Prologue: 1 December 1934
As a bodyguard, Dmitry Borisov spent much of his life afraid. But right now, he was terrified.
Volovich, the interrogator, loomed above him, his bald plate and small round glasses reflecting the naked light bulb. Volovich leant on the wooden table; his fingers arched, and had the look of a man about to spit. Borisov could smell the man’s hate, and taste his own fear-induced sweat that glued him to his chair. He gripped his thighs, his palms hot with sweat, his legs twitching. His white shirt, freshly ironed that morning by his wife, clung to his fleshly contours, congealed with his own blood. Within this tiny room, without windows, dark beyond the immediate glare of the light bulb, he had survived the first round of punches but still his ears buzzed, his lips throbbed, and his eye sockets ached; his whole head was a mass of pain.
‘You’ll die for this,’ said Volovich, his mouth barely moving. ‘How old are you anyway?’
‘Fifty-four? What sort of age is that for a bodyguard? Wouldn’t matter so much if you were fit but look at you – overweight, podgy and sweaty. God, you stink. My ten-year-old would make a better bodyguard than you, you fat oaf.’ The last word spat at him.
‘Yes, comrade.’ Borisov didn’t need telling; he’d long wanted to take a backseat role, but Kirov, the Boss, had insisted. The Boss didn’t like all the protection and would have done away with it entirely but as he had no choice he stuck to his old faithfuls, and Borisov was one of them.
‘Comrade Stalin’s on his way to Leningrad.’
‘Is he?’ The slap, with the outside of the fist, struck Borisov across the jaw.
‘Think I’m making it up?’ yelled Volovich.
‘No, sorry, comrade, I didn’t mean –’
‘Shut up, you pig.’ His screaming voice bounced off the walls. ‘Now chances are Stalin will want to interview you himself. What an honour, eh? And thank your lucky stars because it’s about the only thing from stopping me putting a bullet right through your neck this minute. Understand?’
Borisov felt the loosening of his bowels. It wasn’t so much Volovich’s threat but the thought of being face-to-face with the great Stalin that reduced him to such a base level of fear.
‘Now listen, Borisov,’ said Volovich, adopting almost a civil tone, ‘he’s going to ask you the same questions as me, so tell me again, why did you let Kirov get out of your sight?’
‘I told you – it was Aleksandrov.’
‘Tell me again.’
‘Aleksandrov was at the gate. He detained me with questions about the Boss’s whereabouts that night. But I’ve told you, comrade, he should have known already.’
‘So, you’re saying that Kirov, the second most important man in the whole damn country, who answers only to Stalin, whose protection was your responsibility, had to play second fiddle to an idiot like Aleksandrov.’
‘It was only a matter of a few seconds.’
‘Long enough.’ Volovich sat down and looked at his watch. Borisov dearly wanted to know the time but it was pointless asking. Part of the process, he knew, was to disorientate you to the point of confusion. Night, day, it all lost meaning in a place like this.
‘Right,’ said Volovich, ‘let’s start again. From the beginning, you understand?’
‘The truth. Don’t bloody mess with me; you’re as good as dead anyway so lying’s not going to save your skin. But your grandchildren, eh?, for their sake be careful what you say.’
The thought of Maria and the boys being dragged into this quagmire twisted his gut. It was too much too bear. He’d die easily if he could ensure their safety but in this country of barbarians nothing could be certain. And so he started again, telling Volovich the sequence of events that had occurred only a few hours earlier but already seemed like a distant historical act. He’d been there, at the centre of it, the event that dragged Stalin out of the Kremlin, and would drag the country to its knees in an orgy of medieval-like bloodletting. They were to call it the Crime of the Century. Everyone knew where they were when they heard that Sergei Kirov, Stalin’s number two, had been shot. And for that one life, a million others would be taken in reprisal. Each one of them complicit in some way for Kirov’s death. At least, that’s how their Leader saw it. And all because Borisov had allowed Kirov to wander off by himself for a few seconds.
We’d had a couple of death threats recently but Kirov, the Boss, takes it in his stride, says it comes with the job. I love him dearly, as a brother, but for one so clever he never considers that these threats concern my well-being too. Every time we step outside, my heartbeat speeds up, my senses are on full alert. Inside my jacket, the holster with my revolver, a Makarov 4.3, pressing heavily against my chest. Twice recently we’ve caught some lunatic lurking round with a gun in his pocket, but both times they let him off. I think they’re mad and told them so, but they don’t listen to me, they think I should be pensioned off. It’s true; I’m too old for this malarkey. Bodyguarding is a young man’s profession, not for an old bod like me. But it’s the prestige, you know. After all, Kirov answers to no one. But Stalin.
We’re in his car now, just gone four o’clock, December 1st, winding through the snowbound streets of Leningrad, from his apartment to his office at the Smolny Institute, an old girlschool, a lovely eighteenth century building. The car is American, a Cadillac, walnut dashboard, leather seats, a twelve-cylinder engine that positively purrs. Ershov is driving, his black gloves gliding over the steering wheel. People outside in their drab clothes, trudging through the snow, stop and stare as we sail by. I sit in the back with Kirov, dressed in my black suit and starched white shirt. We do not speak, we rarely do, there is much that preys on his mind. The business of state is a heavy burden. Tonight, he’s delivering a speech to the Leningrad Party, and he’s expecting a hard time of it.
Things haven’t been going well for Kirov of late. I feel his tension; the atmosphere in the car is heavy. Ershov glides the car into the grounds of the Smolny and slows to a halt in front of the main entrance. I dive out, keen to open Kirov’s door for him, as is my duty, but as always he’s out before I can circle round the car and reach it. Kirov is tall, dark-haired, forty-eight and good-looking. But recently the worries of office have carved lines into his face and his eyes have lost much of their sparkle. Today he does not thank me but strides ahead towards the entrance, briefcase in hand. I walk directly behind him, scanning left and right, a glance behind, aware of where my revolver lies.
At the entrance, four NKVD guards in long overcoats emerge from their cabin. Among them is Aleksandrov, who I know of old but only professionally. Thin man, long nose, unpleasant manner. Kirov flashes his card though they know full well who he is. Lifting the barrier, they salute as he passes. I follow. But as Kirov starts up the stairs, Aleksandrov tugs at my sleeve and with a flick of his head beckons me aside. From within the cabin drifts the smell of coffee. When I try to say I should be sticking with the Boss, he cuts me short, ‘He’ll be all right in here.’ Of course, we’re within a building guarded by the likes of Aleksandrov. ‘What’s happening tonight?’ he asks, ‘we haven’t been told.’
‘Hasn’t the office rung?’
‘No. That’s why I’m asking.’
Kirov was out of sight now, his footsteps heavy on the stairway. ‘He’s delivering a speech to the Party at the Tavride at eight.’
‘Eight? So he’s heading off from here at…?’ He’s writing this down in a pad.
‘Great,’ he says, snapping shut the pad, ‘as long as we know where we are.’
He’s detained me no more than thirty seconds. At the most. But on such things the wheels of history turn. I quickly climb the stairs, but the Boss is still out of sight, heading for his office on the third floor. I’d run but I’m not so fit these days. The stairway is dark and dank. The thought crosses my mind, why didn’t the office phone through with Kirov’s itinerary? Unusually slack of them. Must remember to complain next time I’m there.
Top of the stairs and I’m out of breath, for sure. Turn right into the third-floor corridor. Kirov’s ahead of me about to turn left, round the corner, heading towards his office. But who’s that man? From what office did he emerge? I can only see his back, probably one of the cleaners. Kirov turns the corner, the man follows. But cleaners don’t come at this time. With a stab my heart lunges. I start to jog, wishing I could go faster. A bang; I heard a bang. Was it a gunshot? My brain can’t accommodate the prospect. I’ve never run so fast, my mind devoid of all thought. A second shot echoes through the corridors. Now I know for sure. I reach inside my jacket.
Turning the corner, gun at the ready, I brace myself. A fleeting plea to God flits through my mind. Too late. Two bodies on the floor. Kirov lies face down, his hand still clutching his briefcase. The other man not two feet away, a revolver in his hand. An office door opens and out piles numerous men in suits. On seeing Kirov prostate at their feet, they squeal, they shout. Behind me, I hear footsteps running – it’s Aleksandrov, his panicked voice adding to the melee.
Someone unclenches the man’s fist and removes the gun. It’s then I look at his face and a cold certainty runs down my back – I know this man, with his little weasely face and pointy features. This is the one who twice tried before, recently, twice caught with a gun in his possession, and twice inexplicably released without charge. Everyone’s yelling but making no sense. I feel faint. Something’s not right. Why had they released him? Another of the office workers takes Kirov’s wrist. Abruptly, everyone falls silent. Is there a pulse? There has to be a pulse, some sign of possibility. A shake of the head. No, there is no pulse – Kirov is dead. But still they call for an ambulance, for a doctor, a team of doctors, the best in the city. My knees tremble; they actually tremble.
I live in a society that never forgives. The fingers will point at me. Why was I not at his side? An understandable question. The Boss is dead; his life snubbed out, and now my own hangs by a thread.
A tiny cell. A light bulb, incredibly bright. Borisov sat on the wooden slab. No pillow, no covers, no blanket. No window either. A place without time. In the corner a bucket. He’d already pissed in it and been sick in it. How he wanted to phone his wife; tell her he was all right, however much a lie, but Volovich told him not a chance. She would have heard about Kirov by now, the whole world would have, and she’d be shitting herself with panic. She’d know too that if he went down, she’d soon follow as the wife of an enemy of the people.
It was so cold in the cell. The bastards had taken his coat and jacket and much else besides – his belt, shoelaces, shirt buttons, the lot. They’d stripped searched him too, grubby fingers pulling up his eyelids, poking in his ears, under his tongue and of course, the anus, his dignity vanishing with the bile he threw up.
He screwed his eyes shut, clamped his hands over his eyes but still the light penetrated. What sort of state was this to meet Stalin, having to hold his trousers up, no tie, dirty, stinking of puke. He’d demand a change of clothes and the chance to have a wash. This was Stalin, after all, a conversation with the Greatest Living Person. He’d tell Stalin the truth; one couldn’t lie to Stalin, and Stalin would listen, Stalin would understand, Stalin would hear the truth. Not like these idiots like Volovich who wouldn’t recognise the truth if it bit him. He’d tell Stalin that Aleksandrov held him up, that his men had let the assassin slip through. Borisov would say too, most importantly, that he’d seen the assassin before – twice the NKVD had caught him, twice they had let him go, despite his objections. Stalin would sympathise – how can a man do his job properly when hindered by incompetents. Stalin knew that – Stalin too was surrounded by imbeciles. Kirov had been the only one Stalin could properly rely on. Only Kirov could match Stalin’s eye for the truth. But for the rest of the Politburo, well, it was no state secret… And now Stalin stood alone.
But in Borisov, Stalin had a link, for they’d both loved Kirov, and no one else had that. Not Volovich and his questions and innuendo, nor any of the faceless Smolny staff standing over Kirov’s body, each thinking of his own skin and pointing at Borisov, pouncing on their scapegoat. A Great Man, a true Genius, has no use for scapegoats, because unlike others, Stalin can see straight through to the truth. And Stalin would thank him, would shake Borisov’s hand, and apologise for the indignities heaped upon him. This gnawing cold, this hunger and filth would soon be a thing of the past. And with Stalin’s blessing, Borisov and his good wife would retire to a small dacha in the country, where the grandchildren could visit, where they would forever remember Kirov and thank Stalin.
But how long would it take, how long to wait? He fixed his eyes on the door, willing it to open, to have a guard appear, beckoning him out, to announce that his date with destiny had arrived. But in the meantime he shivered. Running his fingers across the wooden bench, he longed to fall into a warm bed in a darkened room and be allowed to sleep, to fall into a long, delicious sleep.
The time had come. Time to meet Stalin. Two guards were escorting Borisov down corridors, dark and grey, up flights of stairs, one after another. He felt like a deep-sea swimmer coming up for air. Finally, in Volovich’s office, Borisov had to sign numerous forms without any necessity to read them. How airy and spacious the office seemed, so full of natural light and pleasant furniture and grand portraits. And all so clean and orderly. Volovich too appeared different: a bureaucrat now, freshly shaven, aftershave, clean fingernails. Not the interrogating brute of the night before.
‘Right,’ said Volovich, pushing all the papers together, ‘you’re going to be taken back to the Smolny, where you will be interviewed by Comrade Stalin.’
‘And after?’ Normally, he’d not dare ask such a question but already, from here, Borisov could feel Stalin’s embrace reaching out to protect him.
Volovich eyed him for a few moments and when he spoke, it was also in a different tone, one laced with a degree of respect, ‘That I don’t know, comrade.’ Note the use of the greeting ‘comrade’. ‘I have been given no further instructions.’
‘Could I make a request, comrade?’
‘What is it?’
‘As I am about to meet our Great Leader, may I be permitted a wash and a shave. Even a change of clothes.’
Again, it took Volovich a while to answer. ‘No,’ he said eventually, ‘that won’t be necessary.’ Then he turned his attention to the papers, placing them carefully into a folder, tying a string.
‘Come on, Volovich, I can’t see him in this state, surely you can see that.’
Volovich looked at him now, his eyes narrowing. Borisov knew then that something was wrong. ‘I’m sorry, Dmitry, there’s nothing I can do.’ If the use of ‘comrade’ had given Borisov confidence the familiar and unexpected use of his first name did nothing but induce a rising sense of panic.
Volovich’s features hardened as he picked up his phone, muttered the word ‘finished’ into it, and leant back in his chair. His duty, however unpleasant, was done. Straight away, the office door opened and in returned the two guards.
‘Volovich – please.’
Instantly, two pairs of solid hands had Borisov’s arms gripped. ‘Please, if you could just –’
Pushed through the door, Borisov managed a final yell of Volovich’s name but a painful twist of his arm took his breath away. Volovich’s door closed. His time would come.
As they approached the exit, Borisov could smell the cold air, fresh and invigorating after his incarceration. It was morning. The light and the feel of the air told him so. What a relief to know the time, to even have a sense of it. With an almost mechanical clunk his body clock fell back into place. A warm sun reflected off the snow. He breathed in the freshness, trying unsuccessfully to push away the doubts that now clouded his heart. He had to forget Volovich and his conspiratorial expression, and these guards and their over-zealousness, and to believe only in Stalin. For Stalin would see him right.
‘Right, get in,’ said one of the guards, tightening his grip on Borisov’s now numb arm. Borisov hadn’t given any thought to what sort of transportation would take him to see Stalin but he would have thought a semi-decent car of some sort, not what stood in front of him now. A lorry?
‘In the back. Go on.’
The engine was already running. From within, a hand pushed the tarpaulin to one side, allowing Borisov to step up from the tailgate and into the back of the lorry. It was like another cell – dark and claustrophobic but with walls of canvas not dank stone. It stunk of rotting vegetables. ‘Sit down,’ said a gruff unseen voice. Sitting on a metal bench, the inside of the lorry slowly came into focus. Either side of him, two different NKVD guards, their faces undistinguishable in the dark. In the corner, a few rags, a blanket, and a crate.
From outside he could hear voices, a sharp exchange of angry words, then the shuffle of feet on compacted snow, the lorry doors opening on either side and slamming shut. With a slight jerk, the lorry moved, slowly making its way out of the NKVD courtyard and turning right into the street. The noise of the engine intensified as it picked up speed. Outside, the sound of traffic, people going about their business, momentarily re-assuring. A continual gust of cold air whistled through the back.
Borisov felt vulnerable, deep down he knew something was wrong. Why was he in a lorry, why was he being transported in such darkness. He wanted to ask but these faceless thugs cowed him into a frightened silence. Why would they use a lorry for someone about to be questioned by Stalin? Was there no other vehicle at their disposal? He thought of Stalin. The man was no less than a God, and Borisov knew his life depended on him. He longed now to see Stalin, for if he was in front of Stalin, within his presence, he’d feel safe. He’d tell Stalin the truth and Stalin could not help but be thankful to him. But first he had to get to Stalin. He feared the thugs either side of him more than the prospect of meeting Stalin. Stalin was, after all, a good man.
Borisov looked over at the guard to his left. He was holding a pole, a metallic shaft of some sort. He hadn’t noticed that before and on seeing a similar bar in the hands of the second guard made his stomach lurch. But both sat stock still, motionless in identical poses. What were those bars, what did they mean. Despite the whistling cold, a band of sweat formed on his forehead, his legs began to tremble.
From within the driver’s cab came a shriek, then a shout as the lorry lurched violently to the right, throwing the three men in the back against the tarpaulin sides and then back forward as the lorry seem to glance off an obstacle, perhaps a wall, with a crunch. Borisov lost balance and as the lorry righted itself, more shouts came from within the cab. Suddenly with another veer to the right, Borisov found himself upended on the floor, his hand reaching out for the crate for support. As he tried to regain his balance the first blow struck him on the back, cracking against his backbone. Even as the searing pain shocked him he believed it to be accidental.
The second blow split open a gaping cut across the side of his face. A third blow, a fourth. His eyes blinded by blood, choking violently, Borisov tried to stagger up, his thoughts full of Stalin. Just wait, he thought, to when Stalin hears about this, then they’d get their comeuppance. But even nearby Stalin could not save his from the final blow, as the NKVD guard brought down his bar with such force as to crack open Borisov’s skull.