(Eastern Germany 14 April, 1945)
A red flag flew from an improvised flagpole in front of the villa. Below it fluttered the regimental Headquarters flag of the 337th Engineer Battalion. Neither the regiment nor the battalion existed. American jeeps and a pair of trucks were parked in the mud. The villa had a security detachment of Cossack cavalry who were camped on the high ground which had once been a potato field. Their steppe ponies sought out green shoots of grass and were saddled with their girths loose. The cavalrymen watched their animals, smoked Majorca and cleaned their carbines for the hundredth time. An old Cossack sergeant watched the two American jeeps turn off the road and onto the muddy drive that led to the villa. The sentry waved them past and the sergeant watched as the jeeps rolled to a halt. Their occupants wore Red Army tanker uniforms but they were bereft of armor. They were all officers, the sergeant noticed and none of them had stains of grease or oil on their trousers. The oldest of the men was a major, and only he entered the villa. The more junior officers stretched their legs and loitered about the jeeps, immediately they extracted American cigarettes from their pockets and lit them with lighters instead of matches. All of the men were wearing semi-automatic pistols, the sergeants heart began to sink, but the tanker corps were only issued revolvers. An involuntary shudder went through the man and he casually began to distance himself from their presence. These people, he realized, were not in the Red Army. Nor were they even NKVD, had they been they would be wearing security forces uniforms. No, the sergeant shook his head, these people were Smersh. The female Colonel in the villa, the “Crazy woman,” as the Cossacks had already nicknamed her was probably no Colonel. It did not matter. She was something far worse than any Red Army Colonel. She could sign hundreds of death warrants with a stroke of her pen.
Zoya Rybinka wore the uniform of a Red Army full Colonel and as her visitor, “Major,” Yablov entered the villa’s second floor she jumped to her feet drunk on exhaustion, vodka and adrenaline. “Comrade,” She threw out her arms, Yablov had never seen her so elated. “Zhukov has crossed the Oder River in force! Germany is ours!” She hugged him and leaned against his hip.
“Then it’s nearing it’s end.” Yablov forced himself to return her affection. He hugged her back briefly. Rybinka released him and half-tottered toward a desk covered in papers and maps. She leaned over it with both clenched fists against the desk top. “The fascists are collapsing!” She was breathing quickly and with depth. “The monsters are sending children out against our T-34s!”
“I know. And those children have already destroyed hundreds of our tanks.”
Rybinka sat on her desk and lit a cigarette. Yablov thought her hips had broadened in the months since he had last seen her. He could hear her mind spinning as he found the vodka bottle and a glass. He poured. Rybinka blew smoke. “I flew in from Moscow two days ago,” she said.
“It’s good to see you,’ he lied, “Instead of just communicating by wire.”
“Yes.” Rybinka nodded, “On a human level I have missed you.” She crossed her ample thighs and questioned Yablov – “What did you find in the Broder forest?
“Of what formation?”
“12th Ukrainian SS. A few militia and some Hitlerjugend.”
“No survivors to filtrate?”
“They saved their last bullets for themselves. Most died fighting. The rest suicided.”
“All the better. We will have more Germans than we can feed soon enough.”
Yablov tossed down the vodka. It was the good stuff of course, he thought, she brought it with her from Moscow.
“What are the conditions in the countryside?” She asked.
“Chaos. Mayhem. Most of the Germans have fled west.”
“Still. Good.” Rybinka clapped her hands like a schoolgirl, “More we don’t have to feed.”
“What ever ends it fastest. I don’t care.”
“Have you seen the big picture lately?
“I don’t know if I ever have.”
Rybinka laughed and stood up from her perch on the desk. She pointed out a large map pinned to the wall. On it red lines bisected Germany. “These are the fronts as of yesterday.” She tapped the map with her finger. Yablov saw how fascist Germany had shrunk to an hourglass shape zone inverted by the Red Army in the east and the British and American forces in the west. Yablov stared hard at the map and Rybinka stood beside him. He hated to admit it but she smelled good, like a Russian woman. She traced her finger down the map. “The Americans believe the fascist leadership will evacuate to the south before the country is split in two. They are very credulous. They think an alpine redoubt exists in the alps. That this is where the fascists will make their last stand…”
“This is untrue?”
“The Americans are fools to believe such a thing. Even now they have their tool, Patton, rushing an entire army towards the alps.” Rybinka laughed, “They will encounter dairy cows and yokels, little else.” Rybinka smiled and inhaled/exhaled. “No comrade,” she tapped her finger against the map. “The redoubt, to the extent that there is one – is the capital city. The Great Beast is still in Berlin.”
“Are we sure about that?”
“We have agents very close to the Beast. Yes, he is still there.”
“Then it will be over soon.”
“Yes. Berlin will be ours.” Rybinka swayed on her feet and her smile blossomed into an act of beauty Yablov would not have thought possible. “I spoke to Stalin about this personally,” she fluttered her eyes. “He wants the Beast to be secured. No loose ends. Nor does he want some Latvian conscript to bayonet the mad little corporal.”
Yablov said nothing. He stared into the map.
“Our task comrade,” Rybinka put her hand on his arm. Is to locate the Beast in the rubble of Berlin and to extract him. Be it alive or dead. Stalin believes he will suicide in the final hours and of course I always agree with the Supremo. He is among the wisest men who ever lived!” Rybinka held her forefinger aloft, “Still! The corpse must be located and secured.”
Yablov nodded, “The battle for Berlin is likely to be….as was Stalingrad.”
“It will not be that bad.” Rybinka was pouring herself another glass of vodka. “The fascists are in total collapse. Their ideology has always been irrationalist. The battle for Berlin will be like a young widow’s grief – sharp, but of short duration.” She laughed madly at her own joke. She tossed down the vodka between breaths without wincing. “You comrade Yablov, will witness it all. Tomorrow we will go to Zhukov’s Headquarters to arrange the details. The frontoviks will be told – when the den of the fascist beast is discovered – to set up a perimeter and call for Smersh. You will then do your patriotic duty to secure and extract the Beast, etcetera. Do you understand?”
“Very good! Very good!” Again Rybinka clapped her hands. “See that your staff finds a place to camp. I have wine for them and American Spam.”
“Yes comrade, sacramental wine liberated from some Lutheran cess-pool.”
“Sacramental wine?” Yablov laughed in spite of himself.
Rybinka handed him two, then three, then four bottles. “Yes comrade,” she laughed wildly, “Pretty churches make pretty flames.”
Their dining, even by the rarified standards of Smersh, was luxurious – American tobacco and Spam, wine and vodka, primitive grainy bread and boiled potatoes. Even a hunk of cheese and a fire in the fireplace. Rybinka un-did the top buttons on her uniform tunic and swayed in her seat as she lectured – “The great mystery is why the German proletariat never attempted political revolution contra the fascist regime!? A proletariat youth movement exists in the urban areas. They call themselves, ‘Swingers,’ but they spend all their time partying, listening to American records and fucking each other. An avant-garde counterculture must do better than that!”
“Had they risen up they would have been massacred,” Yablov expressed his professional judgment with a shrug and sigh.
“Clearly the ‘Swingers,’ are not hardened Bolsheviks.” Rybinka tipped a wine glass then sat it back down. “But they have been massacred anyway.” She shrugged with unconcern. “Personally I would rather die at the barricades than starve amidst Jews and Gypsies in a concentration camp.” She laughed in the familiar old Rybinka way, with out any self-consciousness. “But of course Yablov – I am a hardened Bolshevik!” She continued talking, shifting effortlessly into an auto-discussion of Engels’ ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.’ “Of course,” she was saying, “He made extensive use of Marx’s notes…” But Yablov was not longer listening. The alcohol, sleep-deprivation and the fireplace’s flames were taking him back to places he did not want to go. What happens, he wondered, when the nightmares no longer wait for unconsciousness. Is that when you go mad? Is that when you shoot yourself. It would be easy enough, he thought. Yablov had seen a lot of people die from single gun shot wounds to the head. Hundreds, thousands. Corpses stacked on trucks and wagons. Mass graves a hundred meters long. He shook his head to clear it and gulped wine. Rybinka droned on, “…thus while each gens was strictly exogamous, the tribe embracing all the gentes was no less endogamous…” These things can not be cleared away by wishes, Yablov thought, you have to work through it and come out the other side.
Poland, March, 1940. The Supremo had yet to order Smersh into existence. Yablov was still a uniformed Captain in the NKVD. The had spent weeks “filtering,” the Polish army officers being held in camps near the Katyn forest. After endless list-making and cross referencing they had put together a list of nearly seven thousand army officers, policemen and large landowners with, “Pronounced fascist tendencies and sympathy.” The orders came down straight from the Politburo – there was to be a, “Mass liquidation.” Blokhin himself had flown in on a small aircraft from Moscow. In the recesses of his brain he had remembered Yablov had once been a carpenter and the two of them had worked like the real proletariats they had once been to build a padded, soundproof hut. They even put a drain in the earthen floor to catch the errant blood. Doing the math with a pencil and a piece of scrap paper Blokhin decided he would execute two-hundred and fifty men a night until the camp was empty. He had outfitted himself with a butcher’s apron and cap and a pair of clear goggles. He acquired a variety of German arms – Lugers, P-38s, Walthers, out-dated revolvers – then he embarked on his personal massacre. A penal battalion was brought in to cart away the bodies and dispose of them. Blokhin worked like an old-time Bolshevik, seven days a week. Twenty-eight days later the camp was empty, he had made seven thousand corpses.
Yablov could only thank Blokhin. He could have ordered it done. But again, he was an old-time Bolshevik – he would never order a crime committed he was not prepared to do himself. Soon thereafter Yablov had been tapped to attend the first Smersh academy. He gone to Moscow for nine months of German language study and covert operations training. Rybinka had been among the instructors.
“You are not even listening to me!” Rybinka hissed, “I bore you that much?”
“My mind was just wandering, “ Yablov admitted, “I was thinking.”
“Well I would never attempt to dissuade an intelligence officer from thinking.” Rybinka was pulling off her jackboots and peeling off her socks, “Then you would be no better than an American!” She lowered herself to the villa’s carpeted floor with the vodka bottle clutched in her left hand. “How confining,” she murmured and unbuckled her pistol belt and pulled it out from behind herself. “Why don’t you come here and rub my legs?” She asked him, “Would that please you?
Yablov laughed and pulled off his own boots. Rybinka was laughing hysterically. “Anything for the revolution,” he said.
They lay under scratchy army blankets naked on their right sides. Yablov rubbed her back from round buttocks to her smooth shoulders. The room was spinning and the fireplace crackled. Yablov just wanted to pass out sleep without dreaming but Rybinka kept chattering. “In my own way I will be glad when the war is over,” she said. “I would like to leave intelligence work and have a baby.”
“Really? That surprises me,” Yablov slid his hand around and cupped her breast, stroking the nipple with his thumb.
“Why does that surprise you? I am not too old!”
“How would you know how old I am?” She laughed and moved her hand back between his legs. “You don’t even know my real name!”
“It’s not Zoya Rybinka?”
“Actually yes. I was born with a false name but when I joined the Bolshevik party I threw it away.”
“What year was that?”
“1918. I was just a girl.”
The room had stopped spinning and Yablov stroked her with his fingers. “You feel good Zoya.”
“I met Lenin once and he signed my copy of ‘State and Revolution.”
“You’ve told me before. Sssh.”
“Don’t tell me to be quiet. Make me.”