Read Red to Black Online

Authors: Alex Dryden

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Espionage

Red to Black (5 page)

walks over to the window, stretches, and looks out.

‘So they’re all leaving for the city,’ he says. ‘I suppose I should hurry along to the embassy like a good boy too. They’ll want to code a special British welcome to the new chief.’

He pauses by the window and carries on looking out at the heavy snow falling in the pitch darkness and lit only by the porch light. The track from the dacha is always kept clear and the road out to the motorway into Moscow is open even in extreme conditions. I watch him watching the red tail-lights streaming towards the motorway.

‘Why would anyone want to leave a little wooden house in the forest, with a warm fire blazing inside, to go to the city on New Year’s Eve?’ Nana asks him. She approaches Finn to put a hand on his arm.

‘Typical bloody Russians,’ Finn says to her and forces a smile.
‘Why do you always choose our holidays to change the world? Why don’t you use your own bloody holidays?’

‘Telephone them at the embassy,’ Nana urges him. ‘Say you’re sick. Say you’ve been poisoned,’ she giggles.

We are always joking about poisoning Finn, Nana and I, ever since he’d told us he’d been warned by the embassy to be on his guard against it. Now, it seems like a bad joke. But back then, there was still some light in the East, as Finn put it. I had taught Nana the English words, ‘Doing him in’, and she would go around the dacha when Finn was staying, muttering about ‘doing him in’ to his face, and cackling loudly.

But the idea of Finn being poisoned seemed to have lodged itself in the mind of Finn’s station head at the embassy.

‘I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t see this girl Anna,’ Tom, Finn’s station head, had told him.

‘OK, Tom.’

‘In fact, it might be useful if you do. If we can learn something from it. We’re trying to get a profile on her for you. She’s new, she’s young, no record, but she’s straight out of the Forest, we know that much.’

Tom thought for a moment.

‘Only thing is, what if they grab you, Finn, when you’re in Barvikha? Poison you, and you spill out all our lovely secrets?’

‘I’ll eat only off Anna’s plate,’ Finn told him.

‘We’ll have a watch on you, of course, but we can’t follow you in there.’

‘I’ll wave from the end of the road every hour.’

‘Just remember, Finn. You’re supposed to be tapping her, not the other way round.’

‘Oh, don’t worry. I’ll tap her all right,’ Finn said, but this rare crude allusion was lost on his boss.


In retrospect, Finn and I saw the window that had briefly opened for us to be together in the year leading up to the millennium as one of those fleeting moments in history when two opposing sides seem temporarily to be struck with amnesia about why they are fighting.

The British would never have allowed Finn to come on to KGB territory, either before that brief historical moment at the end of Yeltsin’s presidency or after it. The end of the Yeltsin era, the final years of the 1990s, opened the window to our relationship for a camera-flash instant, before it was slammed shut again under Putin. At any other time, we would have seized Finn immediately to suck out the marrow of his professional life, before handing him back–empty, soul-destroyed, useless–in exchange for some similar unfortunate from our side whom the British possessed.

Our luck–Finn’s and mine–was to benefit from that moment when history paused, like the crest of a wave, before gathering its force to move on again.

‘It’s a moment,’ Finn once said, ‘like the one in the First World War when British and German troops stopped killing each other for a day and played football instead.’

Finn and I took advantage of the moment given to us.


One of our early meetings was at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow where Finn was particularly fascinated by Petrov-Vodkin’s painting, ‘The Bathing of a Red Horse’.

We walked around the gallery together until we stopped at this painting. Both Finn and I noticed the man in a black fur hat and black coat and the woman wearing a rabbit-skin hat and a thick Scandinavian herringbone coat. They were behind us, apparently looking at other works on the walls, but not really seeing what they were looking at.

‘Guess which one of them is your side,’ Finn said and grinned at me. ‘Or do you know?’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I said.

‘Come on, Anna.’ Finn grinned more broadly at me. ‘I bet you a thousand roubles the man’s one of ours.’

Even though Finn and I had already openly discussed our own roles in this seduction, I still tried to maintain the pretence that we had met casually, that our affair had nothing to do with anyone but us.

As Second Secretary for Trade and Investment, Finn had long been marked down by us as a member of the Service. He’d been in Moscow too long and he practically had ‘spy’ written all over him. He would joke in public about his job, a ruse he called a double bluff and which, admittedly, confused us for a while. In fact, it was only when, in late November 1998, we eavesdropped on a recording of his station head telling him to stop joking about being a spy that we knew he was a spy.


‘I’ll have to go,’ Finn now says unenthusiastically, standing up. ‘Putin!’ he chokes. ‘How perfect is that. The put-in. God! And God save Russia.’

‘Is that the view of your government or just your own?’ I ask him as I lean in a mockingly seductive way with my back to the fireplace. He grins at my pretence to be doing my job.

We have a game, Finn and I, saying one thing we each know about the other from our professional research. I’ll say, ‘You were brought up in a hippy commune in Ireland by your mother and her hippy lover.’

He’ll reply, ‘You went to school Number 47 and were brought up by Nana because your father was stationed abroad with the SVR.’

Then I might say, ‘At the age of twelve you were taken by an uncle away from your drug-addict mother and sent to a crammer near Cambridge.’

Usually he’s the first to say something below the belt. ‘At school when you were fourteen you were caught having sex with a teacher. He was punished, you weren’t.’

‘On our files you are a notorious womaniser. Despite your age,’ I’ll add.

One of us eventually attacks the other physically and the game will end with us wrestling on the floor, or on the bed, or in the forest.

When we make love, Finn says afterwards, ‘I don’t know what sort of crap we’ve got as researchers these days, but I’ve read a hundred times you’re not a pushover.’

‘Whereas you are such an easy lay,’ I say.

Now, Finn’s face is troubled.

‘What’s the point?’ he says, and slumps back down on to the sofa. ‘I can’t sit in the embassy discussing Putin on New Year’s Eve. We’ll all have plenty of time to talk about the little creep.’ He turns to me. ‘Anyway, Rabbit, you can tell me all about him, can’t you? Give me something to justify my staying at Barvikha. Throw me some bones so I can impress them all tomorrow. I have to do some intelligence work. It’s my job.’

Nana cackles delightedly.

‘Let’s toast Vladimir Putin,’ she enthuses mockingly. ‘Long live the KGB!’ She boosts Finn’s glass of brandy and pours a glass of vodka for herself. She rarely drinks alcohol. And we all, in our own ways, drink to forget.

had met a year before, at the end of 1998, our now new and unelected President, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, was prime minister under Boris Yeltsin. Nobody knew anything about him outside his close St Petersburg circle and the KGB. He had an approval rating well below twenty per cent among the population.

So he decided to wage war against Chechnya, to avenge the earlier Russian defeat there under Yeltsin. It was a hugely popular war. Chechens died by the tens of thousands and the Russian dead were flown back home secretly. Putin’s ruthlessness soon tripled his popularity rating among the Russian people.

In a rare moment at a news conference in Belgium, Putin’s mask slipped. When a Western journalist questioned his murderous tactics and the Russian atrocities in Chechnya, Putin snapped back at him.

‘Come to Russia,’ he said, ‘and we’ll circumcise you so that it’ll never grow back.’

This was our new president.


But now in the listlessness that grips us at the dacha, instead of pressuring me to tell him what I know about our new KGB president, Finn begins to tell us what he knows about Putin. It’s a strange moment, theatrical, even, and Finn talks half to himself, as if he’s reading a story.

It’s a story that, in truth, begins in 1961. As he tells it to us, Finn sits by the fire, cradling his tumbler of brandy. He knows he’s being recorded from somewhere in the room. My people, much to Nana’s annoyance, have of course wired up the dacha to catch his every word.

Much later, at the vault in Tegernsee, I realised- too late- that this was the turning point. At this instant in the dacha at Barvikha, Finn made his decision. The stand he chose to make began here, in the home of our hearts. Sitting by the crackling fire, he began to throw away his secret life and, as I now realise, he was throwing it away for my sake.

When Finn decided something, he decided it quickly. And events would then unravel very fast. He had the capacity to think fast and very far ahead on these occasions. As it turned out, the telling of this story put into play all that was to follow. From that afternoon at Barvikha what has happened to Finn and me was set in motion.

His aim was later to become clear to me, but it wasn’t clear at the time. He had a plan, for far into the future, to make sure we could share our lives together without the artificial, professional barriers preventing it. And it was for that reason alone that he began the process of burning his boats.

Six years later, picking up Finn’s first notebook and reading it by the light of the oil lamp in the vault at Tegernsee, it is an eerie experience. The first lines written in Finn’s hand are word for word what he said on that evening, the eve of the millennium.

‘For me,’ Finn begins, settling a cushion behind his lower back and tickling Genghiz under the chin, ‘the story began in January 1989. Although it really started back in 1961.

‘In 1989, I was stationed in West Berlin. One grey middle-European winter night an East German citizen by the name of Anatoly Schmidtke landed on a flight from Geneva at Berlin’s Tegel airport. The flight was less than half full and he was easy to spot. He was stopped and arrested immediately by the British. We controlled the zone around Tegel. Berlin was still divided into four zones. The Soviets had East Berlin, and West Berlin was divided between the British, the French and the Americans.

‘We swiftly moved Schmidtke to London where we put him in a high-security cell in Belmarsh prison. It’s where we keep awkward foreigners out of sight from the press.’

Finn bends down to stroke Genghiz who is curled up at his feet, ancient now like Nana, and who seems, unusually, to have given Finn his stamp of approval.

‘I was sent with a senior officer from the Service to interview Schmidtke,’ Finn continues. ‘I was an up-and-coming officer and my station head considered this to be a golden opportunity to introduce me to a real Russian- or East German- spy.’ Finn grins like a schoolboy at the word.

Then he looks at me and I see for the hundredth time how his eyes become completely different from each other when he’s focusing on something. One of them, the left one as I look at him, is soft and gentle. The other is hard, cruel even. He is like two different people in one pair of eyes. I’ve never seen a man’s eyes like this, eyes that could express two completely separate expressions at the same time, as if they were operated by two different sides of the brain.

‘So off we went to Belmarsh prison,’ Finn resumes. ‘You knew him?’ Finn says to me. ‘Schmidtke?’

‘Only by name.’

‘Yes, Schmidtke was a bit before your time.’ Finn smiles. ‘Anyway, back in eighty-nine, I was sent to Belmarsh to interview him about what he’d been doing in Geneva, not to mention what he’d been doing in the other twenty-eight years of his operational life.’

‘He wasn’t Russian?’ Nana asks.

‘He was—is—a Russian German, originally from the East. He became a Stasi officer. He was even Foreign Minister for a short time. But mainly he headed an organisation just over the Wall on your side called KoKo, for short. Kommerzielle Koordinierung. Of all his positions and centres of power, KoKo was the gold seam of his influence. It was KGB, of course, but it was run on a day-to-day basis by the East Germans.’

And now Finn barely pauses.

‘KoKo was set up in 1961, just after the Wall went up. It was a hybrid trade organisation the purpose of which was to get hold of foreign currency to fund KGB and Stasi operations abroad. Foreign currency wasn’t so easy to obtain for your people after the Wall went up. Your own Wall made traffic from East to West more difficult for the KGB, too. So Schmidtke’s mission was to find new ways to get hold of valuable foreign currency. The rouble was useless, unconvertible, of course.

‘It all started pretty crudely with Schmidtke’s thugs combing East Germany for works of art the Nazis hadn’t hidden–antiques and so on. They just confiscated stuff from their owners and sold it through various dealers from Switzerland and Belgium, London and other places. Schmidtke set up a secret financial pipeline from East Germany to Switzerland in order to launder the money and he learned from Soviet sympathisers and illegal financial operators in the West how to set up offshore accounts, wash money, avoid tax. What he learned about capitalism was how all the grimy underside of it worked, the illegal side, the side used by organised crime. So his main contacts in the West were by and large criminal. But there were bankers too, and lawyers, who operated above the line.’

Finn looks up to the ceiling at this point, as if to make sure that the microphones are picking up his every word.

Nana disappears into the kitchen and comes back with a tray of
–thin dough pancakes filled with minced lamb–that she’s made, despite dinner being so recent, and puts it on the table next to Finn. She shakes flour from her apron on to the crackling logs in the fireplace and holds on to the mantelpiece for a moment.

‘Are you all right, Nana?’

‘Yes, yes, I’m all right. Just a dizzy spell, Anna. They come and go quickly.’

‘Sit down, Nana,’ Finn says and stands up to plump a cushion on the chair opposite him, but she remains standing. In the corner of the room the Russian flag still flutters on the televison in front of the Kremlin’s cameras, but I’ve turned the television down. Nana can hear only if there’s no background noise.

‘So, in the West, did nobody ask where these artworks came from?’ Nana says.

‘No. There was money to be made. On all sides. In 1961 Europe was in disorder after the Wall went up. There was a lot of movement across the line still and we were encouraging people to come over. Of course, that’s when the KGB put many of their people in place in the West. It was the end of free movement and everyone was trying to get their pieces in position.’

Finn looks at the clock on the wall over the mantelpiece. It is half an hour before the New Year. He gently touches the side of my face in a gesture that Nana says later is the one that wards off evil spirits. Nana has all kinds of superstitions like this from God knows where. To me, Finn’s hand on my cheek feels like protection of sorts too, so maybe Nana is right.

‘You want me to continue?’ Finn says, and a line of worry creases his eyes. He says it as if we are going through some door, some magic portal of no return, or over the brink of a precipice. And in a sense we are.

‘Yes, why not? Go on.’

He brushes the hairs on my temple as he takes his hand away and then continues, as before, carefully laying the words down as if they are a ball of string along which we can find our way back.

‘Well, soon, of course, Schmidtke’s theft of art ran out of steam. There wasn’t anything left. Who knows how much money KoKo made? Millions? Certainly. But new ways had to be found to fund the KGB’s increasing presence in Western Europe and elsewhere. They were funding the Communist parties in France and Italy, for a start. But that’s another story. So Schmidtke turned to what was practically the only thing the Soviets had to offer of their own. Arms.’

Finn now spreads out on his back as if the smallest effort of movement might result in the end of the world. To me, trained observer that I am, it is a position of deliberate vulnerability, of ‘I’m taking a big risk.’ It is the psychiatrist’s couch and the ‘patient’ is peeling off one layer of the onion of his hidden self to test the effect it has.

The fact that we all know about the microphones adds a surreal touch, I suppose. We’re all playing, to some extent, to the third ear in the room–Putin’s Ears, as Finn refers to the microphones later. But while Finn, it seems to me, wants my masters to hear what he is saying, he nevertheless and unnecessarily looks straight at me as if to convey a deeper meaning that cannot be known by anyone outside the room. I know he’s conveying a message to me beyond his words, but that the message in some way includes his words too.

In retrospect, I now realise that it was an appeal, an appeal to me to understand his real motives, the unexpressed, the unsaid.

‘KoKo became one of the biggest illegal arms sales operations in the world,’ he continues. ‘At its height it was selling shipments of weapons all over Africa, the Middle East, South America, China, rebel groups in the Far East…Schmidtke even sold a cargo of small arms out of Rostock to the Americans for their covert war in Nicaragua. Good, solid Soviet-made weapons and East German optics could soon be bought throughout the world. And Schmidtke
funnelled the profits down his secret financial pipeline into Switzerland. Two banks in Geneva friendly to Schmidtke and the KGB washed the money and a friendly bank in an obscure Swiss canton invested this laundered money into all kinds of business ventures.’

Finn smiles at a memory. ‘I remember once when I was on a skiing holiday I was sitting on a ski-lift in a canton in Switzerland. I suddenly realised that this ski-lift was, in fact, a KGB investment,’ he says. ‘The technology was Swiss,’ he adds, as if concerned that we might be worrying about his physical safety.

But then he’s serious again.

‘So. When we arrested Schmidtke in Berlin in eighty-nine, several billions of dollars had been laundered by KoKo and invested in all kinds of ways. When we brought him in, Schmidtke was returning from Geneva having deposited over a billion dollars. We were a few hours too late to stop him divesting himself of the cash and bonds. We knew the money was held in an escrow account belonging to one of Schmidtke’s Western agents, a Belgian arms dealer living in Switzerland. We wanted him too, but missed him that time and every time since then.’

‘What does this have to do with Putin?’ Nana asks. ‘Our new President, God bless us.’

‘Putin was one of Schmidtke’s colleagues. He also worked for Schmidtke’s KGB controllers in the eighties,’ Finn says. ‘That’s the connection. Back in the days when he was based in East Germany, Putin and Schmidtke met regularly.’

‘And Schmidtke was clearing out the accounts before German re-unification,’ I say, ‘which is why he was depositing these billions in Switzerland.’

‘Yes. There were a lot of traces to be covered in a very short time,’ Finn replies. ‘Everything happened so quickly after the Wall came down. It wasn’t just Schmidtke and the Stasi and their KGB allies who had a clearout. Every KGB general and some regular army generals in East Germany were stripping the place. Huge Russian
air transporters were flying out cargoes of Mercedes stolen in the West and bound for Moscow. The rapaciousness was unbelievable. Do you know that when Mercedes opened a dealership in Moscow at the beginning of the nineties, they couldn’t sell any cars, there were so many already there? Instead, they opened a service centre; they made good money, thanks to Russian driving.’

‘And Schmidtke?’ Nana says.

‘We questioned him for a few weeks in London. We knew he knew everything, all the skeletons, right up to the very top of the political leadership in Bonn. But the West Germans naturally wanted him, too, and they had a greater claim. We let them have him. Perhaps that was a mistake,’ Finn adds.

‘Why?’ I ask.

‘Why was it a mistake? They questioned him for two years. At the end they found he still knew more about them than they knew about him. He held all the secrets. Their secrets, secrets they didn’t even know about their own political leaders. Don’t forget, for nearly thirty years Schmidtke was at the heart of East Germany’s infiltration of West German politics, banking and business. He knew it all. I’m amazed he wasn’t killed in prison, actually. There were plenty of people who would have appreciated him more if he were in the grave. But he had very powerful allies. And still has. After two years of interrogation, the Germans let him go, under their surveillance, into a quiet, paid retirement in a village called Tegernsee in southern Germany.’

Finn rolls over on the sofa and puts his hands on my knees and seems to study them as they stroke my skin.

‘Tegernsee,’ he says, lost in the movement of his hand. ‘It’s a charming little place on a lake, you’d love it, Rabbit. And it’s very convenient for the Swiss border. The town has a number of interesting residents, in fact, as well as Schmidtke.’

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