Chapter 31: Running for your freedom
Later that evening, Doctor Novikov was invited by Celina to sit with them at their new group table. She had moved a couple of tables together in a far corner, opposite the replicator and buffet tables and placed six chairs around it. She refused the help of two new Norwegian attendants who had also arrived today to mend the cafeteria and the adjacent store rooms. They had found her very hands-on for a high-ranking member of the project, and brought to her two bottles of replicated Romanee Conti 1975 to enjoy at dinner. The bottles were clearly looking old; with the labels rounded with age, with visible scratches and holes in the same location in both bottles, indicating a clear sign of replication. To open them, the young attendant was using a double-bladed knife to remove the wine-soaked cork, which looked more like a red jelly bean than the firm cork that had been used twenty-five years earlier. He then placed it on the table next to the less than full bottles.
Eirik took the time to explain the full story of the bottles, which had been brought from France by one of the employees who seemed to have a large collection of them. Thanks to the replicator and the tax-free import enjoyed by the United Nations personnel, he took them to the Facility to be replicated and enjoyed by all, over and over, but only after he was reassured that wine bottles were routinely found in shipwrecks in relatively deep waters. “The pressure and the darkness are actually beneficial in this case, since the outside pressure prevented the wine from leaking out, like the ones on the table had done” explained Eirik.
“Sorry, I’m just a typical fan of Vodka, but why are the bottles only three quarters full?” asked Vladimir, as he sat down with them at the table. He took the only remaining chair and thanked Celina for the invitation with a smile and a small bow of the head.
“That’s because the corks are perspiring with time and the wine is slowly leaking out. That’s why expensive bottles are refilled at the castle; a costly process since it means sacrificing a bottle to refill a few more,” explained Celina expertly, thinking that this time, her wine knowledge was useful for once.
Everyone smiled and nodded in thanks for the explanation, which Steven felt logical. He knew it could never happen to cheap convenience store wines, the only kind that his family had ever bought. Like in most ghettos similar to the one in his childhood, the percentage of alcohol versus price was more important than the quality and taste. It was called the drunk-ability index in a newspaper he had read in Hong Kong. Celina poured everyone a glass and lifted hers to toast Doctor Novikov’s arrival.
In his turn, he thanked them all and begged them to call him Vladimir or Vlad, and they did. When everyone commented on the wine, Celina explained that the aftertaste of leather was normal and expected with wine older than some of the people at the table. With a chuckle, she waved at Chrissy and Steven. Then, she paused and looked around the large room to see if Dave or Fangs were within ear shot of their table, but neither could be seen. Thinking that Fangs had not yet ran out of food in her dungeon and that Dave had not bothered answering her when asked at what time he was planning to go to dinner, she brushed aside the thought of inviting him. She was now leaning toward Vladimir and broke the ice in preparation for the question that she wanted to ask him since lunch. “So, is that better than Vodka?”
“Better for health, sure... as for the taste, I like Vodka more,” answered Vladimir. “Although in Russia, good Vodka was used to be for party members and KGB only. But now I fear that with the fall of the Rodina, nothing has changed. The only people who are still able to get good Vodka are the politicians and the KGB, although now they are called the Russian mafia for the most part,” he explained with a short Russian-accented laugh, which sounded more like a snort to them.
“Do you miss Russia?” continued Celina.
“Home will always be home, but after my father was sent to the Gulag for speaking against the local communist leaders and my mother died of pneumonia, the home lost its taste and I decided to leave,” answered Vladimir, thinking that he was lucky to have managed to get permission to leave the country after his father was arrested by the KGB. But one does not question luck when it comes to you, nor the sacrifice of a loving father. A man just seized his chance and made the best of it, he thought.
Feeling that the time was right, Celina finally asked her true question. “How did you manage to escape?”
“That’s a long story,” he responded as he took a glance at the ten wide-opened eyeballs looking back at him, and paused. It was obvious to him like it had on many occasions before; that these people were all ready and eager to hear the tale, long or short, and have enough energy in the end for a Q&A session. To the Westerners, a true tale of escape with KGB and political prisoners was too good to pass, all the more, considering the lack of proper entertainment in the Facility. “Okay, I will tell you from the beginning, because if we are to be comrades, I believe you deserve to know everything about my professional career. Let’s start with my schooling in Moscow,” he said, pausing again to finish his glass of wine in one gulp, as you would a shooter, and Celina refilled it at once.
“I was born and raised in a small one-bedroom apartment in Moscow on the fifth floor of a building. There was no elevator and with only the basic of amenities, at least compared to what people in America are accustomed to having and taking for granted. The winters were cold because the gas was not always constant and the insulation in that pre-Bolshevik construction was only a grade better than a tent. Life was hard, although I didn’t realize it until I was old enough to understand that others had better, and it became even clearer after I fled to Canada. As a child, that was life in the Motherland. I actually felt privileged to be an only child because unlike some of my friends, I had the living room all by myself at night. All of my friends were all from the same block and we went to the same school, learning about Lenin and the battles against the German fascist and the American imperialist. Free thinking and the freedom to choose one’s career was a foreign idea and a plague on the Western countries, we were told, because they often lack skilled workers in one field and had too many in another. But Russians were smarter, my teacher had said. In Russia, if the country needed iron workers, the school took a group of students and formed them to weld and bend metals and the students were always happy to be of service to Mother Russia. And if they were not happy as they grow old, like my father would say, that’s what Vodka was for. One day, I was asked by a government official visiting our school what I wanted to be in the future. Like most teenagers anywhere, I told that intimidating old man, head bowed, looking at his knees, the career I wanted without knowing anything about the true meaning of the work and its pros and cons. But, I felt that it was what I really wanted. So I took courage and said it, at first so low that he made me repeat it and I did. Then, he laughed and made me say it again. This time I knew he asked me out of contempt, not because he had not heard me. I took my last remaining ounce of strength and I repeated it one last time. “I want to become a doctor, Sir.”
Then the hammer, the proud symbol of the Soviet Union, fell on me like a ton of bricks. I had the grades, the drive to see my education through and more importantly, I had the support of my family. I told the man that, even though I immediately regretted my forceful behaviour, like a good Marxist should. I had been attending my mandatory political meetings every weekend. I was making sure to be in line with the Party as it was required if you wanted to achieve anything of worth in life in Russia and maybe, be awarded a car someday. I so much wanted a Lada Classic at that time, not knowing that in North America, even young teenagers eager to turn sixteen to buy their first used car wouldn’t even want to be seen in one. But then, my mind kicked in and I started remembering what these meetings were there to teach you: That if you wanted this life, you had better hope that your father and your grandfather had not done a single reproachable action against the state. If they did, your choice of career would be limited to repetitive labour work for the rest of your life. I still wanted to be a doctor, even if most of them didn’t get to make more than any factory worker. The mere thought of being able to help people and be respected made the profession worth practicing. As it was true that my ancestors had not done anything against the state, the officer pointed out in a snap that they had not done anything of worth for the Motherland either. I remember that in that moment, his word shattered my world and hopes, like a glass falling on a hard ceramic floor. He had declared a death sentence on my desires and on my future, like a judge would upon a criminal.
After a few seconds of searching my face for either a sign of rage, tears or just to see if my mind understood and deleted the futile dream of becoming a doctor, he stopped looking at me and opened a file in front of him. I looked at my photo hanging upside down as he lifted the pages one by one; I remember the day I had taken that photograph. I was waiting in line with my classmates, standing straight as a pole, like a soldier at attention, and not smiling like a good Russian should. On the photo, I thought I looked like a prisoner. The only thing missing were the black lines in the background, indicating the height to make the image look like a good mug shot. The officer had just turned my life upside down like that photo I was looking at and there was nothing I could do about it. I was even denied the right to protest from birth, although I was not sure if they would send me to Siberia for it. I was not about to take the chance.
As he reached the last page, he paused and smiled. He fixed his glasses with his index finger and moved my file at the bottom of the pile of completed cases, a mere thirty or some files, of which I wondered how many were now those of building attendants or secretaries who wanted or could have been engineers or nurses.
“Your grandfather was a cattle farmer, right?” he said to me. At these words, my blood went cold. He was going to send me to the rural to become a sheep farmer or maybe worse, a reindeer herder in the Putorana Plateau in Central Siberia. Well, I got it half right,” offered Vladimir, taking a pause to take his glass of wine and shooting half of it down his throat before continuing.
“He had just spent what seemed to be an eternity reading my file and probably knew more things about my grandfather than I did, so I answered truthfully with a simple nod of the head. To my complete surprise, and I have to admit, relief, he didn’t make me a farmer. But he did tell me that I would be posted in rural areas outside Moscow after I completed my veterinarian degree. The shock had been hard to take. I remembered that it took me more effort to get up and walk out of his office and return home than after a good night of drinking moonshine vodka with my friends.”
“The next semester, I entered the university and quickly became friends with a few medical students. We had a lot of courses together and I was spending almost all my free time borrowing their books on human anatomy. I didn’t have much time for friends, but still took a bit of whatever time I had left for a girl in my English class. She was the daughter of a low-level political officer, a devoted member of the Party... for real or fake, we never found out. To my surprise, her father seemed to like me. Although today, I think he probably knew I was soon going to be relocated to parts unknown and his daughter would soon forget about me and marry someone with better lineage and a brighter future. But Sasha and I were in love and were seeing each other every weekend during my day off after I completed my studies, which means I was spending most of my money as a vet in bus tickets to Moscow from the town I was assigned to, a mere three hours from her studio apartment in the north of the city.”
“I don’t know exactly how it happened. At the end of 1974, she had been assigned to a group of athletes training for the summer Olympics in Montreal in April of 1976. The team was short on doctors and I asked if I could join the team. At first she thought I was joking, and she replied that unless there were horses competing in the Olympics, she didn’t see how I would be able to join the team. But I was determined and one night, I brought her medical diploma to a friend who specialized in making false documents. He had never made a copy of a diploma from a Moscow university before, but he was an expert making them for other universities from Georgia and Saint-Petersburg. So I became a doctor from Saint-Petersburg Medical Academy, named Leningrad Medical Academy at the time, and took a week off to travel there. I learned the name of a few professors and even introduced myself to them, and learned of random pieces of information about the city and the campuses. I returned with more information that I would study later to make the lie convincing, if asked. But I have to admit that at the time, all I wanted was to live with Sasha and work as a doctor. I had no idea of what would happen next.”
“Sasha went along with the plan and the leader of the team was more than happy to have a skilled doctor to help. When I was offered to go to the Olympics, I accepted right away without thinking of the consequences. All week I discussed my stress with Sasha. The problem was that I was sure the KGB officers responsible to investigate the athletes and the team members that were supposed to accompany them would soon discover that I was not a doctor, but only a vet. And that I would be denied leave from the country or worse, imprisoned or shot for trying to defect. So I talked to my father, who was now in trouble with the government for participating in an illegal protest. Although to this day, I’m not sure if there were any legal ones in those days. We were sure that he would have to face charges and likely go to a labour camp for a year or two, and that made him even angrier with the government. He convinced me to go ahead with my plan, saying that if one of us could get out of this hellhole, I should take my chances. So, we discussed it until light came the next morning, drinking his last bottle of good Vodka, which I had received as a tip from a patient and had given to him. Finally, at the end of the discussion, it was agreed that I would be going ahead with his version of the plan, although reluctantly for my part, but I did as he had requested.
“Three days later, I was brought to the infamous KGB headquarters in Lubyanka Square and questioned for two hours about my allegiance to the Rodina, my views on the Party, Lenin and the social ideal. I answered all the questions mechanically, remembering all the times spent in those political meetings which I was still attending religiously at the time. The interview went very well, I thought, until it took a turn for the worse. The KGB captain, who had been smiling gently as he sat on the other side of his grey metal desk, offering me a cigarette every fifteen minutes like clockwork, which I politely refused each time, was now standing next to my ear. He was whispering and pointing at a photograph taken in Red Square, a short walk from where we were. The photo showed a large number of people standing on a bed of fresh white snow, wearing long coats and fur hats with the flap down to cover their ears from the bitter cold winds. As he pointed to the photo, he was asking me if I knew anything about it. I didn’t move a muscle at first, and soon nodded in agreement, seeing eighteen months of planning going out in smoke. Maybe I should have taken the cigarette and choked on it, I thought. Then the coup de grâce came when he took a magnifying glass and placed it on the left of the photo and there he was, my father, standing and pointing at something, mouth wide open. He had been in front of me the entire time, but I didn’t recognize him amidst the crowd.”
“Seeing him rejecting my travel request to Canada for the Olympics and approving my departure for the gulags with my father, I closed my eyes and felt him stepped back and asked me how I felt about my father being an enemy of the state. I took a moment and answered with yet another skilfully prepared answer. I told him that I was totally ashamed of my father’s behaviour and that he deserved to go to prison for the shame he brought to me and my mother. At that statement, the captain gave me a surprised look. Then he relaxed, smiled and paused before shaking my hand, told me some patriotic babble that I didn’t hear in my nervousness and then he approved my travel request. But as he waved to his aide to open the door, he informed me that my father was already on a train for the ice and cold of the northernmost Russian parts and reminded me for good measure that if I were to defect, not only would my mother suffer, but my girlfriend as well. He had not mentioned her before, like a good poker player. He didn’t need to reveal all his cards at once, but now, he had taken me by surprise one more time. Maybe I sucked at counter-espionage and never noticed the KGB following us, if they had, but I was a good poker player, too. I didn’t let it show and kept a straight face until I went to the bathroom and vomited.” Then Novikov paused again, finished his glass, and apologized to the group for saying such words at the table while they were eating. As a doctor, he was used to much worse and often forgot about the weak stomach of others. Then, he continued. “So, finally I got out of the toilet and all I remembered saying was that I had no intention of spending the rest of my life in a capitalist country like Canada, a friend of the Americans, and showed revulsion at the idea and walked out with the captain’s leave.”
“Sitting at the back of the KGB’s car, all I could think of was how they knew about Sasha and not about my education. But I was trying not to let my emotions show to the driver and the KGB officer sitting on the front seat, looking at me from time to time in the mirror. I started imagining that they had likely placed microphones in Sasha’s apartment and in my father’s home. Their gesture of taking me back to work was likely to make sure I didn’t escape. They were taking me to prison now, I was sure. But still I didn’t show it, and a few minutes later we turned on Perevedenovshiy and stopped in front of the building where the team was in training.”
“I don’t know if the captain had focused on my father and the two hours of soft questioning were intended to soften me for that one revealing moment, but all that time he never questioned my education.
A few weeks later, we flew to Montreal on Aeroflot and we did our duties, Sasha and I. Until one night after dinner, when I was walking alone without the embassy personnel, which I suspected to be KGB’s guard dogs, I told a marathon runner who I had seen in the Olympic Village a few times that I wanted to defect. The French Canadian had taken it rather well and promised not to tell anyone. We discussed it for an hour and I was relieved that he had military experience. He would plan something with a fellow athlete to limit the number of people involved and risk a mission failure, as he had put it. When I returned to my room, Sasha was waiting for me outside and when I told her, she was furious. But I soon explained that we didn’t know anyone outside our team members and that it was the first time I was alone with a member of the Canadian team and I had to do something. That calmed her down a little and we returned to our separate quarters. The next day, the marathon runner said that he was willing to drive us to the Immigration Canada Building downtown. The Canadian government was quick to identify us and informed the Russian Embassy, less than a kilometre from there. Within a few days, they had approved our request to become permanent residents, and later, full Canadian citizens.”
“But I’m getting a little ahead of myself especially that your initial question was how I escaped and I seemed to have skipped that. The Quebecer, well, French Canadian if you prefer, was thinking and acting as fast as he was running and throwing javelins. With all the other doctors on the team busy at their new Olympic stadium, we took a half day off to visit Terre des Hommes (land of men), on the man-made island of Saint-Hélène, which had been made in 1967 with the dirt from the construction of the metro for the world fare. Montreal was on a roll in those days and there was a lot to see. Of course we were accompanied by two embassy staff or interpreters, as they liked to refer to themselves, although they didn’t speak French and our English was clearly better than theirs. In the vast parking lot, we saw the car of our friend, a Chevrolet Malibu, a huge four-door car with a trunk large enough to fit us in there if needed. Jean-Pierre, our runner friend, had taken a picture of the car with an instant Polaroid and showed it to us to make sure that we recognized the light blue car the next day. A smart move, because we had never seen any American cars before, except maybe in the rare government-approved American movies in Moscow. His plan was easy. As soon as he was sure we had seen him, he would go park at the end of the lot, making sure to have a lot of space all around and then wait for us to get close and open the door on the passenger side, with the help of a friend from the decathlon team, hidden from the view of the KGB interpreters. As soon as we saw the door open through the driver side windows, we ran. We were supposed to point to something to distract the two KGB guys and buy us a second or two, but we were too nervous to remember that part. All I was thinking was, what if they grab Sasha and I can’t get her free? What if the Montreal Police see us fight them? Would they arrest us and deport us back to Russia? What ifs were all I had in my mind, until I saw the doors opened and she grabbed my hand and we ran literally for our lives. She was in front of me and although it took only a few seconds to reach the car, seeing her in front made me realize that she wanted it as much as I did. It made me love her more than ever. We didn’t look back to see if they were running after us until we were safe in the car. The door closed automatically, with the wind rushing on each side of the car, as the eight cylindered-engine roared into action, leaving a trail of burnt rubber behind as the rear tires spun on the loose stones of the parking lot, peppering one of the officers. The last thing I saw of him was his arms rising to protect his face, before he disappeared into a cloud of light grey dust. I soon saw the other officer, still far behind. He had reacted too slowly, likely spooked by our action.”
“Soon after, we were in the tunnel that spent the length of downtown Montreal. We exited at De La Montagne off ramp and drove up Peel, all the way to Saint-Antoine and entered the garage of the immigration building, where officers were waiting for us. I later learned that Jean-Pierre had been in the 22nd regiment of the Canadian Army. For sure, his training kicked in that day and, the next day, he won a bronze medal, his second of these games. Weeks after we were relocated to Ottawa, the Russian ambassador himself came to the office of the Canadian Immigration to try to convince us to return to Russia. The worst was over. Sasha’s father had been disgraced, but not imprisoned. In the time of Stalin, he would have been offered a gun and one last bullet, but times had changed. As for my family in Moscow, during the Olympics, my mother, whose health had been precarious for years, was admitted to the hospital and died soon after. As for my father, I didn’t receive news for many years, although I was promised some if I returned to Russia. But I knew he wouldn’t have wanted that. Without knowing if he was alive or not, returning to Russia likely meant facing a life sentence in a labour camp. And leaving Sasha behind was not an option. At least they had to try, I suppose. The good news was that of a Russian diver who defected a few days after us made the front page after he returned to Russia, proclaiming that he missed his plane. In truth, likely threatened to return, he had shielded us from the media and no one had so much as written something about us. That probably helped us a lot, according to the Canadian immigration agents, because the Russian government did not look too bad in reality and that was in our favour.
Sasha and I would have stayed in Montreal since we loved the city a lot, but it would have meant learning and passing our medical exams in French, and that wouldn’t have been practical for us at the time, especially since Bonjour and Merci beaucoup was about all we knew. So, we moved to Toronto in the summer of 1977 and have been there ever since.
Sasha still works in Toronto. She has, after all, a real medical degree and is also taking care of our son Anton. He is sixteen now. We also have a daughter, Nataliya, who is now 19 years old and is currently taking up Dentistry in the University of Toronto. I hope to be able to bring them here with me soon for a tour,” he concluded.
Although he had little faith in that and like everyone else in the project, he had not been able to tell her the truth about the Facility; he couldn’t wait, too. They were both still very much in love, a decision like defecting to the West can transcend love, which he understood and knew to be true.
“That’s it. The rest, you already know,” added Vladimir, looking at the faces of everyone. Celina and Chrissy were in tears. Steven, Eirik and Jack were looking at the man with admiration for his courage.
Seeing that the evening passed rather quickly and that most of the people had already left the cafeteria, Steven and Chrissy returned to their room, happy to have postponed their plans until the next morning, at least most of it. They felt that their first kiss and their afternoon nap, which had brought them all the way to third base, had been enough for them to eliminate all doubts that they were now a couple. Tonight, they felt there was no need to stop and they didn’t.