21st Century Life Imitates Cold War Art

It's pretty easy to argue that the latest Russian moves are old wine in new jugs. After all, this sort of stuff was almost routine during the Soviet era. So much so that any self-respecting Cold War novelist would have a similar threat floating around somewhere in one of his works. For instance, check out the following excerpt, Chapter 13 of Switchback: A Nick Temple File, written, by yours truly, a couple of years before the events in Ukraine started to unfold. Note the references to Crimea, Ukraine, the Black Sea, and American impotence. Just sayin'.

CHAPTER 13

THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN

Colonel Yevgeny Roznecheko – the stout, some would say plump, uniformed KGB chief political officer for its Western Section – sits at his desk barely reading a file. He is in his late 50s, and he’s a survivor of revolution, civil war, famine, world wars, and countless purges. Indeed, more than merely surviving, as millions of Russians could have claimed, Roznechenko managed to turn each cataclysmic world event to his personal advantage. And now, as he daydreams about retirement, as his thoughts turn freely to his wife’s eventual arrest, exile, and execution, as he conjures images of his golden years on the warm beaches of the Crimean in a Communist Party villa he and his mistress have already selected, he is certain of one thing: his future in the byzantine world of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party is as secure as it can be. He has spent most of the last 40 years, when others were attending to petty matters such as the Ukrainian famine or the German invasion, securing his present and future through a vast web of connections, bribes, dossiers, and fawning underlings. He feels destined to die peacefully, a boast not many around him can claim with any certainty.

His daydreaming is interrupted by the entrance of Vasily Malenkov. Malenkov is smoking. He wears a dark two-piece suit with a white handkerchief in his breast pocket. He is immaculately groomed, and, to Roznechenko’s disgust, his manners are impeccable. As such, it is his duty to speak first.

“Good morning, Comrade Colonel.”

“Good morning, Vasily Ivanovitch. Please sit down.”

Malenkov sits in one of the two chairs in front of the Colonel’s desk. Both chairs are upholstered in fine Italian leather, a detail sharply familiar to the urbane Malenkov. He takes another drag on the cigarette letting the smoke escape from his mouth before pulling it in through his nostrils.

“Our American friend gave us another name. This one in Copenhagen.” Roznechenko is alert to any reaction from Malenkov to the news of imminent bloodshed. He knows that murder is part of his colleague’s résumé, and that Malenkov’s gentlemanly demeanor is a thin veneer for a cold-blooded killer. In spite of that, Roznechenko is still on the lookout for a weakness that might be of use to him someday.

Malenkov knows to remain nonplussed and direct. He gestures towards the ashtray on Roznechenko’s desk.

“May I?”

“Of course.”

Malenkov extinguishes the cigarette. As he does, he asks, “And?”

“Of course, we will act on it, like the others.”

Malenkov decides to risk an observation.

“That’s five in as many days. How long do you think the Americans will stand for this?” The decision is an uncharacteristically poor one.

“The Americans are cowards!” Roznechenko thunders. “They have no stomach for this! We must build on our successes. We crushed the Hungarians, the Americans showed their cowardice in the Suez, Sputnik circles the globe! The Soviet Union is marching forward, planting the banner of socialism in frontiers never before imagined, yet you worry about the spineless Americans! Sometimes all you have to do is break wind and the Americans move an entire fleet. And then what? Nothing! They do nothing!” Roznechenko pounds his hands on his desk as he rises from his chair during his well-rehearsed tirade.

Malenkov, who remains calm throughout the explosion that has likely been repeated at any number of meetings, recovers from his ill-considered observation.

“Of course, Comrade Colonel. I simply wonder when they will begin to strike back and who the targets will be. Tit for tat, as it has always been. You’ll agree, of course, we have assets to protect that are useful for, shall we say, our larger aims.”

“The old rules are gone. It is a new era. The Americans are in no mood for World War III, and that is what they will risk if they retaliate.”

Roznechenko returns to his seat, whatever effect his having risen and lectured Malenkov having subsided.

Malenkov knows that if there are “new rules” then Roznechencko most likely has a keen understanding of them. The Colonel’s survival and uninterrupted ascendance are legendary in KGB and Communist Party circles.

Malenkov decides he must save some face.

“But it is the same game.”

Roznechenko once again rises from his chair, slowly this time partly out of deference to his portly condition, and partly for effect, to indicate that he, Comrade Colonel Yevgeny Roznecheko, an official hero of the Soviet Union, a decorated veteran of the Great War for the Fatherland, decides when meetings are over.

“I only told you of this as a courtesy. You will need to take whatever precautions you deem necessary. Belyofsky has the information as well and has been ordered to see that the sanction is carried out.”

Malenkov stands up and, with an overly polite gesture, almost a bow, that he knows will irritate Roznechenko, he defers.

“Of course, Comrade Colonel. And I am most grateful for the courtesy of this meeting. I bid you good day.”

“Remember, Vasily Ivanovitch, you are to take those actions you think prudent in light of this development.”

Covering his ass, as always. Maybe I can make him squirm, Malenkov thinks to himself.

“What would you have me do, Comrade Colonel?”

“Why are you asking me how to do your job? Enough!”

Malenkov, certain that Roznechenko will provide nothing concrete so that in the event the operation goes south he can claim he ceded authority and was all along unaware of the operation’s clumsy particulars, sees no point in persisting. He clicks his heels, nods slightly, turns, and exits.

Roznechenko sits again and, with little else to do that day, returns to dreaming of the languid nights on the Black Sea waiting for him at the end of his long, dark career.