Chapter 36, in which we meet the men behind the missiles
“Dmitri! Wait for me.”
Dmitri stops until his friend catches up.
“Give me a cigarette.”
Dimitri hands his friend a cigarette. They smoke as they walk.
“Where are you going?”
“To the gulag.”
“Don’t joke. Besides, there isn’t any more gulag.”
“Okay, then, Yuri. You tell me why the KGB wants to talk to me.”
“I don’t know why anyone would want to talk to you. I used to enjoy my life. Then I made the mistake one day of talking to you.”
“I see. Then it is you who has denounced me. That is why the KGB is so interested in me all of a sudden.”
“Fool. They’re talking to everyone in the regiment.”
“Then we’re all going to the gulag.”
“Maybe the rest of us, but the KGB would never send you.”
“I’m not even good enough for the gulag?”
“They’re afraid you’d destroy morale!”
“Now that’s something I’ll drink to.”
“A huge surprise, my friend.”
With that the two life-long friends–both of them mechanics serving in the second regiment of the 43rd Guards Rocket Division of the 43rd Red Banner Rocket Army of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces–share a laugh on their way back to the motor pool to finish another round of scheduled maintenance on the regiment’s trailers for its R-12, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
The 43rd Guards Rocket Division, headquartered outside of the northern Ukrainian town of Romny, finds itself host to more than the usual contingent of KGB officers these days. The division’s brass has instructed the regimental commanders to make their missile crews available for interviews by the KGB to determine each crew’s suitability for an important training mission. What that mission is, no one can say, because as of the summer of 1962, no one at division level or below knows.
What the division’s three regimental commanders do know is that the mission involves transporting their men and equipment via rail to the Black Sea port of Sevastopol near the southern end of the Crimean Peninsula. They also know that once they are in Sevastopol special units of stevedores temporarily attached to the division will load the regiments’ equipment onto civilian freighters commandeered specifically for their mission. And they know that once all men and materiel are at sea, they will finally be given detailed orders about their mission. Until then, it will be their job as commanders to manage the men’s discipline and morale in the face of constantly shifting rumors and speculation. Fortunately, the amount of work required to prepare for the unprecedented move is nothing short of extraordinary, leaving Dmitri Bogdonevitch, Yuri Belyavski and the more than 500 men of their missile regiment, men who think nothing of working around the most sophisticated and destructive weapons their country has produced, little time for idle chatter.