Memoir of a Soviet Cyclist: Chapter VI

By the time I came back to Kiev after the break, the city was deep in the autumn. Frosty mornings, fog everywhere, chestnut trees turning rusty yellow. Titan was gone to Crimea to prepare for the final race of the season, the two-week-long Sotsindustriya stage race. I wasn’t going to race it — the season was over for me — but I couldn’t stay in Kiev and do nothing either. Elizarov told me to fly to Simferopol, Crimea’s capital, to join the team and spend the next few weeks riding in warm weather.

I went to Titan’s service course to pack up my bike so I could grab it up in the morning on the way to the airport. Feeling bummed from the prospect of more weeks of riding, I did an average bike-packing job, spent an hour talking trash with mechanic and decided to get out and catch a cab instead of waiting for a lift to the hotel.

The buildings were casting long shadows over the cobbled Krasnoarmeyskaya street when I turned on it from Fizkultury street. The chilled, moist air was pleasant to breath and I thought I’d walk to Kreshchatik to buy the famous Kashtan ice cream and then catch a cab from there.

I saw a black Volga parked 50 meters ahead, facing me with a rear door opened. A man in an unbuttoned taupe trench coat stood next to it, looking at me. I kept walking toward him, wondering if he were staring at me because he had nothing else to do or there was something else to it. When I approached, he stepped away from the car, pulled out red korochka from the coat’s pocket, stuck it in my face, and said, smiling as if we were best buddies: “Nikolai?” I looked at the ID, black and white photo on the left, matching the guy in front of me and the dreaded, Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti header on the right with the rank, name, and authorization to carry a weapon below it. I couldn’t read the surname — something long and convoluted — in time before he closed the korochka, but I caught his first name — Bogdan.

Crap, I thought, what’s going on, what did I do? I made a quick mental inventory of my pockets — no dollars, nothing illegal. What do they want?

Bogdan nodded toward the rear seat of the Volga, and said: “Get in, we need to talk.” I climbed into the car, he shut my door, walked around, got onto the seat next to me, and said to the driver: “Poekhali.”

We drove in silence toward Kreshchatyk, then plunged down by the ancient cobbles of Vladimirsky Descent, past the Pochtovaya Square, into Podol’s narrow, rambling streets. Looking out the window at the pedestrians, scurrying down the sidewalks in pale winter jackets and coats, I wondered what people do when KGB sends an officer with an uber-Ukrainian name like Bogdan—in a black Volga for goodness’ sake—to pick you up. Should I ask where we’re going, what’s going on? Or pretend I have nothing to worry about, show patience and respect of the authorities?

“Are you a member of the Komsomol, Nikolai?” Bogdan broke the silence. Is this what it’s all about? Me, slipping through the system, reaching the national team’s ranks, travelling abroad, becoming a university student, without ever taking out the Komsomol membership? Don’t you guys have CIA spies to catch?

Becoming a member of the Komsomol, or All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, was a formality most 14-year-olds went through without thinking too much about it. Nobody forced you to join, yet, if you avoided its membership, you’d set yourself up for problems in the future you never thought would be there waiting for you. When my time came to join, I couldn’t be bothered with the process. It involved boring pre-membership classes, and worst of all, members had to go to occasional after-school meetings and do similar nonsense I had no time for. My training started one hour after the last class, Komsomol be damned.

I ran into the first problem when I applied to Kiev Sports University. The application form asked if I were a member of the Komsomol or not. Part of the Titan team by then, I knew the Uni was interested in me more than I was in the Uni, so I ticked the ‘yes’ box. Why create the waves when it’s not necessary, nobody would check, and why would they? I’m in Titan.

Then came the passport application form early in the season. Thick as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it asked myriad, most of them trivial, questions. One was about Komsomol again. This time it was an important document, checked for veracity by the KGB. You couldn’t apply for a passport in the USSR and go anywhere you liked. Comings and goings, and the passports, were controlled by the KGB. You want one, you’d have to tell them everything about yourself, then have a legitimate reason to go abroad and then, maybe, they’ll give you a passport. Most people never bothered with it. Not that they had any secrets to hide. No, they couldn’t justify to the authorities a trip abroad, or even afford one. Athletes, artists, performers and scientists, these were the face and the image of the People, the Idea and the System, the privileged minority, the golden boys and girls of a nation perpetually working, fighting, triumphing and persecuting. These can have their passports, but only after we check their backgrounds and find out what kind of a person each one of them is.

I asked one of the coaches what to do about Komsomol after I told him I wasn’t a member and he said to tick the ‘yes’ box. If you’re not a member, the authorities figured, the Party’s ideals don’t fit you or you don’t fit the Party’s ideals. Either way, you won’t be issued a passport if you’re not a member of the Komsomol. “We’ll fix you up later,” he said, “when we come back to Kiev.” I ticked the box and forgot about it, and now the stupid thing came back to bite me in the ass. I tried to put a sorry expression on my face, looked Bogdan in the eyes and told him I wasn’t a member.

“So, you lied on your passport application form?” he said.

I told him how busy I was in school and missed the Komsomol boat and how I was going to fix this little defect on my CV but cycling got in the way again. He looked at me with an understanding grin and for a moment I thought he’d stop the car and let me go, I’d get out, cross myself, think of how damn close this was, catch a cab and go finish packing up for Crimea. Instead, the grin vanished, he leaned over to the front passenger seat and grabbed a black, plastic briefcase by its handle. He placed the briefcase flat on his lap and, looking straight ahead, said: “Where’s your brother, Nikolai?”

I now knew this was serious and had nothing to do with Komsomol. “Kamchatka,” I said, wondering where this was going.

“End of the world,” he said and turned his head toward me. “Why so far away from home?”

“Money. He’s making good money over there. They pay triple rates because how remote and isolated it is, long holidays, these sorts of things.”

“I see. Let me ask you this: Are you a liar, Nikolai?”

It irritated me how he added my name at the end of the questions. He said it in a friendly, chummy even, tone, yet, I sensed malice and devious intent in his voice. The trap was set and I was about to step into it.

“I’m not a liar.”

He opened his briefcase and pulled out a shabby, buff-coloured manila folder. It had my black-and-white passport photograph clipped to its corner with my name hand-written in capital letters under a large heading indicating file and volume number. He placed the folder on top of his briefcase, and said, without opening it: “Who filled out your passport application form?”

“I did.”

“Very well. Do you remember a question about your immediate family?”

“Which one?”

“The one that asked you whether or not anyone from your immediate family has ever been sentenced for a criminal offence.”

I didn’t’ think there was any point answering this with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. “I was a little kid when my brother had been locked up,” I said. “It was so long time ago, I stopped thinking I have a brother anymore. He’s gone, he’s not real.”

“Not real? Let me tell you what’s real then. You lied to the Government in full knowledge of the consequences for doing so — you even signed the Acknowledgement, didn’t you, confirming you’re aware of the possible repercussions for lying to the Government — to secure a passport, a document available to those only whom the State trusts. Do you know how long the sentence is for this crime?” He paused for a moment, and then added with a shade of sneer on his face: “No? I didn’t think so.”

“What was I supposed to do?” I said. “Without a passport, I can’t compete outside of the Soviet Union, I’m of no use to the national team.”

“You’re thinking too much, Nikolai. And because of that, you’re running ahead of yourself, making unwarranted conclusions about things you know nothing about. You think we wouldn’t give you a passport and stop you from travel abroad because your brother served time in jail ten years ago? Maybe we would, maybe we wouldn’t — it’s none of your business. What is your business is to be honest and open with us when we ask you to be honest and open with us. We may or may not care about the information itself — I mean, who cares what your brother did ten years ago, right? — it’s how truthful you’re with us we’re interested in. And so far, you’re not doing too well I’m afraid.”

We turned on Vladimirskaya street and headed toward building 33, Kiev’s KGB headquarters. Pale grey, this late Renaissance edifice towered over the street with a mass of granite, eager to squash anyone who dared to think of himself anything more than a grasshopper in human form. This is it, I thought, this is how they take you out, a small slip-up, and it’s all over, no second chances.

We were meters away from the parking bay in front of the building when I saw driver’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, glancing at Bogdan. “Keep going,” he told him with a hand wave.

Thousand-year-old Golden Gate, an ancient entrance to Kiev, was on our right when Bogdan said: “You tried to defect in France, didn’t you?” He said it in an affirmative tone, without a trace of question in his voice. I looked in his direction, ice melting in my guts, dry throat, heart pumping blood with loud thumps. I imagined myself jumping out of the car, running, hiding somewhere, anywhere, going underground, waiting out the storm to pass over and then… And then what? How long can I hide? How far can I run? As the saying went in those days, you can’t run farther than Siberia. How the hell does he know what I was planning to do in France anyway?

“Who told you I was going to defect?”

“We heard it on the BBC radio.”

“What?”

“Let me read you something,” he said with a smirk on his face and opened the folder. It had a sheaf of printing paper in it, some lose, some stapled. The top one looked like it was the first page of my passport application form. He flipped it over and stared at the next page. Its text was hand-written in a neat, meticulous handwriting. I sat too far to see what it was. He scanned the page with his eyes, holding it with one hand. When he found what he was looking for, he stuck the index finger at it and said: “Here, a description of what we found in your sling bag one day in France… eh… : ‘…contained the following: two thousand four hundred US dollars; nine hundred deutschmarks; two thousand eight hundred French francs; a passport; a gold medal, world champion’s jersey and diploma; two pairs of socks and underwear; a toothbrush; an address book; a Bic Cristal pen and a London-printed Russian Bible.’ This, my friend, looks like a bag made ready for a run. What do you think?”

Someone sold me out, that’s what I thought. Someone went through my bag, by chance or on purpose, and wrote a report. I ruled out my room-mate in Caen — both from Titan, we were close friends, I couldn’t imagine him doing something like this. And that tidy handwriting, the dry, formal language style — no way it was him.

“Then there’s this…” Bogdan said and turned the page over. “Eh… yes, here… ‘The evening before the road race, during the team meeting, Nikolai requested to be withdrawn from the start list, citing fatigue. Next day, while the team attended the last championship event, at approximately one o’clock, Nikolai left hotel on a bicycle. He was not wearing the cycling uniform. Clearly, he did not intend this to be a training ride. Instead, he wore the national team’s tracksuit and Adidas running shoes. He carried the above-mentioned sling bag across his back.’ Interesting. You give a bullshit excuse to skip out a race, then pack a nice chunk of cash and a passport in a small bag — a classic defector’s kit if you didn’t know — hop on a bike and ride into the sun. If this wasn’t a run, then I want to know what it was.”

“I went shopping,” I said. This was stupid, but I couldn’t come up with anything better.

“I thought so. With roughly three thousand in US currency. What did you buy, a Swiss watch?”

“I didn’t buy anything. I changed my mind and went back to the hotel.”

“You changed your mind. Why?”

“Didn’t feel like shopping once I got into town.”

“I’m not talking about shopping. Why did you change your mind?”

Do I play dumb and pretend I have no idea what he’s talking about, or admit, without saying anything, that I tried to defect and explain why I ‘changed my mind’? I chose silence. I figured, if I’m still not arrested, he wants something from me, and he’s not telling me what he wants. I’ll shut up and wait.

We drove in silence for half a minute, and then Bogdan said: “Let me remind you how deep you have dug yourself in. One: you have committed two counts of perjury when you applied for your passport. Two: we have evidence you tried to defect in France, an act of treason in other words. And three: you’ve been found in a possession of foreign currency, a substantial amount of, I must add, which is illegal and a criminal offence. This last one brings another charge on its tail — interesting, isn’t it, how one crime leads to another — that cash you had in your bag, you crossed the border with it, probably more than once. You know what it’s called, don’t you? Contraband. Ever heard of Yan Rokotov?”

“No.”

“Was sentenced to death for illegal foreign currency possession — Article 25 of the Law on State Crimes. You should familiarise yourself with that book instead of wasting your time reading the Bible. Where you got the Bible from is a topic for another conversation. For now though, if I were you, I’d be talking about what made you decide to defect, where you got the currency from and how you smuggled it in and out of the country. I’m listening.”

I looked out the window, pretending I was weighing the benefits of telling the truth, sighed and said: “I didn’t want to defect. I went shopping that day as I told you. I kept my passport in that sling bag all the time because it could’ve gotten lost in the bag with cycling kit and other things if I left it there. The jersey and the medal have been in the bag since the race day, I never bothered to take them out. And the other things too — they were just random things. I grabbed the bag, jumped on the bike and went shopping without checking what was inside.”

“Plausible,” Bogdan said, “but not convincing. Continue. Can’t wait to hear a story about how you found a bundle of cash, in three different denominations, on the side of a road.”

I ignored the jest and took a two-second pause to come up with something believable about the money, a mixture of truth and fiction.

“The francs and the deutschmarks are mine. I sold a few spare singles I didn’t need anymore. Some guys paid in francs, and one or two — they were Germans — paid deutschmarks. The dollars… I won a bet.”

“You won what?”

“A bet. The day before the race, Borysewicz sat next to me in the foyer…”

“Stop,” Bogdan raised his left hand as if I was coming at him. “Who’s Borysewicz?”

“Americans’ coach. He’s Polish though, speaks good Russian. I heard he stayed in the US after the Montreal Olympic Games. He coaches the US team now. Anyway, he sat next to me in the foyer — I was by myself, browsing magazines on a couch — we started talking and he was asking me all sorts of questions…”

“What sort of questions?” he interrupted again.

“About training, what we do or don’t do to prepare for a race like the world’s.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him how we train. Is that a secret?”

“Keep going.”

It seemed like he was buying the story, so I pressed on: “He said, at some point, his team will kick our ass no matter how well-prepared we are. He was confident — too confident I’d say — we were going to lose the race. I called him an idiot and an amateur. I said Americans have no class and should stick to baseball, not cycling. This is when he bet me five thousand dollars that his guys will crush us in a team time trial.”

I stopped talking to check if I were not getting carried away with my story. It helped that some of it was true. I did talk with Borysewicz that afternoon, but he never made a bet. When he heard my opinion of him and his team, he stood up and walked away.

“So you won the race and he paid you five thousand bucks?”

“No, he paid only twenty-four hundred and said he’ll pay the rest when he sees me next time at a race somewhere.”

“What did you do with the money?”

Nothing. It was now in my room back at the hotel, wrapped in an old rain jacket and tucked away in a wardrobe. Admitting that meant admitting to smuggling and illegal possession of foreign currency. Perhaps not bad enough to face the firing squad, but enough to be locked up for a long time. I thought I still had a chance to get out of this with one more try.

“I opened a bank account in Caen. The money’s in the bank.”

“Which one?” he asked with urgency in his voice. Maybe he thought I didn’t know any French banks, but I did. I looked at, and I studied dozens of Tour de France pictures, I knew a lot of pro cycling’s sponsors, and I knew what Crédit Lyonnais was.

“Crédit Lyonnais,” I said, sounding as French as I could. “It’s not a crime to have an account in a Western bank, is it?”

We were a block away from Vladimirskaya 33 again and it didn’t look like we were going to do another loop around the city center. Bogdan ignored my question and sat silent, staring ahead. He chucked the folder into the briefcase, shut it and said, “You now have an account in a French bank which means the minute you step on a Western soil, you’ll have access to a considerable amount of cash should you choose to defect. Or — which is what I think you’re conspiring to do — you’ll continue topping it up every time you go abroad until such time as you think you have nothing to gain from our country — and then you split. You’re going to milk our country as long as you can and then run — that’s your plan.”

We pulled over at the headquarters’ entrance. Bogdan opened his door and stepped out on the sidewalk, shutting the door behind him. “Get the hell out of the car, kid,” I heard the driver’s voice.

A gust of crisp, icy wind hit me on the chest when I stepped outside. I was covered in sweat, the shirt on my back stuck to my skin under a leather jacket. Of all Russian words, one I didn’t want to hear right now was the dreaded poshli (let’s go), a word thousands of men and women of my country heard coming out of KGB agents’ rotten mouths — a one-word condemnation to a living hell of the merciless gulag.

The Volga hadn’t driven away, it’d been idling next to us on the street. The driver, gazing at the traffic passing by, lit a cigarette and rolled the window down. What is he waiting for? We’re going in, aren’t we? Shouldn’t he go?

“Come here,” Bogdan said. Like a fourth-grade pupil caught by the principal in the act of smashing a school window, I stepped closer, drenched in fear of the verdict I was about to receive. “Right now,” he said, putting both hands in his pants’ pockets, towering next to me like a statue, “I’m inclined to let this rest for a while. Not that I believed much of what you told me, but I’ll allow this to float around for a bit and decide what to do later. We’ll be in touch.” He turned around, opened the front door of the waiting car and sat in. Before he shut the door, he looked at me from inside the car and said with quiet, affirmative voice: “You do not mention this conversation to anyone.”

I stood still, in disbelief, on a sidewalk for half a minute until the black Volga sped away out of view. It started raining. The microscopic rain drops filled the air, dimming the daylight in dull, grey hues. With the Komitet’s headquarters behind my back, I crossed the street without once looking at the dreadful building. Like a bad Blackjack player who was dealt a King on a 17-point hand, I cursed myself for not staying in France, for assuming I could get out of this pigpen any time now that I ‘made it’, for wishing to see the doubters’ eyes, for craving the pats on the back, the welldones and the goodboys. What a moron.

I turned the corner into Reitarskaya street and saw a taxi moving toward me with its green light on. I stepped onto the road with one foot and hailed it. The car swerved and came to a stop next to me.

“Lesnoye resort,” I said to the cabbie when I opened the front door.

“That’s out of town,” he said.

“Yeah I know.”

“How much?” he said, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel.

“Twenty-five,” I said, a price I knew he wouldn’t refuse.

“Done.”