At 8AM on December 8th, 1993, my Russian Federation partner, Valeriy Solovyev, stepped out of his elevator and was hit with three bullets fired at point blank range. (See “Death and Life at The Palace of Culture”, “Head of the Table” and …….). The experience at the Northern St. Petersburg cemetary was a rare one indeed ….
The hand was rigid and white as though it, too, was covered with hoarfrost. The arm that supported it was held stiff and steady, without a tremor. The photograph held in the hand showed the twinkle in Valeriy’s eyes, the cheer in his ruddy, round cheeks, the little-boy smile above his thick wrestler’s neck and below his shiny, sparsely-covered pate. The temperature was 20 below zero celsius, but the hand stayed steadfast. So did its owner, Igor Klemenov, who allowed the tears to freeze upon his emotionless face as the bearers slowly lowered Solovyev’s boxed and eternity-bound body into the six cubic meter hole in the frozen Leningrad ground.
None of us could turn our gaze from the picture held in that frozen hand as each of us, even more slowly and ritualistically, took our turn and tipped shovel full after shovel full of red Leningrad soil on top of what remained of the leader all had loved.
A small group of five inconspicuous musicians, oversized Russian military coats trailing over their shoes, intoned their brassy final dirge. Bass and trap drums set the mournful cadence. The tuba boomed balefully. The slide trombone wailed woefully. And, the bugle cried out its angry loss to the cold white heavens above.
At 3pm, it was done. The final shovel load tapped across the bulging overfilled grave. Elaborate floral displays were placed, layer upon layer upon layer, over the freshly turned soil, as though to shield Valerie Solovyev from the chill.
Then, dozens of loyal and loving company ladies went to the waiting buses, pulled out long planks and placed them on wooden boxes for support and covered them with old newspapers. A length of some 20 meters of such tables were set with paper plates and plastic glasses, about 200 paper bags full of a simple feast of cheese and sausage sandwiches, and 150 half liter bottles of decent quality Russian vodka.
It had been a long cold day and all of us, though emotionally drained, were physically hungry and psychologically thirsty for the soothing spirits.
It was also now time for social dialogue. The company’s mechanical engineer slid up to me, opened his heavy coat revealing one of Mikhail Timofeevich Kalashnikov’s famed AK-47s and said, “Mr. Byrne, we must find and destroy the assassins, we have the weapons.” (A few years later, Samuel L. Jackson in “Jackie Brown” would say “Ah, here we go. The AK-47. When you absolutely, positively have to kill every motherfucker in a room … accept no substitute.”)
“And, I have the money”, I replied, although I didn’t know exactly what I meant by that.
But, I took note that on that frosty day in that white-on-white cemetery, there were bulging dark coats every twenty to thirty meters.
Boris Shlemov, the slippery sycophant assistant to Solovyev sidled up to me and asked in broken English, “Can trust your Veronica, nyet?”.
“With my life”, I assured him. I summoned her and, through her interpretation, Boris spoke in very hushed and nervous manner (looking over his shoulder after every sentence), saying, “There is something most secret, Solovyev wanted you to know. Something, he said, I must tell only to you. It can’t be here. But it must be soon. And, no one must know we have met.”
I suggested that, this being Saturday, he come to see me Monday, early in the day at my apartment. He nodded without speaking as though he had already said too much and turned abruptly away, disappearing into the crowd of mourners.
Elena Drobiaska, Solovyev’s devoted mistress was still not in very good shape and was still being propped up, but now by two relatives, not as earlier, by her handsome young husband who stood nearby. Sergei was a professional photographer, an artist with the lens. His wife’s good job helped support his exhibitions and helped buy his western equipment and supplies. Also, as many Russian artists and unlike his wife, he spoke English with barely an accent. I walked over to him and said, “Sergei, you are the most controlled man I have ever met. You have been so gracious during this day, so understanding of your wife’s relationship with her boss, that I must say I admire your patience.” He answered, “Solovyev was good to her. I should have no complaints, but I appreciate what you say. You are the first person who has realized that I may have feelings in this matter.” That made sense to me having learned about that certain detachment from the troubles of others engrained in the Russian soul.
Neither of us mentioned the cognac kiss with tongue his wife and I had shared just a few hours before at the Palace of Culture. I shook his hand while gripping his shoulder and then walked off, calling Veronica to come help me comfort Elena once more.
Gregory Barinberg blocked our path. “Jack, that bitch whore does not deserve your sympathy. She took all she could from our beloved leader, sucked Solovyev senseless, blew out his eyes, rolled him in the hay like some farm pig, devoured his time, drained his purpose, shattered his loyalties, splattered his brains no less effectively than the bullets that put him to rest.” Veronica was brilliant in conveying Gregory’s Russian-rich invectives. “But, we will not let the spirit of Solovyev die. We would be honored if you would join us at our factory tonight at a special gathering of his most important friends and closest associates. We want to honor our great chief and father, to celebrate his far-too-short life, to testify to his genius and to agree to follow the path he has paved before us!”
I agreed to attend.
Elena Drobiaska overheard my agreement and became outraged and frightened.
“Jack, Jack”, she implored, once more fingering my coat and wrapping it tight around me to help drive out the 20-below chill, saying, “Do not enter the den of those devils, Barinberg and Kogan. They were not in the dream, only you and Solovyev and me were in the dream. They want to destroy the dream as surely as they want to destroy me. And, you will be burned in their fire, as well. They want you under their power. But, you are a powerful man and you have powerful alliances. Use your strength while you can. They are still afraid of you. But, by becoming their friend, you will set up your own destruction. These devils will never function with you as equals. Either they will fear you or they will control you. And, when they control you, in that Jewish Cossack Barinberg’s own words, they will crush you.”
I knew this about Russians, I would expect nothing less. But, Elena was every bit as Russian as her two male rivals. And, knowing weakness was the last trait to show a Russian. I replied with sheer bravado. And, in Veronica’s tongue, reflecting my confident smile, said, “Elena Aleckseva, I respect your advice for you are a very smart woman and you have survived a long time with strong men around you. But, it is possible you still underestimate me. I may be stronger than you assume. My alliances may be even stronger than you could imagine. Barinberg and Kogan will function with me as equals or they will not, but that is their decision and their concern, not mine.”
I sensed she was trying to see if I was speaking truth or “vanya” (the “lie” that the speaker would like the listener to accept as “truth”).
“But, they are my partners now, and I will want to see them succeed in our mutual enterprise as much as myself.” Her eyes were a deer’s in the headlights again. So, I added, “I am sure you will be in all of our plans.”
Although I wasn’t.
And, Elena knew that.
The last look from her eyes projected more anger than timidity.
That night, I attended the memorial feast at Optica. (See “Head of the Table”)