From the dark past
The leather coat was an affectation of course. Zhukov believed it gave him added stature; the warrior fresh from battling the Capitalist beast. In reality the beast was a chimera he came across in the darker recesses of his General Officers’ minds. He was the Political commissar of Left Flank Army, Corps Five and Six. One hundred and thirty thousand Red Army assault troops. His coat creaked against the even softer leather of the staff car’s interior each time they hit a pot-hole on the broken Prussian roads. One almost felt at home, mused Zhukov, his senses centred on such small sounds for want of stimulation beyond the darkened windows.
“How much further?” he barked at the driver, his only companion for the past hour. The man’s steadfast refusal to communicate, tore at the Commissar’s nerve endings. He fumbled for a cigarette in the dark interior, then pulled hard on the harsh, acrid smoke of the poor quality tobacco. What he would not give for a pack of Lucky Strikes. At that moment his political congregation was establishing a bridgehead on the West bank of the river Oder. Berlin would soon be in their grasp. The wolf’s lair; and a Soviet foothold in the West. So why did the Chief want to see him? He had purged the officers of both Army Corps; from white haired generals to baby-faced second lieutenants. A sluggish offensive would not be tolerated. The executions had taken place in full view of the troops. Shootings beyond counting; a drain on the senses.
Zhukov was flung into the corner of his seat as the car left the highway. He could hear the crunch of gravel as he caught the reflection of heav y undergrowth in the headlights of the car. In less than a minute the car scraped to a halt. A checkpoint. Showcase troops thought Zhukov, tall blond Cossacks, The Leader’s Boys. The salute was delivered with a snap and they passed into well groomed park land. Light spilled from every window of the great house. There was a line of limousines queuing on the curved drive. The driver took the motor straight to the front of the line, halting below the sweep of the marble staircase. The door was held open by a young Lieutenant, and as Zhukov stepped out the car drove briskly away.
“Lieutenant Kamensky, Comrade Commissar,” he said with a smart salute. “The Boss asked me to bring you straight in. We are in the Grand Ballroom.” Zhukov’s anxiety always announced itself as worsening dyspepsia, the gut-wrenching heartburn that could cripple him for days. He burped softly, feeling the acid leap at the back of his throat.
“How is the Comrade Chairman tonight? he asked.
“Comrade Stalin is in wonderful form. Quite, quite wonderful. He is entertaining Marshal Popov and his staff.” Zhukov was conscious of trotting obediently behind this young warrior prince. He stopped suddenly, almost at the top of the steps.
“And do you know why he would wish to see me at this time of night?” Kamensky shrugged, then ushered the Commissar through the open door. “Young man. I am not without influence. It would be well to remember that before you dismiss my inquiry in such a manner.”
“I am sorry Comrade Zhukov,” he said with an elegant bow of the head. “Comrade Stalin does not confide such things to me. I can tell you that the Chairman is in boyish high spirits. A return to his peasant roots, if you will.” Zhukov’s windpipe caught fire, the discomfort spreading throughout his chest. In the subtlest way possible, this young officer had put him in his place.
“Just take me to him Kamensky,” said the Commissar, clenching both hands into fists; fighting the impulse to strike this upstart to the floor.
“Certainly Comrade, this way please.” The Lieutenant lead Zhukov through a maze of smaller salons, apparently drawn by the clamour and buzz at the rear of the house. These lesser rooms were full of high ranking Officers and civil servants. All were in high spirits which boded well for the Commissar’s reception. Nonetheless, his gastric system bubbled and fizzed. Through the grand double doors and into a scene from Belshazzar’s Feast. Cossacks, bare-chested and muscular, danced amid the ensemble. Tables were piled high with lobster and beef and caviar. A suckling pig, already half devoured, lay forlorn and abandoned. Champagne in crystal was evident everywhere. A silver haired Divisional General was gulping down wine from a highly decorative beer stein. Zhukov, reminded of the length of time since he had eaten, felt the bitter gall flood his palate, his stomach burning fiercely.
On a raised dias at the far end of the ballroom sat a large striking man dressed in a gray peasant shirt and baggy trousers tucked into tall leather boots. The Chairman. A broad, coarse featured face topped by black shining hair, scraped back from the prominent forehead. He sat legs planted apart, cradling a silver flask which he repeatedly drank from. One of the Boss’s inner circle had spotted Zhukov. He leant to Stalin’s ear and whispered something. The Comrade Chairman gave a short laugh.
“Ah Zhukov. Come forward man, don’t skulk in the background. Come to heel you sober dog.” The Commissar felt sure they would see the flames that licked at his innards. His hand instinctively went to his chest as he mounted the dias.
“Comrade Chairman. You wanted to see me?”
“Did I?” said the Chief. “Do you know, I don’t recall that I did.” Zhukov’s mouth fell open, he was pinned, not knowing whether to come on or retire.
“Comrade Stalin I….”
“Oh don’t cringe man, take a seat,” he said indicating a vacant chair with a negligent sweep of the hand. “Vodka for the Commissar, the flask there Kamensky. You’ll like this Zhukov, from my own village in Georgia.” Zhukov baulked as he smelled the eye watering miasma of the raw alcohol.
“Can I have a glass?” he asked of the Lieutenant.
“Bugger the glass you poor excuse for a Russian. Drink, drink you maggot.” Stalin pounded the table to punctuate his assault. “All my boys you ordered shot could manage a little village vodka,” Stalin shouted, his spittle arching across the intervening space. The Commissar reluctantly put the flask to his lips. The vapour made him cough, the vodka surging down his throat. The pain was excruciating. “More, more, more,” shouted Stalin, banging the table, the beat being taken up by the rest of his intimates. By this time Zhukov had tilted the flask, swallowing what he could whilst allowing the remainder to trickle down his jawline and into his shirt. The Chairman laughed uproariously.
“Bring him some water Kamensky.” Stalin rose and slapped the Commissar across the back. “Never mind Comrade Commissar; I’ve remembered now why I sent for you,” he bellowed. Zhukov drained the large glass of water. The flames receded but also spread along his lower gut. He dabbed at his lips with the spotless napkin Kamensky had brought.
“Yes Comrade Chairman?”
“How are my Boys doing in Frankfurt? Huh, Commissar Zhukov. Did Raevsky’s shooting give them a kick up the rear? You promised it would Comrade, promised no less.” Zhukov’s first disloyal and probably fatal thought was that Stalin could have found out simply by lifting the telephone or asking his staff. He mercilessly killed the thought.
“We are established in force across the Oder, Comrade Chairman. Frankfurt is subdued and under our control. We hope to move on Berlin within the next forty-eight hours.”
“And fucking German women, Zhukov? Or rape as you put it; the problem with my Boys having some fun with defeated Nazis?” said the Chairman, his voice now in a low, icy tone. “Take your time Comrade. Kamensky, another flask of vodka for the Commissar here,” he said his voice rising. “Drink up Zhukov. When you’ve drained the flask you may answer my question.” Stalin sat down, the jovial mood broken. The others on the dias fell silent and all eyes were on the drowning Commissar. Again Zhukov drained the flask, the fire in his stomach not one of bravery.
“Official figures show over three thousand cases of rape in or around Frankfurt Comrade Stalin,” muttered Zhukov.
“So? People should understand it if a soldier, who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death, has fun with a woman or takes some trifle.” The others around the dias nodded and murmured in approval, though Zhukov noticed that young Kamensky looked shocked.
“But if this happens once we occupy Berlin, Comrade Chairman, what will happen to discipline and control?”
“We lecture our soldiers too much, Zhukov; let them have their initiative,” said the Leader, turning to all in that immense room.
“Drink Boys, drink. Na Zdorovie, Na Zdorovie. Come my beloved Commissar. One more flask of liquid magic before you make that long return journey.” Zhukov was so relieved to be off the hook, as the Americans say, that he drained the flask without quibble. The Leader scarcely noticed Zhukov’s abject exit. Young Kamensky whistled up another staff car.
“Godspeed, Comrade Zhukov,” he said as he closed the door. The Commissar was moved by the look of genuine compassion on the young officer’s face. As the car sped into the Prussian darkness, Zhukov fought the agonising pain of dyspepsia whilst contemplating the equally agonising defeat of his complaints to the Boss.
“Stop the Car, now damn you,” he shouted. Bent almost double with the pain and with the acrid sting of bile in his nose, Zhukov saw that his coat was stained in vomit.