Authors: James Barrington
To Sally–for always and everything
16 November 1989, 0400 – 0600 local time
Skel’ki, Prichernomorskaya Nizmennost’ district, Ukraine
The KGB came to the village of Skel’ki, on the southern shore of the Kakhovskoye Vdkhr, as they had always done, in the hours before dawn.
The bitter easterly wind had picked up snow in its passage over Kazakhstan, and the officer in charge – a young captain – had ordered the snow chains to be fitted before the cars had
covered even half the distance from the KGB headquarters in Vasil’yevka. In the village, the wind moaned and howled around that cluster of buildings, leaving deep drifts in the lee of
anything that provided a shelter. The few cars and lorries in the settlement had been turned into anonymous white lumps, and the two slow-moving black saloons left clear tracks in the snow as they
crunched and rattled over the poor road surfaces.
The small grey concrete apartment building stood on the western edge of the village, where the farmland intruded into the built-up area. Identification of the building was easy – the
informer had described it very accurately – and the KGB cars circled it once before they parked, one vehicle at the front and one at the rear entrance. The drivers stayed in the cars to keep
the engines running and the heaters on, and also to stop anyone trying to leave the building. Although the absence of any lights suggested that it was an unlikely eventuality.
Within the USSR, it was said that the KGB always operated in groups of at least three. The logic behind this assumption was that, if faced with any temptation, one man alone might succumb to it,
two men together might conspire to do so, but the third would always inform. Whatever the truth, the group that had arrived to arrest Pavel Ostapenko comprised six burly KGB men.
They climbed the stairs to the third floor, then headed softly along the passageway until they reached the second door on the left. There, the captain paused and took out his automatic pistol.
He carefully moved back the slide, chambering a round, before he gestured to his men to prepare. One of them hefted a sledgehammer, while the other four pulled metre-long clubs from inside their
The officer held up his left hand, three fingers extended, and silently mouthed a countdown. When his last finger vanished into his fist, he nodded, and the man with the sledgehammer swung it at
the door lock. With a splintering of wood, the lock gave way. As the implement was withdrawn, another KGB man lashed out with his foot and the door swung violently inwards. One and half seconds
later, all six were inside the tiny flat.
Pavel Ostapenko sat up in bed with a start, as the door splintered, and stretched out his hand towards the light switch, though he needn’t have bothered. The bedroom light came on
instantly and, before Ostapenko could react further, one of the KGB men had reached the bed and jabbed him viciously in the solar plexus with one end of his club.
As Ostapenko tumbled, gasping and helpless, to the floor, his wife began to scream. The captain slapped her hard across the face, breaking a tooth and starting a nose bleed. She struggled to her
feet, holding a hand over her face, and staggered towards her daughter’s bed in the corner of the room. The eight-year-old girl watched in silent horror, eyes wide and mouth open, at this
invasion of her parental home, then she clung to her mother with an unnatural strength born of sheer terror.
Two of the KGB men dragged Pavel Ostapenko to his feet and pinned him against the bedroom wall, while another systematically beat him about the chest and abdomen with his fists. Marisa and her
daughter watched, helpless, as his thin body quivered under the savage blows.
Finally, at a sharp command from the captain, the two men holding Ostapenko bent him forward, lowering his head so that yet another could take a swing at it with his club. The weapon descended,
but, at the last moment, Ostapenko moved his head slightly, and the club cracked his collarbone instead of meeting the back of his skull. Ostapenko screamed shrilly, and the two released him,
letting him collapse on the floor.
The captain strode across the tiny room to where Ostapenko now lay, kicked him hard in the lower back, and then in the stomach – blows which seemed to have little effect on the prostrate
Ukrainian – and then he turned away.
‘Who are you?’ Marisa Ostapenka stammered, the words slurring from smashed and broken lips.
‘Captain Yevgeni Zharkov, KGB,’ the officer snapped in response. ‘And this man’ – he gestured contemptuously behind him – ‘is under arrest for
‘What . . . ? What has he done?’
‘He was overheard criticizing the Party’s ten-year plan, and also the performance of the manager of the Mikhaylovka Collective Farm.’
Marisa Ostapenka shook her head. ‘He didn’t . . .’ she began. And then she stopped, appalled at what she’d just said.
The captain eyed her steadily, the beginnings of a smile playing around his thin lips. ‘You are not suggesting, comrade, that we are wrong, I hope?’
‘No, no,’ she cried, desperately shaking her head, but she already knew it was too late.
‘Pick him up,’ the officer ordered, and the semiconscious Ostapenko was again shoved up against the wall. They kicked his legs apart and took a firm grip on him. ‘We’ll
ask the man himself.’
Taking a club from one of his men, the captain rammed the end of it under Ostapenko’s chin, forcing his head back. ‘A question for you, Ukrainian,’ he snarled. ‘You do
not even have to speak, just give a nod if what I say is true.’ Zharkov withdrew the club and stood back. ‘Are you,’ he began softly, ‘guilty in any way of anti-Soviet
Before Ostapenko could answer, even if capable of doing so, the officer thrust the club up, in a vicious underarm arc, into the Ukrainian’s groin. Ostapenko’s eyes and mouth opened
wide with the severity of the blow and, despite the straining grip of the two KGB men, his body doubled up in agony.
‘There,’ the officer said, offering a bleak smile to the woman and child. ‘We asked him the question, and he admitted to his crime. That was a nod, wasn’t it?’ he
The KGB men were all smiling broadly, knowing how to play the Georgian captain’s little games. ‘I’m not sure that was a nod, Comrade Captain,’ one of them said. ‘I
sort of think he shook his head.’
‘Oh, really?’ the officer replied. ‘Then perhaps we’d better ask him again.’
‘No, no, please . . . please don’t.’ Marisa fell to her knees in front of the KGB officer, her daughter dropping by her side. ‘Yes, he nodded. We all saw it.’
The captain bent down towards her. This business was becoming more amusing with every minute that passed. ‘You’re probably right,’ he said gently, ‘but I think we’d
better ask again, just to make certain.’
He stood up, gestured to his men, and then again swung the club. As before, Ostapenko doubled over, and then fell unconscious to the floor. His pyjama bottoms were stained crimson with the blood
pouring from his ruptured scrotum, and the bedroom wall he had been held against was now stained and splattered with gore.
‘Now, that was definitely a nod.’
Marisa Ostapenka had retreated sobbing to a corner of the room and was crouching on the floor, with her eyes tightly shut. The captain stared at her with disappointment: it didn’t look as
if there was much further entertainment to be found in this apartment tonight.
He turned back to his men. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘get him into the car. You’d better wrap him in something warm – it’s snowing outside and we wouldn’t want
him catching cold, would we?’ His men chuckled dutifully. ‘It’s bad enough that we had to restrain him so forcefully, for resisting arrest,’ he added. As two of the KGB men
dragged the unconscious Ostapenko towards the door, the captain called after them. ‘And make sure he doesn’t bleed all over the seats.’
In fact, Ostapenko wouldn’t bleed for much longer, because he was already in the process of dying and would be dead long before the KGB cars got back to Vasil’yevka. The savage kicks
delivered by the captain to his back and stomach had ruptured the man’s liver and right kidney, causing massive internal bleeding. The combination of shock, pain and cold would do the
At the door, the officer turned and looked back into the bedroom. The young girl, he noticed, had not made a sound since they had burst into the apartment, but had watched everything, with wide
blue eyes. She remained kneeling beside her mother, her arms around the older woman, but her eyes were locked on his.
After a moment, the captain dropped his gaze, unable to face her any longer, then shrugged his shoulders and followed his men out of the door.
The officer was a Georgian, who had only been stationed in the Ukraine for a few months. He had never bothered getting to know anything about the local inhabitants, regarding them almost as a
conquered people, subjects to be monitored and kept in order by the KGB, who were Russia’s ‘sword and shield’. He knew he would be moving on within a couple of years, his future
postings taking him ever closer to Moscow, and that was all he really cared about.
He didn’t know that the Ukrainians can bear grudges, sometimes lasting for generations, and nor would he have cared even if he did. Marisa Ostapenka was purebred Ukrainian, as was her
daughter, and, as they tried to rebuild the ruins of their lives in the months and years which followed that dreadful night, they would be driven by a single, unspoken purpose . . .
Russians may have long memories, but the memories of Ukrainians are longer still.
The present day – Wednesday
Old Admiralty Building, Spring Gardens, London
‘Look,’ Paul Richter said, exasperation showing in his voice, ‘I don’t even know why I’m here.’
‘Yes, you do,’ Baldwin replied. ‘You’re here because you need a job.’
Gerald Baldwin was tall and spare, with a hooked nose and deep-set eyes, and he looked like a senior naval officer in mufti. Despite this, he was actually a colonel in a tank regiment, and
Richter still didn’t really know why he was sitting in front of him.
In the afternoon sunshine, the room was oppressively hot, for all the windows were tightly closed. Baldwin didn’t seem to notice but, if you’ve spent most of your working life jammed
into a tiny unventilated armoured steel box that you share with two or three other men and a twelve-cylinder internal combustion engine, the discomfort of a warm day in London is going to be barely
‘Not a particularly impressive record, Mr Richter,’ Baldwin remarked, glancing down at the file lying open on the desk in front of him. ‘Just over twenty years in the Navy, and
you leave as only a middle-seniority lieutenant commander. An early promotion to lieutenant, but after that the drive seemed to go, and you didn’t even make it to two and a half until your
fourth selection board.’
‘I had some personality clashes,’ Richter said.
Baldwin favoured him with a brief smile. ‘The word used here in your file,’ he said, ‘is insubordination.’
Richter shrugged. ‘It doesn’t matter much what you call it,’ he said. ‘I was working for an illiterate idiot. I knew it and everyone else knew it. What I shouldn’t
have done was call him an illiterate idiot to his face.’
‘No,’ Baldwin agreed, ‘and especially not in the middle of the Yeovilton Wardroom bar on a Friday lunchtime, with half the senior officers from Flag Officer Naval Aviation
standing there watching.’
‘That shouldn’t be on file,’ Richter said.
‘It isn’t,’ Baldwin replied, another smile slowly forming, ‘but word gets around.’
‘So,’ Richter said, ‘good timing was never one of my virtues.’
Baldwin went back to the file. ‘Seems you’ve got no real qualifications,’ he observed.
‘Are you trying to cheer me up, or what? Most of the skills anyone learns in the services are completely useless on the outside.’
‘Not necessarily,’ Baldwin said. ‘You still have some abilities that could be in demand.’
‘Like what?’ Richter asked.