He left the car at the curb, slamming its door behind him and walking briskly to the entrance. Hard, handsome in the Slavic tradition, dedicated, Ilya Simonov was young for his rank. A plainclothes man, idling a hundred feet down the street, eyed him briefly then turned his attention elsewhere. The two guards at the gate snapped to attention, their eyes straight ahead. Colonel Simonov was in mufti and didn't answer the salute.
The inside of the old building was well known to him. He went along marble halls which contained antique statuary and other relics of the past which, for unknown reason, no one had ever bothered to remove. At the heavy door which entered upon the office of his destination he came to a halt and spoke briefly to the lieutenant at the desk there.
"The Minister is expecting me," Simonov clipped.
The lieutenant did the things receptionists do everywhere and looked up in a moment to say, "Go right in, Colonel Simonov."
Minister Kliment Blagonravov looked up from his desk at Simonov's entrance. He was a heavy-set man, heavy of face and he still affected the shaven head, now rapidly disappearing among upper-echelons of the Party. His jacket had been thrown over the back of a chair and his collar loosened; even so there was a sheen of sweat on his face.
He looked up at his most trusted field man, said in the way of greeting, "Ilya," and twisted in his swivel chair to a portable bar. He swung open the door of the small refrigerator and emerged with a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka. He plucked two three-ounce glasses from a shelf and pulled the bottle's cork with his teeth. "Sit down, sit down, Ilya," he grunted as he filled the glasses. "How was Magnitogorsk?"
Ilya Simonov secured his glass before seating himself in one of the room's heavy leathern chairs. He sighed, relaxed, and said, "Terrible, I loath those ultra-industrialized cities. I wonder if the Americans do any better with Pittsburgh or the British with Birmingham."
"I know what you mean," the security head rumbled. "How did you make out with you assignment, Ilya?"
Colonel Simonov frowned down into the colorlessness of the vodka before dashing it back over his palate. "It's all in my report, Kliment." He was the only man in the organization who called Blagonravov by his first name.
His chief grunted again and reached forward to refill the glass. "I'm sure it is. Do you know how many reports go across this desk daily? And did you know that Ilya Simonov is the most long-winded, as the Americans say, of my some two hundred first-line operatives?"
The colonel shifted in his chair. "Sorry," he said. "I'll keep that in mind."
His chief rumbled his sour version of a chuckle. "Nothing, nothing, Ilya. I was jesting. However, give me a brief of your mission."
Ilya Simonov frowned again at his refilled vodka glass but didn't take it up for a moment. "A routine matter," he said. "A dozen or so engineers and technicians, two or three fairly high-ranking scientists, and three or four of the local intelligentsia had formed some sort of informal club. They were discussing national and international affairs."
Kliment Blagonravov's thin eyebrows went up but he waited for the other to go on.
Ilya said impatiently, "It was the ordinary. They featured complete freedom of opinion and expression in their weekly get-togethers. They began by criticizing without extremism, local affairs, matters concerned with their duties, that sort of thing. In the beginning, they even sent a few letters of protest to the local press, signing the name of the club. After their ideas went further out, they didn't dare do that, of course."
He took up his second drink and belted it back, not wanting to give it time to lose its chill.
His chief filled in. "And they delved further and further into matters that should be discussed only within the party—if even there—until they arrived at what point?"
Colonel Simonov shrugged. "Until they finally got to the point of discussing how best to overthrow the Soviet State and what socio-economic system should follow it. The usual thing. I've run into possible two dozen such outfits in the past five years."
His chief grunted and tossed back his own drink. "My dear Ilya," he rumbled sourly, "I've run into, as you say, more than two hundred."
Simonov was taken back by the figure but he only looked at the other.
Blagonravov said, "What did you do about it?"
"Several of them were popular locally. In view of Comrade Zverev's recent pronouncements of increased freedom of press and speech, I thought it best not to make a public display. Instead, I took measures to charge individual members with inefficiency in their work, with corruption or graft, or with other crimes having nothing to do with the reality of the situation. Six or seven in all were imprisoned, others demoted. Ten or twelve I had switched to other cities, principally into more backward areas in the virgin lands."
"And the ringleaders?" the security head asked.
"There were two of them, one a research chemist of some prominence, the other a steel plane manager. They were both, ah, unfortunately killed in an automobile accident while under the influence of drink."
"I see," Blagonravov nodded. "So actually the whole rat's nest was stamped out without attention being brought to it so far as the Magnitogorsk public is concerned." He nodded heavily again. "You can almost always be depended upon to do the right thing, Ilya. If you weren't so confoundedly good a field man, I'd make you my deputy."
Which was exactly what Simonov would have hated, but he said nothing.
"One thing," his chief said. "The origin of this, ah, club which turned into a tiny underground all of its own. Did you detect the finger of the West, stirring up trouble?"
"No." Simonov shook his head. "If such was the case, the agents involved were more clever than I'd ordinarily give either America or Common Europe credit for. I could be wrong, of course."
"Perhaps," the police head growled. He eyed the bottle before him but made no motion toward it. He wiped the palm of his right hand back over his bald pate, in unconscious irritation. "But there is something at work that we are not getting at." Blagonravov seemed to change subjects. "You can speak Czech, so I understand."
"That's right. My mother was from Bratislava. My father met her there during the Hitler war."
"And you know Czechoslovakia?"
"I've spent several vacations in the Tatras at such resorts as Tatranski Lomnica since the country's been made such a tourist center of the satellites." Ilya Simonov didn't understand this trend of the conversation.
"You have some knowledge of automobiles, too?"
Simonov shrugged. "I've driven all my life."
His chief rumbled thoughtfully, "Time isn't of essence. You can take a quick course at the Moskvich plant. A week or two would give you all the background you need."
Ilya laughed easily. "I seem to have missed something. Have my shortcomings caught up with me? Am I to be demoted to automobile mechanic?"
Kliment Blagonravov became definite. "You are being given the most important assignment of your career, Ilya. This rot, this ever growing ferment against the Party, must be cut out, liquidated. It seems to fester worse among the middle echelons of ... what did that Yugoslavian Djilas call us?... the New Class. Why? That's what we must know."
He sat farther back in his chair and his heavy lips made a mout. "Why, Ilya?" he repeated. "After more than half a century the Party has attained all its goals. Lenin's millennium is here; the end for which Stalin purged ten millions and more, is reached; the sacrifices demanded by Khrushchev in the Seven-Year Plans have finally paid off, as the Yankees say. Our gross national product, our per capita production, our standard of living, is the highest in the world. Sacrifices are no longer necessary."
There had been an almost whining note in his voice. But now he broke it off. He poured them still another drink. "At any rate, Ilya, I was with Frol Zverev this morning. Number One is incensed. It seems that in the Azerbaijan Republic, for one example, that even the Komsomols were circulating among themselves various proscribed books and pamphlets. Comrade Zverev instructed me to concentrate on discovering the reason for this disease."
Colonel Simonov scowled. "What's this got to do with Czechoslovakia—and automobiles?"
The security head waggled a fat finger at him. "What we've been doing, thus far, is dashing forth upon hearing of a new conflagration and stamping it out. Obviously, that's no answer. We must find who is behind it. How it begins. Why it begins. That's your job?"
"You're unknown as a security agent there, for one thing. You will go to Prague and become manager of the Moskvich automobile distribution agency. No one, not even the Czech unit of our ministry will be aware of your identity. You will play it by ear, as the Americans say."
"To whom do I report?"
"Only to me, until the task is completed. When it is, you will return to Moscow and report fully." A grimace twisted Blagonravov's face. "If I am still here. Number One is truly incensed, Ilya."
There had been some more. Kliment Blagonravov had evidently chosen Prague, the capital of Czechoslovakia, as the seat of operations in a suspicion that the wave of unrest spreading insidiously throughout the Soviet Complex owed its origins to the West. Thus far, there had been no evidence of this but the suspicion refused to die. If not the West, then who? The Cold War was long over but the battle for men's minds continued even in peace.
Ideally, Ilya Simonov was to infiltrate whatever Czech groups might be active in the illicit movement and then, if he discovered there was a higher organization, a center of the movement, he was to attempt to become a part of it. If possible he was to rise in the organisation to as high a point as he could.
Blagonravov, Minister of the Chrezvychainaya Komissiya, the Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage, was of the opinion that if this virus of revolt was originating from the West, then it would be stronger in the satellite countries than in Russia itself. Simonov held no opinion as yet. He would wait and see. However, there was an uncomfortable feeling about the whole assignment. The group in Magnitogorsk, he was all but sure, had no connections with Western agents, nor anyone else, for that matter. Of course, it might have been an exception.
He left the Ministry, his face thoughtful as he climbed into his waiting Zil. This assignment was going to be a lengthy one. He'd have to wind up various affairs here in Moscow, personal as well as business. He might be away for a year or more.
There was a sheet of paper on the seat of his aircushion car. He frowned at it. It couldn't have been there before. He picked it up.
It was a mimeographed throw-away.
It was entitled, FREEDOM, and it began: Comrades, more than a hundred years ago the founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, explained that the State was incompatible with liberty, that the State was an instrument of repression of one class by another. They explained that for true freedom ever to exist the State must wither away.
Under the leadership of Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev and now Zverev, the State has become ever stronger. Far from withering away, it continues to oppress us. Fellow Russians, it is time we take action! We must....
Colonel Simonov bounced from his car again, shot his eyes up and down the street. He barely refrained from drawing the 9 mm automatic which nestled under his left shoulder and which he knew how to use so well.
He curtly beckoned to the plainclothes man, still idling against the building a hundred feet or so up the street. The other approached him, touched the brim of his hat in a half salute.
Simonov snapped, "Do you know who I am?"
Ilya Simonov thrust the leaflet forward. "How did this get into my car?"
The other looked at it blankly. "I don't know, Colonel Simonov."
"You've been here all this time?"
"Why, yes colonel."
"With my car in plain sight?"
That didn't seem to call for an answer. The plainclothesman looked apprehensive but blank.
Simonov turned on his heel and approached the two guards at the gate. They were not more than thirty feet from where he was parked. They came to the salute but he growled, "At ease. Look here, did anyone approach my vehicle while I was inside?"
One of the soldiers said, "Sir, twenty or thirty people have passed since the Comrade colonel entered the Ministry."
The other one said, "Yes, sir."
Ilya Simonov looked from the guards to the plainclothes man and back, in frustration. Finally he spun on his heel again and re-entered the car. He slapped the elevation lever, twisted the wheel sharply, hit the jets pedal with his foot and shot into the traffic.
The plainclothes man looked after him and muttered to the guards, "Blagonravov's hatchetman. He's killed more men than the plague. A bad one to have down on you."
Simonov bowled down the Kaluga at excessive speed. "Driving like a young stilyagi," he growled in irritation at himself. But, confound it, how far had things gone when subversive leaflets were placed in cars parked in front of the ministry devoted to combating counter revolution.
He'd been away from Moscow for over a month and the amenities in the smog, smoke and coke fumes blanketing industrial complex of Magnitogorsk hadn't been particularly of the best. Ilya Simonov headed now for Gorki Street and the Baku Restaurant. He had an idea that it was going to be some time before the opportunity would be repeated for him to sit down to Zakouski, the salty, spicy Russian hors d'oeuvres, and to Siberian pilmeny and a bottle of Tsinandali.
The restaurant, as usual, was packed. In irritation, Ilya Simonov stood for a while waiting for a table, then, taking the head waiter's advice, agreed to share one with a stranger.
The stranger, a bearded little man, who was dwaddling over his Gurievskaya kasha dessert while reading Izvestia, glanced up at him, unseemingly, bobbed his head at Simonov's request to share his table, and returned to the newspaper.
The harried waiter took his time in turning up with a menu. Ilya Simonov attempted to relax. He had no particular reason to be upset by the leaflet found in his car. Obviously, whoever had thrown it there was distributing haphazardly. The fact that it was mimeographed, rather than printed, was an indication of lack of resources, an amateur affair. But what in the world did these people want? What did they want?
The Soviet State was turning out consumer's goods, homes, cars as no nation in the world. Vacations were lengthy, working hours short. A four-day week, even! What did they want? What motivates a man who is living on a scale unknown to a Czarist boyar to risk his position, even his life! in a stupidly impossible revolt against the country's government?
The man across from him snorted in contempt.
He looked over the top of his paper at Smirnov and said, "The election in Italy. Ridiculous!"
Ilya Simonov brought his mind back to the present. "How did they turn out? I understand the depression is terrible there."
"So I understand," the other said. "The vote turned out as was to be expected."
Simonov's eyebrows went up. "The Party has been voted into power?"
"Ha!" the other snorted. "The vote for the Party has fallen off by more than a third."
The security colonel scowled at him. "That doesn't sound reasonable, if the economic situation is as bad as has been reported."
His table mate put down the paper. "Why not? Has there ever been a country where the Party was voted into power? Anywhere—at any time during the more than half a century since the Bolsheviks first took over here in Russia?"
Simonov looked at him.
The other was talking out opinions he'd evidently formed while reading the Izvestia account of the Italian elections, not paying particular attention to the stranger across from him.
He said, his voice irritated, "Nor will there ever be. They know better. In the early days of the revolution the workers might have had illusions about the Party and it goals. Now they've lost them. Everywhere, they've lost them."
Ilya Simonov said tightly, "How do you mean?"
"I mean the Party has been rejected. With the exception of China and Yugoslavia, both of whom have their own varieties, the only countries that have adopted our system have done it under pressure from outside—not by their own efforts. Not by the will of the majority."
Colonel Simonov said flatly, "You seem to think that Marxism will never dominate the world."
"Marxism!" the other snorted. "If Marx were alive in Russia today, Frol Zverev would have him in a Siberian labor camp within twenty-four hours."
Ilya Simonov brought forth his wallet and opened it to his police credentials. He said coldly, "Let me see your identification papers. You are under arrest."
The other stared at him for a moment, then snorted his contempt. He brought forth his own wallet and handed it across the table.
Simonov flicked it open, his face hard. He looked at the man. "Konstantin Kasatkin."
"Candidate member of the Academy of Sciences," the other snapped. "And bearer of the Hero of the Soviet Union award."
Simonov flung the wallet back to him in anger. "And as such, practically immune."
The other grinned nastily at him. "Scientists, my police friend, cannot be bothered with politics. Where would the Soviet Complex be if you took to throwing biologists such as myself into prison for making unguarded statements in an absent-minded moment?"
Simonov slapped a palm down on the table. "Confound it, Comrade," he snapped, "how is the Party to maintain discipline in the country if high ranking persons such as yourself speak open subversion to strangers."
The other sported his contempt. "Perhaps there's too much discipline in Russia, Comrade policeman."
"Rather, far from enough," Simonov snapped back.
The waiter, at last, approached and extended a menu to the security officer. But Ilya Simonov had come to his feet. "Never mind," he clipped in disgust. "There is an air of degenerate decay about here."
The waiter stared at him. The biologist snorted and returned to his paper. Simonov turned and stormed out. He could find something to eat and drink in his own apartment.
The old, old town of Prague, the Golden City of a Hundred Spires was as always the beautifully stolid medieval metropolis which even a quarter of a century and more of Party rule could not change. The Old Town, nestled in a bend of the Vltava River, as no other city in Europe, breathed its centuries, its air of yesteryear.
Colonel Ilya Simonov, in spite of his profession, was not immune to beauty. He deliberately failed to notify his new office of his arrival, flew in on a Ceskoslovenskè Aerolinie Tupolev rocket liner and spent his first night at the Alcron Hotel just off Wenceslas Square. He knew that as the new manager of the local Moskvich distribution agency he'd have fairly elaborate quarters, probably in a good section of town, but this first night he wanted to himself.
He spent it wandering quietly in the old quarter, dropping in to the age-old beer halls for a half liter of Pilsen Urquell here, a foaming stein of Smichov Lager there. Czech beer, he was reminded all over again, is the best in the world. No argument, no debate, the best in the world.
He ate in the endless automated cafeterias that line the Viclavské Námesi the entertainment center of Prague. Ate an open sandwich here, some crabmeat salad there, a sausage and another glass of Pilsen somewhere else again. He was getting the feel of the town and of its people. Of recent years, some of the tension had gone out of the atmosphere in Moscow and the other Soviet centers; with the coming of economic prosperity there had also come a relaxation. The fear, so heavy in the Stalin era, had fallen off in that of Khrushchev and still more so in the present reign of Frol Zverev. In fact, Ilya Simonov was not alone in Party circles in wondering whether or not discipline had been allowed to slip too far. It is easier, the old Russian proverb goes, to hang onto the reins than to regain them once dropped.
But if Moscow had lost much of its pall of fear, Prague had certainly gone even further. In fact, in the U Pinkasu beer hall Simonov had idly picked up a magazine left by some earlier wassailer. It was a light literary publication devoted almost exclusively to humor. There were various cartoons, some of them touching political subjects. Ilya Simonov had been shocked to see a caricature of Frol Zverev himself. Zverev, Number One! Ridiculed in a second-rate magazine in a satellite country!
Ilya Simonov made a note of the name and address of the magazine and the issue.
Across the heavy wooden community table from him, a beer drinker grinned, in typically friendly Czech style. "A good magazine," he said. "You should subscribe."
A waiter, bearing an even dozen liter-size steins of beer hurried along, spotted the fact that Simonov's mug was empty, slipped a full one into its place, gave the police agent's saucer a quick mark of a pencil, and hurried on again. In the U Pinkasu, it was supposed that you wanted another beer so long as you remained sitting. When you finally staggered to your feet, the nearest waiter counted the number of pencil marks on your saucer and you paid up.
Ilya Simonov said cautiously to his neighbor, "Seems to be quite, ah, brash." He tapped the magazine with a finger.
The other shrugged and grinned again. "Things loosen up as the years go by," he said. "What a man wouldn't have dared say to his own wife five years ago, they have on TV today."
"I'm surprised the police don't take steps," Simonov said, trying to keep his voice expressionless.
The other took a deep swallow of his Pilsen Urquell. He pursed his lips and thought about it. "You know, I wonder if they'd dare. Such a case brought into the People's Courts might lead to all sort of public reaction these days."
It had been some years since Ilya Simonov had been in Prague and even then he'd only gone through on the way to the ski resorts in the mountains. He was shocked to find the Czech state's control had fallen off to this extent. Why, here he was, a complete stranger, being openly talked to on political subjects.
His cross-the-table neighbor shook his head, obviously pleased. "If you think Prague is good, you ought to see Warsaw. It's as free as Paris! I saw a Tri-D cinema up there about two months ago. You know what it was about? The purges in Moscow back in the 1930s."
"A rather unique subject," Simonov said.