A romantic thriller by Eve Williamson
The romantic thriller elements are blended in two contrasting love stories:
Ruth, who runs her own business consultancy and is the major character in the story, visits Moscow to meet possible partners for a UK Government funded project. She meets Gyorgy, a free-lance journalist for the Russian media, over a series of articles he is doing on the effectiveness of Western aid to Russia following the 1991 coup and the break-up of the Soviet Union. Both have been married before and split up painfully. Ruth, particularly, is wary of involvement and does not want to be hurt again. The attraction between them is immediate and powerful, and, despite her reservations, she falls deeply in love. He is just as taken with her, and their affair deepens when he comes to London to complete an article about her Russian project, and meets up with her work colleagues and the Foreign Office. When the project is finally approved for funding, Ruth returns to Moscow to live with him and visits his home country, Georgia. He is concerned by the violence which keeps erupting there and in surrounding Republics, like Chechnya, which are trying to free themselves from years of Russian domination. Ruth, brought up in a Quaker family, has always been afraid of violence and left her husband, Tom, when he became angry at her passivity and started striking out at her. Gyorgy, who knows all about war from his experiences as a news reporter in Afghanistan, wants to keep her right away from exposure to any risk, but they get drawn in anyway, initially from an outburst of civil war in Georgia itself, and then from the bitter first conflict in Chechnya. The tension arises from the threat to their personal survival, and Ruth's discovery of her own capacity to cope with violence. As part of an expansion strategy for her company, Ruth employs Peter, a commodity broker, who claims that he can make millions from trading goods out of Russia. Middle-aged but still attractive in a boyish kind of way, he meets up with Olga, a KGB agent who seduces Western businessmen in order to track down their Russian partners, mostly former bureaucrats and Mafiosi, who are selling oil and other high value products illegally to the West, retaining the dollars they earn in offshore bank accounts, and not paying taxes. Peter falls heavily for her, and is only too ready to accept her offer to set up the deal for him. Gyorgy realises straight away that it is an FSB/Mafia plot, but Peter refuses to listen. He invites Olga to London to open a bank account for their joint venture, and the predictable happens. Anatoli, Olga's FSB partner and mentor in the seduction stakes, arrives in London to set-up the terms of the deal for the benefit of himself and his FSB colleagues. Aware that Olga loves him, he is still prepared to use her for his own ends and accepts that they both will forever be owned by the FSB.
The background to this novel is based on the real-life experiences of the author, who worked in Russia and Georgia during the 1990's on a UK Government Know-How funded project. Events and people are fictionalised, the characters being composites rather than based on any one identifiable person. The political and economc issues surrounding the collapse of Communism, and the corruption surrounding Russia's moves towards Capitalism hit the headlines at the time and give this novel contemporary relevance for anyone concerned by the potential threat posed by the descent of a major nuclear power into anarchy - a situation which opened the way for the rise to power of Vladimir Putin, re-establishment of order through a return to Soviet values and the reinstatement of Russia as an international power.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Tanya pushed her way through the Metro crowds and walked towards the blank concrete and glass wall of the Intourist Hotel. It was work and she needed it. Poverty had become familiar, almost comfortable, but her savings were dwindling and she had to do something to combat the spiralling inflation which had taken away what few comforts she and her family had become accustomed to during the years of Communism. She tried not to look at the beggars curled up in despairing sleep in the subway, and brushed aside the children's outstretched hands at the entrance to the hotel.
At thirty-eight, she was a real product of the Soviet era. Trained to speak English as a young girl at an elite school, she remembered the years spent in front of the mirror practising the difficult vowel sounds, cultivating an accent so perfect that no one who was not English would realise she wasn't. The requirement to serve as an Intourist guide, reporting back to her KGB bosses on what foreign visitors did and whom they met, had not bothered her too much. Mostly the work was trivial and boring. The naïveté of so many English and Americans had never ceased to amaze her. How could they accept that the bits and pieces of public spectacle and the ancient buildings they were allowed to see had anything to do with the real Russia? They were kind but stupid people, not worth a second thought.
There was no money now from the authorities to show tourists around. The new visitors were business men, wanting to buy cheap and sell dear, looking to make their fortunes out of Russia's misery. They came with their dreams of gold, diamonds and oil, and left lucky to find a few loads of urea and cement. They were chasing rainbows, wasting time in seemingly endless rituals of drinking vodka and trying to pin down the brokers who clustered round them trying to sell the rubbish spewed out by giant factories which had long since forgotten that customers were people with needs and preferences.
Tanya did not know whether to love or hate her new employers. Their total dependence on her was touching and brought out her caring, motherly instincts. They were helpless without her, scarcely able to decipher the notices that told them where to find the toilet or the bar. She remembered her own efforts to master their alphabet and wondered why so few seemed to have felt it mattered to learn Cyrillic. Did these arrogant people know all along that they would win the Cold War? And now they were the vultures, picking over the bones of a collapsed system. It was not much; it was not even comfortable; but it was the only security she had ever known - provided you did what you were told and stayed invisible.
She crossed the lobby briskly, ignoring the obligatory guards at the entrance by pretending that she was a resident, and looked round the coffee bar for her clients. She had met them yesterday evening at the airport, waiting over two hours for them to get through customs, and finally seeing them emerge dazed and confused from their first experience of Sheremetyevo, Moscow's international airport. She was used to the comments Western visitors made on their first contact with Russia, and did not even bother to respond to the questions about the dirty toilets, the scarcity of trolleys, and the fact that no one felt it necessary to inform passengers about which flight was being unloaded on to which carousel. Once they'd been in the country for a while they'd get used to such things and come to accept them as normal.
She had dealt patiently with their obvious culture shock, found them a taxi and deposited them tired and dishevelled at the hotel. They seemed to have recovered from their initial surprise at the high prices charged by the hotel, and were drinking coffee while they watched the passing show.
"I can spot the tarts," Ruth had commented in the same hotel bar the previous evening. "The ladies' room is full of them. But how do you know who's KGB?"
The slim elegantly dressed girls who plied their trade among the hotel guests would not have been too pleased at being described as "tarts". They were at the top of their profession, and were happy to display their short fur jackets and the thigh-high black leather boots which still left plenty of leg showing below their mini skirts. They'd solved the Rouble crisis by selling themselves for dollars, and felt they were in with a chance to get the best that Capitalism had to offer.
Tanya knew she was too old and not pretty enough to join them. She thought about the empty refrigerator in her flat and her sick mother, and hoped that these new clients would stay around long enough to give her more than a few days' work. At least she didn't have any hungry kids to feed. And she'd managed to save up almost enough dollars to buy that classic English suit in the department store.
"Come and sit down, Tanya. Have a coffee. We're so relieved to see you."
Peter was fat and in his late forties, but he obviously fancied himself as a ladies' man. He patted her knee gently and smiled roguishly as he offered her a cigarette.
"What's the programme today?" Tanya asked. "Where do we have to go first?"
Peter's companion, Ruth, slightly younger, was slim and elegantly dressed. She seemed to be the boss, although she let Peter do most of the talking. Peter's manner towards her was overly courteous - as if he was trying hard to please. Ruth spoke crisply and to the point.
"We're due at the Ministry of Energy this afternoon. It's important. We're meeting the Chairman of the Oil Production Committee. The appointment was set up for us by a Russian who attended one of our seminars. He's joining us here this morning and will take us to the Ministry. He speaks English but not enough to act as our interpreter. That's why we need you. You come highly recommended."
Tanya felt a small glow of pride. She had not done much interpreting for business meetings, but the opportunities were growing and she knew that, once she was a member of the club, the work would begin to flow more freely.
"By whom?" she asked softly.
She thought briefly about the Englishman who had seduced her after she had taken him to the Slovenska Bazaar, one of Moscow's few fashionable restaurants. The noisy music, the champagnski, and the abundance of food had been too much for both of them, and they had ended up in bed together. Tanya felt disappointed that she'd let her sexual frustration get the better of her professional image. Her companion felt guilty that he'd cheated on his wife. Neither of them ever referred to it again, but she knew he owed her a favour.
"Jim Roberts. We met him at a conference on funding Russia's economic recovery."
"That was kind of him."
He had not been a very good lover, but Tanya was grateful he'd remembered her.
Two Russians, one in the familiar black leather jacket which signified Mafia connections, approached them. One of them went up to Peter and slapped him jovially on the back. Ruth introduced him to Tanya.
"This is Yuri Suranov - the Russian who came to our seminar. Tanya is our interpreter."
Yuri nodded briefly to Tanya. She was useful but not essential to his plan.
"We are happy to see you. All is arranged. We go to the Ministry at two o'clock. This is my friend, Sergei. He's a personal friend of the Chairman of the Production Committee."
Sergei of the black jacket smiled, his beard disguising whether it was a smile of contempt or genuine pleasure at making these new English contacts. Tanya was concerned. The signs were not good. If these two had high level contacts in the Ministry courtesy of the Mafia, then a lot of money could change hands, most of it finding its way into the pockets of the "fixers".
Corruption was nothing new in Russia. The KGB and the Mafia had been running things long before many Westerners came to do business. The Party bosses organised their own comforts and imported the luxuries they needed to maintain their privileged lifestyles thanks to these links. Anything in Russia could be arranged provided you knew the right people. Tanya had long since ceased to worry about which side of the legal system she worked. She could not afford to be choosy. It was part of an interpreter's role to see that her paymasters did not get themselves into too much trouble. You didn't translate just the words; you were also there to protect them from unseen pitfalls.
Peter was on form. The Russians loved his jovial style and warm-heartedness. They undoubtedly saw a chicken ready to be plucked. Ruth made them feel uneasy. Her quietness and obvious intelligence bothered them. They would have to be careful what they let her do and say. Few Russians bothered much about women except as wives and sex objects. Ruth was neither and therefore represented discomfort and risk. They soon satisfied themselves that she did not understand their language and visibly relaxed. Tanya was no threat to them. Her interpreter role clearly declared her origins. No one learnt English to her standard without having been carefully selected and groomed by the KGB.
Tanya slipped easily into her role. Listening carefully to what the Russians said, she translated only those bits they wanted the English to hear, at the same time making sure they understood everything their guests were saying. She was good at her job and could manage this sort of thing on automatic pilot, but she still had to be careful not to miss the nuances, the undercurrents in the dialogue.
The meeting arranged with the Chairman was to be brief: little more than a formal introduction and a handshake were required from Peter and Ruth. Ruth was to say nothing; in particular not to mention her favourite subject, management training. Managers in Russia did not need training, especially not in the oil industry. With oil leaking from rusting pipes and worn-out seals, and thousands of oil pumps no longer working, managing the chaos was irrelevant. What the oil producers and their friends needed was hard currency. There was still plenty left in the ground to sell, and they intended to use their Government connections to sideline some export quotas in their own direction. If Peter had the contacts he claimed in the international commodity markets, they were all set to do very nicely thank you from sharing the profits from the sale of their oil.
There was some discussion of how important it was that the income did not disappear into the Russian taxation system, set at 80% on turnover.
"We want to use our profits to buy the food and medicine that are so desperately needed in Siberia. Living conditions there are terrible. We're from the Tyumen region - that's where we became good friends. There's not much to do in those harsh winters except drink vodka and spend time together. We want a better life for our children. Do you know the life expectancy in Siberia? Forty years, if you're lucky."
Yuri continued to speak eloquently to Peter about the need for his help, lapsing into English from time to time to stress his concern.
"We are desperate. The oil industry is falling apart. The Government takes all our profits and will not replace the broken machinery. Without new pipelines we waste much of our oil on the ground. The lakes and rivers are full of it. Did you know our caviare tastes so oily most Russians won't eat it any more?"
Peter and Ruth were impressed. Maybe there was something useful they could do to help Russia. They had few illusions about the depth of the problems. They had read enough and met enough Russians in England to be aware of the symptoms of its economic collapse. They had examined the overseas aid programme and applied to the British Government for money for a major project. Months of waiting for a response had not generated much optimism about being paid to work out here. The commodity route offered the best hope of earning anything significant. Even Ruth was impressed by the zeros on the end of figures quoted as profit from the sale of steel, copper and aluminium. Since Peter had arrived on the scene, the Faxes poured into her office daily with offers to buy and sell commodities out of Russia. So far none of the deals had materialised, but it was hard to stop the flow and everyone in the business assured them that the roads out of Russia were filled with lorries crammed with all kinds of metal. They neglected to add that much was scrap, torn from rotting factories or taken from anyone careless enough to leave it lying around. Theft was a new but growing concept in a country where, after all, no one owned anything; hence, whatever you found that looked as if no one wanted it or wouldn't be too quickly missed was yours.
Oil was something else. They all knew it represented the big time. Everyone wanted to get into the Russian oil business. Very few made it because the Government still owned the production associations and distribution was controlled by Rosneftegas, its centralised marketing arm. All the major multinational oil companies were represented in Moscow, living in the dachas of former party members and waiting for privatisation and the legislative changes that would help them get their hands on the industry.
Coffee over, the group moved slowly towards the door. Tanya found the waiting car and they all piled in. She blessed the fact that she and Ruth were slim enough to be crushed together in the back, and that Peter of the wandering hands took the place of privileged comfort beside the driver. Yuri was taking them out to lunch. This gesture was typical of the warm-hearted generous side of Russian hospitality. Inflation was rising rapidly, but it was still important to wine and dine your guests. Anyway it was an essential part of any business deal. Get an Englishman drunk and he'll sign anything. Americans were more of a problem: they talked rather than drank and left the socialising till later.
They found themselves in Moscow's Polish restaurant, a favourite Mafia meeting place. Tanya was even more convinced that her initial suspicions were correct. As the champagnski flowed Yuri became more expansive. He began to talk about his family, about Siberia, about hunting for bear and reindeer. Ruth, a dedicated vegetarian, could not hide her discomfort. Yuri was disbelieving.
"How can you live without eating meat? What do you do in winter when there are no vegetables?"
He signalled the waiter and explained the problem of his English lady guest. They came to some agreement on cheese, salad and bread. Ruth realised that she was not going to get much to eat while she was in Russia. Not because of the food shortages, but because of her peculiar tastes. She sipped her champagnski. That at least was excellent, a light, sparkling white wine that could almost be French or Italian.
Peter was on form and the Russians loved him. His warmth and joviality were exactly what they understood and responded to. They dismissed Ruth as a minor irritant. They were already inviting Peter to visit their Siberian hunting lodge, teasing him about getting lost in the snow and freezing to death, and promising they would find him a slim and beautiful ballet dancer while he was in Moscow - once they saw his roving eye and obvious interest in attractive young women.
When enough alcohol had flowed, the Russians began to talk business. Yuri was first.
"We need you to agree the terms of our relationship. What is our percentage on every deal? Can you open a bank account for us in the West?"
This was familiar ground for Tanya. She explained the rules of trading in the New Russia.
"You set up the deal through a Russian intermediary, preferably one with good Government connections - hence the Chairman of the Committee. And then you make sure you can pay for the export licence which gives you access to the limited quotas that the oil producers are permitted to sell for dollars. Everything else stays inside the Russian Federation and cannot be touched."
Peter knew enough about commodity trading to understand the game.
"We pay nothing upfront," he said firmly. "We pay you as soon as we get paid by the buyer. Once the Letter of Credit is opened, it's all handled automatically by the buyer's bank. When the oil arrives at the port, it is inspected for quality, the quantity matched against the order and the tanker loaded. We don't pay on promises."
The Russians quickly realised that Peter was not as naïve as he appeared to be. He had a certain level of low cunning which they appreciated. Yuri stepped in. He was the more intelligent of the pair and had learnt the procedures well from his visit to the West.
"We must have an assurance in writing before we can proceed. How long will it take you to set up a bank account? Can you arrange it for us in Switzerland or Cyprus - a numbered account which cannot be traced back to us?"
Peter had no problems with this arrangement. He would be doing the same for himself and probably not tell Ruth as soon as the deals became big enough and he was assured of a good return on his investment of time and energy. He'd been around the World enough in trading circles to know that there were always commissions to be paid to the people who set up the deal by introducing you to the right people. Backhanders to Government ministers were another story, familiar but more risky. Peter's hand reached for the glass of vodka which Sergei had refilled for the fifth or sixth time, but then he thought better of it.
"Anything's possible," he said slowly. "What's in it for me?"
Ruth was aware of his dilemma. He needed her at the moment to pay his bills, get him to Russia. When he was rich enough - if he ever was - he'd move on. Her motives were quite different. She'd got caught because she cared. It mattered to her not just whether people lived or died, but whether the quality of their lives was worth all the effort and pain. She hadn't come to Russia to make money; she had come because it was an adventure, a challenge. What happened to a country which collapsed into so-called freedom? Who would win and who would lose?
She watched the dealers as they haggled over money they had not yet earned. She watched Tanya, too, envying her skill and patience. How did she hold all the threads of the argument together, working in two languages at the same time? She made it look so effortless, like touch typing, as if the words entered her brain and re-emerged without her having to think about them. Ruth made a mental note to ask her what was really going on. Who was talking to whom about what and why? She was always more interested in the music beneath the words, the undercurrents, how people were feeling rather than what they were saying.
Peter was easy to read: his primary motivation was greed, like a big kid who could never get enough of being invited to the party - anybody's party. But these Russians were something else. They came over so warm and friendly, but Ruth had the uneasy feeling they were too good to be true. She relied so much on her own language, its nuances and tonal inflections. Tanya, like an actor speaking lines, was doing her best to convey more than just the literal meaning of the words, but that was not enough for Ruth. She wanted to know if these two could be trusted, and if so by whom. What was in it for them that they were going to so much trouble to set up this deal?
Yuri sensed her unease. That was another disquieting thing. The Russians could read all their non-verbal behaviour so much more easily than she and Peter could read theirs. Then she remembered the years of being watched by the KGB, when there was so little that it was safe to say that you had to rely on brief signals conveyed by a glance or the clasp of a hand in yours. Yuri gave just such a look to Sergei as he signalled for the bill, making a big show by insisting on paying for the meal himself, and they all moved out to the car. Ruth realised that this was no taxi but a hired driver. Tanya explained.
"Taxis are for foreigners. They are too expensive for us. And they charge dollars."
In the car the talk was all in Russian. Tanya was silent, tired from listening against the noise of the restaurant. Yuri and Sergei were planning what they would say and do at the meeting. It did not appear to involve Peter and Ruth. They were the token Westerners, the people who gave them the credibility they needed to set up the deal.
Ruth had expected the Ministry to be impressive. But it was a rather shabby redbrick structure, out of place in its setting and no match for the nearby British Embassy, despite the fact that both shared a wonderful view across the Moscow River, from where they were overlooked by the imposing walls of the Kremlin Palace.
The Chairman of the Committee was too busy to see them. He shook hands briefly, they exchanged visit cards, and he introduced them to his Deputy, Alexander Gruschev, whom he said would be able to help them. Peter was angry. He had been assured they were going to meet someone influential, and being passed on to a Deputy was not part of his dream of making a million dollars on his first deal. Gruschev was his idea of a fat cat. His oiled hair matched his worn well-polished suit, and he greeted Sergei and Yuri as old friends. Peter remembered the story of their drinking together during the long winter nights in Siberia. Substituting Deputy for Chairman was not an important lie for them. It had got Peter to the meeting, and that was all that counted. They sat around the long highly polished table in the Chairman's office, chatting about Moscow and the weather, making inconsequential jokes about the hardships they were all enduring as a result of the market economy. The coffee was black and sweet; the biscuits, soft.
Peter became impatient. He'd had enough of socialising and wanted to get down to business.
"I came here to discuss an oil deal," he said brusquely. "What are the chances of getting something set up? We have several buyers who can sell any crude or refined products you can let us have."
The silence was immediate. Tanya realised that she had no need to go through the charade of translation. Her fellow Russians understood enough English when it mattered. Yuri's embarrassment was evident. It was as if Peter had thrown up or spat on the floor. Gruschev rose to the occasion, justifying his Deputy role.
"We are all of us very concerned about the decline of our oil industry. It is very important for Russia's economic recovery. Can you help us to attract Western investment into the industry so that we can repair the broken pumps and replace our older equipment? We would be most grateful."
It was Peter's turn to be embarrassed. He had come to make money not to throw it away. Investing in the bottomless pit of Russia's desperation was not why he had come to Moscow. It was his own desperation he cared about. He couldn't hang on to Ruth forever, and in any case she was paying him peanuts in comparison with the lifestyle he had once known. His business had gone bust, his wife had left him, and he was slowly and painfully trying to get back some confidence and self-respect. All it would take to recover what he had lost was enough money. Then he could buy back the large house, the boat, and all the good friends who no longer called him up to ask how he was getting on. He turned to Tanya for help.
"Tell them we're not here to invest. We want to buy oil. If they sell us enough oil, they can buy their own pumps."
Tanya translated what she thought the Russians would want to hear.
"These Westerners have no money to invest. They will sell the oil for you and you can use your profits to buy any equipment you need."
This was not what the Russians had in mind. The industry, after all, was not theirs; it was owned by the Government. Its decline was therefore the Government's responsibility. They had had too many years of not receiving any new equipment, Gruschev explained. It had never worried him that working for the Ministry as part of its bureaucratic committee structure made him responsible for protecting the interests of the Government.
"You want to buy oil. We need food and medicine. Our children are starving. I am sure we can come to some arrangement."
Tanya understood that he, too, was part of the deal which had been set up in advance by Sergei and Yuri. This was a strictly unofficial export quota, diverted probably from its intended source.
Peter relaxed a little. He could see a way through the negotiations, the quid pro quo from which they both could benefit.
"If you can guarantee us the oil, we can guarantee you a buyer, provided it's at the right price."
The Russians were also pleased. Everyone in the industry knew that price was not an issue. It was based on published figures for Urals Crude which fluctuated day by day. The profits from oil were made because of the vast quantities that you sold, which made the small percentage of any margin that you earned quickly grow into millions of US dollars. Peter was therefore not in the industry. He was just another broker, and, if he was greedy enough, just right for the scam they had planned. Gruschev was visibly rubbing his hands.
"You will have to pay commissions to our friends who provide the oil. You must also pay for the export licence. It is the licence that is the valuable part of the deal. Export quotas are scarce. The Russian Federation and the New Independent States need our oil desperately. We only sell a small amount of what we produce abroad."
Russian oil and scarcity were an unfamiliar juxtaposition to Peter. He had heard all the stories of oil spilling into the lakes and rivers, but he also knew that the biggest oil reserves in the World were in Siberia, much of it in the Tyumen Region from which these men came. Could he make his buyer pay all these additional charges? Was there enough in it for all the brokers who had put him in touch with the buyer in the first place? He quickly dismissed the last problem. They need never know how much the deal was worth and would have to be satisfied with crumbs.
Ruth intervened, despite the fact that she had been instructed by Tanya that the Russians did not want her to say anything at the meeting. She could see the wheels turning in Peter's brain, and knew that he was trying to figure out the cost of the deal and if it was worth all the effort that it would undoubtedly demand. Peter's biggest problem was laziness. He enjoyed the expansiveness, the wheeling and dealing. He was quickly bored by the nitty gritty and tended to disappear into himself at the vital moment when he needed to pay attention to every detail. Ruth made no attempt to disguise the suspicion in her voice.
"What do you mean by `We have to pay for the export licence'? Is there an official fee? Who gets it?"
It was Yuri's turn to rescue the situation. In Gruschev's world, women did not speak until they were spoken to. He spoke in English, slowly and patiently, as if he were talking to a child.
"You get nothing without paying for it in Russia. It is the system. We are used to it."
Ruth was not to be put off so easily.
"I understand that. I simply wanted to know who got the money and how much?"
Peter was alert enough to pick up the tension in the situation. He signalled Ruth to shut up by kicking her foot under the table. Tanya was silent. This was a good moment not to get caught up in interpreting and to pray that the misunderstanding would clear itself. Gruschev accepted that he could now continue without interruption.
"We can sort out details later. The important thing is to agree in principle. Sergei is managing this deal for us. He will put all the pieces of it together and tell you exactly what to do."
Tanya was back on familiar ground. She explained to Peter and Ruth that there was nothing to worry about. They would be given an overall price for the oil and it would be delivered to an appropriate Russian port for inspection and loading on to a tanker provided by Peter's buyer. Payments to the parties concerned could be taken out of the Letter of Credit when it was opened by the bank, and the amounts required by the Russian partners in the deal deposited in offshore accounts that Peter would help them set up. Furthermore, Peter could help them to purchase the goods they needed to import into Siberia and would get his commission on that, too. It was all quite straightforward and highly illegal.
Peter was relieved. He had been worrying about who would look after the transporting of the oil while it was still in Russia. He had had too many bad experiences already of urea that was never lifted, of cement for which there were no bags, and of steel sitting on the dock waiting to be loaded and then somehow mysteriously disappearing. Sergei looked to him like the sort of man who would strong arm anyone into doing what he wanted, and was capable of sorting out the endless inefficiencies caused by people who simply did not care what happened.
Ruth vowed for the umpteenth time not to get involved in these commodity deals. She saw her money disappearing yet again into a bottomless pit and no return on her investment. She worked hard and did not need all these hassles. Her contacts in Russia were of a different kind completely. She worked with real people: not politicians and traders but scientists and engineers struggling to make ends meet as their society crumbled and their kids, accustomed to being privileged and pampered by the Soviet system, looked to them to provide the luxuries they felt they needed. These were the chocolate children from the closed cities, who had been rewarded by the fact that their talented parents could contribute to the Soviet defence and space programmes. What they wanted was a way to make their sophisticated technology pay, to prove that Russian scientists were special, capable of creating more than weapons of destruction.
She dismissed as pie in the sky Peter's assurances that he would make millions of dollars and that she would get half of it to pay for her dreams. It was back to the Foreign Office and the endless negotiations that might or might not lead eventually to a project with one of the major technological institutes. She thought briefly of the English bureaucrats and how different they were from their Russian counterparts. Mostly the people she dealt with in the Foreign Office were inexperienced young graduates half her age, straight out of university. They could have no concept of what would happen to the taxpayers' money they so reluctantly agreed to spend on sending English consultants to Russia to spread their magic "know-how" and make capitalism work in this vast country.
The meeting was over. Gruschev had handed all future negotiations over to Sergei, and clearly could not afford to be seen to be involved. Ruth made the mistake of asking Tanya to show her the toilet, and then wished she hadn't. How was it that, even in major public buildings, no one ever bothered to clean the toilets or repair the broken fittings? Russia was not a Third World country but a place full of trained technicians and engineers. She had expected it in India, where she had worked on her last aid project; but here it made no sense at all.
It was down to the car and back to the hotel. Yuri had relatives in Moscow and he and Sergei were spending the evening with them. Tanya made the arrangements to meet the following day and they went their separate ways.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Ruth and Peter had an uneasy friendship. They worked together but they did not really like one another. It was an arrangement of convenience. Peter needed money and security following the collapse of his business and his marriage. Ruth needed someone to help her make sufficient money to grow her small specialist consultancy to the point where she could make the kind of impact she knew was possible. They had met by chance through a mutual acquaintance, and both were still surprised that they had decided to work together.
Ruth jokingly referred to Peter as her minder. His odd mixture of rough diamond and gentlemanly courtesy attracted her at some level. But she was wary of his capacity to lie and cheat. What worried her most was his lack of any serious concern for ethical business practices. She worried about her own image suffering if she spent too much time working with him. On the other hand, ethics were expensive, and certainly did not appear to be very profitable, even in her own sphere of management consultancy. At least Peter's brand of wheeling and dealing was obvious, and you knew where you stood. The more sophisticated games played by leading consultants were about promising mega-outcomes for correspondingly large fees. Delivery, on the other hand, was often questionable. Over the years she had seen all the management improvement systems come and go, each one claiming to be the final solution. But as business after business collapsed and the armies of sacked workers of the eighties were swiftly being joined by the thousands of redundant managers of the early nineties, there was growing disbelief in all the brand names and the quick fixes. Restructuring had turned into Business Process Re-engineering, but somehow nobody except the consultants and the accountancy firms who employed them ever seemed to be better off.
One thing she did know. There was no quick fix for Russia's problems. They were endemic, and no amount of capitalist cream smeared on Russia's dry bread would do anything to improve the quality of life for the majority of people who had never known anything but hardship. She was a natural researcher and had spent a lot of time reading about Russia and watching news and documentaries about the country on TV. The more she knew the more fascinated she became, and she began to attend the conferences that were being set up to promote the aid packages. At the invitation of one of the Russian academics she had met, she had set up her own company's seminar on Western management methods for a group of managers from large industrial companies in the Urals facing dramatic decline.
She was surprised and disappointed to find that their primary reason for coming to England, and their willingness to pay for the opportunity arose from their wish to become tourists. It made sense when you realised how few people had ever been allowed out of Russia during the years of the Cold War. They still had to be formally invited, and the British Embassy was cautious how it distributed its visas for fear of an influx of illegal immigrants. In Ruth's view, they need not have worried. The Russians she met were strong family people, and their main concern was to return home with goodies they could not buy easily or could not afford in Russia. She had gone to the hotel to say goodbye to the group as they boarded the coach to take them to the airport. She had ended up travelling all the way to Heathrow with her car full of microwaves and video recorders that had overflowed the limited space on the bus. She was stunned by how little the Russians had brought with them and how much they took back. She sometimes wondered how much they sold on their return, but she imagined their first priority to be their family and friends.
She opened the door to her room and saw immediately that it had been searched. She had left papers out on the table, and they were still there but in a different order and put into a neat pile. She checked the wardrobe and noted that the rest of her things had been gone through much more thoroughly. She was surprised how little it mattered that she knew about the surveillance. Old habits die hard, and she realised how superficial the change to democracy had been. Market economics was an easier pill to swallow: the joke was that the first organisation to be privatised was the Communist party, which enabled them to move as much as possible of their considerable wealth into Western banks where it could not be touched.
In the bathroom she remembered she had forgotten that one essential for a visit to Eastern Europe, a bath plug. She preferred showers, in any case, and as she washed the grime of Moscow from her body, she wondered how radioactive it was. It had been a long day and she felt tired. She pulled back the curtains and looked out over the lights of the city. Was it as beautiful as it looked? Why did she have this uneasy feeling of being watched? She was in a prestige hotel in one of the World's most interesting cities. What could possibly happen? The welcome mat was out for visiting Westerners. How could anyone suspect her motives? So why search her room? It was probably just routine, standard procedure in a country that had never trusted anyone, especially its own leaders.
A knock at the door sent a spurt of adrenalin through her. Should she pretend not to be in? Impatient of her growing paranoia, she stepped across to the door and opened it. Peter was standing there, still looking crumpled round the edges despite the fact that he had obviously had a bath, shaved, and made an effort to make himself look presentable.
"Thank God it's only you." Ruth's relief was obvious.
"Who were you expecting? The secret police?"
Peter could not conceal his disappointment. Ruth was not his type, but he still wanted to impress her. He prided himself on his ability to control women and have them eating out of his hand. Ruth irritated him because he could not buy her or flatter he. She treated him like a colleague, and it was as if he did not exist for her sexually. She never talked much about her past, just that she had been married and it hadn't worked out. Maybe she was lesbian? But there wasn't much evidence of that. Peter put her down as one of life's untouchables and moved on to easier prey.
He was bored at the prospect of being on his own for the evening in a strange city. He'd already been approached by two of the hotel's whores who had brought him champagnski and sat on his bed making their availability obvious. Wary of disease, he had shooed them out of the door and taken the lift to Ruth's room to get away from them. Ruth noticed the open bottle that was still in his hand.
"Where did you get that? Don't tell me they have room service."
"Not the kind you're used to. It arrived courtesy of a couple of tarts."
He poured Ruth a glass and took several generous helpings himself, swallowing it back quickly as if he was thirsty. His warmth returned with the alcohol, and he started teasing Ruth about the meeting at the Ministry and her not being allowed to speak.
"I've never been able to get you to keep your mouth shut in meetings. I didn't think they'd manage it completely. One thing's for sure around here. It's a man's world."
Peter's dry sense of humour was one of his most endearing qualities as far as Ruth was concerned. He'd been around and it showed. Ruth felt safe when she was with him, even in a place like Moscow, where she'd been told that crime, unheard of in the Soviet era, was becoming commonplace.
"I thought you wanted to spend the evening exploring the hotel's night life? Was it so boring that you came to find me?"
It was one of Ruth's rules that she let her employees have plenty of personal space and freedom to do their own thing. She kept out unless invited. That way she didn't get into awkward places where people were being nice to her because she was the boss and not because they genuinely enjoyed her company. Peter did not reveal how uncomfortably near the truth she was.
"Come on," he said. "It's your first night in Moscow. You can't just sit and read or watch TV. It's all in Russian, anyway."
Ruth had managed to find the CNN channel, but she was happy to watch the Muscovites living it up instead.
"Let's find a good restaurant. Surely hotel reception or one of the taxi drivers will help us. I don't fancy eating here. The prices are ridiculous and the food nothing to write home about."
Peter was pleased. He was in need of a bit of adventure, and going out into a strange city with no knowledge at all of the language suited him fine. They'd changed some of their Dollars into Roubles but were still not sure which currency you offered where. They stopped at reception on the way out, got the name of a Georgian restaurant that was supposed to have good food and lots of local colour, and had no trouble getting the taxi driver to understand where they wanted to go.
They had been under strict instructions from Yuri and Sergei that they should not venture out into Moscow on their own. They might get lost, not be able to ask the way, be attacked by robbers, or pestered by beggars. They had tried to explain that London and New York were much more dangerous than Moscow, and that the Brits had got used to muggings and terrorism and people sleeping on the pavement. Ruth reminded Peter of the member of their Russian managers' seminar who had got himself arrested the first night and been brought back to the hotel by the police. Peter was not impressed.
"He was a nutter and was trying to pick up women in the street. He also got very drunk."
Ruth teased him gently.
"And of course you've never done anything like that. I keep forgetting that women chase after you so much that you never have to pay for your sexual encounters."
Peter expanded his story about the two tarts who had accosted him in the hotel, and how he'd had to escape to her room to get away. He made it all sound much more glamorous and less sleazy than it had felt at the time.
The restaurant was down a steep flight of stairs and was rather dark. Little groups were seated in corners talking and drinking. Unusually for a Moscow restaurant, there was no music. The loudspeakers were certainly there, but they were silent. Maybe the musicians hadn't arrived yet or were taking a comfort break.
They were shown to a table somewhat away from the other guests, and the waiter brought them the menu. Peter ordered another bottle of champagnski and began to negotiate with the waiter about what they should eat. Ruth was relieved to find that being a vegetarian was evidently not a crime here. There was plenty of choice, including something the waiter called "grass" and turned out to be a wonderfully flavoured dish of flat-leafed parsley mixed with nuts and herbs. A selection of side dishes followed, and Ruth sampled them while Peter worked his way through a large helping of what looked like chunks of meat in a rich wine and paprika sauce.
The restaurant was filling up and the noise of conversation getting louder. The musicians arrived, their dark skin and Mediterranean appearance clearly signalling they were not of Russian ethnic origin. The waiter explained.
"Georgia is not part of Russia. It is not even part of the New Independent States. We declared our independence before anyone else. But we have suffered a great deal because of it."
Ruth knew a little about Georgia's first elected President, Gamsakhurdia, and about the continual threat of violence in this small country on Russia's southern border. The waiter appeared to be willing to talk and she plied him with questions.
"What is Georgia like? Is it beautiful? How is it different from Russia?"
Fiercely nationalistic, he was proud to tell her.
"It is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe. Before the Great Patriotic War we had many tourists from the West; after, it was the Russians and East Europeans who spent their summers there. They loved swimming in the sea and relaxing on the sandy beaches of the Black Sea. But the most beautiful part of Georgia is in the East - in the mountains where our good wines come from."
Ruth imagined the Russian tourists sunbathing along palm-fringed beaches in their 1950's swimsuits. She loved France and had worked over several years in Nice. The glitzy Riviera coastline had never appealed to her. Instead, she had hired a car and driven up into the hills, delighting in the blue, mauve and yellow landscape, the brilliant sunshine and the snow-capped mountains in the distance. Her dream was to earn enough money to settle in a place like that. Not Provence; it was too expensive. But maybe in Georgia..... Somehow or other she had to find a way to go there.
Mention of wine had captured Peter's interest. Ruth noticed that the champagnski had disappeared and did not remember drinking much of it. Peter ordered a Georgian red wine, assured by the waiter, who showed him all the gold medal awards on the label, that this vintage was one of the country's finest. Ruth raised no objections to the price, which was ridiculously cheap by Western standards.
As the red liquid joined the excellent food in her stomach, she too began to feel warm and relaxed. The music was playing and some of the guests began to dance. The dancers were all men and they circled round a wine glass, clapping and singing a folk song in their own language. The rhythm of the music became more intense and the guitars began to strum. Ruth realised the men were rather drunk and were testing their skill by jumping over the upturned glass. If one of them broke it he had to drop out. The glass was replaced and the dance continued until only one dancer was left, and he was congratulated and plied with more wine. The other guests cheered them on, and the whole evening was evidently going to turn into a party. Ruth and Peter tried to join in for a while, but they soon realised that this was strictly Georgian entertainment and not easy to follow. They paid the bill and walked up the stairs.
The night was still and cool after the heat of the restaurant.
"Let's walk back to the hotel," Peter suggested. "It'll clear our heads."
"Do you remember the way?"
Ruth had no sense of direction and was easily lost in unfamiliar cities.
"Anyone can tell us how to get to the Intourist Hotel. It's not far."
They started walking, unaware that someone had separated from a small group of men outside the restaurant and was following them. Peter took Ruth's arm, and she felt safe and protected. She would not have considered walking at night in Moscow on her own; or in London, for that matter. There was too much poverty and violence about these days and nowhere felt safe, except maybe the small village she had chosen for her own cottage, and even there people were talking of burglaries and setting up Neighbourhood Watch schemes.
Peter was carrying the small amount of money they had brought out for the evening with them. Ruth had left her handbag and passport in the hotel, mindful of the warnings of Yuri and Sergei, and thinking that it was obviously not her money and few bits of jewellery the KGB were after. They turned down a narrow, less well-lit street.
"Why are we going this way?" Ruth asked nervously.
"It's a short cut. Don't worry, I know exactly where we are. The hotel's just around the corner."
A command in Russian made them turn round sharply. They did not understand a word but the tone of voice was enough. Then they realised it was backed up by a knife, pointing straight at Peter's gut. Ruth felt completely helpless. She prayed that Peter would not start any rough stuff and get them both killed. The man looked shabby and underfed and was obviously just a petty thief, not a professional criminal. He signalled to Peter to empty his pockets, jabbing at his stomach with the knife.
"Dollars... Dollars," he kept repeating, punctuating the statement with the knife point.
Peter was no hero, and he didn't have enough money on him to be too concerned. He gave the man what notes he had, and it took only a moment for the thief to pick out the dollars, throw the Roubles on the ground and run off. He had taken a cursory look at Peter's watch, but it was clearly imitation Rolex and of no value. Ruth clung briefly to Peter, getting back her breath.
"Thank God, you're all right. We're acting like idiot tourists. Why didn't we listen to Yuri and Sergei?"
She was annoyed with herself for being wise after the event. Peter said nothing; just held her until she calmed down. He was great in a crisis, living up to Ruth's nickname for him - Action Man. He signalled a passing taxi, they piled in and found that they were indeed very near the hotel. The taxi man took all their Roubles scornfully and immediately collected a group of Americans standing outside the hotel who were clearly more wealthy than the impoverished English.
Peter and Ruth went straight to the lifts and up to their separate rooms, the evening spoilt. Adventure was one thing; mugging quite another. Ruth went over to the wardrobe; her handbag was still where she had hidden it behind a pile of clothes. Nothing else had been touched in her absence; presumably whatever the KGB had wanted to know they had already found out, and she was not on their list for a return visit.
She cleaned off her make up and turned on the CNN news to find that the World was still at war, that at least two thirds of people were starving, and that the United Nations was as impotent as ever to do more than send observers to watch the carnage. She wondered why she had ever come to Russia. What possible difference could she make? Maybe all that mattered was to make enough money to build a castle wall and go into retreat somewhere that no one cared about. Like Georgia.
She remembered the endless discussions she had had with her ex-husband, a dedicated Marxist who thought that revolution and genuine Communism - not the Fascist, Stalinist variety – could change the World. Raised a Quaker with more recent Buddhist tendencies, she abhorred violence and argued strongly that all that a revolution ever achieved was to replace one oppressive power structure with another. She must ask Mischa, her Russian academic friend. He had been well trained in what Communism was really about; with his excellent command of English maybe he could explain it to her. She could not begin to understand when all the aid agencies were spouting Thatcherism, and the newspapers and TV commentators were telling her that the end of the Cold War heralded a new era of peace and prosperity.
George Bush was on CNN. He was shaking hands with a Russian delegation and assuring them that America was prepared to pour billions into their economic recovery. It was however necessary for the terms to be agreed with the IMF and the World Bank, and there was no question of any money being handed over to the Russian Government. Instead there would be loans for privatisation and business development, credits that would make the West rich from the proceeds of Russian gold and oil.
Ruth thought of the thousands of broken pumps and the leaking pipelines. Would there be any oil left by the time the politicians got around to agreeing the terms on which they would offer aid? And if they did, would it ever find its way to the oil production associations? After today's visit to the Ministry of Energy, she had the feeling that whatever the terms agreed, any money intended to buy equipment would find its way into the pockets of politicians and bureaucrats whose lifestyle had been sadly reduced by the collapse of Communism. As always the Mafia would help them to retain their privileges. Would Moscow soon become like Chicago in the thirties, and who would be the Russian Al Capone? When would the Italian and American Mafia get in on the act? They thrived on poverty and human misery, and it would not take long for the drug culture to spread over here.
She felt sad, exhausted and disillusioned, but had no intention of giving up. What had always kept her going through a great many rough times had been her determination to win through. There had to be a way through the jungle. Occasionally she wondered where it was she was going with such persistence. But things happened; the next opportunity always came. Tom, her ex as she always referred to him now, had none of her optimism. For him it was just a question of finding a way to endure the unendurable pain of being alive, victim of a cosmic joke, an accident of natural forces that had somehow fortuitously created the one-in-many-millions of planetary systems that had the ability to support life. We could all disappear as randomly as we had come into existence. The only point was to alleviate the suffering by making life as bearable as possible for as many people as possible during their brief spell of consciousness.
Ruth was not good at seeing life as struggle and pain. Even if it was true, she could not dispel her conviction that at least some of it was self-inflicted. It was this need to come to terms with her own experience that had attracted her to Buddhism. Theirs was a much simpler philosophy. Pain arose because of attachment. If you were not attached, you did not feel emotional pain. Physical pain was fleeting and could always be endured until it, too, went away. If your meditation techniques were good enough and you were sufficiently open and relaxed, you could melt your own physical pain and come to terms with your emotional pain. Enlightenment was always there, waiting for you to notice it, to welcome the present moment and the intensity of joy it offered.
She turned over in the narrow bed to get more comfortable and heard Tom laughing at her.
"When will you ever learn?" he had always said to her. "You live in a dream world of perfection, when all around you are surrounded by human misery. Your idealism never helped anyone. Get out there and do something. Don't just sit there waiting for lightning to strike and make sense of all this craziness."
In the end she had left because she could not stand his negativity. His anger and frustration were always spilling out on her, as if was her fault that life was so difficult and unpleasant. She had got to the point where she could do nothing right for him, and then the wall had gone up and even sex was no good any more.
She still loved him and missed him like crazy. He was the only person she'd ever allowed close enough to her soul to see her dreams of a better life. And that was why, in the end, she had had to get out. She felt he was drilling into her mind, destroying her beliefs. And as her soul ebbed away, she became a shell, a zombie, directionless. They had met years ago in India and for a brief time the magic of the place and their love for each other had seemed to fill every corner of their lives. Returning to England and to Tom's job as a research scientist which he had always hated, gradually chipped away at their relationship until there was nothing left.
Maybe if they'd had children it would have been different, but Ruth doubted it. Tom was too restless to be a father. Every holiday he would get away on some impossible trek or cycle ride, exhausting himself and his companions by insisting on turning everything into a record breaking challenge. Ruth saw him wasting his life, pushing himself again and again to the point of physical exhaustion and then wondering why he still felt so empty.
Was she doing any better? Probably not. What always stopped Ruth was her fear. Fear of violence, fear of the unknown. She felt lonely and lost without Tom. She had followed him up mountains and across continents without hesitation. For him the experience was enough. He was satisfied that he had done it - been there, got the T-shirt. Ruth wanted so much more. She wanted to be remembered, to change people's lives other than her own, to make a difference.... It was going to be hard to do that in Russia.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Peter was too wound up to go to sleep. After he had deposited Ruth, he collected a fresh supply of dollars from his room and went back down to the coffee bar in the foyer of the hotel. He was a gregarious man who hated to be alone for long. He was drunk enough to feel well disposed towards the human race, and not so drunk that he was likely to make a fool of himself. He felt proud of himself that he'd managed to shake off the shock of the mugging with such remarkable fortitude. It was a good story and he needed to tell it to someone.
It was late and the bar was almost empty. He had bought himself a black coffee and lit up a cigarette when he became aware that an attractive blonde at the other end of the bar counter was staring at him. This was Hollywood movie material at its best. He caught her eye, smiled, and she came over to talk with him.
"You're English, aren't you?" her accent betraying that she was not.
"People seem to see me coming a mile off," he said. "What is it about me that's so English?"
"You don't look rich enough to be an American. And you don't care that much about how you dress. You look comfortable and kind."
This was joy to hear. Peter was embarrassed by his weight and painfully aware that he wasn't ageing well. The casual appearance was all part of the act. The loose-fitting clothes did not reveal too much and made him feel young again. He had wanted to be a professional sportsman in his youth, and indeed had had the skill but not the application.
"Can I buy you a drink?" he said, waving a dollar at his new acquaintance.
"No, thank you, it's too late. I'm just having a coffee before turning in for the night."
"Me, too. Let's sit down at one of the tables. We'll be more comfortable."
The attractive blonde turned out to be working for one of the new joint-venture companies that were springing up all over Russia. Her business partners were Swiss and Italian; they had set up as a trading company and were looking for whatever they could find to sell out of Russia to the West. She had been selected as the Russian member of the partnership because of her smart appearance and good command of English.
"Everyone in Russia wants to learn English," she told Peter. "It's the best language to do business anywhere in the World, especially America and the Far East. The English themselves don't have much money, don't speak Russian, and find it very difficult to get their act together over here without our help. The Germans are everywhere, of course, but we still find it hard to trust them. Italy was always a good friend of Russia, and the Swiss are Europe's bankers. We have terrible banks. Those that don't collapse freeze your hard currency account and your money mysteriously disappears."
Peter wondered at his ability to fall into the right relationships. Here was not only a sexual opportunity but a business opportunity as well. He started to ooze charm, turning on the smile and the intense caring look which always got women going.
"I'm over here looking for good business contacts," he said. "I'm sure we can put something together. Tell me more about your joint venture."
The blonde opened her handbag and took out a business card. Her name was Olga Taschenkova, and she often scouted potential Western business contacts at the Intourist Hotel and the Metropole. They were lonely and bored, and she was easy to talk to.
"We have an office in the VDNH building - the exhibition centre. You must know it. It's very modern and comfortable."
Peter explained it was his first day in Moscow. Maybe he could establish an office there himself? Olga extolled its advantages.
"The rents are high, but it gives us a prestige Western-style image. You must have that to get anywhere in Russia these days. That's why all the joint ventures are springing up. There is special legislation to protect foreign businesses who invest in Russia from losing all their money if we have a change of Government."
The wheels in Peter's head began turning over. If he were based in Russia, then he could really get somewhere. Ruth could look after the English office and run the management consultancy business without him. He had been very disappointed at the failure of all his previous Russian deals to materialise. He knew that somewhere somehow he was getting it wrong and was determined to solve the puzzle. He'd had his own car showroom and distributor agency and knew all about negotiating deals. He'd even negotiated his own bankruptcy, walking away from his creditors with the same nonchalant air he was now planning to walk away from Ruth.
He suddenly realised that Olga had asked him a question and was waiting for him to reply. He had lapses of concentration sometimes and it was getting to be a problem. He oozed some more charm to cover up the blank space.
"Pass that by me again slowly. I want to be quite sure I've understood you correctly."
Olga seemed not to have noticed his lapse.
"We are looking to put together some major oil deals. My partners have the buyers and the banking facilities. What we need is some way to get regular deliveries of crude out of Russia." .
This was too good to be true. Peter had stretched the truth when he told Yuri and Sergei that he had an oil buyer. Oil trading was a rich man's club, and you did not gain admission without the proper credentials. Peter's connections took him through a long chain of people who knew someone who knew someone else who could do something. Each link in the chain cost money, and he was always eager to find ways of by-passing people. Olga was the answer to a prayer. Not only could she help him inside Russia, but it looked as if she was already part of a trading company with a Swiss bank account.
He told her about their meeting with the Chairman of the Oil Production Committee. She was obviously interested.
"You did well to get so high up in the bureaucracy. All export licences have to be signed personally by the President. Did you know that?"
Peter shook his head.
"It's all being arranged by my contacts. They come from the Tyumen Region in Siberia where the major oilfields are. They say they can fix it, but they want food and medicines in return."
Olga was definitely not impressed. She looked pityingly at him.
"The producers themselves have little or no power over what they can and cannot sell for export. You're talking about a state-owned industry. Everything has to be sold through Rosneftegas. They can't even buy their own equipment and most of their turnover is kept by the Government to pay off its huge budget deficit."
Olga was not only intelligent; she seemed to be remarkably well informed. Peter wondered what piece of good fortune had led her to approach him in the hotel bar that evening. He couldn't believe his luck. She was exactly what he needed: an attractive woman who could sort out his Russian business deals for him. With her help he'd have it made, provided he was careful not to let his enthusiasm run away with him. He had to play this one really cool, act suave and sophisticated.
"Yes, they explained all that to us. But they have the necessary connections within the Ministry to set up the deal. I didn't ask them how they were planning to do it."
Olga backed off immediately. When you have someone hooked and they've taken the bait, you give them plenty of line before you reel them in. It was her turn to be charming.
"I'm sure it's all fine and you have nothing to worry about. When do you see them again?"
"Tomorrow morning at 10. They're picking us up and we're going to their office to sort out the terms of our relationship. We have to sign an agreement."
Olga recognised the usual Russian business deal. First you promise the earth, and draw your victims into accepting something they would never even consider in the West. You are, after all, just ignorant ex-Commissars and don't understand the meaning of the word "profit" or the complexities of international banking and finance. By the time the deal has gone through numerous stages and is finally about to fall through, your prey is desperate enough to accept any terms. That's when you move in and insist on what you wanted in the first place.
She sensed that Peter was no match for her fellow Russians. He was too slow, if she was being kind; too much of an alcholic, if she wasn't. She decided to terminate the discussion for the time being.
"It's too late for any more business talk. You've told me nothing about yourself. What on earth is a nice man like you doing in a dump like this?"
Peter was still alert enough to spot the irony and relaxed. He liked her clever way of using clichés to demonstrate her knowledge of English. Chatting up women was his specialty. His head had cleared somewhat with the coffee, and he decided that Olga was, after all, available.
"Stick around and you'll find out."
Olga was a good listener. She had been trained to do just that. She was also intelligent enough to be able to listen and record impressions at the same time. Peter was not as stupid as he appeared. He was one of life's misfits, trapped into a boring career when all he had ever really wanted was to be an adventurer. Once the sportsman dream was over, he had tried to join the regular army. He'd always fancied himself charging round in a uniform with a machine gun, jumping out of 'planes, or trampling everything in sight under the tracks of his tank. But his capacity to fail exams precluded any hope of promotion, and his father persuaded him not to risk a military career. Inside his head he was macho man extraordinary, and that meant that he was God's gift to every young, attractive female. Even the boring job hadn't stopped him. He left school at sixteen to become an apprentice mechanic at the local garage where he had a certain notoriety for leaving oily prints over the dresses of the girls he touched up.
He gave his career a boost by seducing the boss's daughter, and subsequently marrying her because she was pregnant. They stayed together for fifteen years while the garage grew to become a major distribution centre for a leading brand. Peter had a big house, plenty of money, and spent his week-ends sailing and motor cycle scrambling. No one was more surprised than he when his wife left him; he had got so used to having her around. More importantly, she ran the business for him, keeping all the books and paying all his creditors. She never complained about the other women, brought up his son to be strong and healthy like him, and finally found a man who treated her as a person not a possession. The business declined dramatically after she left. Peter was no administrator, and when he woke up to the fact that he owed large sums of money and none of his creditors could be paid, he accepted the bankruptcy with dignity and walked away.
Without the money most of his friends soon melted into the background, too He gave the house to his wife and the new boy friend and took off. One of his drinking mates let him have an office in his company, and they started up a commodity trading business. It proved to be much tougher that Peter had bargained for. Then he heard that Russia was the new land of opportunity, the place you go when everything else has collapsed under you. Ruth had done some consultancy work for his friend's business. She'd mistaken him for one of the managers and started to interview him about his job satisfaction. They ended up having lunch together in a local pub and she told him she'd applied to the Foreign Office for some money to set up Enterprise Centres in Russia.
Peter was nothing if not entrepreneurial. He'd persuaded her that he could help, and that she needed someone tough and rugged like him to make things happen in a place like Russia. He was no management consultant, but he knew how to make money and how to wheel and deal. He'd always been a good salesman and Ruth, despite her scepticism, was sufficiently convinced to go along with his assurances that he could make her millions. It was a tempting prospect. She was tired of working so hard to benefit other people's businesses; the real challenge was to build one of her own.
Olga had triggered a flood when she asked Peter to talk about himself. It was his favourite subject, and, like many vain men, he embroidered the subject liberally until even he believed the new authorised version. It was two o'clock in the morning and they were both tired. She suggested they move towards the lifts and get to bed.
Peter made his pass in the lift. He took her in his arms and began to kiss her, a bit too roughly for Olga's taste. She responded but kept it strictly low key. It did not suit her plan to be seen to be an easy lay.
"Let's take a rain check on this. We're both too tired to enjoy it, and you've got to be up bright and early for that important meeting."
Peter had to agree she was right. He wondered if he was losing it, but rejected that idea as ridiculous. Olga, despite her smart American movie talk, was no prostitute. She was an intelligent business woman, her American English was immaculate to the point where he had forgotten she was Russian, and she looked glamorous and sexy. She was going to do his image much more good than someone like Tanya, who was a bit shabby at the edges and not nearly so glamorous.
He left his arm round Olga's shoulder, kissed her again in the hotel corridor, and had to agree she was right. The alcohol had taken its toll, and he was definitely not on form.
"When will I see you again? It's really important that we get together."
Olga was pleased with herself. She had calculated correctly, and he was genuinely interested in a relationship not just a one-night stand.
"I'll see you in the bar tomorrow night. Any time after ten o'clock. You can tell me how your meeting went."
She turned away and re-entered the lift, leaving Peter - a lonely, exhausted figure - standing in the corridor. He found his room, fumbled with the key, and, once he finally made it inside, collapsed on the bed without bothering to undress.
Olga returned to the ground floor, left the hotel, and took a taxi back to her apartment building in the south of the city. Anatoli, her live-in partner, was fast asleep, sprawled across their bed, an empty bottle of vodka on the bedside table. She moved him over sufficiently to make some space in the bed for herself, stripped off and crawled in beside him. She gave him a quick hug, thankful that he was there. He stirred but did not wake. She curled her naked body round him and went to sleep.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Peter was woken out of a deep sleep by someone banging on his door. He surfaced slowly, aware that his head was hurting and his stomach felt raw. He recalled all the wine and rich food and wished, as he did nearly every morning, that he could kick the alcohol habit. At his age he couldn't afford the harm it was doing to his system. And to his looks he realised, once he had struggled into the bathroom and stared into the mirror. There was more banging at the door. He cursed whoever it was who had disturbed him this early. He looked down and saw that he was still dressed from the previous evening. What the hell? Who would notice or care?
He opened the door and immediately wished he hadn't. Ruth was standing there, looking fresh and bright, her usual immaculate self. She wondered why he hadn't followed her example and gone to bed at a reasonable hour; perhaps he'd got involved with those tarts after all. He certainly looked exhausted.
"Remember that 10 o'clock start? It's 9.30. I went down for breakfast but there was no sign of you."
Peter cursed the efficiency of all women, and, in particular, management consultants. Who were they to preach to him? He'd been places they didn't even know existed, and he reserved the right to continue to live as he wanted to. Keeping to the rules and good timekeeping were definitely not his style. Then he remembered the oil deal and the possibility of wealth.
"Sorry, I overslept. Must have gone overboard on the food and wine last night. Give me ten minutes to shower and dress."
Ruth nodded. It was none of her business what he did with his spare time, as long as he turned up for work.
"I'll see you in the coffee bar. Tanya's there already. She came early so that we can brief her for the meeting."
She turned on her heel and went towards the lift. Privately she prayed that he could perform a miracle on his appearance.
Tanya was sitting at the table, the usual cigarette in her hand.
"Where's Peter?" she asked, concerned. "Is he not well?"
"He's been better, but I think he'll make it."
Tanya was worried. She had wanted to explain to Peter that he should be careful in today's meeting, that in Russia things are not always what they seem. Yuri would be here soon and the opportunity lost. She turned to Ruth.
"Please be cautious today. I will do what I can to make sure you understand what is going on, but I am not entirely happy about this deal. There are things we are not being told."
Ruth instinctively liked Tanya, and the feeling was mutual. In theory, all Tanya had to do was to interpret, provide a literal translation of what was said. But she had good radar, as Ruth did, and when she wasn't happy with the chemistry of a situation, she needed to find someone she could trust. In the old Russia, trusting the wrong person meant a short, unhappy life in a Siberian Gulag. Ruth tried to reassure her.
"Peter makes a great show of being more naïve than he is. It's his way of tricking people into believing that they can get away with murder."
Tanya looked surprised.
"Murder? I hope you are not going to take any unnecessary risks."
Ruth laughed, realising Tanya had taken her literally.
"Of course not. It's just a figure of speech."
They were chatting away happily about the peculiarities of English as it is spoken when Yuri appeared. He was surprised to see only the two women.
"Where's Peter? It's after 10. We have to cross Moscow and be in time for our eleven o'clock meeting."
Ruth, professional as always, made it seem as if he'd gone back to his room to fetch something.
"He'll be here any moment."
And indeed he was. The miracle had occurred. He looked scrubbed and shiny, his remaining hair neatly plastered down, still wet from the shampoo. He had put on a suit, a clean shirt and was even wearing a tie. There was no time left for pleasantries. They hurried out to the car - the same rather shabby vehicle and driver that Yuri had used yesterday.
Traffic was heavy and the car alternated between sudden spurts forward at high speed and a slow crawl. Ruth had plenty of time to look around, and she was already beginning to get a feel for the giant scale of Moscow. The streets were wide and the buildings tall and uniformly grey, except for bursts of colour when they passed a Church. The more sad and tatty ground floor windows turned out to be shops whose windows were blocked off so that you could not see the goods inside. Outside some of them long queues had formed. Fresh milk, bread, cheese or meat had been delivered, and the good news spread quickly.
"There's not much in the state shops anymore, and prices keep rising," Tanya told her. "You can spend a whole day, sometimes two, just getting enough food to feed your family. The hard currency shops have everything, mostly imported.”
Ruth had noticed a significant number of Mercedes and Volvos speeding among the Ladas and asked Tanya who could afford them. Tanya seemed embarrassed, as if she didn't find it easy to reply.
"Some belong to diplomats or journalists; others to our new rich class. The few people who are making money importing all the things we need from the West."
Ruth saw immediately that was Peter's mistake. He was trying to buy out of Russia rather than sell into it. The popular myth that the Russians had no money only applied to the majority. The rich were probably richer than in many places in the West. Bankruptcy was a Government not a personal disease, and tax evasion a way of life.
They were on another long straight highway, but the buildings were larger and more dispersed, and they were moving south, away from the centre of the city.
"Where are we going? I thought Yuri had an office in Moscow."
"Everyone has to come to Moscow to do business, but maintaining an office is expensive. We're going to Sergei's flat."
The car turned off the main road and began to weave through what in England would have been called a Council estate. The houses were big apartment blocks, twenty storeys high, and the areas surrounding them untended, looking as if the builders had just left, forgetting to take their unused materials and rubbish with them.
They parked behind one of the blocks and picked their way through the mud to what could easily have been mistaken for a service entrance. Inside there was a small dark hallway and a couple of lifts. The building number and some apartment numbers in scarcely legible letters painted on the wall indicated an identity if you looked hard enough. Ruth wondered how many drunken Russians lurched home on dark nights only to fall into the arms of the wrong woman in a stranger's apartment.
There was an unaccountable smell which intensified when you entered the lift. Stale urine was certainly part of it, and the flavour of many months of the most cursory cleaning. Ruth hated lifts at the best of times, and in this one, crushed against Yuri's bulky body and the wall, she had to hold her breath. For once, she blessed the powerful aroma of Peter's after shave, bad smells to hide worse.
They made it to the eighth floor and Yuri signalled that they were to follow him to the door of one of the four apartments which shared the landing. It was Sergei's, and Sergei himself was obviously delighted they were there and pleased to welcome them to what in Russian terms was a comfortable and well furnished apartment. His oily presence permeated the flat, which was full of memorabilia form his travels round former Eastern block countries. The shiny 1960's style furniture and the glossy books filled with photographs of the places Sergei had visited fascinated Ruth. She picked up a book about Prague and saw at once why it would be interesting for a Muscovite. Moscow expressed all the grand dreams of the Communist era. It was hard to find the old city amidst the massive building programmes that had characterised the last seventy years. The historic beauty remained in the Churches, and many of those she was led to believe had been allowed to deteriorate or converted to other uses.
Coffee was brought by Sergei's wife, an attractive but discreet woman, anxious not to intrude on the proceedings. Peter did his best to charm her with the inevitable arm around the shoulder and over-effusive thanks for the coffee. She had stayed merely to prepare it and said she had to get off to work. Sergei's son, a photograph on the bookcase, was in school, a fresh-faced twelve-year old with inscrutable eyes.
The meeting was a formal affair, chaired by Sergei, who had clearly taken over the role of chief negotiator. They sat round the table and Ruth took detailed notes.
"We met with Alexander Gruschev yesterday evening, and it seems that it may be possible to obtain the export licence we need before we can sell the oil."
Peter's hangover began to disperse as he felt the adrenalin of possible success hit his stomach. He had to be really alert now, and he moved into Mode 2 of the Salesman's Handbook, when the buyer is on the hook.
"A number of conditions will have to be met before we can secure the licence," Sergei continued. "First we must have an agreement among ourselves."
Ruth decided that she was going to watch this one develop. She had the sneaking feeling that it was Peter on the hook. Peter was not concerned. He had always been good at negotiations over money, particularly when it was other people's that was likely to come his way. He patted the ball firmly back into Sergei's court.
"Tell me what you want and I'll see what I can do."
He had learnt in the car trade that you never offered anything until you knew where the customer was coming from. Then you had the parameters of the deal and could increase your margin on any exchange. A female customer required entirely different tactics. You charmed her into being that very special person worthy of such a special car. Sergei turned to Yuri.
"Tell him what Sasha wants us to do."
Yuri was clearly the business man of the two. Sergei was the fixer.
"We get the export licence only under certain conditions.You must understand that oil is usually sold through the Government's own marketing organisation, and export quotas are strictly limited. With the decline in production, there are growing shortages for our own requirements, and the newly independent states buy from us and have priority over foreign countries."
Peter listened politely. It was really not his problem, provided they could find a way around it. After all, that was what business was all about - overcoming difficulties that stood in the way of making money. Yuri continued.
"Sometimes an export licence may be issued but not used. And in that case it is sometimes possible to reassign it to someone else. It's not as if the source of the oil can be easily traced. It is simply drawn off the pipeline at the port and loaded into a tanker. Where it goes and to whom it is sold is just a question of having appropriate paperwork and an export licence."
Peter began to appreciate just how clever these Russians were. No one needed to teach them anything about manipulating the system to their own advantage.
"Tell me more. This sounds not only interesting but possible."
Yuri was pleased. He was getting through to Peter in the one area that really mattered to him - his greed.
"We can manage all the procedures within Russia, but the rest is up to you. We need a legitimate trading company to whom we can sell the oil. The name of the buyer has to be on the export licence."
Peter thought about his broker chain. By no stretch of the imagination could any of them qualify as a trading company. All of a sudden he had the offer of the biggest deal of his life, and he hadn't got the structure to run with it. Then he remembered the sexy Olga, an answer to a prayer.
"We have a trading company, a Swiss/Italian joint venture. Their bankers are in Switzerland, so there should be no problems about opening a Letter of Credit. The company specialises in oil, but is looking for other commodities as well."
Ruth couldn't believe her ears. Where had all this come from? Peter sometimes stretched the truth, but he wasn't in the fiction business, and this story was bordering on fantasy. Peter was enjoying himself. He'd cracked two problems at once: got his big deal, and found a reason to stay in Moscow to pursue the beautiful Olga. He could, if he handled it right, dump Ruth at the same time. Or at least get away with a minimal pay-out in her direction. It was Sergei's turn to step in to make sure that everyone's interests were protected.
"You mentioned a Swiss bank. That is an important part of our plan, too. We need a foreign bank account into which our commissions on this deal can be paid. Of course, the sums will be paid out by the bank which handles the Letter of Credit."
Peter had no problems with what he regarded as normal practice.
They moved on to discuss the relative merits of one-off spot deals or an on-going relationship with a particular producer. Yuri favoured reliance on the occasional availability of export licences and on the influence of Gruschev to ensure they came their way. Peter became increasingly confident. This was on-going business which would keep turning over. He saw himself leading a relatively relaxed easy life, while Olga and her partners handled the commercial arrangements and administration. Maybe he'd get a place in Switzerland when he got tired of Moscow.
Ruth kicked him under the table. Tanya was doing her best to signal caution and attention to detail. The filter of a reliable interpreter was beginning to work more in their favour. They were discussing commissions, and Peter realised that a sizeable proportion of the profit on the deal was destined for the Russians. Margins on oil were always tight, and Urals Crude was selling at less than World prices because of all the problems experienced with quality and reliable delivery. There was little room for manoeuvre, and Peter was forced to do rapid calculations in his head. International oil was priced per barrel and the Russians were selling in prices per metric tonne. He cursed his lack of education and wished he'd done his homework before entering into these kind of negotiations.
"I can't make any agreement on commissions until I've gone over the detail with my trading partners." he insisted, hoping to cut off any further talk in this area.
Yuri and Sergei were surprised at his refusal to discuss their primary area of interest. The meeting had been set up to check Peter's experience in the field, his contacts and his willingness to be manipulated. Now they were being asked to consider "partners" they had never met. Perhaps he was not quite so naïve as they had originally thought, and therefore a less desirable broker from their point of view. They switched the focus to the end user. What did Peter know about who would buy the oil and where and how it would be used?
Peter felt even less comfortable. He had counted himself lucky to find among his broker chums someone who had recommended a specialist with an interest in buying Urals Crude. The attraction was a combination of large quantities at lower than normal prices. Peter had climbed quickly on the bandwagon and assured his contact that he knew all about the Russian oil business and could set up the appropriate connection. Ruth had introduced Yuri to him during the seminar, and they had got talking about the best way to get oil out of Russia. Peter was a link man not a major player, but he was always on the look-out to build up his own profile and importance. He got caught out because he failed to do the necessary research. He'd latched on to Ruth because he needed her intelligence, her academic approach to problem investigation, and her credibility. He turned to her for help.
"Ruth does all our market investigations. She can tell you about the international oil market."
Ruth was shocked for the second time that morning. Having been told to keep her mouth shut the previous day, she had come to this meeting to watch and assess the strengths and weaknesses of the situation. She was in diagnostic mode, listening and taking comprehensive notes. Yuri stepped in hastily.
"We will have to take it on trust that you know what you are doing. As I told you earlier, we understand and can manage the process within Russia. It is up to you to do the rest. Once you have bought the oil and paid us our commissions we will not be involved. All we have to agree here is the percentage that we each receive and the cost of the export licence."
Peter was relieved. He had survived in a tough world because he learned by doing. He read the occasional newspaper and watched TV, but he had always made money by being street-wise, looking for the sharp angle and bluffing his way through. He was a good talker, able to project both a boyish sense of humour and a tough determination to succeed. He was not going to let these Russians get the better of him. He was confident he could outsmart them if it ever came to the crunch.
"The standard commission is 0.5% for each of you. We still haven't discovered why we have to pay for an export licence."
Yuri's patience was being tried to the limit. Why were these English so slow in grasping the Russian way of doing business?
"You pay for the licence because it was not intended for you in the first place. Through Alexander we have the possibility of diverting a licence from its officially recognised user to us. That is what we pay for."
Peter finally realised what was going on, but it was hard for him to let go of his naiveté.
"Why can't we have an official licence?"
"Because there is no way that the Government would let us sell the oil direct to a company not on their official list . They do not believe that we would return to them the 80% tax on our turnover that they require."
It was evidently painful for Yuri to spell out to this ignorant Westerner the Janet and John Guide on "How to Trade with the Russian Federation". Peter persisted.
"If we pay you for the licence, what guarantee do we have that we will get the oil?"
There was an audible sharp intake of breath from the Russian side. Sergei recovered more quickly.
"What guarantee do we have that you can sell the oil?"
Ruth sensed immediately that proof of supply and proof of purchase were going to become the prime issue. She stepped in.
"How about a performance bond from both sides? You guarantee supply, and the buyer guarantees to purchase against a fixed percentage, say 2.5% of the value of the deal, if either side fails to deliver."
This proposition was too reasonable for either party to accept. Yuri dismissed it quickly.
"We do not like performance bonds in Russia. It implies a lack of trust. If we say we will do something, we do it. We do not see any necessity to provide guarantees against what could only be force majeure, a situation outside our control."
Ruth was not to be silenced so easily.
"Force majeureis covered by insurance. We had assumed CIF - cost, insurance and freight to the port specified by the buyer."
Yuri was insistent.
"The Russian insurance industry is very primitive. We only guarantee delivery to a port within the Russian Federation and internal transportation charges are added to the purchase price."
It looked like stalemate. Who was going to trust whom and how far? Ruth saw Peter's dreams of a fortune disappearing into dust. Peter, still relying on his Russian connection, the beautiful Olga, to sort this lot out for him, pursued his goal.
"I need to discuss the situation with my buyers. I can do that quite quickly and come back to you before I leave Moscow."
Yuri and Sergei were puzzled. What edge had this Englishman got that they didn't know about. Why had he not leapt at the chance offered to buy an export licence? He must have some inside track and, whatever it was, they needed to know about it. They terminated the meeting saying that they had to do other business in Moscow. They would telephone the hotel next day and arrive ready with the written agreement for Peter to sign. Ruth noted that, despite being Managing Director of the Company, she was clearly not the authorising signature on any legal document as far as the Russians were concerned. She must alert Peter to the fact that he was not a director and therefore could not sign legally binding documents himself.
The meeting over, they returned to the hotel with Tanya to take stock.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Olga was woken up by Anatoli. He was sitting on the bed, fully dressed, a cup of black coffee in his hand.
"You were back later than ever last night. What happened? Did you get yourself seduced by yet another sucker?"
She took the coffee, grateful that he accepted the terms of her job, but nonetheless irritated that he always assumed the worst.
"There are other forms of persuasion and intimidation. Or hadn't you heard?"
Anatoli pulled back the sheet, exposing her naked body.
"There aren't too many agents around with your assets. Surely you don't believe all these men talk to you because they appreciate your intelligence."
Olga knew perfectly well how attractive he found her. She was his star pupil because of her sexual skills and not because she was witty and clever. He had picked her out from a group of Intourist guides some time ago and spent several years grooming her in the arts of seduction. They started living together because it was convenient: Olga could report back to him on her sexual encounters when they met each evening; he could make sure that the information was fed back to the right quarter without her having to appear in person.
Sharing a flat had brought them closer together. Anatoli was definitely beginning to show signs of jealousy. Olga was finding it harder to pretend ecstasy with her various clients. At first she had been able to perform well because she was pleasing him, and he would reward her by teaching her more advanced levels of skill. The trouble was that as she became more sexually aroused and aware, she turned to him for satisfaction, and it was more difficult for him not to become involved. As the numbers of Western business men visiting Moscow increased, Anatoli felt threatened. Would one of them manage to entice her away with promises of a better life in the West? She knew too much, of course, ever to be allowed to leave, but she might try to escape and seek political asylum.
He pretended a harshness he did not feel.
"We didn't go to all the expense of setting up that joint-venture trading company just so that you could have a good time. We have to catch some of these rats who are selling Russia out to the enemy. It's no longer a military war; it's an economic war, and we're being sold down the river by our own people. I always knew Capitalism was a dreadful disease, but I didn't know how quickly it would spread once we let it through the protective wall."
Olga climbed out of bed and sat on his knee, wrapping her arms around his neck. She loved the feel of his hard, muscular body, so different from those of the overweight slobs, the name she gave to the business men she seduced.
"It's too early in the morning for politics. I met an Englishman in the bar last night, and I think he'll lead us to at least one group of your new-style criminals. But I haven't slept with him yet. He was too drunk last night. All I had to do was listen to his life story."
Anatoli was pleased. He slapped her gently on the bottom and began to caress her breasts, waiting for the nipples to harden and for her soft cries of excitement. When she was really soft and pliant in his arms, he laid ber back on the bed and undressed quickly. As he bent over her, she reached up to stroke him, her well trained fingers bringing him almost to the point of ejaculation. He found his way deep inside her, rested a moment, and then they joined together in perfect rhythm to the point of climax. Olga had never questioned his mastery over her body. She gave herself completely every time, like some exquisite instrument tuned to his fingers. He sometimes wondered how she was with other men, but he never enquired too closely. It was enough that she was completely loyal, never played games or attempted emotional blackmail. He was proud of her and proud of himself for having created her. He kissed her gently on the mouth, and slid away from her.
"I must go. All the oil producers are in Moscow for a big conference, and we have to make sure they aren't getting too restless and discontented. Conditions are really bad in the Urals and Siberia. We can't afford any more regions attempting to call themselves independent republics."
Olga lay in bed for a while after he had gone. She wondered how much longer she could carry on playing sexual games with her clients when all she really wanted was to be with Anatoli. He had always fascinated her - his brilliant mind and his beautiful body. She was afraid that eventually he would turn away from her because of the job. She might get too old and he would have to find another young, nubile girl to take her place.
Neither of them could imagine what it must be like to have a normal family life with their own children. Once Olga had become pregnant, but she was too valuable to the KGB and it was quickly terminated. She knew that the baby was Anatoli's, but the clinicians said there would be too much doubt about paternity and it was kinder not to go through with it. In any case, the baby would have to be adopted immediately after birth, and the trauma might affect Olga's ability to relate to her clients.
It was all so reasonable and carefully planned. They had no personal lives and no real feelings. Olga sometimes fantasised herself living with her unborn child, cradling it, feeding it, playing with it. But Anatoli was never there. It was a price she was not prepared to pay. She always put him first, and therefore she had to put the job first. There was no way he would ever give it up. He was fighting an idealogical crusade, and she was his partner in the battle against evil and corruption. He never questioned that what he was doing was right. He did what he was told not out of duty but out of honour. He had dedicated his life to Russia, and that went way beyond politics. Anyone who threatened the greater good of the majority of the Russian people was the enemy, and you fought back with any means at your disposal.
Olga showered and dressed. She had an easy day, one of the advantages of working at night. She was paid well and spent her money on looking after her main asset, her body. Today she was due for her weekly visit to the sanitarium - for a relaxing herbal bath and massage. A sanitarium in Russia was a place you went to stay healthy and to feel good, not a place you went to die. It was located some way out of the city, and she took the Metro and then the bus. Walking up the familiar drive towards what looked like a shabby hotel in its own grounds, she was sad to see how poorly it was being maintained. The sanitarium belonged to a large industrial company and was used as a club, sauna and rest house by the workers. Outsiders were welcome by invitation, and Olga's Party connections meant that it was easy for her to be included. It had for years been a pleasant place, not luxurious but clean, with a plentiful supply of good wholesome food.
She registered and went to the bath area. The white-coated assistant filled the bath to the brim with hot water and added a generous helping of herbs. Tanya used this period of relaxation to plan her strategy for the evening. She felt sure that Peter was a relatively insignificant pawn in a much larger game. It was therefore important that she developed a relationship with him, persuaded him to set up an office in Moscow, and got close enough to meet his Russian business associates.
She looked at her body and thought of Anatoli. How could he excite her so much and then let her go with other men? At first it had seemed a natural process: he was training her and then testing her to see how she would perform. Now that she had graduated, she was beginning to resent her job. She prided herself on her intelligence and sensitivity and wondered why she could not find work for her mind rather than for her body. It seemed to her she was being penalised for her appearance. She fitted some male norm of beauty, and the consequence was that she had to use it to manipulate people into betraying themselves. When would she be allowed a straight office or managerial role? Was she more of a victim than her clients?
The assistant offered her more hot water but she declined. She was finding it harder than usual to empty her mind and enjoy the sensations of the bath house. Her thoughts were troubling her: it was not often she got into worrying about the future. She climbed out of the bath to be wrapped in warm towels and went through to the massage room.
She loved this place. The kind middle-aged ladies knew her well and always chatted to her as if she was someone special in their eyes. Perhaps she was. Beauty and elegance were not unfamiliar these days, and a lot of the younger women could rival their Western counterparts with their fashionable clothes and heavy use of make-up. But these ladies were from another era, and you could imagine them out of their white coats bundled into skirts, jumpers and shapeless belted jackets. Olga loved them because they treated her like a favourite daughter. Her own mother had died when she was in her early teens, and she missed the warmth and comfort of her reassuring presence. Coming here made her feel whole again by washing away all the male hands that had touched her during the week, bringing back her own clear energy free of their invading presence. After these sessions it was as if Anatoli was the only man who had ever touched her, and his body was part of hers.
The attendants covered her in oil and their firm fingers probed deep into her muscular structure, feeling for and releasing all the knots of tension and shaking free each joint in turn. The oils, too, were fragrant with herbs, and Olga finally let go of her anxiety and relaxed into the experience. It was enough simply to be. She had no future and no past. Her only responsibility was to enjoy the sensations of the present and not to question how, who and why. She lay suspended in a time warp, as if the physical edges of her body had disappeared and she was floating just above the table wrapped in a beautiful blue and silver cloud, shaped like her body but much more fluid and capable of being whatever it wished.
The ladies did not chat with her today. Sensing her need for privacy, they covered her once more in warm towels and left her to decide for herself when she would climb down from the table. She must have lain there a full half-hour before she came back into the time zone, thanked them by giving them both a quick hug, and went to find her clothes. She paid the bill, what seemed like a ridiculously few roubles given the high level of inflation, but she knew they would be offended if she offered more and even more offended if she tried to tip individuals. Communism was still alive and well in this small corner of the old system.
Outside, it was hot and humid - a typical Moscow summer. It would soon be July and time to leave the city and go to the Black Sea coast. She must remind Anatoli, who was inclined to forget they were entitled to holidays, that they needed a few weeks away together by the coast or in the Caucasian mountains. Would she have to go on her own again, as she did last year?
The bus was full and juddered its way back to Moscow as if it would never make the journey without falling apart. With each pothole you had the feeling that bits would fall off and that some of the passengers would have to jump out to retrieve them while the driver waited impatiently at the wheel. Olga was perched on a narrow seat, and by the time they got near to the Metro stop she needed there was standing room only and she could scarcely breathe. She got up and pushed her way through the crowd to the exit, getting behind a large fat man who was doing the same. You could not afford not to love your fellow Russians. Only those with cars could avoid public transport. Olga had never learnt to drive and had never thought of owning a car. Anatoli had one because it was an essential part of his job, but it was a battered twelve-year old Lada, and he was so afraid of someone stealing it that he took out the distributor every time he parked it in a Moscow street.
Olga resented the new Russian rich, with their Volvos and Mercs, many of which, she knew, had been stolen in the West and sold in Russia at crazy high prices. She would not be sorry to see them get what they deserved, if and when law and order was restored. Anatoli had told her they were going through the Wild Phase of Capitalism, like the Yukon gold rush days in the United States. Lenin's mistake was to believe that you could go straight from a feudal peasant culture into Communism. Marx knew better and always appreciated that Capitalism had to be experienced and to decay before there was any chance of people being able to share and support each other in a meaningful way.
The Metro was even more crowded than the bus, and Olga let the crowds flow around her and felt herself being pushed along with them to the subway she needed. She still had some tokens in her pocket and was glad she didn't have to queue for more. She never let any of her Western clients go near the Metro on their own. They would have been lost immediately with all the signs in Russian and no easy colour guides or signals to follow. They rode around in taxis or hired drivers, and as they went from luxury hotel to office and back saw little or nothing of the way the Russians lived. They came from a hotel culture which was roughly the same wherever you went in the World, and swapped stories of the relative merits of the Hiltons and Holiday Inns they visited with their gold American Express cards. They complained about the poor service and high prices in Russian hotels, and discussed whether you should go from London to Moscow by British Airways, Lufthansa or FinnAir. They all agreed that Aeroflot was a disaster area and should be avoided at all costs unless you had to travel within Russia and there was no other choice.
Olga, despite her smart clothes, had no experience of an expensive life style. She had never been out of the Soviet Union, and even her knowledge of Eastern Europe was second hand from Anatoli. She desperately wanted to travel to the West and see it for herself. Perhaps that was a goal she could now achieve through the joint-venture company. Her Swiss and Italian partners were simply KGB agents in those countries, but through Peter she hoped there might be a slim chance of being invited to London. She would go through a lot to get a visa to England. She had a realisable dream at last, and there was little that Anatoli could do to stop her if he wanted to find out how the Russians were using their illegal assets abroad.
It was still only mid-afternoon and she had some shopping to do before she dressed for the evening meeting with Peter. She went to her local supermarket and quickly surveyed whether the basic things she needed like bread, cheese, milk and sausage, were available. There was no milk, but since in summer it was usually sour that was no loss. She queued at each counter, chose what she wanted and went over to the cash desk where she queued again to pay. Then she returned to queue at the separate departments for each item she had selected. By the time she got back to the cheese counter the cheese she had chosen had all been sold. Irritated, she had to accept a substitute and knew that Anatoli would be annoyed that his favourite was not available. She made one last purchase because there was some plum jam that would hide the taste of the cheese he always had for breakfast, and then realised that it had taken nearly two hours to buy these few essential items. One day she would be able to afford to buy at the hard currency shops and avoid all this nonsense. Anatoli hated the idea because it was against his beliefs, but there was a limit to what was practical and possible, and the prices in the State shops were gradually creeping up to the point where it made no difference in any case.
She put her purchases in the refrigerator and started to dress for the evening. She chose a favourite slim-fitting, short skirted black dress that was easy to slip out of, comfortable high-heeled shoes and a loose embroidered jacket. Nothing fancy, just a stylish woman who revealed enough of a beautiful body to attract any normal healthy man.
When she got to the hotel, Peter was in the coffee bar talking to two women she had not met before. He invited her to sit down and introduced them as Ruth and Tanya.
"This is my friend Olga," he said, not remembering her family name. "She is going to help us with the oil deal. She's part of a joint venture trading company with an office in Moscow and a bank account in Switzerland."
Olga realised that this was a business meeting and quickly adopted her professional business woman role.
"I am very pleased to meet you. Peter did not tell me he had business partners."
Ruth was not surprised that he had not mentioned her. He often acted as if he ran the company when he was on his own. She smiled and held out her hand.
"I'm Ruth, Managing Director of the company. Tanya is our interpreter. She's our eyes and ears while we’re in Moscow."
Olga was not used to coping with women Managing Directors. She suddenly felt de-skilled, out of her depth. What had started out as a relatively simple seduction job had suddenly acquired a new dimension. She sat down opposite Peter and crossed her legs, the short skirt displaying their slim length to best advantage. Ruth noted that she was targeting Peter and that he was transfixed.
Ruth decided it was time to take control. Peter was wide open to manipulation. Tanya had taken time to fill her in a little on the Mafia and the deals that were being done with the bureaucrats. She could prove nothing, but she was unhappy about Sergei. He said so little and yet seemed to be running the whole show. Once the off-shore account and the English connection had been established, it could be used for all kinds of deals, some of them highly undesirable like drugs and prostitution.
"It's good to meet you, Olga. Peter mentioned at today's meeting that a joint venture trading company was willing to help us trade oil and other commodities out of Russia. Tell me more about yourself and your partners."
Olga uncrossed her legs, sat up and went into super professional mode. Here was a chance to shine in her own right and not as some decorative appendage to boost male egos. She spoke in immaculate English with an American accent.
"I represent the Russian end of a Swiss-Italian joint venture. Our partner in Italy is based in Milan and works closely with the Italian food and wine industry. Now that relations with Georgia are so strained, we have to import fresh fruit and vegetables and quality wines. Our company organises barter agreements to sell products in and out of Russia and uses the cash profits to buy essential goods our country needs."
Ruth was impressed. It was self-evident that what Russia could not afford was food for its huge population of 180 million people, most of whom were already well below the poverty line and threatened with unemployment as its large state-owned industries, which had lost their captive markets in Eastern Europe and were increasingly boycotted by the independent republics, were less and less able to pay their workers a living wage. Before inflation, when prices had been kept artificially low by the Government, there had been no luxuries but little hardship on average earnings of a few hundred roubles a month.
"How can anyone afford to pay for food if you buy at Western prices?" Ruth enquired.
Tanya, who was rapidly becoming Ruth's guide to Russia, in the sense of personifying through her own financial difficulties what was happening to people whose lives would formerly have been quite comfortable, explained.
"There's an arrangement between Parliament and the Central Bank to help the big state-owned industries who can't earn enough to pay their staff. The Central Bank has agreed to print money so that people can keep buying enough to eat. That's the real cause of inflation as more and more roubles are in circulation. The demand is so great they keep running out of paper to print them on. The people who are really suffering are those on fixed incomes, like pensioners, and the academics and research scientists who are either not being paid at all or whose wages can't keep up with rising prices."
Olga had not had time to work out how she felt about Tanya's presence. Ruth was complication enough, but Tanya was too close to her own role for comfort. She had to be extremely careful not to reveal inadvertently her undercover KGB identity. Tanya was small fry in her world, but she knew enough to be dangerous, particularly if she became too friendly with these Westerners. Olga decided that her best approach was to pretend to be one of Russia's new rich - overtly commercial and out to profit as much as possible from the collapse of the old structures.
"We can't afford to get involved in politics. The politicians are powerless in any case. They're too busy fighting each other. We're pushing ahead with our business interests, making money by whatever route seems practical and remaining flexible so that we can respond to customers’ demands as they emerge.”
Ruth was puzzled. Who was this glamorous creature who combined intelligence with an understanding of market economics which she had not previously encountered in any of the Russians she had met?
Peter was clearly bored by all this talk. The magic words "making money" roused him from his torpor, and he transferred his attention from admiring Olga's legs to focus on her face, which he found just as beautiful.
"We've had enough meetings for one day. When are we going to start relaxing and enjoying ourselves? I'll get us all some more drinks and then we'd better get a taxi to take Tanya home. It's getting late."
Olga had temporarily shelved the real task of the evening. She was supposed to be the sexy temptress drawing Peter into the trap, and intelligent discussion of politics and economics was not on the agenda. She saw, too, that both Ruth and Tanya were tired. It had been a long day. Olga knew from experience that concentrating on listening to three levels of language - English, Russian and doubletalk - eventually got you to the point of understanding nothing at all. The language centres in the brain temporarily switch off, taking time out for recovery. Peter, who made no effort to listen to the Russian, was mainly absorbed in his own thoughts, which were about how easy it would be to get Olga into bed.
Ruth settled the matter quickly.
"I'll sort out a taxi for Tanya. You look after Olga. I'm going to get some sleep. I've an important day tomorrow." She turned to Olga. "It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope we get another chance to talk soon. Peter looks after our commodity trading business. I have other interests. Come on, Tanya, you've done enough for today."
There were occasions when Peter really appreciated Ruth. She had a style he lacked, particularly when it came to relationships. At the same meeting she had established her authority, and then given back all the responsibility to him. All he had done was not include her in the first place, and then opted out to save his own embarrassment when Olga found out about her role in the company. He watched Ruth's slim figure disappear towards the reception desk, and then moved over to sit close to Olga.
The smell of alcohol, sweat and tobacco that emanated from most men was something that Olga had had to get used to but never fancied. Peter laced it liberally with his own special brand of expensive after-shave, making the mixture even less appealing. However, this was the work she had chosen and such squeamishness was inappropriate. She fastened her big brown eyes on Peter, expanded her chest to give him the full impact of her breasts in her low cut dress, and squirmed slightly in her seat simulating excitement. The time for smart talk was over, and all that counted now was her sexuality. She moved even closer to him and reached out to touch his leg, moving her fingers gently up and down his inner thigh.
Peter was well used to responding to such signals, but even he was surprised at the directness of Olga's approach. He had expected that he would have to go through some preliminary rituals, flattering her for her beauty and promising to love and take care of her afterwards. Instead, this cool and competent woman was making it quite obvious that she was attracted to him and signalling her availability loud and clear. Peter was not used to being taken. He usually had to work hard for his sexual opportunities and prided himself on his ability to charm women of all ages, but this time he had been outclassed and was on the receiving end of a major seduction scene.
Fortunately, he had no doubts at all about being a deserving cause, and he let Olga run the fingers of her other hand down his arm and across the palm of his hand. He reached out and took her firmly by the elbows, raising her from the chair.
"I think it's time we went upstairs to my room. We're becoming a public spectacle."
Olga was amused by his embarrassment. It was a very English trait but she liked him for it. She had met too many men who liked to display her like some prized possession, as if they had to prove their virility through advertising their association with her. Peter stayed close in the lift, his arm around her while she melted into him. He had not realised he had made such an impression the previous evening. All he remembered was talking at length about himself through a haze of alcohol. He'd been careful not to take too much booze this evening: he needed all his faculties for this encounter.
When they reached his hotel room, Olga began to undress him. Her practised fingers had no difficulty and Peter found he was rapidly losing control. He unzipped her dress which fell swiftly to the floor. She kicked off her shoes and pushed him gently back on to the bed, sitting across him so that he could take off her bra and fondle her breasts. She closed her eyes so that she did not have to look at him and slipped away to Anatoli in her fantasy. This was the part she always enjoyed. The rush of sexual feeling, the opening up which was so important if she was going to convince her many lovers that she cared for them. The small cries of pleasure which excited them to further frenzy.
It was so easy to pretend erotic pleasure, but she never fully understood why all the feelings died so quickly when men entered her. Anatoli was the only person she allowed in to what she called her secret place. The merging and the streamings were strictly for him. He was the master of her body and she adored him. She could simulate orgasm with no trouble at all, timing it precisely to the needs of her partner, but she had no sensation herself. Peter was a better lover than most. He could go on longer, obviously found deep personal satisfaction in sex, and gave her plenty of help by telling her what excited him. If sex was an art form, then he and Olga would have been great together. The former athlete emerged briefly from Peter's over-indulged body. He recognised his weight problem and had the courtesy to take Olga from behind or lie alongside her so that she did not have to support him. His was a typically English consideration which she really appreciated.
As he came to climax Olga found herself liking him much more than she had thought she would. Was this actually going to turn into a relationship and not just a job? She dismissed the idea as ridiculous. But he was her ticket to England. Her own sexuality flickered into life, and she found herself coming to orgasm despite herself. Who was this man and why did she let him near her?
They both turned aside to sleep, their arms still around each other. It did not occur to Olga that she should get up and dress and make the long journey home by taxi. Anatoli always understood why she wasn't there.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Ruth woke early. She felt refreshed and glad to be alive. She had left the curtains open overnight so that she could see the lights of Moscow. Now the sun was streaming in; it was going to be a beautiful day. She got out of bed, went over to the window and opened it wide to let in what fresh air there was. She stretched out her arms, reaching up as far as she could. It was all part of her disciplined lifestyle, early morning callanetics to get the stiffness from her body and clear her mind for the day. She completed her stretching exercises with a half-hour of meditation, sitting on her heels, relaxing into and breathing out on every knot of tension she could find until each muscle let go like a tightened spring which had suddenly lost its holding power.
Meditation cleared her mind and energised her body. It helped her to begin each day as if it had no connection with the previous one. It was an art she had learnt from her Buddhist teacher. Experience every moment, be in the present without regret for the past or fears for the future. With each deep breath she felt the toxins draining from her body, reminding her that being surrounded by smokers in all these heavy meetings was not doing her any good. She had to get away from Peter, leave him to sink or swim in his own way, and trust - although she did not think it likely - that he would remember her when and if the money flowed in.
Peter was her first, and she hoped her last, encounter with the sleazy side of business. She knew it pervaded nearly everything in Russia, and understood enough of the wheelings and dealings that went on in England to know that the same thing under other names was the normal way most influential people became rich. Brought up in a middle class Quaker family with a strong, almost Edwardian, sense of integrity, she had never been part of it. Ever since leaving an academic environment, where the politics were just as vicious but about people rather than money, she had been forced to face the uncomfortable reality that most people lied and cheated their way to the top.
She had once thought that if she worked hard and was sufficiently talented, she could make it through the glass ceiling; but that was a long time ago, and now she preferred to run her own business. She'd been conned out of her first major consultancy contract by a senior partner who needed it for a male colleague. She had never forgotten her own stupidity in not realising what was happening at the time, and in believing, albeit temporarily, that there had been something wrong with the way she was handling the job. Nowadays she trusted only those people who had proved themselves. Peter was the exception. She needed the millions he claimed he was capable of making to enable her to do something useful in her own right. Today she was thankful she did not have to trail around after Peter meeting his less than desirable comrades. She had her own project in Russia - provided the Foreign Office smiled on it by agreeing the Know-How funding she had applied for, and she could get the practical support she needed from the Russian Government.
In her own sphere, Ruth was often dismissed as visionary but unrealistic. Her intelligence took her to places that most people in her profession considered high risk. She tended to go for the essence rather than the surface of what was on offer, and to seek out ways of turning whatever was there into something meaningful. It had lost her those clients who simply wanted her to tell them what to do in the short term to turn their business around. Easy, cost-cutting solutions were not for her because she knew they would be self-defeating in the long run. What attracted her to Russia was the fact that there were no short-term fixes. Everything had collapsed way beyond the point where they had any value. There were bits and pieces of quick money to be made, like Peter's oily friends' deals, but they had no place in the rebuilding of the Russian economy. They were there to take advantage of Russia's misery by filling the vacuum left by the fall of Communism.
Ruth was still enough of an idealist to believe that if you got something right it worked and did not collapse on you. The hard part was knowing how and with whom to do that. She had met at a conference in London a Russian academic, Professor Mikhail Igorovich Romanov, from one of Russia's prestigious scientific technological institutes. They became friends one evening over a bottle of wine and pasta in Ruth's favourite Italian restaurant, and they liked and respected one another enough for Mischa to invite Ruth to work with him on transforming his institute into a business school and science park. With Mischa, Ruth got into the same idealogical arguments that she'd always had with Tom, but this time she was getting answers, beginning to see for herself what had been attempted after the Revolution and why an empire as powerful as the Soviet Union had imploded on itself.
Trying to understand Russia had become Ruth's central concern. She knew she could not discover why things were as they were without strong Russian support, and she hoped that her friendship with Mischa would help her through the maze. Igorovich was his patronymic, indicating that he was the son of Igor. She tried teasing him about being a Romanov and therefore in line to be the next Tsar, but it turned out that the name was common in Russia and had long since ceased to be regarded as having any connections with the former royal family, who had all been killed or fled the country years ago.
Ruth dressed with care, making herself look attractive rather than just smart in the business sense. Olga's stunning appearance last night had reminded her that it was possible to be both glamorous and business-like at the same time. She had instinctively liked Olga, recognising that she was far more than a simple seductress. She wondered what Olga would make of Peter. If she was on his side, she could help him by dissuading him from making continual bluders, maybe even stop him from being taken for a ride. Ruth made a mental note to get to know Olga better, to try and find out why she was taking such an interest in their affairs.
The phone rang. Mischa had arrived in the lobby and had a car waiting. A sudden lightness of spirit took her down in the lift. He embraced her warmly. kissing her on both cbeeks Russian-style. They climbed into the Institute's mini-bus, complete with driver and two of Mischa's colleagues. His voice filled with pride as he introduced her.
"This is my friend, Ruth. I want you to meet Igor and Andrei, members of my team at the Institute."
They smiled warmly at Ruth and then started talking among themselves in rapid Russian. Ruth realised she was going to have problems. Tanya had to take the day off to attend to her other job, teaching English to Russians. Ruth, who was relying on Mischa's English to see her through, soon realised just how essential an interpreter was. Mischa, sensing her discomfort, translated for her.
"We're talking about the arrangements for today. We're not going to the Institute but to the Ministry of Higher Education. We need their support for our project, and we want you to explain exactly what the British Government is prepared to fund and how you plan to help us. We've prepared all the papers and have an appointment with the Chairman of the Information Technology Committee."
Ruth was pleased because they seemed genuinely excited by the opportunity. She decided to shelve for the time being her own misgivings about the Know-how Fund's willingness to release the necessary finance. Maybe the Russian Government had more to offer. Either way, the project only made sense if the initial request came from the Russians themselves and was supported by their Government.
She reminded Mischa of a promise he had made to her in England. She had taken him to the country village where she and her parents lived. He loved the thatched cottages with their flower-filled gardens and had offered to show her his own dacha. He warned her that the Russian countryside was very different. Much of it was flat and dominated by large collective farms. The peasants lived very simply, many of them in wooden houses that were poorly maintained. Unless you were a former Party member with significant wealth, there was no question of having an elegant house in the country. Most people built their own dachas on small plots of land given by the state, and used them to grow fruit and vegetables to supplement their diet. Only agricultural workers lived in the villages; everyone else lived in big apartment blocks in in the city, only going to the country for week-ends and holidays. If they could, most people moved out of the city in summer to escape the heat.
Immersed in conversation with Mischa, Ruth had not looked out of the window to see where they were going. They pulled up and parked outside a grey, indeterminate building, just like dozens of other office blocks in Moscow. After careful screening by the security guards, they went up the stairs to a small office where a secretary asked them to take a seat while she announced their arrival. The three academics were evidently nervous and did not take advantage of the uncomfortable upright chairs offered as temporary seats. They were kept waiting a full five minutes and filled the time exchanging a few pleasantries with the secretary or talking to each other in hushed tones. The atmosphere was entirely different from that of yesterday's meeting. These academics were not personal friends but supplicants. They had come to beg the bureaucrats for support for their project, and they had to make a convincing case. Ruth was their trump card: if she could bring them help from the British Government, they were in with a small chance to access some of the rapidly dwindling resources of their own authorities.
They were ushered in to a large room, with an even longer and shinier table than Ruth had seen at the Ministry of Energy. At the side of the room was a computer, and Ruth noted with some surprise that it was attached to a compact disc player, still relatively new technology in the UK and not what she had expected to see in Russia. Everyone shook hands, the usual visit cards were exchanged, and the black coffee and biscuits delivered by the secretary. Unlike the previous day, Ruth realised she was expected to be the star performer: she had been brought along to impress everyone with all the help that was available from the Know-how Fund. The Chairman of the Information Technology Committee, Dmitri Kropotkin, turned out to be an enthusiastic and dedicated man who wanted to transform the Russian higher education system. His English was excellent and she and Mischa had no difficulty in explaining to him the project they had been working on together and which had brought Ruth to Russia.
Mischa's academy specialised in information technology and telecommunications, and was ideally situated, as a major research institute in the field, to set up the infrastrucure for their brainchild, an academy of management which would transfer to Russia, in the form of multi-media learning modules, the best management practice available in the West. The new academy would not be a physical institute but an extra-mural network delivered by satellite to strategically located PCs capable of spreading the information all over Russia. Ruth's role was to design the modules so that they could be truly interactive and accept input from the Russian academics and business people who could use them to create their own information and support network. The idea was still innovative enough to be regarded with some suspicion by both private and public sector business schools in Britain. In Russia, where the nearest thing to a school of management was the Academy of National Economy, the opportunity to put a genuinely new approach in place was a real challenge.
Ruth was relying on the huge investment that the Russians had made over the years in defence and space technology, on the brilliance of their software programmers, well known for their ability to overcome the limitations of their hardware, and on the fact that Russia was desperately short of managers who understood how to operate a business in an international market economy. In Dmitri Kropotkin she found an enthusiastic ally, who believed as passionately as she did in the potential of the technology, and was delighted to show her his latest prized possession, the imported PC with multi-media CD-ROM player which had pride of place in his office so that he could demonstrate its potential to interested visitors.
"The European Bank are funding a company in the Urals to assemble PCs with CD-drives in Russia. They recognise our tremendous market, and are willing to support our capacity to manufacture these new technologies under licence rather than to import them at such high cost."
Kropotkin, went on to enlarge his idea. It was clear he had been well briefed by Mischa on their project.
"I can give you all the people you need. But you must understand that our Government is in crisis. We have no money to reform our educational system. Many of our academics are no longer on salary. Even our research budgets on which we relied to keep our science and technology ahead of yours are being cut back to bare essentials. Using these interactive technologies will help us to give the best education to the managers we are hoping to create from the many brilliant scientists and engineers who no longer have work in our defence industries. They will create our new companies, export our innovative ideas and new technologies to the rest of the World, and bring employment and investment into Russia. But they know nothing about managing in a competitive society. They have never visited your country or seen how you run your companies. Market economics is just theory to us. It is being taught by our professors as if it is a new kind of mathematics through econometric models and value analysis. You understand what I mean?"
Ruth nodded sympathetically. It was an academic disease, and one of the reasons why she had quit the university business school where she had worked to start her own company.
"What you need is practical help from people who understand how to run a business and to sell what they make abroad. I know those people. Managers who run their own successful hi-tech companies, who create the kinds of new products which need your scientific developments and manufacturing capacity to help them grow."
Dmitri was delighted to meet someone who understood his dream.
"I want you to meet a friend of mine, a journalist who will help us to promote this idea in Russia. I am going to set up a competition, and to invite all our best scientists and engineers who understand this new technology to participate. I can find you the best teams to work with in different parts of the country. Mikhail Igorovich here can help us to select the winners and put together the network technology to support their training. It's a big project; the biggest project I have ever put together om a country that is used to doing everything on a large scale. But we have no money. We must have help from the West. They say they want to help us, transfer what they call their know-how to our people. We are not beggars, we do not want charity. We want to work together with you to make our transformation into a market economy possible. You promised so much - that, if we gave up Communism, the doors of the West and all its wealth would be open to us. We did not give up Communism; it collapsed under us and our Eastern European empire disappeared. We are still a proud people with many achievements to our credit. We do not want to waste all that we have built, but we are not prepared to give our science and technology away. You bring your management methods; we being our trained scientists and engineers. There must be a way we can work together for our mutual benefit."
Ruth was impressed. Here was a visionary like herself, who could see the potential for East/West co-operation. She wondered how much influence she would be able to bring to bear on her own government to get their support. She knew enough about the funding game to know it would not be easy. They had their sights set on other sectors - distributing food, getting the transport, energy and financial sectors operational - big infrastructure projects which would absorb huge amounts of money and probably not deliver much at all in the short term.
"I'll do whatever I can to make this project happen, and I look forward to meeting your journalist friend. Maybe he can help us in England, too. So few people there understand Russia or what's happening here. Nobody trusts that your politicians mean what they say, and we have had little or no contact with your people. We need all the help we can get from opening up access to the responsible media on both sides."
It was Dmitri's turn to be sympathetic.
"I think I know what you mean by responsible media. We have heard all about your so-called gutter-press filled with stories of scandals and crime among your rich and famous people. Even your royal family gets the same treatment. We would never allow that freedom to abuse people's privacy in Russia, although it begins to happen with exposés of our new criminal class and the Mafia."
Ruth was relieved that he was so honest with her. She felt none of the disquet that had troubled her at yesterday's meeting, and she was convinced of the genuineness of his intentions. Here was a bureaucrat who actively cared about his country and what he wanted to do for it. She hoped she would be lucky enough to find someone equally positive and enthusiastic in the Foreign Office.
Back in the mini-bus, Mischa explained to his colleagues exactly what had been said. They knew enough English to get the main idea, but they wanted all the details. They were as delighted as Mischa, and they were eagerly planning ways in which the Institute could support the project. They wanted to create a special unit and assign people to put the project together. Mischa would head it up and pick his own team - probably from among his best post-graduate students. It was wonderful to see them so excited, as if, after so long with no real purpose and no money to do much anyway, they had been given a reason to work.
The Institute was some way out of town, and Ruth was being taken back to meet the Rector, Professor Zhukov. He turned out to be a grey-haired, serious academic, highly respected in his own field for some major breakthroughs in fundamental and applied research. He listened seriously to their enthusiastic account of the meeting. Ruth sensed that he was tired, that somehow the struggle to hold the Institute together through this period of increasing economic chaos was proving too much for him. He wanted to believe in the future for the sake of his staff and the Institute he had created, but all he saw around him was waste of talent and lost opportunities. Mischa was one of his favourites - a brilliant researcher who was one of his best students and had become a key member of his own research team. He had hoped that, when he retired in a few years' time, Mischa would be appointed Rector and the Institute would regain its reputation for leading edge research. For years they had never been able to publish their findings because their work was secret. Now, when they finally were allowed to join the international scientific community, they had no money to participate.
Zhukov was weighed down with the problems of trying to find enough money to pay his staff, and by constant battles with the Ministry to fund existing research programmes. Multi-media learning systems for managers were pie-in-the-sky as far as he was concerned. He had tried for three years to get enough money to fund a new satellite receiver on the roof of the telecommunications department to do advanced work in signal processing. He wanted hope but had none. All he saw was the destruction of everything he had spent years building up. His best research students and his young teaching staff were going into business, trying desperately to make enough money to keep their families from starving. They were becoming traders - in anything and everything from aspirin to gallium arsenide. It was all right for the bureaucrats to have big dreams when they had big salaries and all kinds of privileges to match. Zhukov belonged to a scientific elite which was no longer valued in this headlong rush for a free market. He had lived with the defence industry because it funded the creation of new knowledge and the exploration of ideas. All he could see now were his young scientists trying to turn those ideas into companies, and to sell their talents to a sceptical and uncaring world.
Mischa was quiet after their session with Zhukov. He knew only too well the old man's sadness, and there was nothing he could do to raise the spirits of his former teacher. He appreciated that Ruth understood despite the fact that most of the conversation had been in Russian. The secret nature of Zhukov's work had meant that he could never visit the West, and his only familiarity with English was his reading of scientific papers. Now, sad and lonely, he sat in his big office poring over the Institute's accounts, trying to make sense of the impossible. Mischa took Ruth's arm in the corridor.
"We have a surprise for you," he said to her. "You took me to your home in England, and I'd like to show you mine. We're having a dinner party this evening. Just a few friends, but it's a special welcome to Russia for you."
Ruth was delighted. This was her chance to get below the surface and meet people in their own homes. That was what mattered to her most, the only way she knew how to begin to understand the culture of a new country. Short of going to live there yourself for a long time, what other way was there?
BOOK ONE \; RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
THE DINNER PARTY
Mischa's flat was small but comfortable, furnished in a style that reminded Ruth of the mass-produced furniture on sale in England in the 1960’s. It was shiny and well cared for, and Ruth took off her shoes at the door, donning the tapitshki slippers that Mischa's wife, Marina, insisted she wear.
The table had been pulled out into the centre of the living room and was laden with food. Ruth had heard all the news bulletins about empty shops, seen the queues for food and wondered how they managed. Mischa explained that the wives of his two colleagues, Nina and Natasha, had helped Marina to shop in each of their local supermarkets. This dinner party was both a celebration and thanks to Ruth for coming to help them through these bad times. They wanted to use the project to lobby their own Government for a share in its dwindling funds; more importantly, it gave them back their self-respect, pride in doing something useful which could help rebuild their shattered economy. Wall-to-wall books betrayed Mischa's academic background. Ruth went over to them and discovered many were in Engish.
"I studied in England five years ago at London University," Mischa explained. "I was one of the lucky ones, allowed out of the country to complete my doctorate. We all know enough English to read scientific journals and books, but speaking and writing it was very different. I really struggled for the first few months, and I was lonely and missed my family. "
Ruth imagined him in some squalid student bedsit in London. She felt guilty for the lack of hospitality and care that her own countrymen offered to foreigners. Surrounded by warmth and kindess, she accepted a glass of champagnski and joined in a long and complicated toast to better Anglo-Russian relations.
Mischa's son, Oleg, just nineteen and studying computer science at the Institute, was the only other person who could speak English. He sat next to her and explained what was going on while the others chattered away excitedly. Ruth vowed that she would have to learn at least enough of the language to cope with social occasions and to travel and shop on her own. Their warmth and obvious pleasure at having this English stranger for dinner overwhelmed her. Ruth's innate shyness surfaced when she was a guest in someone else’s family home. Tom had never wanted children, and she suddenly discovered in her mid-thirties that her doctor considered her old to risk pregnancy. She had loved working with Tom. On good days it was a creative and exciting challenge as they sparked ideas between them, laughed together, and agonised over ethical issues; but the bad days were disastrous. She remembered times when he had criticised her with a rapier-like irony that had undermined her confidence to such an extent that she had dissolved in tears. It was much later when she realised he was trying to get her angry, to make her fight back and prove her point. After she split with him, she avoided close relationships, afraid of getting that badly hurt ever again. She still loved meeting people but kept everyone at a safe distance, retreating at the first sign of intimacy into what she called her zone of privacy. Potential friends were colleagues or clients, and her emotions had to be sufficiently under control not to get in the way of what were often tough and difficult professional decisions.
In this tiny flat, high up in the sky in one of Moscow's satellite defence towns, she was welcomed as if she was a friend of many years. The table was carefully laid out with their best china, and Mischa kept filling her glass with wine. They had gone to great trouble to ensure that there were vegetarian dishes for her and were eager to point out all the special sauces and salads. Ruth discovered that each of the women had prepared a different dish, queuing several hours for the delicacies and spending another day preparing it before carrying it proudly to the party to share with everyone else. Ruth had little experience of co-operative dinner parties. If this was typical, then clearly they were an excellent substitute for evenings in noisy and expensive Russian restaurants. Her own attempts at giving dinner parties had been few and far between. All she remembered was rushing back and forth to the kitchen, wishing she had planned better so that she could actually sit down and eat something herself.
Dinner parties Russian-style were leisurely, and the alcohol flowed as freely as the conversation. Ruth joined in the fun of bringing in new dishes and opening up bottles of champagnski, which popped explosively despite their plastic corks. The men were drinking vodka chasers and there was red wine to follow with the meat course. By the time they reached the period allotted to speech making and good conversation, Ruth had forgotten her inhibitions and was able to make her own contributions which Mischa translated for her. The conversation soon shifted from talk of how best to build bridges between East and West. When they were comfortably drunk, they started sharing songs and telling anecdotes about the stupid things done by their politicians. Every country targets its minority citizens with its humour, but Ruth found some of the jokes about members of different ethnic groups hard to take; they made her realise how fierce and bitter the conflicts were among the many different nationalities which made up the Russian Federation.
Most of the group had been born in different regions - the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Siberia. They had been brought together because they were brilliant scientists and were needed by the defence industry. Moscow was now their home, and once they became residents they were not permitted to travel or work anywhere else. For twenty years they had been a closed community, only allowed to talk freely and socialise with each other. Everyone in the town had connections with the Institute, either as a past student, teacher or researcher. Oleg studied there and it had never been in question that he might prefer to study somewhere else. Moscow was two hours away by bus and none of them went there very often, preferring to find everything they wanted closer to home. Nobody owned a car: they were too expensive to buy new, and their old Ladas from more prosperous days had finally became so unreliable that they could no longer maintain them themselves.
"You can always tell the Mafia," Mischa told her, "by the newness of the cars they drive. If it's a recent model, then they have to be making money by some illegal means. And since most things are illegal in the business world, it's not hard to get caught up in crime. The big boys drive round in Volvos and Mercs."
Ruth was disturbed by all the talk of Mafiosi. She had been brought up on a diet of American films and TV, and when times got tough in her life she had a recurring dream of being shot down in a gun battle in the street. She was never sure whether it was a war, revolution or simply a gunfight between rival gangs. All she knew was that she had come across the situation by accident and she always woke up just at the point where the machine guns started firing directly at her.
Andrei started telling her about Kalashnikov, Oleg translating as he spoke.
"It was his invention which helped to save us from the Germans in the Great Patriotic War - that and the snow and the cold which only we Russians know how to survive. The last great tank battle was fought near here, and that was the closest the German army ever got to Moscow. You can still see the monument, and the old tank traps alongside the road to St Petersburg. The Unknown Soldier was one of the dead from that battle. It was the turning point for us - just like Napoleon, except that we never allowed Hitler into Moscow. He was too busy trying to capture the oilfields in Azerbaijan, not realising that we had plenty of oil in the Urals and Siberia, and it was easy for us to cut off his fuel supplies as he pushed south."
It was Igor's turn to take up the story of Kalashnikov, who had somehow got forgotten in the story of the War.
"Kalashnikov is still alive but he is a sad and lonely old man. He becomes rich now that he can sell his invention to so many places in the West. But he sees it being used in Africa to kill defenceless and starving people. He hates it that it's become a weapon for criminals and oppressors. Do you know that our biggest sales are to the United States? There everyone wants to own a gun. Even the children in school are killing each other. Is that your kind of Capitalism? We never had crime here before like it is now. All the enemies of the people were sent to Gulags and most died there."
Ruth shared her own small anecdote about how she and Peter had been mugged after their visit to the Georgian restaurant. There was general consternation plus disbelief that they had been stupid enough to go there in the first place. It was Mischa's turn to warn her to be careful.
"Most of our criminal class are not Russians. They come from the south, down in the Caucasus where law and order has broken down, and rival political groups and bandits are fighting for power. The worst are the Chechnyans. They want to set up an independent republic just to house the Mafia bosses. They build themselves big dachas down there, not like our small ones - more like personal palaces."
Igor joined in.
"We are overrun by Chechnyans, Georgians, Armenians.... They come in on the aeroplanes and on the trains and try to sell us their fresh fruit and vegetables in the street markets. The important bosses who bring them here control the traders through protection rackets. Everything in Russia has always had a price attached to it, and now it's the market economy. They form their own banks and set up offshore accounts for themselves so they can launder their customers' money. Millions of dollars are changing hands, much of it originating from old Party funds."
"The man who stole from you was just a petty thief, hanging round the restaurant in the hope of being given an odd job to do. He only carried a knife. The real criminals carry guns in shoulder holsters just like the FBI. When they carry out a gang killing they wear black hoods and use Kalashnikovs or some of our more powerful automatic hand guns. They kill any businessman who does not pay their protection money, or they wreck his shop or warehouse. You must have seen it in the West, if only in movies."
Ruth's distaste for violence was not of recent origin. She had non-violence in her genes from many generations of upright Quaker farming folk who had kept themselves to themselves and been persecuted, imprisoned and killed for their pacifist beliefs. She wondered how you turned the other cheek to the Mafia; probably you were dead before you had a chance to extend the hand of peace and friendship. Thinking of Sergei of the black leather jacket and her own disquiet at the way he was handling the oil deal, she asked the assembled company how you knew when you were dealing with a member of the Mafia.
"It's not always easy to tell," said Mischa. "They learnt their trade in the KGB, so they are used to operating undercover. Mostly it's the guns that give them away, and their bad manners. The hit men go round in groups for safety and are fond of black leather jackets and jeans. Further up the hierarchy, it is hard to tell them from the old Party bosses; often they are the same people. They ride round in big cars and are never without their personal bodyguards. Some will have a motor cycle escort, just to make sure no one can get close enough to gun them down in the street.“
"These days more and more people are hiring their own security force to protect them from the Mafia. It's hard to tell who's honest and who isn't. It's more a question of who's trying to hang on to what he has and who's trying to snatch it off him. You must have heard of our new version of insurance. You set up your company, advertise, collect all the premiums and disappear; then a few months later you set up a new company under a different name. It's getting to be the same way with the private banks. A friend of mine lost all her savings. All the hard currency was transferred to New York and the bank declared insolvent."
Ruth felt sad and disheartened. Where on earth could you begin surrounded by such a painful history and so much corruption? Everyone said Russia was the land of opportunity. All she saw around her was disillusion and despair. She realised that the other women had disappeared into the kitchen and thought they must have gone to wash up. She went to see if she could help and was shooed away. They were in the final stages of preparing a most beautiful cream-filled dessert cake, with layers of nuts, choux pastry and a wonderfully rich chocolate sauce. Mischa introduced it to their guest with obvious pride.
"This is Marina's gateau. She makes it only on special occasions, like your visit, birthdays, our wedding anniversary. You must try some."
Ruth's healthy life style had not included such luxuries as cream cakes for many years, but this was indeed a special occasion: she was among friends in a town she would not even have been allowed to enter two years ago. These people, who had been taught all their lives that Westerners were so ideologically corrupt that it was dangerous to speak with them, had welcomed her into their home and treated her like a friend of the family. Why did they care? What could she do given the impossible odds? What difference, if any, could her presence in Moscow possibly make?
It was time for some Georgian brandy - just like Winston Churchill drank during the War. when he could no longer get his regular supply from France and Stalin took pity on him. Ruth made no comment: Churchill and Stalin did not exactly have a good relationship, particularly after Yalta when a dying Roosevelt had agreed all kinds of conditions of which Churchill disapproved and which ended ultimately in the carving up of Europe, the Cold War and the building of the Wall.
Political and ideological arguments were not Ruth's strong point. She had had too many of those with Tom and always lost. All she knew was that she had to cling on to her own sense of the truth, to what was right for her. You did what you could with whatever came to hand, and you learnt to live with your own limitations - whether they were of understanding or inspiration. What she hoped she would be able to do in Russia was not knowingly to harm anyone. The problem lay with a split infinitive: how did her good intentions help her in a situation where she had to boldly go where few Westerners had been before?
After the brandy and cake came the coffee, and even Ruth, who had not drunk a great deal in comparison with everyone else, felt her eyes closing with fatigue. Mischa noticed immediately.
"It is late, time we all went to sleep. Ruth and I have a big day tomorrow. We have to write the funding proposal for the British Embassy and get it agreed by our Ministry before the end of the week."
Ruth suddenly woke up to the fact that it was after midnight, she had no transport, and the hotel was over an hour's drive away.
"You sleep here," Marina said, and Ruth realised for the first time that she did know some English.
The men were already pulling out the sofa, turning it into a bed, and Marina made it up with sheets and a blanket before Ruth could protest. Peter would be too preoccupied with Olga to worry about her absence. All she had to do was call and tell them where she was. There was no reply from Peter's hotel room so she left a message with the hotel switchboard and forgot everything except how tired she was, how safe she felt with her new friends, and what a relief it was to get out of the impersonal, uncaring atmosphere of the Intourist Hotel.
She helped wash up the remaining dishes, cleaned her teeth in the tiny cupboard of a bathroom, found an even smaller one that was the loo, and then sank thankfully into bed, falling asleep almost at once.
* * *
She woke up a few hours later to find a large German Shepherd dog licking her face. She had met the dog briefly last night, but he had been quickly banished to Oleg's room during the party because he was such a nuisance - or so it was said. Ruth loved animals but was a bit nervous of Alsatians, particularly this enormous long-haired variety, and a dog that to her untrained eye was quite aggressive the previous evening. Oleg appeared and took hold of the dog's collar, fastening a lead to it.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to wake you. It's time for Boris to have his walk. I have to take him out before I go to college."
Ruth asked if she could come, but there was no time for her to get dressed before Oleg had to leave. The dog was his - a dearly loved companion, and he assured Ruth that he had had him since he was a puppy and he was not dangerous.
"How do you manage to look after him in such a small flat and so high up?"
"We all take him for walks, and I get scraps from the supermarket. He keeps us safe. No one will break into the flat during the day when we are all working if Boris is here."
Ruth had to admit that he was big and impressive enough to scare even the most determined burglar. She decided to get up and have a shower before the rest of the household needed to use the tiny bathroom. Marina was making tea when she came out, and Ruth sat down in the kitchen in a borrowed bathrobe and tried to get Marina to teach her the Russian words for basics like tea, coffee, bread and milk.
"Preevyet. Kak dyela?"
It was Mischa, teasing her about her efforts to learn Russian.
"And Kak dyela to you, too, mate. Chai or Kofye?"
Ruth wished she'd at least played over and over the tapes she'd bought months ago when the first group of Russian managers came over for the seminar. She felt so de-skilled. She had to find a way to function here without the language. Somehow, her lack of words did not seem to matter to her new friends. Only Marina showed signs of feeling at a loss, and Ruth suspected that was because her husband was so fluent in English. Mischa explained that Marina had been learning English for two years so that she would be able to accompany him on a visit to London when the project was set up and he was going back and forth frequently. She had been dreaming about visiting England ever since Mischa had been over there studying for a year. He had come back with such tales of a life she could only dream about. And now there was this English woman in her home, and it looked as if there was a real chance she might see the country for herself. With Mischa and Oleg so competent, it was no wonder that Marina hardly said a word in English. She was trying to become perfet, get all the sentence constructions and tenses right and acquire a big vocabulary before she dared to open her mouth. It was the classic way not to learn to speak a foreign language.
Ruth got up and put her arm round Marina's shoulder.
"Let's agree to help each other. I need someone to help me learn Russian. I can help you to speak English. When I'm not here we can write letters to each other and send them over the Fax."
She felt rather than heard Marina's sob. Then she started to speak - in English, but with the strong accent of someone who'd never let herself say any of the words in her head.
"Mischa and Oleg are so clever. I am so stupid. I try to speak, and they try to help me. The words.... I can't remember them. I can read... And write. But I can't speak. I just know the sentences in the book. And I never find a place to use them... I'm sorry.... I am so stupid.... "
Ruth just hugged her and let her cry. She didn't know how to begin helping her, but the words kept coming anyway.
"You're not stupid. You're very brave. It's really hard to learn another language unless you're in that country or you have to do it for work. I'm afraid to fail, too. So I tell myself I'm too busy, when what I really mean is I'm too old." Mischa began to translate but Ruth stopped him. "She understands. Don't you Marina? You know what I'm saying."
"Ya panemayoo. I understand. Spacebo... Spacebo balshoye. Thank you, thank you for knowing how I feel... I want so much to come to England and see how you all live."
Ruth made a promise she intended to keep.
"Whatever happens, I will invite you to come. Even if there is no project. You can stay with me and I will show you the most beautiful places I know."
The telephone rang, giving her no time to worry about how she would pay for the trip. It was part of her tomorrow land when the oil money came in. The call was for her. Tanya had been to the hotel and found Peter, who was worried sick about where she was. Tanya had tracked her down through the Institute. She handed over the 'phone to Peter so he could talk to Ruth himself. He was definitely not happy.
"Where have you been? What have you been up to? I thought you'd been kidnapped or had met some crazy Russian and gone off with him. How about considering me for a change? You know how much I hate being left on my own. Some journalist has turned up at the hotel wanting to talk to you. Where on earth are you? This is supposed to be a serious business trip. You're turning it into a farce.... "
Ruth let him carry on. At least he was angry enough to notice that she existed. Perhaps the beautiful Olga had not been so all absorbing after all. Or she'd had to get back to her day job. She signalled to Mischa.
"Can you get me back to the hotel? Some journalist is there. I think we should go and talk to him."
"I'll get a driver to take you. I have to go to the Institute this morning, but I'll come over to the hotel later on. Don't forget we're supposed to write the funding proposal today."
Ruth's all too brief sanity break was over. It was back to the drawing board.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Ruth hurried through the reception area at the Intourist Hotel and went straight to the coffee bar where Peter, Tanya and a man she did not know were waiting impatiently for her. Peter was still upset by her disappearance.
"You can't imagine how worried I've been. I could do nothing until Tanya arrived, because no one at the Institute understood who you were or what I wanted. It's impossible to talk on the ‘phone. None of the operators knows any English."
Ruth was less than sympathetic.
"I can take care of myself. I'm putting an important project together, and you don't need me to do your oil deals."
She surprised herself by how determined she was to stay out of the sleaze zone. Was there some hypocrisy in her attitude? She needed the money but not the hassle. She'd have to look more carefully at her own motives, and at what she was prepared to endure to get the matching finance she needed to get funded by the Foreign Office.
Tanya intervened to introduce the unknown Russian.
"Ruth, I think you should spend time talking to one of our most distinguished journalists, Gyorgy Tashkishvili. He's been asked by the Ministry of Higher Education to find out about your project and publicise it within Russia."
Ruth turned to find a slim, dark haired man smiling at her. He did not look Russian. His skin was darker, and he had a Mediterranean, more Italian appearance. As they shook hands, Ruth realised that here was someone whose vital energy could reach her own. Unaccountably, she felt at risk. He, like Olga, spoke English with an American accent which confused her even more.
"Delighted to meet you. Don't fret about being late. Peter and Tanya have been filling me in on some of your adventures during this first visit to Russia."
Ruth wondered what impression Peter had made. Gyorgy probably thought they were rip-off merchants, keen to get their hands on Russian oil. She needed to justify her absence.
"I'm sorry, I've been finding out about Russian hospitality. I went to a wonderful dinner party at the home of my Russian friend."
"Then you've already discovered the best of Russia! Unless you want to explore some unspoilt countryside. The only place you'll find better dinner parties is in my home country - Georgia."
Ruth understood now the strangeness of his name and his dark appearance.
"I wondered about your name. It didn't sound Russian."
"My family live in Tbilisi, but I've been based in Moscow for many years. I travel round the world as a foreign correspondent for TASS, our international news agency. I'm currently working on a series of newspaper articles on the economic aid programmes being offered to us from the West."
Ruth did not want to mislead him about the generosity of the British Government.
"We're putting together a proposal for the Know-how Fund, but I'm afraid what little money there is will come to us in consultancy fees. That's what Know-how means - transferring expertise not cash."
Gyorgy's smile managed to convey irony as well as warmth. Ruth was fascinated by his expressive face and his obvious intelligence and sensitivity. He could communicate so much without words.
"I've already found out the only money you're prepared to give us is in the form of repayable loans. I can't say I blame you. Our bureaucrats have an infinite number of ways to make money disappear into black holes."
Peter shifted uneasily. He was worried because the oil deal seemed to have gone into limbo. He had expected Yuri and Sergei to contact him earlier today, Olga had disappeared to her office without inviting him to meet her business partners, and he was feeling vulnerable. An action man's biggest problem is what to do when nothing much is happening. Peter hated waiting around.
"I keep telling Ruth she's wasting her time going for Government funding. She just doesn't think commercially. I don't know why she doesn't become a registered charity."
Ruth couldn't resist biting back.
"I'm still the one who's paying you and bringing all the money into the company. When you've earned your million dollars, you can run things your way."
Gyorgy had heard it all before. There were increasing numbers of West Europeans and Americans looking to finance their exploits in Russia by applying for funding from their respective Governments and the European Union. The Russians viewed the whole exercise with their traditional scepticism. Their own bankrupt Government had never done much for them, even in the good times. It was therefore extremely unlikely that any foreign governments would come to their rescue. Economies were suffering, even in the West; all both sides really wanted was to put an end to the arms race.
Gyorgy, impatient with their bickering, tried to move the discussion along.
"I know all about the intentions of your Government and the way the aid schemes are structured. I'm more interested in finding out why you've come to Russia. Good journalism is about people and their motives. Human interest, I think you call it."
This man was full of surprises, and Ruth was immediately on the alert. She had thought what he wanted were some smart generalisations for the propaganda machine.
"I don't know why I'm here. Russia intrigues me - it's a big uncharted sea. So few English people have ever been here. All we saw were newsreels of May Day parades and the stony faces of your leaders above Lenin's tomb."
Gyorgy felt an upsurge of sympathy. Maybe this woman had come for more than the commercial opportunity to exploit Russia's economic misery. His curiosity about her motives for being here got the better of him.
"I have some time and you may have a good story. Let me be your guide to Russia. In exchange I want to be a fly on the wall in your various meetings. You can pass me off as another interpreter, if Tanya will forgive me."
Tanya was uneasy. She didn't understand why this important journalist was here. What was his brief? Who were these English people that they had aroused so much interest?
"I think it would be better if you were an adviser - helping Peter and Ruth to understand the Russian way of doing things. You'll arouse suspicion otherwise. We've had years of practice spotting undercover agents, and you're just not convincing as an interpreter. You look too successful, sound too Westernised,"
Gyorgy did not mind provided he could stick around and get his story. He had come to the Intourist Hotel that morning expecting to meet two boring English people from some university or other trying to peddle their learning materials to gullible Russians in the mistaken belief that UK methods would work in a completely different culture. Instead he had found a commodity trader who had some fantasy of getting oil out of Russia through his contacts in the Ministry of Energy, and a woman business consultant (in itself enough of an anomaly) who had been invited to a dinner party in a Russian home. He decided they were interesting enough to feature in an article, but he needed more background, a hook for the story. Besides he found Ruth in some way attractive, unconventional but interesting; a lady of hidden depths, with a reticence he was not prepared for and wanted to penetrate. His strength as a journalist had always been his ability to find ordinary people and feature them in his stories. In that way he could convey to his readers who never had the opportunity to travel abroad what it was like to be a foreigner. He had come to writing by way of anthropology and had never lost his habit of joining other cultures in order to understand them. Politically it had helped his career because his approach fitted the Communist belief that if they could only reach the people behind the governments, then everyone would want to join the Party.
Ruth was puzzled.
"I don't understand why you're so interested in us. We haven't done anything yet. and if the British Government has any say in it, we probably never will. There are all kinds of rich and powerful consultancies getting Government contracts for mega projects in Russia. I suggest you talk to them."
"I have and found them excessively boring. They think like accountants - probably because that's who they are. They're good at what they do, which is to set up here financial structures similar to those you have in the West. They don't ask if they're appropriate, or if it's what we want. They're simply doing a job and geting very well paid for it. They're not really interested in Russia. We're just sport for them - a game, like chess, which gives them the chance to show how clever they are; and how stupid we are because we never learnt how to play by their rules."
Ruth found herself getting more and more interested in this unusual man. She'd always been attracted by intelligence, but the combination of his foreign appearance and his insight into the arrogant ways of her own people disturbed her.
"OK, I agree. You can come on board, but we don't need another interpreter. Tanya's doing an excellent job. How would you like to be our Russian minder?"
"A minder? What's that? It sounds like a necessary evil. And please don't insult me by calling me Russian. Georgia is a self-declared republic."
Peter, who'd been watching the two of them and wondering why Ruth had never shown this much interest in him, began to feel displaced.
"That's my job. Making sure you're safe and no one attacks you or tries to rip you off."
Ruth could not resist pointing out that he'd not done too well since they arrived in Moscow.
"First we got mugged. Then you panicked when you thought I'd been kidnapped. We need help from someone who understands the culture."
Tanya was relieved.
"I'm pleased you're joining us. I can't stay with them both all the time. And I can't be responsible for what might happen when I'm not available."
It was the first time she had stated openly that they were at risk. Ruth wondered what Peter had been up to in her absence.
"What's happening to the oil deal? Have there been developments?"
"Yuri came over here yesterday with an offer and I turned him down. He seemed very upset and angry and said he'd be back with Sergei to sort something out."
Ruth sensed that things were fast getting out of control.
"They want two million dollars for the export licence – upfront, before they'll sign the contract to supply the oil."
Peter could not hide the disappointment and anger in his voice.
"Are they crazy?" Ruth was visibly upset. "Who do they think is going to pay them that much just for a licence? And how do we know that there is any oil to back it up?"
"We don't. Even if we did, we couldn't afford to pay.We're not a trading company with money to risk on a deal like that. Our buyers won't consider anything other than opening a Letter of Credit in a prime Western Bank when the oil is ready to load onto the ship and the inspection certificates signed. That's if they'll accept FOB from a Russian port."
Ruth understood now why Tanya was so concerned. Peter had obviously upset Yuri by telling him to get lost until he came up with a better deal. Peter was quick to reassure her.
"Don't worry. I've fixed it."
Ruth immediately worried some more. She'd had some experience of Peter fixing things.
"Olga offered to help," Peter said reassuringly. "She was here when Yuri came, and she said she'd sort everything out for us. She thinks she knows how to obtain an export licence, and she'll make sure through her contacts that they come up with the oil. I was expecting to hear from her later today."
Gyorgy told them what Tanya had been afraid to say.
"You realise what you're doing is illegal. You're obviously involved with some Mafia-connected group. It's a classic arrangement. They sell export licences for millions of dollars, but the chances of your ever seeing any oil are remote to say the least."
Ruth was still trying to make sense of the situation.
"Why did they think we'd go for it? It's such an obvious scam."
Gyorgy had no illusions on that score.
"You'd be surprised how naïve some Russians are. They believe that Westerners are rich, and that it's not a problem for them to get hold of or even lose two million dollars."
"If they only knew," Ruth said, disappointed that her dream of making money was crumbling so fast. "I don't want to be rich. I'm just tired of never having enough to do what I want to do."
"You can tell me all about that another time," Gyorgy said. "Who's Olga and how does she plan to come up with the money?"
Everyone looked at Peter who seemed somewhat embarrassed.
"I met her in the bar here the other evening. We got talking, and she told me about her joint venture company. They want to trade in oil, and they have a Swiss bank account. It all made such good sense - our working together."
Gyorgy was unimpressed.
"You really do need - what was it you called it - a minder? I presume that Olga is Russian.... and sexy."
"How did you guess?" Peter was even more confused.
"You've managed to get yourselves caught between the Mafia and the KGB. They're neither of them really interested in you. You're just a convenient pawn. The KGB is responsible for tracking down all the bribery and corruption that's taken over the export trade. They've set up shell joint venture companies as a front to catch the criminals who are siphoning commodities out of Russia and putting their money into bank accounts in the West."
"And I thought she really liked me."
It was typical of Peter that he should think first of his own hurt feelings.
Ruth wished she could walk away from the whole unpleasant situation, but she knew she couldn't. She could hear Tom laughing at her, making snide comments about touching pitch and being defiled.
"What do we do now?" she asked Gyorgy, who had become the one person she trusted to get them out of this mess.
"You must be joking. Aren't we at risk? What are the penalties for illegal trading in Russia?"
"They're not interested in you. All the KGB want is to catch the Mafia, and they're making a very poor job of it at the present time.They're not immune to bribery themselves and may join in the widespread corruption."
Ruth remembered Dmitri Kropotkin at the Ministry of Education.
"Dmitri Kropotkin said he was a friend of yours. Can he help?"
Gyorgy shook his head.
"He's not powerful enough, and he's in the wrong Ministry. Corruption in Russia goes right up to the highest levels - including the Government. That's why it's so difficult to tackle."
"Look who's here," Tanya's voice had a warning note in it.
Olga was making her way through the coffee tables in their direction. Her blonde hair was loose and she looked even more stunning than usual in an immaculate, tight fitting black suit with gold costume jewellery. She kissed Peter on the cheek, said hello to Ruth and Tanya, and extended a hand to Gyorgy.
"Who are you?" she said crisply. "Are you Ruth's friend from the Institute?"
Gyorgy laughed and shook her hand warmly. KGB or not she was stunningly beautiful.
"I gave up being an academic years ago. I'm a journalist, and I've been asked to write a feature on Ruth's project."
Olga relaxed. She'd been briefed very carefully by Anatoli not to let too many people know about the oil deal. It seemed that by chance Peter and Ruth had contacted a high profile Mafia group that was trying to take control of the oil industry. They were accumulating as much hard currency as they could so that when the industry finally collapsed through lack of investment and falling production, they could use the dollars they had invested in the West to buy up significant portions of it. It was not in their interest to put money into restructuring the industry or repairing the broken pumps and leaking pipelines.
They did not particularly want to sell the oil, unless they were forced to do so to keep their income up. What they wanted to do was deal in export licences, and to open Letters of Credit for deliveries that were never completed or failed to pass inspection tests. The buyers could claim on their insurance and the sellers plead force majeure. Either way, the Russian legal system was in such a mess that there was little that could be done through the Courts if they reneged on a deal. Most international traders had been stung sufficiently to avoid Russia, and the country's reputation as one of the major suppliers of basic commodites was at an all-time low. The best scam of all was to use the Letters of Credit to bring back into Russia the Communist Party billions that had been stashed in foreign banks.
Peter, with characteristic tact, launched straight into the issue that was most concerning him.
"We're sitting here fretting about the oil deal. Is it real or flaky? Have you been able to raise the two million dollars for the export licence? And if you have, should we pay it?"
Olga was remarkably calm about the whole thing.
"I called my business partners. They are interested and are willing to help if they can. However, the two million dollars must be considered as an advance on payment for the oil, and not as payment for the export licence. It will be deducted from the first payment to the supplier when the Letter of Credit opens."
Peter was not convinced.
"Once they've got that much money, why should they come up with any oil?"
"Because two million dollars is just the beginning. They can earn many more millions if they can ensure we get regular supplies. And so can we. The upfront payment is an act of good faith on our part. It proves we are serious buyers, and it helps pay for the lifting and transporting of the oil to the port."
The silence was profound. No one knew what to think any more. Somehow Olga made it all sound reasonable and professional. Almost effortlessly, she had put the deal back together again, and resurrected their dreams of wealth and good fortune. It was all about trust: I believe that you are real, and you believe that I am real, so let's be real together. What was the possible loss of two million dollars when so much more was at stake?
Peter was the first to break the silence. In his eyes, Olga had everything sorted and his commission was safe.
"I've been telling them how wonderful you are. And how we couldn't get this deal together without you. And you've just gone and proved me right. I'm tired of all this work. Can't we go somewhere and have a good time?"
His remarks were clearly directed at Olga rather than at the assembled company, and Ruth took the hint.
"You two don't need to stick around here. I want to talk with Gyorgy about the project. Mischa will be here shortly, and we have a lot of work to do putting our proposal together for the British Embassy in a form the Know-how Fund will accept."
Peter took Olga's hand and they went towards the lifts. Clearly having a good time meant his hotel bedroom.
The other three had some more coffee and waited for Mischa to arrive. Ruth briefly explained the background of the project to Gyorgy. He listened attentively and made some notes. His questions impressed her. He was forcing her to examine her own motives at the same time as testing its relevance for Russia. She felt interrogated rather than interviewed and said as much.
"You're tough. I'm finding it really difficult to come up with answers that make sense even to me."
Gyorgy was not to be put off.
"I'm a professional journalist, remember, interested in the truth. This is just a preliminary chat. I'm fencing with you, finding out where you're vulnerable and why. When we get to the serious stuff, I'll bring out my tape recorder to make sure I get accurate quotes."
"Why are you telling me? Wouldn't it be better to sneak up on me and take me by surprise?"
"You're too well defended and too intelligent. I need you to know what I'm doing and to trust me. I'm interested in what you're trying to do, not in trying to make you look foolish or hypocritical. You're used to English journalists who are just writing cheap exposés."
"We do have our serious press. Papers like the Guardian and the Independent."
"And some of their Moscow correspondents are my friends. They do take the trouble to try to understand what's really going on in Russia. But it's difficult unless you've lived in the country for many years or you get emotionally involved with a Russian."
Ruth's equanimity was at risk and she knew it. She went into Buddhist style deep breathing, centring herself and putting up what she hoped was a protective shield around her fragile ego. She was relieved when Mischa appeared, and the conversation got back to normality.
Mischa was irritable and withdrawn. The Institute mini-bus was needed for some Chinese visitors, and he had travelled in to Moscow by public transport. He resented the loss of his car, and that his former protected position as a member of Russia's scientific elite left him virtually penniless in this new society. He did not regret the fall of Communism. He had never felt easy surrounded by bureaucrats and the KGB. He wanted a better life, but clearly Capitalism was not helping Russia to resolve its huge problems of wasted resources and corrupt Government.
He put on his warm smile and greeted Gyorgy with interest. His writing was well known to him, and Mischa was impressed by Kropotkin's choice of journalist. Maybe they could get somewhere with this project after all. The only way Mischa had found to achieve anything in Russia was to be pragmatic. Work with what you have and don't get too concerned about values and ideologies. That way you weren't disappointed when your dreams failed to come to fruition.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Ruth had brought her lap top computer with her and turned her hotel room into an office. She had already written out most of the application for funding following the strict format laid down by the Foreign Office. All she needed was for Mischa to agree the contributions from the Russian side, work out the Rouble costs and decide who was in the project team.
When Gyorgy explained that he planned to stick around to get both background material and in-depth understanding for his article, Mischa, who had worked too long on secret defence contracts to feel comfortable about his presence, had reservations.
"You print nothing unless we read and approve it first. We can't afford to have the Institute misrepresented or Ruth's reputation harmed in any way."
Ruth was not as concerned.
"I won't understand a word. I'll have to rely on you and Tanya to translate it for me."
That was too much for Gyorgy. His professional integrity was being challenged.
"If anyone translates, it'll be me. I write almost as well in English as in Russian, and neither is my first language. I'm proud of being Georgian. I grew up in Tbilisi and spoke Georgian all the time as a child. We had to learn Russian, but our hearts are with our own culture. Ours is the oldest written language in Eastern Europe - long before St Cyril taught the Russians to write."
"I trust you," Ruth said spontaneously, wondering why she did.
Mischa was impatient to get on with the job in hand. He was also somewhat concerned that this handsome Georgian was monopolising so much of Ruth's attention.
"Now that's settled, let's get down to work. We've got to get this document to the Ministry and to the British Embassy by tomorrow morning."
Ruth knew she was good at writing proposals for funding. The words flowed, the logic was simple, and all you had to do was make a good case. She always enjoyed working as part of a team, and Mischa, Tanya and Gyorgy were happy to be involved, offering comments and suggestions as she typed. Mischa was fascinated by the technology; Tanya by the language - it was the most intense period of writing in as distinct from interpreting English she had known; and Gyorgy saw the opportunity it offered for Russian scientists and engineers to become better managers than their Western counterparts.
"Why better?" Ruth wanted to know.
"Isn't it obvious?" said Gyorgy with his customary irony. "You've made such a mess of the economy in your own country. We don't need you to come over here and do the same for us."
Mischa was less overtly critical.
"Anything would be an improvement on what we've got. I went to a really impressive quality management conference in London - that's where I met Ruth. This project is about helping people to learn best practice from around the world."
They were both so serious that Gyorgy couldn’t resist the temptation to wind them up.
"You mean you're not going to close down half our industries and indoctrinate us in monetarist economics?"
Ruth snapped back sharply, remembering all her old arguments about management and ideology with Tom.
"Science is about developing theories that have some predictive accuracy. Do you know any economists who agree? Let alone any whose predictions turn out to be correct?"
Mischa took up the argument. He enjoyed intellectual sparring as much as Ruth, and it looked as if they'd found a good partner.
"Economics is in its infancy as a science. It leaves out too many variables, and tries to manipulate the environment rather than understand it. You'll have to take the word of a physicist on that, I'm afraid, but even I can see why their mathematical models fail."
Gyorgy needed to do more than just wind them up. He wanted their honest opinions.
"Our financial institutions are crawling with Western economists. Are you trying to tell me that apart from doing us no good whatsoever, which is self-evident, they may even be causing active harm?"
"Nothing so dramatic, I'm afraid." Ruth was sympathetic but cautious, concerned that he understood and didn't jump to any wrong conclusions. "It's just that they simply don't know. It's like medicine, an empirical science - except that there aren't the same strict regulations about testing your product before you try it in the market place. You can't dissect a society by taking it to pieces to see how it works."
Gyorgy had pressed the right button. Ruth was intelligent enough to count the cost.
"You're too damn smart for me. I was a simple anthropologist, and I gave that up years ago because I wanted more contact with people."
Ruth couldn't help laughing. Here was someone who could play with words the way Tom had, but manage somehow to make the jokes against himself rather than her.
"There are no fix-it kits or magic solutions. All we're trying to do is give as many people as possible as much information as possible so they’re in a better position to make up their own minds."
Gyorgy was unconvinced.
"You obviously don't know much about Russia. We've spent the last seventy years being told not only what to do but what to think as well."
Tanya, who'd been remarkably silent during this exchange, decided it was time to stand up for her own people.
"Just because we were never allowed to have our own opinions doesn't mean we're not capable of intelligent problem solving. How do you think we survived all those years of Communist economic planning?"
Mischa had the instant answer to that one.
"By trying to pretend it wasn't happening and getting on with our lives."
Tanya was pleased he understood.
"Exactly. We managed. Despite every effort made to stop us. And we were much better off before we had all these Western consultants telling our Government what to do."
Ruth reached out and touched her hand.
"Do you really want us to go home?"
"No, of course not. It's just that nothing seems to work, and we're getting poorer and poorer. I need food in my 'fridge again. You're all so clever. Can't you do something?"
There was no easy answer. Ruth, optimistic as ever, gave what little reassurance she could.
"We simply don't know enough. We're doing our best with what little we have. Of course it's insufficient, but it's a start."
It was time for champagnski and sandwiches. Tanya got on the hotel 'phone and found that they could buy what they needed from the snack bar and bring it back up to the room. They had finished the budget and began to think through how the project should be evaluated.
"How do you measure success or prove failure?" Gyorgy wanted to know. "It's an impossible question. What on earth do they mean by inputs and outputs?"
Ruth went back to the plan.
"The inputs are our skills, the learning materials, the software, the managers we're going to train; and the outputs, what people have learnt, what they are able to do, the difference that makes. How many people have been trained? How many jobs created? What objectives were met?”
It was Gyorgy's turn to be idealistic.
"If you help one person out of despair and into hoping and wanting to live again, you've made a difference. I don't know how you measure it. One human life saved? Sounds like a spiritual movement to me, not an aid programme.
Ruth was getting tired and wishing all the talk was over.
"Come on, people. Be serious for five minutes. Give me answers the Foreign Office will understand and accept. It can't be that hard to come up with some specifics we can achieve with their money."
Mischa came to her rescue.
"What they want is targets, right?"
"It's Payment by Results. It has nothing to do with quality or effectiveness."
"So give them what they want. In the process, make sure we do what we believe is important. The Japanese made it work after the War, grew their economy out of rubble."
Gyorgy's scepticism resurfaced.
"It sounds like a no-win situation to me. You try to reach as many people as possible and then expect them to succeed in the chaos that is Russia?"
Ruth was not to be deflected so easily.
"That's exactly why we need the media. You're a journalist. You understand its power. What we're trying to do is to get people involved, to help them interact with information and ideas rather than just sit passively waiting for someone else to sort out their problems."
"It sounds uncomfortably close to asking me to engage in dialogue with my readers. It's bad enough when they write me critical and insulting letters."
"Exactly. It takes away the power of your role and makes learning a live experience. It becomes a relationship, not just the teacher telling the taught. How about building a community of people who can learn together without the usual imbalance between those who are presumed to know and those who don't?"
Gyorgy was impressed. This woman did have something different to offer after all.
"I didn't realise you were such a revolutionary. Should I warn your Government, or mine for that matter, what a potential risk you are? Encouraging people to think for themselves is bad enough. But you sound as if you want them to start taking the power of action into their own hands."
Ruth became quite passionate once you got behind the polite façade and started probing her beliefs. Mischa was used to it, and it didn't worry him. It was why he wanted to work with her. but he was unhappy about the discourteous way this Georgian was attacking her.
"You two just keep getting caught up in ideological arguments, instead of getting on with the job in hand. We have a man in our Ministry who's keen to use interactive media. Ruth believes in it. I'm prepared to go along with them if it brings some change into the way we train our managers. All we do - and my own Institute is as guilty as many others - is expect people to learn how to manage in a completely new way by indoctrinating them with a new set of theories. It's the way we expected everyone to become Communists. We're using exactly the same methods to turn them into Capitalists. It didn't work before? Why would it work now?"
Ruth decided to let them get on with the argument and listed the outcomes of the project herself: learning materials in Russian in software format; learning centres in important regional centres; a specially trained group of Russian business advisers who would support the changes they were trying to make in their offices and factories.
"Help me put in the names of the regional centres and the number of people we need to staff them. How many should we train as business advisers?"
Tanya, Mischa and Gyorgy were arguing fiercely in rapid Russian and were not easy to interrupt. The intensity and increasing volume of their discussion prompted Ruth into asking if they had fallen out.
"Of course not," Mischa told her. "This is how we talk among ourselves - if we care enough and think it's important. How else can you know what to do unless you know how you feel? You'll never get a Russian to be cold, impersonal and objective. We leave that to the English. You're so good at it."
Ruth was surprised and a little hurt.
"Do I really come over as cold and clinical?"
Tanya rushed to her defence. She liked Ruth, and was beginning to use her as a role model to enhance her own professional image.
"I think you've a lot of courage and determination. And I admire the way you fight for what you believe in."
Gyorgy was also quick to realise she had taken the remark personally.
"I think you put all your passion into your work. I don't know why that is, but I'm prepared to believe there's a good reason for it. It'll serve you well in Russia because we only trust people who express their feelings."
They finished off the proposal, and Mischa hurried back to the Institute with his copy. Tanya took some dollars for a taxi, and Ruth and Gyorgy were left with the remains of the champagnski and some stale sandwiches. Gyorgy took charge.
"I'll get the lady on the desk to arrange for someone to come and clean up in here. It's early yet. Let's go somewhere where we can talk. I need my cassette recorder. You're becoming interesting enough for me to do a proper interview."
Ruth was nervous.
"I hate being interviewed. And I hate even more being recorded. Haven't you got a less painful way to get this article written?"
"I need your words not mine. It's the best way I know to get behind the mask."
"You ought to be a TV interviewer in England. They specialise in making our politicians look like idiots. Not that they need much help. It's a special talent in our political jungle - learning how to open your mouth and put your foot in it."
"You see, you do understand the name of the game and how to play it. Next time I'll follow you round with the tape recorder in my pocket, and wire you for sound."
"That could lead to a distressingly close relationship."
"I'll risk it if you will."
"I'm not sure."
"Let's go. We can walk to my place."
Gyorgy lived in the centre of Moscow, not far from the Intourist Hotel, in one of the few remaining old houses behind Red Square. It was the kind of privileged place that a journalist in the old days would be given as a reward for his work on behalf of the State. The house was divided into three flats, and Gyorgy's was on the ground floor - a spacious, high ceilinged room with a grand piano in the corner. He had filled it with books and records, and on every available shelf and wall there was a memento from the many countries he had visited. Ruth was fascinated. A traveller herself, she recognised many of the countries from their objets d'art. A beautifully carved wooden Buddha drew her towards it, and, as she picked it up, she sensed the loving care of the hands that had created it.
"When were you in India?" she asked, wondering if their paths might have crossed.
"The early eighties. I was based in New Delhi. But I travelled all over the country. It was the end of the Indira Gandhi period. Around the time of the death of Sanjay and the rise of Rajeev."
"I was in Madyar Pradesh working on an aid project about transforming their technical education system."
She realised how typical of her it was that she made no reference to Tom. All her vivid memories of India were about falling in love, about evenings spent in the Hindu temple up on the hillside above the town, watching the sunset and listening to the plaintive sound of the conch horn calling the people to prayer. About lying in bed with Tom listening to John Lennon tapes, making love and talking together way into the night. For Ruth their relationship had merged with her love for India, with her Buddhist inclinations and her spiritual identity. It was as if for once in her life she could let go of the hard edges she usually kept around her like a protective wall. Her love for Tom and his for her permeated every aspect of that period of their lives. This simple wooden Buddha brought all those feelings back, giving her a a sudden rush of sensation and an overwhelming sense of loss.
She put the Buddha down quickly and sat down, hoping that Gyorgy had discerned nothing of her discomfort. Aware that he was watching her carefully, she pulled a Russian shawl she had been given by Marina around her for added protection. Gyorgy took out his cassette recorder from a desk drawer. Ruth noticed how the desk and the many bookshelves dominated the room. It was a typical writer's retreat and very masculine. Why was there no sign of a woman's touch? As he clipped the tiny microphone to the jacket of her suit, she risked asking him.
"Aren't you married or living with somebody?"
"Who's supposed to be doing this interview? The first rule of good journalism is to start gently, not charge in with both feet."
"So are you going to tell me or not?"
"I was married. It didn't work out. I was away too often and she fell in love with someone else."
"Do you have any children?"
"No, thank goodness. My wife never liked it here in Moscow. She went back to Tbilisi after we split up."
Ruth felt how much worse it must be to lose not only your partner but also your child. Leaving Tom was hard enough. In the end it had come down to personal survival. Could she ever have left if they'd had a child?
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked you those questions. It wasn't fair. I feel threatened by you in some way, and I tried to protect myself by turning the spotlight on you."
Gyorgy found Ruth full of surprises. She came over as so distant and professional, and then, all of a sudden, you were through the barrier and there were brief glimpses of a warm human being. He decided not to push his luck - at least not yet.
"I don't mind talking about it. In some way it helps. It doesn't take away the pain, but it puts me in touch with how I feel.”
Ruth needed this like a hole in the head. She had to get back some of her usual calm quickly. She laid her hands gently in her lap and breathed out slowly, counting to ten.
"About that recorded interview. Can we start now, while I still remember what I'm supposed to be talking about?"
This was not what Gyorgy had hoped for. He wanted Ruth to talk about her own motives.: why she’d come to Russia in the first place; what it was she was looking for. He went ahead with the interview anyway, knowing that all he would get was the official line. He asked all the right questions and Ruth gave him the right answers. It was boring stuff and he would never print a word of it. It was an impressive performance nonetheless. He walked her back to the hotel and kissed her gently on the cheek by way of saying thank you.
"I'll see you tomorrow around 10. First we have to take the proposal to Dmitri at the Ministry of Education. Then I want to come with you to the British Embassy. Two Governments in one day should prove an interesting study in cultural differences."
Ruth wasn't too sure how happy the Embassy would be about her bringing a Russian journalist with her.
"I'll have to check with them first. They may not agree to your coming to our meeting."
"I thought you had a free press."
"That's exactly why our civil servants are so scared of them. They can't control what they say and do, and they have to protect their jobs."
"It doesn't sound like open government to me."
"It isn't. I thought you knew that."
"I'm coming to England soon. You can explain how it works when I'm in London."
“I may not be the best person. I'm not sure how it works myself."
As he walked back to his flat, Gyorgy wondered how he'd managed to misread Ruth so badly. He had thought she liked him. He'd wanted to get to know her better, maybe even to become friends, but she'd shot back into her shell like a scared cat. What was she so afraid of? He decided it was worth the effort to find out.
On her way to the hotel lifts, Ruth noticed that Peter was sitting in the ground floor café. He was slumped down, the inevitable cigarette in his hand, drinking chilled beer. She decided he looked so miserable that she better find out what was wrong.
"Hi! What's up with you? You look terrible."
"Thanks for those encouraging words. I seem to be losing my touch."
"Are we talking about your touch with women or your trading skills?"
"It's Olga. She fascinates me, and I'm getting deeply involved. But she's so unpredictable. One minute she's passionate and responsive; the next, she's cold as ice. She can switch on and off like a machine."
"Remember what Gyorgy said about her being KGB. They're trained really well in the art of seduction."
Peter looked even more depressed,
"I can't believe it's just a performance. She's a really wonderful lover. You can tell that just by looking at her. She's so sexy. And she makes me feel so good - as if I'm the most special person in the world. We went to bed all afternoon, and she was incredibly responsive and excited. Then all of a sudden she looked at her watch and said she had to go. Just like that - cold turkey."
Ruth knew all about switching feelings on and off.
"Perhaps she's got a steady boy friend - or a husband and kids waiting at home for her to get their dinner."
"Can you imagine it? I can't. I don't believe she's had kids. Her body's too firm and perfect."
"When are you seeing her again?"
"She said she'd come tomorrow. She wants to meet Yuri and Sergei and be here for the contract signing ceremony."
Contract signing reminded Ruth that she had to be careful on behalf of her company.
"You said that her joint venture was a trading company?"
"Then make sure it's she who signs the contract, and you sign an agreement with her for our commission to be paid by the bank when they open the Letter of Credit. We've still to find a buyer, remember. Or is that Olga's job?"
"She's coming here to negotiate all that. As far as I know, we're out of it now. She'll arrange the payment of two million dollars into the Swiss bank account we're setting up for Yuri and Sergei. The money will be held there in the form of a bank guarantee against the Letter of Credit. Once the oil is loaded, it will be released to pay the supplier, and the bank will transfer our commission direct to our account."
Ruth was impressed.
"She is good. She's covered all the angles, and it's going to be very difficult for them not to come up with the oil. I think they can do it - if they really have to. They thought we were stupid enough to go along with their scam."
"Probably. It takes a Russian to stop another Russian cheating you. They realise they can't do it too often among themselves."
"If you get nothing else out of this, you may be lucky enough to emerge with some money. I'm sorry about your broken heart. You'll just have to get your priorities sorted."
Peter knew she was right. What really mattered to him was the money. It was only his ego that was bruised. There were plenty more glamorous women in the world to seduce. He felt better and knew it was thanks to Ruth.
"You're a good therapist. I'm coming out of the doom and gloom zone."
"Good. Get some sleep and you'll be back on form for tomorrow's meeting."
They parted good friends as always. Peter was like a big kid out in the world on his own and not too sure how to handle it. Ruth was not too comfortable with her own role as everybody's mother figure but was prepared to live with it for the time being.
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
THE BRITISH EMBASSY
Gyorgy was as good as his word. He arrived promptly at ten o'clock and called Ruth on the hotel telephone.
"Are you feeling any better?" was his first less than tactful question.
"I've been worse," was her honest reply. "What was supposed to be wrong with me?"
"You seemed uncomfortable at my place last evening. Almost unhappy."
Ruth had not realised how much he had sensed how she felt.
"I'm sorry. It was nothing to do with you. Just some disturbing memories."
"So long as we're still friends."
"Don't jump to too many conclusions. I am still talking to you."
"See you in the coffee bar. How long?"
"Give me ten minutes to look presentable."
When she joined him, Gyorgy was sitting at one of the tables talking to Tanya. He had been lobbying her not to spend the day with Ruth.
"Where do you want me to be today?" Tanya asked.
Ruth picked up the edge to her voice and sensed she felt displaced.
"Where would you like to be?"
Ruth's management style was about getting people to declare their preferences and then seeing how well they could be matched to the task in hand.
"I'd rather be with you. But I think Peter's going to be involved in some difficult negotiations today, and I don't think he should try to handle them on his own."
Ruth marvelled at Tanya's ability to express the inexpressible without actually saying anything.
"You're right. I need you to be there, too. You're the only one who can tell me what really went on, as distinct from what those devious Russians are prepared to tell Peter."
Tanya was pleased. Here was a role she could fulfill without risking her credibility during the contract negotiations.
"Olga won't want me there. I can justify my presence by translating for Peter while the Russians are talking to each other."
Gyorgy had been listening with increasing interest.
"You lot are cloak and dagger enough for anybody. Are you sure you're not MI6?"
Ruth was not to be drawn.
"You're conditioned to see spies coming out of the woodwork. Our lives are much simpler. It's called doing business Western style - or how to make sure you don't get screwed."
Yuri and Sergei arrived together, pulling up extra chairs to join them. Ruth was beginning to spot significant differences among the Russians she was meeting, and she felt these two were definitely sleazy, despite their newly acquired smart suits. They were clearly suspicious of Gyorgy. They failed to recognise him as a journalist because he wrote for newspapers and journals which were too academic and analytical for the business community. His name and appearance did not help: for them Georgian was synonymous with Mafia. The last thing they wanted was another group muscling in on their act, and they were keen to establish that he would not be attending their meeting. Ruth was happy to reassure them with the cover story they had dreamed up yesterday.
"Gyorgy is our cultural adviser. His specialism is the Russian Government's control of the economy, particularly the banking system. You must appreciate how important it is for us to understand the ways in which your changing legislation affects what we are able to do."
The two Russians shifted uncomfortably. Their success depended on the Government having as little influence as possible over the Mafia, except where they were part of it. The sooner they could get this deal wrapped up and get out of here the better. Ruth smiled sweetly.
"Olga will be here shortly. I believe she's organising a payment of two million dollars into your Swiss bank account."
If she had deliberately planned to upset them, she could not have done better. Yuri stepped in to shut her up.
"You must realise how confidential our business dealings are. Everyone would be after export licences if they knew we had a way to obtain them."
"There's no need for you to worry. Gyorgy and I leave shortly for another meeting. Tanya will stay with you to help Peter understand what's going on during your negotiations with Olga."
Sergei's frown disappeared. Tanya was manageable small fry. Their interests could easily be protected by a quiet word or a small bribe on the side to her.
"Where are Peter and Olga?" he asked.
"Peter's waiting for you in his room. Olga will join you shortly. She'll bring the contract and the bank papers for you to sign."
Yuri and Sergei disappeared into the lift with Tanya. Gyorgy and Ruth collapsed into laughter.
"You have a wicked sense of humour," Gyorgy told her, "but you're playing a very dangerous game. These guys don't hesitate to get violent if they think their business interests are at risk."
"I think Olga and the KGB can take care of them. I just want them to realise that the English are not all idiots, and we know what they're up to."
"Just be careful. I don't want anything to happen to you or Peter."
Mischa arrived with the Institute mini-bus and they went to see Kropotkin, who was as warm and welcoming as ever. Gyorgy was clearly a good friend, and they all agreed to talk English out of consideration for Ruth.
"How are you getting on with my journalist friend?" Kropotkin wanted to know.
"Fine, except I can't get rid of him. He keeps following me round with his tape recorder."
"That's the price you have to pay for a good article. I've asked him to write something special for us. We're having a great deal of difficulty getting the aid projects targeted where we need them. We see so much money being wasted on consultants who are being paid high fees for telling us what to do in words we don't understand, and then can't wait to catch the first 'plane out of here."
"Ruth's not like that at all," Gyorgy told him. "She's not only interested in what's happening in Russia. She actually cares and believes that what she's got to offer will be of practical help. She's almost convinced me, and you know how difficult that is.”
Dmitri was pleased.
"I felt that when I first met her. Tell me, Ruth, what can our Government do to make this project happen?"
This was the opening Ruth had been waiting for.
"I need you to lobby our Embassy here. To meet with the Commercial Secretary, and convince him that this project will help both the market economy and the emerging democratic process. They'll also want some tangible evidence of your Government’s commitment. Can you provide computer equipment, and the telecommunications and satellite network we'll need to transmit information and learning materials all over the country?"
"We don't have enough money to keep our basic services and infrastructure going."
"Can't you get one of the big computer companies to help? They see Russia as a potential market. And the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has a major telecomms investment project. There's no UK Government money for equipment, I'm afraid. Just for our expertise."
Mischa, ever practical, came up with a solution.
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves. All we need at present is to produce the learning materials as software. We can worry about how to distribute them later when circumstances may have changed. It will take a year at least to train up a good software team. Remember that our programmers are not used to writing commercial software, and multi-media is a completely new concept for us."
Ruth agreed. Her tendency was to leap to the end of a project, the vision of what it should achieve in the longer term, instead of getting the building bricks together at the outset.
"We have enough to get started," Mischa assured her. "The Institute will provide you with office space and a team of software developers. We will need a good film crew and a studio. There are people in that industry desperate for work at the moment."
What Ruth really enjoyed about working with the Russians was their readiness to find ways round apparently insurmountable obstacles. It contrasted strongly with her own experience of trying to get things done in England. She hated working her way through the minefield of reasons why nothing could ever be done. She saw her own countrymen sitting on plenty of resources and unable to do creative and exciting things with them. Individual Russians were willing to do so much with the little they had. Their stranglehold was not one of will but of power. The wrong people had got their hands on the political and legislative levers and had feathered their own nests at the expense of everyone else. It was going to be extremely difficult to remove the layers of politicians and bureaucrats left by the Soviet system. And even more difficult to remove the criminal layer who fed off their greed. Ruth was grateful that there were people like Dmitri Kropotkin who had survived the system, risen to the top of it, and by some miracle escaped corruption.
* * *
Ruth had telephoned the British Embassy earlier in the day and arranged an appointment with the Commercial Secretary. They were not particularly welcoming, but they were willing, although not happy, to let Gyorgy attend the meeting. Mischa they already knew. He had approached them with the first draft proposal that he and Ruth had prepared in London. They were polite and helpful, and might even have been interested if you could get through the formal diplomatic layers of their style of communicating.
Ruth's arrival with a Russian and a Georgian at the iron gates of the Embassy did, however, cause some commotion. The armed guard and the security arrangements were probably leftovers from the Cold War, but the attitudes had not significantly changed. Ruth apologised to her friends and explained that the English still saw Communists on every corner, and were mistrustful by nature anyway. They waited outside while their identities were checked, and were then accompanied up the steps to the entrance hall and shown into what was clearly a waiting room. After ten minutes when no one had appeared to greet them, Ruth went back to the desk and enquired after the Commercial Secretary.
"Mr Burton is busy at the moment. I can't reach him on the telephone, but I‘ve left a message telling him you’re here."
Ruth checked her watch and saw that the meeting had been due to start ten minutes ago. Embarrassed, she tried to explain the delay to Mischa and Gyorgy.
"I think there's some kind of crisis. In any case, he's not available. But she assures me he'll be here shortly."
Mischa was used to waiting for meetings with bureaucrats. For Gyorgy it came less easily. His journalistic training had led to a much more demanding and pushy style.
"I thought you had an appointment."
"Of course I do. I wouldn't have brought you otherwise."
"They act like they don't want to see us."
Mischa was concerned.
"They were very helpful before. They set up a meeting for me with the Know-How Fund representatives who were visiting Moscow at the time."
"I think that's the problem," Ruth said. "Aid is probably a low priority on the list of Commercial Secretary's jobs. They're just doing a favour for the Overseas Development Agency in London."
Gyorgy was not to be put off.
"If the end of the Cold War and the prevention of Russia falling into economic decline and political chaos is not Foreign Office business, then I don't know what is. Do they want the Communists back in power and the arms race to start up all over again?"
"Of course not." Ruth hoped the waiting room was not wired for sound as a means of checking out visitors.
They waited another ten minutes, while Gyorgy strode around examining the prints on the walls of ancient battles in which the British Army had been victorious. There was no reference to the Crimea. When he finally arrived John Burton was full of apologies: an important diplomatic visit was in progress; he had had difficulty getting away. Ruth had contacted him at short notice. He was sorry but there was no meeting room available at the moment. Could they talk here?
"We understand," Ruth interjected hurriedly, anxious to establish the usual British norm of politeness.
Gyorgy sat down and went into I'm Only Here to Listen mode. It was up to Ruth to rescue what was left of the situation.
"We've done a great deal of work on our project and completed the proposal. We've brought you a copy because we know you have to approve it as viable within Russia and confirm that is supported by the Russian Government."
"Our role is minimal," Burton said hastily. "All the important decisions are made in London after your project has been thoroughly vetted by our Technical Advisers. I can get your copy to the Foreign Office by Diplomatic Post if that's helpful."
"It's not necessary," Ruth told him. "I'm flying back to Heathrow tomorrow and I can take it there myself."
"I can let you have a few minutes now. Can you explain your project to me, and I'll check it out with our Russian Government contacts?"
It was Mischa's cue, and he did brilliantly.
"We've been asked by the Chairman of the Information Technology Committee at the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology to set up a project which will develop entrepreneurial skills among our managers all over the country. He's excited by the power of the new information technologies which can deliver learning materials via our satellite network. What we need are enough computers to access the network, and groups of trained business advisers to work with companies in each major region."
Burton was not impressed.
"We don't fund equipment, only expertise transfer. We will meet half the sterling costs of your bringing British consultants into Russia. We sometimes pay full costs, but then you have to go out to competitive tender and you may not be able to work with the British partner of your choice."
Mischa was quick to protest.
"I don't want to work with anyone but Ruth. We've built this whole project round management practices and a method of learning we believe in."
"Then you'll have to find half the money elsewhere. How about linking up with one of the big computer or telecomms companies in the UK?"
The Russian Government was not the only place full of black holes into which money could disappear at high speed. The computer companies were beginning to experience narrow margins and hard times, and Ruth knew they were after megabucks from the funding agencies themselves.
"We'll find a way. A software company may be interested in a joint venture."
Burton played his trump card.
"I'm afraid we don't fund management training. Not unless it's linked to a major project in areas like food processing, energy, transport, financial infrastructure or small business development."
Mischa was insistent.
"We can reach managers in all those sectors. That's why this method of distance learning and local support is so powerful."
"I'm sorry. It's too general. You'll have to find a specific project in one of those sectors. We already have major programmes training bankers, so I would avoid that. We're looking for industry specialists in all the other areas."
Mischa's dream of transforming Russian scientists and engineers into managers of major industries began to fade rapidly. Ruth stepped in.
"Our company specialises in small business start-up and growth, particularly among hi-tech companies. Your institute is full of leading edge researchers. Can't we turn their scientific breakthroughs into new companies? It's working well in the UK, and gives us an excellent case for knowledge and technology transfer."
Burton was relieved.
"We can put you down as Enterprise Centres catering for small business start-ups. We wouldn't want anything too big. Concentrate on a pilot in a region where you already have a base."
Mischa knew of a project, but it was not his.
"We're planning to develop a science and technology park at the Institute, and there are special funds available for that."
"Good. That's settled. I'll put it forward as a science park development. Whom do I contact at your Ministry to make sure that you've got approval there?"
Mischa gave him Kropotkin's name, and the name of the Chairman of the Science Parks Association. He was concerned about how he would get the change through the internal politics of his own Insitute. There was probably a way, but it would not be easy.
They left the Embassy and made their way back to the Intourist Hotel. It looked so bleak and the coffee was so expensive that Gyorgy invited them back to his flat.
"What about Olga and Peter? I should find out how they got on.”
Ruth telephoned Peter's room and got a somewhat befuddled response.
"How did the deal go? Have you got the contract signed?"
"I think so," Peter said. "We drank so much vodka that I’ve only a hazy memory of what happened."
"She's gone home. And so has Olga. I'm recovering in my room."
"Do you want to come to Gyorgy's with us and get something to eat?"
"I couldn't face it. Just pour me on to the ‘plane tomorrow."
Ruth reported back to the others.
"He's really out of it. They filled him up with vodka, and only Tanya will be able to tell me what if any contract finally got signed."
Gyorgy was sympathetic.
"It's the Russian way. You need a strong stomach to survive our business negotiations."
Mischa was worried about getting back to the Institute and telling Zhukov about their meeting at the British Embassy.
"I have to go now. I can't keep our driver any longer. And I need to see the Rector."
Ruth knew he was unhappy. And so was she.
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy. Remember the building bricks. We work with what we've got, put all the pieces in place, and then go for the project we really want."
"I hope you're right. It's so important. And so necessary. They've got millions of pounds to allocate. Why can't they do something useful with it?"
"They probably think they are. Remember we're small fry to them. They want to work with big infrastructure projects, starting with making sure people have enough to eat."
Gyorgy was quick to take her up on that issue.
"Like that big scandal over the British beef sent to St Petersburg. It ended up being declared unfit for human consumption because of BSE, and was sold at a knock-down price to one of our military bases. They promptly re-sold it for distribution to the general public."
Ruth was not be put off.
"That's the risk you take. Much of the food aid to Africa ends up with local militias, or criminals who sell it for cash."
Mischa was despondent..
"Are we fighting a losing battle? Trying to do good in an impossible situation?"
"Probably. But it's hard to stop trying."
Gyorgy offered them small comfort.
"It's time you two idealists faced some harsh realities. You do what little you can with the nothing that anyone is prepared to give you. Why don't you think about making some serious money? Then you'll be in a position to give some of it away."
"That's what the oil project was for," Ruth said. "And look where that's landed us. Right in the middle of a mega scam."
"Life's rich tapestry. At least you haven't got a boring nine-to-five job."
Mischa went back to the Institute and Gyorgy and Ruth were on their own again.
"Someone or something wants us to be alone together," Gyorgy said, testing the temperature of the water before risking another rejection.
"I'm too tired and depressed to care."
"Does that mean you won't come back to my flat?"
"It has to be better than sitting here on my own."
"Thank you for your vote of confidence. I'll cheer you up with good wine and soft music."
"Music! That's what I've been missing. We haven't even taken time to go to the Bolshoi Theatre. What's wrong with us is that we spend all our time working?"
"I was wondering when you'd notice. Come on let's get out of here."
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE,1992
When they got back to the flat Gyorgy sat Ruth down and poured her a large glass of Georgian red wine.
"To cheer you up. I've always found it a good anaesthetic."
"It's not like me to get so upset. I'm used to disappointments."
"Isn’t it time you stopped pretending to be so cool, calm and collected?"
"I've survived that way for so long, I've forgotten how it feels to be anything else."
"What do you know about dialectic?"
"I had a good Marxist teacher, as I'm sure you did. It has something to do with resolving contradictions: everything hasg its natural opposite, and when the tension between them gets too great, there's an explosive reaction, like a revolution, and a new order is created."
"So what's the opposite of being cool, calm and collected?"
"I don't know. Losing control? Getting angry?"
"You tell me. It's your feelings we're talking about."
Ruth was beginning to feel uncomfortable again. This man had the distressing habit of getting through her defences, and then, instead of backing off, pushing some more.
"Why do you care? What's it to you?"
"I don't know. There's something about you. A vital energy. Some kind of life force you're trying to hide, but it keeps bursting through. I felt it the first time we met - when we shook hands. Remember?"
Ruth had dismissed the feeling at the time, but now she realised it had established some kind of bond between them.
"Can I have some more of that wine?"
"Of course.... Your hands are trembling. Are you all right?"
"Yes... No.... I don't know. I'm confused.... And a little afraid."
"I'll get us something to eat. There's not much in the fridge." He went into the kitchen and looked inside. "Rye bread, eggs, salami, cheese, apples, tomatoes, and some fruit juice. I don't bother to cook for myself."
"That'll be fine. I'm not really hungry. Just suffering from an acute case of British Embassy blues."
"That's better. Your sense of humour's coming back. And they didn't actually say no. They just didn't like the terms of your offer."
"’No’ in English has an infinite number of nuances, and I feel as if we've been shoved into a corridor to sit and wait for the next person to consider our case."
"Maybe the next person will be more understanding and considerate."
"I think they clone them. It's called diplomacy, the art of saying no without causing offence."
"I always thought it was the Russians who knew how to say no with some style."
"Nyet was the one Russian word we all knew. At least its meaning was clear."
"I can teach you others."
"I'm not sure you're ready yet. Some more wine will help."
By the time Gyorgy had opened the second bottle, Ruth was laughing again. He was telling her stories about his adventures in London, interviewing British politicians and industrialists, and getting harassed by MI5."
"I think they thought I was some kind of ideological secret weapon. I kept trying to meet ordinary people, talking to them in streets and cafés. I wanted to know what it was like to be English, how you thought and felt. And what you thought of us.”
"We thought you all wore uniforms. Except for the women, who had shapeless clothes and scarves tied over their heads. And everyone was fat."
"It's not a very attractive image. What about all the happy smiling peasants? And how good we were at sport and athletics?"
"Just more evidence that fascism was alive and well, particularly in the Siberian Gulags."
"It's a relief to know that the propaganda machine was so ineffective."
"It kept you employed, and gave you quite a privileged lifestyle to judge by this flat."
"That wasn't kind. But you're right. There were no prizes for fighting the Party. You just had to be clever enough to do your own thing in a way they couldn't understand."
Ruth realised that was exactly what she was trying to do herself. To use the system to do something she cared about and believed in. No wonder she had found the meeting at the Embassy so difficult. Burton had trampled all over her dream without even knowing what he had done.
"Did you make any English friends? Real ones, people you cared about?"
"A few. I even fell in love."
"Who with? What happened?"
"A fellow journalist. We kept meeting at press conferences. And then I started dating her. It was good at the time, made my life in London less lonely."
"We drifted apart. Nothing dramatic. Just got back into our separate lives. She's married now. Got a couple of kids."
"Don't be. It wouldn't have worked as a long term relationship."
"What's made you so bitter? I have good reason to be but I'm not - at least not as far as I know. Do you realise you've told me nothing about yourself and your own life?"
"It's very boring. I work all the time."
"I'd noticed that. Why? What are you running away from?"
"Like you I have a failed marriage, but I was the one who walked away. Perhaps I can't forgive myself for doing so. I couldn't see any option at the time."
"You sound as if you're still in love with him."
"You don't stop loving people just because you can't live with them. What's so hard is I can't live without him, either."
"Where is he now?"
"Could be anywhere. He and his girl friend spend all their free time travelling. They're into crossing continents by bicycle."
"You're joking. No wonder you left."
"I enjoyed cycling, but I never got into record breaking distances. I just liked the fresh air, the wonderful views when you finally got to the top of whatever hill you were climbing, and the feeling of being part of the natural world - no noise and no fumes, provided you kept off the main roads."
"They wouldn't last long if they tried to cross Russia by bike."
"Why not? They have thought of trying it."
"Tell them not to. They'd lose the bikes first, and then their lives - from starvation or disease, if the bandits didn't get them. Why do you think we fly everywhere?"
"Because the trains are so uncomfortable."
"And the planes aren't? Let me take you to Tbilisi, and you'll be thankful to arrive safely."
They were skirting round the edges of their lives trying to find matching experiences and points of understanding. Every time the questions got close to a vulnerable area, they veered away, identifying the label on the box but not wanting to open it and look inside. They were both easier with generalisations, and with concepts rather than people. Not because they were insensitive, but because they were too sensitive. No one who's been deeply hurt is happy to volunteer twice.
Ruth was feeling stronger, and wanted to do something to stop the questions.
"Let me make you an English meal. You said you'd got cheese and bread. How about a Welsh rarebit? It's bread with toasted cheese on top. And you can add tomato and a fried egg if you want."
"I'll try anything. Provided it doesn't take long to cook, and I can come into the kitchen with you and help."
"Bring the wine. It's essential if you don't want me to burn the toast."
The kitchen was pure 1950s, especially the cooker which had solid slab electric plates which took forever to heat up. The grill was part of the oven roof, so that it could do double duty, and Ruth had to get down on her knees to see if the toast was done.
"Have you not bothered to change this or are all Russian cookers this bad?"
"It's a standard model. Most are like that."
"You must have very patient wives. It's a wonder they don't go on strike."
"They still cook wonderful meals. I never asked how."
"Male chauvinist pig."
"Of course. No Georgian man ever does any housework."
His arrogance took Ruth's breath away, but she wasn't prepared to get into an argument. She filed it away under "caution" and concentrated on making sure that the toasted cheese lived up to his expectations. He was genuinely surprised.
"It tastes really good. How can you do something so quick and simple and it turns out to be delicious?"
"It's an art form. I call it living on your wits and having only ten minutes to make an evening meal."
"You're a nutter, you know that. When I come to London I'm going to take you out to a posh restaurant and make you eat a four course dinner."
"It's a waste. Can't I just talk to you while you eat one?"
They sat at the kitchen table and finished off the wine. It was easier to talk now that they'd both admitted their broken hearts. They'd identified a zone of protection and knew how not to disturb it.
Ruth washed up while Gyorgy made some real coffee. Russian instant flavoured the water but did not actually remind you of coffee, so Ruth was quite relieved not to have to drink it. Gyorgy produced some Russian chocolates, but they decided they were made of some kind of substitute cocoa and better left untouched.
"How can you live like this, when you've travelled all over the world and stayed in some of the best hotels?"
"You must have some kind of fantasy of a journalist's life. Don't forget we cover famine, war, pestilence and revolution. The only way to get a good story is to live with the people as they do. I'm lucky to be alive. Afghanistan nearly finished me off. That was when I decided to stop following the news and become a feature writer so I could choose my own assignments."
"I'm sorry, I didn't realise. We're so used to getting everything we need from the local supermarket - pre-packaged and pre-cooked.."
"I want to show you Southern Russia. It's beautiful down in the Caucausus. We can visit my home in Georgia."
"I'd love to, but I don't know when or how. I run this consultancy company and look after a group of clients. I've also got to get this project up and running. If that comes off, then I'll be coming back here regularly."
"I'm due in London in two weeks' time. I've got some more research to do for this series of articles, and then I need some peace and quiet to write them."
Ruth knew he was wanting her to suggest they spend time together while he was in England, but she was still wary of him.
"I don't live in London. I live in a small country village in Essex. It's easy to get to London by train, and the company maintains an office there - more for its prestige image than for anything else. It gives us a good address."
"How can I reach you?"
She wrote out her office and home address, fax and telephone numbers.
"Just let me know when you're arriving. I'll make sure I've got some free time so we can meet."
"You know that's not what I mean. I want to spend my time in England with you."
Ruth's professional mask was crumbling and she was fast running out of places to hide.
"Because I like you. You're not conventionally beautiful, but you're very attractive and I want to get to know you better."
Ruth had forgotten what it felt like to be attractive. She had written herself off as far as sexual relationships were concerned, pretending she was too old to care any more.
"You're crazy. I'm a middle aged woman who can't forget her past. Why on earth do you fancy me?"
"You have that fire inside you, like a bright flame. I can see it burning, and I need your warmth and passion. We Georgians are a very passionate people. It's our Mediterranean blood."
"Now you're teasing me."
"Come next door. I want you to hear something."
In the living room he went over to the piano and began to play. It was a sad melody, full of tears for a lost love. Ruth knew that she was not going to be able to stay cool and distant much longer. Gyorgy began to sing the words, very softly and gently. It was not a language she recognised but she felt it was his own.
"That's a beautiful song. How do you always know how I'm feeling?"
"It's a Georgian folk song. A woman is mourning her lover, lost in the war. He was killed on some Russian plain far from home, and she will never see him sitting in her orchard again, watching the sun set behind the olive trees while he tastes the good wine from their vineyard. She lives in the mountains of East Georgia, the region I love most. But she does not see its beauty because of her pain. She would like to die, too, but she knows she is still alive because she can still feel the beating of her broken heart."
Music was the one area where none of Ruth's defences protected her. The plaintive sound of the piano and the sadness of the lyric touched her heart and she started to cry. She turned away and fished a tissue out of her handbag, hoping that Gyorgy would let her be for a while. When she turned round he was standing beside her. He saw the tears streaming down her face and put his arms around her. She found herself reaching up to kiss him, and knew that the flame, the energy he spoke of, was only too real. She suddenly saw, like a flash of brilliant light, a vivid memory from a book she had read as a child. She was Ayesha stepping into the Flame of Life in "She" - the time it gave her beauty and immortality; not the time it made her shrivel into a hideous old woman.
Gyorgy led her into the bedroom and undressed her gently. Intelligent, capable Ruth could not believe what was happening. But her well disciplined body took over and the energy continued to flow engulfing them both in waves of passion and taking them to a place where there were no edges, no separation, only a merging and becoming one. Even with Tom it had never been like this. There had always been a place where she could stay apart, remain outside the experience. Not any more. They lay for a long time together afterwards before either of them risked moving or saying anything.
It was Gyorgy who broke the spell first. He leaned over and ran his finger gently down her body, starting the electrical tremors all over again.
"Just testing to see if you're still alive."
"If I am, I don't know who I am any more."
"Good. I told you about that inner flame. It was just a question of finding a way to reach it."
"It was the music. I'll never forget that Georgian song."
"I said earlier that you weren't beautiful. But that's not true. You have the body of a young girl, supple and slim, and wonderfully responsive. All the pain and suffering is in your face. And that's what you use to keep people away."
"It's very effective. You're the first person who's made a serious effort to get behind the mask."
"I'm glad about that. Having found you, I'm not prepared to share you with someone else."
Ruth reached for her watch on the bedside table.
"I'm leaving today. Check-in time is three o'clock this afternoon, but it'll take a couple of hours to get out to the airport if the traffic's bad."
"How can you be so practical at one o'clock in the morning?"
"I have to be, if I'm going to pick up my life again and go on from here."
"And if you decide not to?"
"I can't. Too many people depend on me."
"Peter? He's an idiot. He's not interested in you, except as a meal ticket. He'll be off as soon as he's made some money. If he's not in a Russian jail first."
"Peter is means not ends. I need money as much as he does, but I'm beginning to recognise that I won't get any from him."
"So who needs you - apart from me?"
"My clients, who expect me to turn their companies around. Times are tough in England, and they believed me when I told them that they could survive in world markets if they concentrated on value for money and customer satisfaction instead of cost-cutting."
"There are plenty of people who can do that as well as you do."
"And there's Mischa. He needs this project, and I have to find a way to make it happen for him - and for me. The information revolution will give people a chance to to take charge of their own lives and be rid of oppressive institutions forever."
"That's an ideological struggle I do understand, and I can help you fight it. But there are two problems."
"We need time for us - for our personal lives. We've both given away too much in that area. And I have my own battle to fight, the one for my country; it's right to be free and democratic."
"Now you really do scare me. I hate wars and revolutions."
"We're hoping it won't come to that. Whatever happens, I'll be there."
Ruth was brought face-to-face with her deepest emotions - love and fear. This man challenged her at every level. She wanted to run but she didn't know if her legs would carry her. Gyorgy had captured her heart, and maybe would capture her soul, too. She needed time to think, well away from him.
"I have to get on that plane. I don't know how but I know I will. You'll be in London in two weeks' time. We'll work it out then. There's no time now; my visa's not valid after today."
"Do I frighten you?"
"Of course you do. You've knocked aside every prop on which I've built my life since I left Tom."
"You don't need them any more. Don't you feel more alive? You certainly look quite different."
"You're not helping."
"Oh, yes I am. You haven't faced the uncomfortable truth yet."
"And what's that?"
"You're in love with me. Your body told me that. And now you're running away, trying to pretend you can switch off how you feel."
Ruth thought about the beautiful Olga and how Peter had described her as a sex machine. It was a scary thought. Olga was not someone she wanted to emulate.
"I'm trying to be practical. I admit that I love you. But there's nothing I can do about it. Not now, today. I need some personal space to come to terms with what's happening. All of a sudden my life is a mess.
"If you ask me, it's just beginning to make sense."
"Maybe. Can we make love again? I need to convince myself I'm not dreaming."
BOOK ONE : RUSSIA, JUNE 1992
Ruth and Gyorgy arrived back at the Intourist Hotel around ten o'clock to find Tanya in Peter's room trying to pull him round from a major hangover. Tanya was doing an excellent job but was clearly irritated by Peter's stupidity in allowing himself to get into this state.
"He really needed you to be there yesterday," she told Ruth. "He does not let himself go like this when you are around."
"That's up to him. I can't look after him all the time. Did he lose the deal?"
"I don't think so. The negotiations got very complicated. Peter couldn't understand what was going on, so he left it to Olga, and I couldn't keep up with translating everything for him. They were talking rapid Russian, and I needed to listen very closely myself."
"Did he sign any documents?"
"Yes. They wanted his agreement to the payment for the export licence."
"Damn. I was afraid he'd do something like that. It's not legal, because he's not authorised to sign documents on behalf of the company. But it could get us and him into a lot of trouble."
Ruth was beginning to see Peter as a liability rather than as a potential asset. His boyish charm and deferential manner towards her had certainly not survived his exposure to Russia. He had lost out on all counts. Gyorgy, who had this uncanny knack of knowing what Ruth was thinking, took her hand to give her some moral support.
"You don't take on the FSB and the Mafia and win. Don't forget it's not you they want. You're a pawn in a game they're playing for much higher stakes."
Ruth wanted to apologise to both of them, and realised she was ashamed of her association with Peter.
"I'm so sorry. You've both been wonderfully helpful, and I do appreciate it. It's just that I'd hoped for so much. And now it seems that everything we came to Russia to do is falling apart at the seams."
Peter was sitting on the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. A groan told them that he was conscious and had heard what they said.
"Bloody Russians.... I thought no one could drink me under the table."
Gyorgy went over to see how ill he really was.
"You can't expect to win in the vodka stakes. They've been drinking it all their lives."
"I don't even remember what happened towards the end."
Tanya volunteered the missing data.
"All the documents were produced and everyone signed them. Olga was very calm and efficient. She hardly touched any alcohol, just played with her glass."
Peter was clearly relieved.
"That's all I needed to hear. That means the deal will go ahead, and we'll get our commission. If the oil flows regularly, we won't have to go through this kind of aggro ever again."
Ruth was not convinced.
"We'll wait and see. One thing I am sure of; you never go into any negotiations with Russians on your own again."
Peter was not so drunk that he could not put on his "little boy lost" act, which had always worked before with Ruth.
"Come on, I've delivered, haven't I? Who found Olga and got the contracts signed?"
No one was prepared to support him. It was enough that they had only a couple of hours to get him fit enough to arrive at the airport on time.
Ruth realised that she'd come to Russia for the first time in her life and bought nothing to take home with her. Her parents and the other members of her team had given her a long list of things they wanted her to buy for them. Tanya offered to take her to the Arbatt, Moscow's tourist trap and street market, but Gyorgy intervened.
"There's not enough time. You can get what you need in the airport shop. Tanya, see what you can do to get Peter on his feet. I need to talk with Ruth. We have to contact Mischa to see if he's sorted things out at the Institute."
Ruth knew she was panicking. She also knew that Gyorgy had taken charge of the situation and was helping her through it. She had not appreciated how vulnerable and exposed she would be now that she'd let go of so many of her customary defences.
The telephone rang. It was Olga, wanting to find out if Peter had recovered. She was in the hotel foyer and obviously wanted to come up. Peter made for the bathroom.
"I don't want to talk to her. She mustn't see me like this."
Ruth, rapidly regaining some of her composure, volunteered.
"I'll go and talk to her. I want to find out her version of what happened yesterday."
She was not surprised that Gyorgy chose to accompany her.
"Aren't you taking this minder job a bit too literally?" she asked him as they were travelling down in the lift together.
"When you work, I work. Don't forget I'm still after a story and this one's getting interesting."
"What's your headline? British consultant falls for Russian journalist?"
"When you stop thinking of me as Russian, we may begin to have a firmer basis for our relationship. I also think it's high time you started trusting me."
"I'm sorry. It's not really a good time for flip comments, is it?"
"No. We have to deal with the situation not argue about it."
Olga was waiting for them in the foyer.
"How's Peter? He was ill yesterday. Can I go up? I want to say goodbye before he has to leave for the airport."
"He's not well enough to see you. I'm afraid he's not used to so much vodka. But I want to talk with you. Have you time for coffee?"
Ruth wanted to find out exactly what Peter had agreed and what he had committed the company to deliver.
"Of course. I've brought copies of the contract and the agreement between our two companies."
Ruth went over the documents while Gyorgy went to the bar to order coffee. The contracts, professionally drawn up in English and Russian, promised deliveries of 40,000 metric tonnes of Urals crude every month for twelve months out of Novorossisk. Prices were linked to but lower than Brent crude, and a commission of 1 dollar per metric tonne was to be distributed to each of the three partners. The deal, if it ever happened, would bring 40,000 US dollars a month into Ruth's company; certainly not the millions Peter had hoped for but welcome nonetheless. No wonder export licences at 2 million US dollars were a mega scam. Each load would cost the buyer around $4 million, so perhaps there was a black hole somewhere in the system that Peter had failed to spot.
Ruth asked Olga if these were the usual commissions for brokering an oil deal, and why people felt they were so worthwhile.
"Once you're involved and able to move large quantities, the commissions soon mount up. But margins on oil are relatively small. The major profits are elsewhere."
"Some of the rare earths. There's a big trade in scandium at the moment, for example. People increasingly look for specialised, high value products that are a great deal easier to transport than oil. Yuri and Sergei say they can arrange for osmium to be specially manufactured if Peter can find a suitable buyer. It costs $60,000 a gramme and sells at $75,000, so you can see how much money can be made from the 2-3 kilogrammes they want Peter to sell."
Ruth was doing calculations in her head. This income was beyond anything she and Peter had projected. What was osmium, she wondered, and why was it so expensive? Gyorgy returned with the coffee and Olga indicated that she did not want to say any more. Clearly, she did not trust him with such confidential information.
"I have your telephone and Fax numbers, and Peter has agreed that as soon as he finds a buyer, he will invite me to London. It is essential that I meet with your contacts there personally. We need to establish their credibility and assure ourselves that they can provide the necessary bank guarantees and Letters of Credit for such high value deals."
Ruth was deeply concerned. She would have to find out quickly precisely what these rare earths were and in what products they were used. And how could Peter, from among his broker friends, find genuine traders who would be prepared to divulge their buyer's names and credit standing? Olga stood up, her message and the contract papers delivered. Ruth suspected that she wanted to make sure that the significance of yesterday's meeting had been received and understood.
"I have to get back to the office. Have a good journey. I look forward to seeing you in London."
She left as cool and elegant as ever, untouched by the experience.
"What was that all about?" Gyorgy wanted to know.
"I'm not sure, except that it makes me very uneasy. It seems that the oil deal is just a taster for something potentially much more lucrative."
"I was afraid of that. Please be careful. You're getting involved with some very unpleasant people. Can't you kill off the trading side of your business?"
"I'll try. I have to check up on exactly what's involved myself first."
"Take my advice and do it quickly as soon as you get back to England."
Ruth and Gyorgy went up to her room to pack her things and call Mischa. His was much better, more positive news.
"We already have the financial support from the Russian Government to go ahead with the science park for the Institute, and Zhukov has agreed that we can apply for Know-how funding for that project. It does not give us what we wanted, but it means we can still work together."
"I'll try to raise the money somehow."
"We just have to be patient and not give up hope. I'll be at the airport to say goodbye."
Gyorgy put his arms round her and kissed her. They were clinging to each other like a couple of kids. He spoke first.
"This is crazy. I don't want to let you go."
"It's just two weeks. Look at all the things I have to sort out."
"I'll let you know my flight time. Can you meet me at Heathrow?"
He wrote out his 'phone number and shoved it in her handbag.
"You can reach me anytime. It's a special satellite line and will get to me direct."
"You're not helping me put my shell back in place."
"You don't need it any more."
"Oh, yes I do. Everyone who knows me in London will think I've flipped if I turn up like this."
"I reserve my right to be the only person who can unzip the shell."
"That's no problem. Even I don't know how you got in."
* * *
Sheremetyovo Airport was its usual chaotic mass of people running round like headless chickens. It no longer seemed so shabby and run down and Ruth realised that she had got used to the way everything in Russia had that same aura of neglect. Ruth had to fill in the customs declaration forms for both herself and Peter, who was still leaning on Tanya waiting for the world to end. Mischa and Marina arrived with some gifts - a beautiful hand painted wooden box and a bottle of champagnski. Ruth wished she'd had time to buy them presents but promised she'd bring something English with her next time she came. Tanya, too, slipped a small package into her hand. She was crying, and Ruth realised that they were all feeling very emotional. Amid all the kisses and warm farewells, she felt suddenly a stranger in her own country. How could she go back to the English way of keeping people at a safe distance?
Gyorgy said nothing. He just made sure their bags got on to the right check-in and that they had passports and papers ready. His eyes told Ruth how he was feeling and she only dared to look at him once or twice. Their hands touched and then the contact was gone. Ruth and Peter were through the barrier and moving towards passport control. Peter was swaying and Ruth put her hand under his arm to support him across what felt like a very long walk for both of them. The young uniformed official on the desk looked at them both suspiciously but let them through. If he had reservations, it was too much effort to bother to check up on them. Ruth steered Peter towards the Irish Bar as the only place she could leave him while she did some shopping. She sat him down and got him a coffee, hoping he would have the good sense to stay put.
The airport shop was full of expensive rubbish, much of it Western. Ruth bought some red champagnski and a Moscow Metro sweatshirt for one of her colleagues. A small painted box would please her mother, and her father would be content just to see her back home in one piece. By the time she got back to the Irish Bar Peter had bought himself a Guiness and was sitting staring at it.
"Is that a good idea in your fragile state?" Ruth asked him.
"Hair of the dog. It'll replace lost vitamins and stop me feeling so dehydrated. Anyway, it's good for you."
"Just make sure you get on the ‘plane. I can't carry you if you collapse."
"I'm feeling much better. I was very sick last night, so I got rid of most of the alcohol. I have stabbing pains and a thoroughly upset digestion. I need something to line my stomach."
Their flight was called and Peter got to his feet. The Guinness really did seem to have brought about a dramatic recovery. They got to the right gate by asking everyone they passed who looked like a Brit on foreign soil. There was no indication of flight number or destination, but at least there was a gathering of what looked like the sort of people who'd want to go to Heathrow. Ruth sat down to wait for the flight to be called and realised how exhausted she was. So much had happened during their few days in Moscow, and she neeed time to absorb it all, to come to terms with her new identity. She didn't want to go back into her shell, but she was afraid that, if she didn't, she wouldn't be able to sustain the cool, efficient consultant role which had kept her going through the years since Tom. She wondered if there was any significant difference between falling apart and falling in love. At this point in time it didn't feel like it.
Peter had surfaced enough to notice her existence.
"You look different. What's up with you?"
"I'm fine. Just very tired and suffering from culture shock."
"It looks more like withdrawal symptoms to me. I can't say Russia is my kind of place, but you seemed to go for it in a big way."
"I can't get over how warm and friendly everyone is. Tanya was crying when we left."
"She's probably wondering where her next two hundred dollars is coming from."
"You're a rat and a cynic. I think she really liked us. She certainly needn't have helped us as she did when those con artists were trying to extract the two million dollars."
"Gyorgy certainly fell for you in a big way. Did he get you into bed?"
Peter's directness had always disturbed Ruth. She couldn't stand the thought of his big feet and leering glances stamping all over her relationship with Gyorgy.
"Of course not. We're just good friends."
"Pull the other one. I think he got to you. And I should know. I've been trying for long enough."
It was the first time Ruth had ever heard Peter say he'd fancied her sexually. She really had a bomb proof defence system. What would she do if it wasn't there any more? There were distinct advantages to wearing male repellent in her world of work.
The flight was boarding and they moved towards the barrier. Once seated, Peter collapsed into a deep sleep. Ruth was free again to explore her feelings and find out who, if anyone, was left after her exposure to Gyorgy. She had three and a half hours to adjust to being a different person. The quiet efficiency of the BA flight stewards and the clean, well furbished surroundings helped her to relax. This was England, safe and familiar. She understood most of the conversations going on around her and bought herself a bottle of duty free Chanel in the hope that it would make her feel better when she got home. Even the free copy of the Daily Mail, which she would normally never read, offered some reassurance that her home country still existed and that all the usual nonsense had been going on in her absence.
What do you do when your life doesn't make sense any more? Who can you tell about it? Certainly not Peter snoring beside her. She tried not to think of Gyorgy, but images of him and of their brief time together kept flooding her mind. Who was this man and why was he so important to her? It was like those stories of instant recognition which you read about but which never happen to you. She'd always been interested in reading about past lives and reincarnation. But a slim, dark, passionate Georgian? Was she crazy? She'd had trouble enough introducing a working class Yorkshire Tom to her family and friends. They'd all disliked him intensely and the feeling was mutual.
What should she do with Gyorgy when he arrived in England? Where could they go? Her instinct was to find somewhere no one knew them, like Wales or Scotland, and just spend time getting to know one another. Why was he coming to England? What commitments and friends did he have? She realised she knew nothing about about his usual life style. A journalist travelled all the time and got involved in major disasters and scary events. She'd probably never see him from one month's end to the next.
Sensible Ruth was having a hard time coming to terms with passionate Ruth, who'd fallen deeply in love with a stranger, and was now in turmoil wondering what to do about it. There, she'd admitted it. She was in love and everything had changed. It was like the movies: everything had been in black and white and now it was in glorious technicolor. The only problem - was it real? She could back off and pretend it had all been a bad dream; retreat before anything worse happened. The problem with risk-taking was that there were no guarantees. You did or you didn't do it, and no one could tell you whether you'd live or die afterwards. Ruth's mind was exploding with memories, snatches of songs which had touched her deeply in the past, places where she had been happy, glimpses of her childhood when she and her brother had built forts and played soldiers up and down the garden. Was that where she'd got her dislike of fighting and wars from? How could she live with a man who was always risking his own life because of his work? Would he give it up? She couldn't imagine it despite what he had said about Afghanistan. The images she had seen on television of that particular war would be enough to deter anyone. Do you recover from such experiences? He seemed so confident and together. Was there a dark side to his nature as there had been with Tom?
Ruth decided to stop speculating and concentrate on the here and now. She was suspended in space somewhere over Berlin, and they were about to leave the former Communist block with all its problems and get back to a Western Europe going into a major recession and not really prepared to help anyone else until it had saved its own skin. The huge gulf in living standards would not be of concern to her fellow countrymen. There were too many people in England sleeping on the streets for anyone to care about those doing the same in Moscow.
She remembered John Burton and the arrogant way he had dismissed her request to train Russian managers. Who needs them? The important issues were food, transport and energy. And above all the banks. In a Capitalist system what really counted was money - who had it and who didn't; and making sure that anyone who had it could make some more. Was she a servant of that system or its victim? Was she caught in the same trap, trying to make money out of oil and osmium? None of it was comforting. Only Gyorgy seemed real and what he did important. Then she remembered the nature of contradiction. Opposing forces held each other in place until such time as the tension was too great and they broke apart into a new order which itself was full of contradictions. That had happened with the Wall, and now it was happening with her own life. Was she strong enough to withstand the pressure? Would she crack and, if so, when?
They were coming in to land at Heathrow, and the familiar bump told her they were safely down. She had to put her brave face on again and get on with her life. She had two weeks before Gyorgy arrived to throw everything into confusion once more. It was good to find that airport trolleys did exist and Customs men let you through the Green Channel without questioning you. What would it be like to live in a world without borders? Would the European Union ever get its act together sufficiently for her to find out? Was the New World Order a place where being an international citizen meant exactly what it said?
Peter went off to the underground and Ruth picked up her car from the Long Stay Park. By the time she reached home it was dark, but her cottage was still beautiful in the shadows, and the country air fresh and clean. She pulled back the curtains so she could watch the stars and fell into bed.
"Come back to me soon," she found herself saying to an invisible Gyorgy before she curled herself round a pillow and fell asleep.