We drove toward Kreshchatyk, down the Vladimirsky Descent, past the Pochtovaya Square, and came to Podol’s narrow streets.
Outside, pedestrians in winter jackets and coats scurried on the sidewalks. They don’t teach you in school what to do when the KGB sends an officer with an uber-Ukrainian name Bogdan, in a black Volga for goodness’ sake, to pick you up. Don’t ask where you’re going, stay calm. Patience and respect, show them that.
“Are you a member of the Komsomol, Nikolai?” Bogdan said.
Is this what it’s about? Me, slipping through the system and never taking out the Komsomol membership? Don’t you guys have CIA spies to catch?
Becoming a member of the Komsomol, or All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, was a formality. Most fourteen-year-olds went with the flow without thinking too much about it. Nobody forced you to join. Stay out of it and you’d set yourself up for problems in the future you never thought would be there waiting for you. When it was my time to join, I didn’t bother with it. Boring membership classes and, once you’re in, after-school meetings to waste time. My training started one hour after the last class, Komsomol didn’t fit in.
First time Komsomol bit me in the ass was when I applied to Kiev Sports University. The application form asked if I was a member. Part of the Titan team by then, I knew the Uni wanted me more than I wanted the Uni and I ticked the yes box. Nobody checks this.
Then came the passport application form with dozens of trivial questions. One was about Komsomol again. This time it was an important document checked for veracity by the KGB.
You couldn’t apply for a passport in the USSR and go anywhere you liked. KGB controlled comings and goings, and the passports. You want one, tell them everything about yourself. Have a reason to go abroad. No reason, no passport.
Most people never bothered with it. Not that they had any secrets to hide. Too hard. Athletes, artists, scientists, these are the face and the image of the People, the Idea, and the System. The privileged minority, the golden boys and girls of the workers’ paradise. These can have their passports but only after we check what they eat, breathe, and think.
Stuck again, I told Nikolai Rogozyan about Komsomol and he said to tick the yes box. If you’re not a member, the Party’s ideals don’t fit you or you don’t fit the Party’s ideals. Either way, the KGB will choke your passport application if you’re not a member of the Komsomol.
Will fix it up later, Rogozyan said, when we come back to Kiev. I ticked the box and forgot about it.
I wasn’t a member I said to Bogdan.
“So, you lied on your passport application form?”
I told him how busy I was in school and missed the Komsomol boat and how I was going to fix this later but cycling got in the way.
He grinned and leaned over to the front passenger seat. He grabbed a black, plastic briefcase by its handle. He placed the briefcase flat on his lap and, looking straight ahead, said: “Where’s your brother, Nikolai?”
Not about Komsomol.
“Kamchatka,” I said.
“End of the world,” he said and turned his head toward me. “Why so far away from home?”
“Money. He’s making good money in Kamchatka. Long holidays. He likes it there.”
“I see. Let me ask you this. Are you a liar, Nikolai?”
How he said my name at the end of the questions, he could’ve been my physics teacher chatting about an overdue assignment. Words flew from his lips with a chummy tone of a guillotine blade falling on your neck. He set the trap and nudged me to step into it.
“I’m not a liar.”
He opened the briefcase and pulled out a shabby, buff-colored manila folder. It had my black-and-white passport photo clipped to its corner. My name hand-written in capital letters was under a file and volume number heading. He placed the folder on top of the briefcase and said, “Who filled out your passport application form?”
“Very well. Do you remember a question about your immediate family?”
“The one that asked you if anyone from your immediate family has ever been sentenced for a criminal offense.”
“I was a kid when my brother went to jail,” I said. “So long ago, stopped being real to me.”
“Let me tell you what’s real. You lied to the government in full knowledge of the consequences for doing so. You signed the form. You acknowledged possible repercussions for lying to the government. You lied to get a passport, a document we give only to those we trust. Do you know how long the sentence is for this crime?”
He sneered saying, “No? I didn’t think so.”
“What was I supposed to do?” I said. “Without a passport, I can’t race abroad. Useless to the national team.”
“Thinking too much, Nikolai, and running ahead of yourself. You make false conclusions about things you know nothing about. You think we wouldn’t give you a passport because your brother served time ten years ago? It’s none of your business, to think. What is your business is to be honest and open with us when we ask you to be honest and open with us. We may or may not care about the information itself. I mean, who cares what your brother did ten years ago, right? It’s how truthful you’re with us we want to know. And so far, you’re not doing too well I’m afraid.”
We turned on Vladimirskaya street and headed to Kiev’s KGB headquarters. This is it, this is how they take you out, a small slip-up and it’s all over, no second chances.
Meters away from the parking bay in front of the building, the driver’s eyes popped into the rear-view mirror and glanced at Bogdan. “Keep going,” he told him with a hand wave.
The Golden Gate was on our right when Bogdan said, “You tried to defect in France, didn’t you?”
I looked in his direction, ice melting in my guts, dry throat, heart pumping blood with loud thumps. Get the hell out of the car and run, hide somewhere, anywhere, go underground and wait out the storm to pass over. And then what? How long can you hide? How far can you run? As we say in the Soviet Union, you can’t run farther than Siberia.
“Why do you think I was going to defect?”
“We heard it on the BBC radio.”
“Let me read you something.”
He smirked and opened the folder with a sheaf of loose and stapled printing paper in it. The one at the top was the first page of my passport application form. He flipped it over and stared at the next page with a neat handwriting on it. He scanned the text holding the page with one hand. When he found what he was looking for, he stuck the index finger at it and said, “Here, a description of what we found in your sling bag in France: ‘contained the following: two thousand four hundred US dollars; nine hundred Deutschmarks; two thousand eight hundred French francs; a passport; a gold medal, world champion’s jersey and diploma; two pairs of socks and underwear; a toothbrush; a notebook; a Bic Cristal pen, and a London-printed Russian Bible.’ This, my friend, looks like a bag made ready for a run. What do you think?”
Someone sold me out. Someone went through my bag, by chance or on purpose, and wrote a report. I ruled out my roommate in Caen. Both from Titan, we were close friends, no way this was him. That tidy handwriting, the dry, formal language. Crap, a London-printed Russian Bible? That’s not him, he wouldn’t write that.
“Then there’s this.” Bogdan said and turned the page over. “Yes, here: ‘The evening before the road race, during the team meeting, Nikolai requested to be withdrawn from the start list citing fatigue. The next day, while the team attended the last championship event, at approximately one o’clock, Nikolai left the hotel on his bicycle. He was not wearing cycling uniform. Clearly, he did not intend this to be a training ride. He wore the national team’s tracksuit and Adidas running shoes. He carried the above-mentioned sling bag across his back.’ Interesting. You give a bullshit excuse to skip out a race, pack a chunk of cash and a passport, hop on a bike, and ride into the sun. If this wasn’t a run, then I want to know what it was.”
“Shopping,” I said.
“I thought so. With roughly three thousand in US currency. What did you buy, a Swiss watch?”
“I didn’t buy anything. I changed my mind and went back to the hotel.”
“You changed your mind. Why?”
“Didn’t feel like shopping once I got into town.”
“I’m not talking about shopping. Why did you change your mind?”
I shut up and we drove in silence for half a minute.
“Let me remind you how deep you have dug yourself in,” Bogdan said. “One, you have committed two counts of perjury when you applied for passport. Two, we have evidence you tried to defect in France. An act of treason in other words. And three, you’ve been found in possession of a foreign currency, a substantial amount of I must add, which is illegal and a criminal offense. This last one brings another charge with it. As life goes, one crime leads to another. At any rate, that cash you had in your bag, you crossed the border with it. Probably more than once. You know what it’s called, don’t you?”
Yeah, tell me.
“Contraband. Ever heard of Yan Rokotov?”
“Was sentenced to death for illegal foreign currency possession. Article twenty-five of the Law on State Crimes. You should familiarize yourself with that book instead of wasting your time reading the Bible. Where you got the Bible from is a topic for another conversation. For now though, if I were you, I’d be talking about what made you decide to defect, where you got the currency from and how you smuggled it in and out of the country. I’m listening.”
I looked out the window and said, “I didn’t want to defect. I went shopping. My passport was in that bag all the time because it could’ve gotten lost in the room. The jersey and the medal have been in the bag since the race day. I grabbed the bag, jumped on the bike and went shopping.”
“Plausible,” Bogdan said, “but not convincing. Continue. Can’t wait to hear a story about how you found a bundle of cash, in three different denominations, on the side of the road.”
I ignored the jest and took a two-second pause to come up with something believable about the money. A mixture of truth and fiction.
“The francs and the Deutschmarks are mine. I sold a few spare singles I didn’t need anymore. Some guys paid in francs, and one or two, the Germans, paid Deutschmarks. The dollars, I won a bet.”
“You won what?”
“A bet. The day before the race, Borysewicz sat next to me in the foyer—”
“Stop,” Bogdan raised his left hand as if I was coming at him. “Who’s Borysewicz?”
“Americans’ coach. He’s Polish, speaks good Russian. I heard he stayed in the US after the Montreal Games. Coaches the US team now. Anyway, he sat next to me in the foyer. I was browsing magazines on a couch and we started talking, asking questions—”
“What sort of questions?”
“About training. What we do or don’t do to train for the worlds team time trial.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I told him how we train. Is that a secret?”
“He said his team will kick our ass no matter how prepared we are. He was sure we were going to lose the race. I called him an idiot and an amateur. I said Americans have no class and should stick to baseball, not cycling. This is when he bet me five thousand dollars that his guys will crush us in a team time trial.”
I stopped talking to check the story’s effect. It helped that some of it was true. I did talk with Borysewicz that afternoon but he never made a bet. When he heard my opinion of him and his team, he stood up and walked away.
“So you won the race and he paid you five thousand bucks?”
“No, he paid only twenty-four hundred and said he’ll pay the rest when he sees me next time at a race somewhere.”
“What did you do with the money?”
Nothing. It was in my room back at the hotel wrapped in an old rain jacket and tucked away in a wardrobe. Tell him that and you confess to smuggling and illegal possession of a foreign currency. If not bad enough to face the firing squad, it’s enough for spending years in a labor camp.
Let’s dig one more time.
“I opened a bank account in Caen,” I said. “The money’s in the bank.”
“Which one?” he said.
I looked at and studied dozens of Tour de France pictures in L’Équipe, you could buy it in the USSR. I knew professional cycling’s sponsors and Crédit Lyonnais was one of them.
“Crédit Lyonnais,” I said.
We were a block away from the headquarters again. We sat in silence, the noise of tires rubbing against the cobbles poured in from outside.
Bogdan chucked the folder into the briefcase, shut it, and said, “You now have an account in a French bank. The minute you step on a Western soil, you’ll have access to a considerable amount of cash if you choose to defect. Or, you’ll keep going for a while and top it up every time you travel abroad until you have nothing to gain from our country. And then you defect. You’re going to milk your Motherland as long as you can and then run. That’s your plan.”
We pulled over at the headquarters’ entrance. Bogdan opened his door, stepped out on the sidewalk and shut the door behind him.
“Get the hell out of the car, kid,” the driver said.
A gust of crisp, icy wind hit me on the chest when I stepped outside. The shirt on my back stuck to my skin under a leather jacket. Of all Russian words, one I didn’t want to hear right now was the dreaded poshli, the let’s go. Thousands of men and women in this country heard this word coming out of the KGB agents’ mouths. An epigraph to a hell on earth, the Gulag.
The driver in the idling Volga lit a cigarette and rolled the window down.
“Come here,” Bogdan said.
As a fourth-grade pupil caught by the principal in the act of smashing a school window, I came closer in short steps.
“Right now,” he said and put both hands in his pants’ pockets, “I’m inclined to let this rest for a while. Not that I believed much of what you told me but I’ll let this float around for a bit. We’ll be in touch.”
He turned around, opened the Volga’s front door and sat in. Before he shut the door, he looked at me from inside the car and said: “Do not mention this conversation to anyone.”
I stood still on a sidewalk until the black Volga sped away out of view. Drizzling rain drops filled the air, the daylight dulled to concrete-gray hues. With the Komitet’s headquarters behind my back, I crossed the street not looking at the building.
Once on the other side, I turned the corner into Reitarskaya street. A taxi was moving toward me with its green light on and I stepped onto the road with one foot to hail it. The car swerved and came to a stop next to me.
“Lesnoye resort,” I said to the cabbie when I opened the front door.
“That’s out of town,” he said.
“Yeah, I know.”
“How much?” he said, fingers tapping on the steering wheel.
“Twenty-five,” I said. Half of that would be a good deal.