soviet main battle tank, code name Wolverine. The documents were special in that they had been altered from the originals to make the iron monster appear less threatening than it actually was. The main gun was depicted smaller than its real-life counterpart, and although the armor was thick, the documents called for an engine that resulted in an unfavorable weight/power ratio. This was intended to persuade western analysts that the tank would be rather slow and not designed to cover the long distances required for offensive operations.
Overall, the specs described a tank primarily intended for defense of the Motherland rather than for deep penetration into enemy territory. But when the time came for the new Soviet weapon to roll across the border into West Germany, the NATO forces would be served a nasty surprise indeed by a tank force they had markedly underestimated.
Satisfied with the documents, Colonel Vorodin now had to arrange for the Americans to come into possession of them. This was the easy part. The real challenge lay in having NATO accept them at face value and harbor no doubts regarding their validity. If the new tank was seen to be only marginally more potent than its predecessor, western analysts might wonder why it had been built at all. The costs of designing it, testing prototypes, and building manufacturing facilities to produce thousands of Wolverines were considerable for a nation with an economy half the size of America's. The NATO powers might suspect that the plans were another Soviet disinformation plot. Vorodin was pondering various solutions to this challenge and coming up with nothing practicable when his phone rang.
"Comrade Colonel, Major Viktor Kirov has arrived," his secretary replied. Vorodin grimaced. He detested Kirov, but so far had no workable plan for defusing the threat which the younger officer presented. If Kirov's meteoric rise within the KGB continued, the major might soon replace him. Kirov had been an infant during the winter of 1942 when Vorodin was fighting the Germans tooth and nail at Stalingrad. Yes, the young major was exceedingly clever and resourceful, but how would he and other members of his pampered generation fare when faced with real adversity? "Colonel, what would you like me to tell Major Kirov?" his secretary asked as politely as possible.
"Give me a minute, then send him in." Vorodin began gathering the Wolverine blueprints and spec sheets to refile them. But an idea suddenly came upon him, and he stopped. The idea was bold to the point of reckless, but Vorodin found it too intriguing to dismiss out of hand. He laid the documents back onto his desk.
The major entered, saluted and said, “Major Kirov reporting as ordered." Vorodin silently appraised the younger man for several moments, not inviting him to sit.
Finally, the Colonel asked, "Did you get to the American Consulate last night?"
"Yes, Comrade Colonel."
"I made contact with the new cultural attaché, Miss Emily Ash. She appears to be in her late twenties, is a pianist of considerable talent, and wears no wedding ring. Her Russian is nearly indistinguishable from a native speaker. She is a very engaging young woman, and we exchanged cards."
It was precisely what Vorodin wanted to hear, and he had to make an effort to conceal his delight.
"She is open to further contact with you?"
"I believe so, Comrade Colonel," Kirov replied. "But I suspect she is as intent on recruiting me as I am of her. Given enough time, I may be able to identify something that could persuade her. But at this point, it's impossible to say if she can be turned.”
Hearing this, Vorodin made a quick decision to proceed with his recently conceived idea. If successful, it would simultaneously achieve two critical objectives. "Comrade Major, your assignment regarding Miss Ash has changed. I will provide you with details momentarily, but first take a look at these documents. They are designed to mislead the Americans regarding a new tank which is now entering service with the army. By posing as a potential defector and using Miss Ash as a conduit, you will arrange for the false blueprints to fall into the hands of the Americans. You will not discuss this matter with anyone, including other officers of state security. Is that clear, Comrade Major?"
When Viktor assured the colonel that it was, Vorodin began going over the details of the new tank with him.
January 18, 1973
“Chardin created three versions of it.” Viktor said. The painting, known as The Laundress, was only 38 by 43 cm. It depicted a young woman scrubbing clothes in a wooden tub. A child sat at her feet.
“Why three?” Emily asked. Turning her eyes up to his, she realized how closely they were standing to each other and wondered if this was his doing or hers.
“He needed the money, like most artists of his time. But we have the first one. The other two paintings are essentially copies.” By we, Viktor meant Leningrad’s Hermitage Museum, specifically the Winter Palace collection. “It’s one of my favorites. Chardin focused on the common people,” he added.
“Spoken like a good socialist,” Emily replied with a smile. “I like that he included a cat.”
“Well, somebody had to keep the mice under control,” Viktor said. “Do you like cats?”
“Me too. In fact, I’m going to get my first since I got married. My wife, Galina, is allergic to cats, but we’re separated now.” Emily perked up at this. She had been powerfully drawn to him from the moment he had approached her at the Chopin recital. In Emily’s eyes, Viktor was all the tall, dark and handsome she had ever fancied, but there was something more. Maybe it was the way he carried himself; masculine and confident with no hint of arrogance.
Viktor went on to explain that Galina had become an incorrigible drunk. And although it was very much frowned upon in the KGB, he had filed for divorce. He had also contacted her family in Ukraine and was arranging for her to return to the Black Sea town where her father managed a resort visited by party bigwigs. The warmer temperatures and sunny days might lift her spirits to the point where she could hope to recover. It wasn’t going to happen in Leningrad.
After strolling the museum galleries for nearly two hours, Viktor asked Emily if she would like some coffee and pastry. He said there was a wonderful little place, Pyshechnaya, within walking distance of the museum. Emily smiled and nodded, and when they strolled out of the museum, she slipped her arm around Viktor’s.
They entered the little shop in the late afternoon, and Emily was overcome by the wonderful aroma of fresh doughnuts and coffee. As they waited to be served, Emily realized that something extraordinary had happened. She was in one of the most oppressive regimes in human history, in a city whose winters drove people to drink, but with Viktor at her side, she felt safe. And happy.
March 12, 1973
Emily had been tempted to remove every stitch of clothing, climb into bed under the covers, and let Viktor discover her au natural. She had seen an actress in a steamy romance movie do this in anticipation of her lover's arrival. But without Viktor physically present, Emily did not feel truly safe even in a CIA safe house and decided to remain fully clothed.
Exactly 15 minutes after arriving in the small, dimly lit flat less than a kilometer from the American Consulate, she heard a knock on the door. Viktor was right on time, and Emily was delighted. They quickly embraced, and over the course of the next hour, turned the Cold War on its head.
Afterward, lying in each other's arms, she entertained him with stories of her life growing up in St. Louis, including her years under the watchful eyes of the nuns of The Sacred Heart Academy. Viktor had been intrigued by her anecdotes but was not particularly forthcoming when asked about his own upbringing. However, he did relate an incident which almost got him ejected from the Komsomol, the Communist Youth League.
“Just before the start of one of the weekly meetings, I was clowning around, trying to get a few laughs. I took off one of my shoes and began pounding it loudly on the table in a comical spoof of Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations. My comrades thought it was funny, but they suddenly stopped laughing and became silent. My back was to the entrance to the room, and when I turned around, the adult supervisor was standing in the doorway staring daggers at me.”
Emily gasped. “Oh my God! What happened?”
“Making fun of the former General Secretary of the Soviet Union was impolitic to say the least. I was sure they were going to throw me out. I had to go before a committee — this country loves committees — but they only gave me a severe warning. I later found out that my closest friend in the Komsomol, Pavel Federova, had gone to his father and pleaded for me. His father happened to be the ranking member of the committee. If I had been ejected, the entire course of my life would have been altered.”
“Wow! We should all have a friend like that,” Emily said. “Are you and Pavel still close?”
“Very much so, although we only see one another once or twice each year. He works in Moscow as a prison administrator.”
Viktor was silent for a few moments, thinking about the lifetime of dreary factory jobs he would have been assigned had Pavel not come to his aid. Then he sat up and said, "Emily, I have a gift for you." Emily smiled and waited expectantly as Viktor rose from the bed and opened his briefcase. He withdrew something small enough to conceal in one hand. "Close your eyes," he said gently. Then taking her left hand in his, he slipped a diamond ring onto her left 4th finger. She opened her eyes and gasped.
"Oh, it's beautiful!" she said, staring open-mouthed at the ring. Viktor's smile was genuine. At Colonel Vorodin's suggestion and using KGB funds, Viktor had purchased the ring for Emily the previous week and he had not been frugal. Although engagement rings were not part of Russian tradition, Viktor was well versed in American customs. He sat back on the bed next to Emily and encircled her in his arms. Emily made a purring sound, and he snuggled all the closer.
When they dutifully forced themselves to dress and attend to professional matters, Viktor removed the Wolverine documents from his briefcase and placed them on a table for Emily's inspection. Although her understanding of engineering drawings was rudimentary, Emily noticed a salient feature of the tank. "There are only three crewmembers?"
"You're very observant! I'm impressed," Viktor replied. "See this piece of equipment just behind and to the side of the gun breech?" When Emily nodded and asked its function, Viktor said, "It's an automatic loader for the main gun. It can load a shell into the breech as quickly as a man, and it never tires."
She nodded, then asked, "What else?"
"The revolving turret is smaller, so the tank has a low profile, much lower than the tanks that fought in the Great Patriotic War. At a thousand yards, it's harder to see a tank that hugs the ground. Harder still to hit one. And if it is hit, there are only three crewmen at risk instead of four."
Emily perused the drawings and specs for a few additional moments, then nodded. She would turn the documents over to the consulate's senior CIA officer, who would then smuggle them out of Russia in a diplomatic pouch.
After they embraced for a final time, Emily left. Viktor glanced at his watch to mark the beginning of a prudent 15-minute delay before venturing out. With the documents now in the hands of the Americans, his current assignment had reached an important milestone. But that did not mean his affair with Emily was over. If he were to break things off suddenly, Emily and her handlers would have reason to mistrust the documents. And there was no denying that he loved being with her, in bed or out. Either Emily was a sublime actress, or she passionately cared for him. In his judgement the latter was more likely, and a dreadful heartache would eventually come her way. For him as well. He wished otherwise but could see no way around it.
That evening, when the senior CIA officer, Daniel Bishop, returned to the consulate from a meeting, Emily personally handed over the Wolverine documents. After examining them, Bishop praised her lavishly for a job well done.
Emily had already been given approval to speak with Viktor about his eventual exfiltration from the USSR, but so far, there were no specific plans for accomplishing this. Smuggling a KGB officer out of the country would be a formidable task, but it was doable. Emily again raised the subject with Bishop.
"Emily, I'm afraid it won't be possible," Bishop said. "We're never going to get Major Kirov out."
"But you said we've accomplished similar operations in the past," she replied, her voice rising in pitch and volume. "Surely Major Kirov has earned our gratitude and support," she insisted. "The documents he provided are invaluable, and he's put himself at tremendous risk!"
"He certainly has, and of course we're grateful. But we can't help him."
"For God's sake, why not?" Emily was gasping; it was hard to get the words out.
"Kirov was arrested late this afternoon. I just got the news from one of our informants. He’s being transported to Lefortovo Prison in Moscow."
March 13, 1973
Frequently used for political prisoners, Lefortovo had become infamous for interrogation and torture during the Great Purge of the 1930s. Several buildings in Moscow during Stalin's reign were facetiously said to be so tall that Siberian gulags could be seen from the topmost floors. Lefortovo, just five stories high, was one of these.
Returning from his afternoon tryst with Emily, Viktor had been accosted near his office by three plainclothes men who displayed their KGB badges and ordered him to step into a waiting automobile. The arresting officers expected no trouble. Viktor appeared to comply and then sucker punched the closest agent. He fled as fast as terror can propel a man, but after a pursuit of several blocks they caught him and beat him nearly unconscious.
He was not fit for interrogation until the second day of his imprisonment. His lower lip split, his right eye swollen shut, his torso covered with bruises, Viktor was dragged into a small room that reeked of stale cigarette smoke. A wall-mounted photograph of Yuri Andropov, the current director of the KGB, was the room's only adornment. The chair into which he was pushed had been bolted to the floor. His handcuffs and ankle chain were not removed. The two men who brought him left the room and locked the door from the outside. Then they let him wait. And wait. The room was poorly heated, and Viktor knew which type of interrogation his would be.
Had state security been intent on striking some type of an agreement, they would be treating him with kid gloves. Comrade Kirov, you've lost your way but not irredeemably. You must admit your mistakes and pledge unending loyalty to the Soviet Union. He would lose his position as a KGB officer with all its privileges, accept a 5-year banishment from Leningrad and report monthly to a government office in whatever remote town they chose for him. But in this scenario, he would avoid execution or imprisonment. Viktor knew this was not going to happen.
He had been accused of violating Article 64 of the criminal code. Betrayal of the Motherland was the most heinous of all transgressions. The charge was absurdly unjust, but it terrified him. Knowing that his interrogators must obtain a signed confession documenting his willful acts of treason, Viktor remembered an old Russian adage. Life in prison is truly horrible only for the first ten years.
Realizing that he would never see Emily again thrust him deeper into a pit of despair and regret. She had been the best thing that had happened to him in years, maybe ever. Were they going to arrest her too? If the state regarded him as a traitor, wouldn’t Emily be regarded as a spy?
When Colonel Vorodin had pretended to discover that documents concerning the new Soviet tank had been stolen from his office, he ordered that Major Kirov be placed under surveillance. Kirov was subsequently found to be engaging in an affair with a female CIA agent who was serving as a cultural attaché at the American consulate, going so far as misappropriating agency funds to buy her a ring. It was all the evidence the KGB needed to confirm that it had been Kirov who had taken the documents and passed them on. Other than Viktor and Colonel Vorodin, there was only one individual who knew what had really happened. Viktor had confided in his friend, Pavel Federov, about his wife’s descent into alcoholism, his growing affection for Emily, and the true nature of his assignment.
March 30, 1973
Shortly after Kirov had been arrested, Emily was given 24 hours to get out of the Soviet Union. Now back in her office at the CIA, she drained the cold coffee in her mug and tried to focus on completing a report which was now weeks overdue. Upon her return to the CIA she had been debriefed, but a detailed narrative had to be put to paper while the events were still fresh in her mind.
As a result of her expulsion from the U.S.S.R., Emily could never again serve as a field agent behind the Iron Curtain. And since Russian was the only foreign language in which she was highly skilled, a quick return to field work was unlikely. But the agency was not going to waste her language skill or her experience in Russia, no matter how brief. For the foreseeable future, she would function as a document translator and junior analyst.
Earlier in the morning while getting coffee in the break room, Emily had caught a television clip concerning a new acquisition at the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. Her thoughts drifted back to when Viktor had taken her there to see Russia's greatest treasures. She had been deliriously happy as they strolled through the galleries. The fact that their outing might compromise her mission hadn't seem to matter. As the television droned on, a desperate longing for Viktor swept over her.
Learning of his incarceration at Lefortovo had been horrifying. But just before she left the Soviet Union, her supervisor at the American consulate had thrown her a lifeline. He said that it might be possible to get Viktor out of the U.S.S.R. in a prisoner exchange. If that were arranged, Viktor and she could reunite in America. Emily clung desperately to that possibility. In truth, it was the only thing that kept her going.
In her report, she was expected to theorize as to how and why the KGB had uncovered Viktor's treason. She wondered if they had been spotted together by an informant at the Hermitage. And had Viktor been followed to the safe house? It made her skin crawl to picture a KGB agent uncovering their intimacy. Emily's supervisor at Langley had also questioned her about Viktor's motives. Had Viktor become disillusioned with Soviet style socialism? Did he have a close family member who had been imprisoned? Emily did not know but could scarcely admit to anyone at the CIA that they had fallen so madly in love with each other that she really hadn't cared.
When alone in her apartment, Emily wore her diamond ring. She began to wonder if Viktor, somehow anticipating her current situation, had given it to her as a source of sustenance.
April 2, 1973
"Did you get a chance to study these, sir?" Wilson asked.
"Not in exhaustive detail," Hernandez replied. "What's your impression?"
"It's a formidable machine. Very well-armored. With an automatic loader, it will have a rapid rate of fire. Its profile is appreciably lower than our M60 Patton tank, so it's a difficult target. But there are two aspects of the Wolverine that puzzle me."
"Go on," Hernandez said.
"Well, they're carrying over the same gun from their current main battle tank. Normally the Soviets don't do that."
"Each new design has a more powerful main gun than its predecessor?"
"Yes sir, going all the way back to the T-26 which the Soviets provided to the government of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. They've always up-gunned the new model."
"Okay, what else?"
"Because of its heavy armor, the Wolverine will be somewhat underpowered with the engine they’ve selected. A single tank of fuel will not give it the range to penetrate deeply into West Germany, so it will be highly dependent on an intact supply chain. And it won't have the speed required to quickly penetrate layers of NATO defenses," Wilson explained.
"Making it vulnerable to counterattack?"
Hernandez thought about this for a few moments and then said, "What you're telling me is that the Wolverine was designed primarily for defense against an invasion by NATO forces into Warsaw Pact nations."
"Yes, but … I'm not completely comfortable with that explanation," Wilson answered.
"What's bothering you?"
"The Russians have always produced quick, reliable tanks with increasing offensive capability. The Wolverine represents a departure from decades of Soviet military doctrine, that the best defense is a potent offense. It's incompatible with the offensive nature of their entire military establishment, unless …"
"The plans intentionally understate the capabilities of the tank. In other words, a disinformation scheme to take us off our guard," Wilson said.
"We don't have to worry about that," Hernandez said.
"First of all, the Soviets were angry enough to expel the American cultural attaché who received the documents."
"But that could have been just a maneuver to convince us that the documents are genuine," Wilson countered. "So what if we were to expel one of their diplomats in a tit-for-tat response? The Russians won't care."
"There's more. Our sources inside Russia say that a rising star in the KGB will be executed for passing the documents to one of our attachés in Leningrad. Even the Soviets don't kill their own just to propagate disinformation. The documents are genuine. This new tank of theirs is nothing to fear."
April 4, 1973
“Has the execution been carried out?” Captain Pavel Federov asked.
“Yes, Comrade Captain,” the sergeant replied. “About 30 minutes ago. It was somewhat unusual.”
“In what way?”
“The prisoner fought us at every step. He claimed he had never been sentenced to be executed, that he was convicted of nothing more than fraudulent financial transactions at the factory he managed.”
Captain Federov paused only a moment before answering. “We received orders for his execution only yesterday. It turns out he was also funding a terrorist group. Do you have his papers?”
“Yes, Comrade Captain. They’re right here.” He handed a large envelope to his superior.
With the documents in hand, Federov headed back to his office. After locking the door, he fed the documents into his shredder and placed a substitute set in the envelope. Then Federov headed directly to the records department. The clerk on duty accepted them for placement in the permanent files. Major Viktor Kirov was now officially dead.
Viktor awoke with a start. Someone was unlocking the door to his cell. He had been placed in isolation several days ago, no explanation given. The door swung open and a man entered. The bare bulb at the ceiling remained off, but Viktor could discern that the man was wearing an officer’s uniform.
“Be quiet and turn around. I’m going to place you in handcuffs,” the man said in a voice just above a whisper. Viktor turned away from the man and placed his wrists together behind his low back. Viktor knew what was happening; he was being taken for execution KGB style, nine grams of lead to the back of the head. He felt an impulse to suddenly pivot and smash his fist into the officer’s face, but quickly realized the futility. Then cold steel encircled his wrists.
“I’m going to put a cloth sack over your head,” the man told him, again in a barely audible voice. When the sack descended over his face, Viktor was surprised. He had braced himself for the combined reek of sweat, blood and vomit from countless men under interrogation, but the sack was freshly laundered. Then Viktor felt the man’s hand wrap around his upper left arm, although not with the iron grip the guards used.
The two of them negotiated several turns in the corridor over a matter of minutes. Then Viktor heard a metal door open and a blast of cold air enveloped him. He wasn’t dressed for the plunge in temperature, and in the time it took to descend a long set of concrete steps, he was beginning to shiver.
Now the sack was pulled off his head, and Viktor stared at the man who was leading him to his death. But it was Pavel Federov, his closest friend from his days in the Komsomol. Had Pavel not been holding his arm, Viktor would have fallen to the ground.
“Pavel! What are you …?”
“I’m trying to get you out of here, Viktor. The American embassy is waiting.”
June 1st, 1973
It was a time of year when Emily actually enjoyed the long walk from the bus stop to her apartment on Sunny Hill Court. She passed Langley High, but the normally bustling school was out for the summer. Another long tedious day of document translation was over, and after being stuck indoors at her desk, she looked forward to swimming laps at her apartment’s pool. Just getting out of her heels was going to be a blessed relief.
So far, 1973 was turning out to be an eventful year. The last American soldier was out of Vietnam. Elvis Presley’s concert in Hawaii, the first worldwide telecast by an entertainer, had drawn a bigger audience than the Apollo moon landings. A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the official opening of The World Trade Center in New York City, and America and China had established liaison offices following Nixon’s visit with Mao. The Soviets were not pleased.
Emily had turned right onto Sunny Hill Court and was less than 100 yards from home when she noticed a tall dark-haired man standing on the sidewalk in front of her building. He was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and khaki pants. The man saw her, and Emily stopped. Was it someone from the agency? Probably not. If they had a problem with her, there would have been a confrontation at the office. Overcoming some initial apprehension, she resumed her pace toward him.
At 50 yards, her pulse picked up. Now he was moving quickly in her direction. Recognition warred with disbelief, but she began running toward him as fast as she could.
Joseph Cusumano is a physician living in St. Louis. When not writing, he enjoys designing, flying, and crashing radio-controlled airplanes. His writing has been published by Crimson Streets, Pseudopod, Agents and Spies (a Flame Tree anthology), Scarlet Leaf Review and others.
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