25 March 2007

For this round the regime had cordoned off more than just Oktyabraska Square; they’d sealed off nine surrounding blocks. Russell Piper knew because he’d reconnoitered the entire periphery on foot, from Internatsionalnaya and Lenin Streets to GUM department store, from the Presidential Palace down to the Svisloch River. Militiamen arrayed along every sidewalk and interior courtyard. Shops, restaurants and cafes closed—a contrived sanitarni dien, or “cleaning day”, according to blunt, government-issued door-signs. Almost noon on a mild and sparkling March Sunday, and the heart of Minsk was locked down and void of pedestrians.

He climbed onto an elevated corner at the Belarussian National Circus, where several thousand displaced demonstrators were coalescing on the plaza and opposite sidewalk. Prohibited red-and-white banners of the Belarussian opposition waved overhead among them, together with the blue-and-gold standard of the European Union. Numbers grew to five or six thousand as additional people flowed in from other directions. Soon they erupted with chants: “Zhivye Belarus! Zhivye Belarus!” Long live Belarus! Long live Belarus!

Piper exhaled with disappointment. The slogan wasn’t his favorite; he preferred those he’d heard on video from the previous March 25th: more animating and powerful ones, in his view. Truth. Freedom. Most important, though, was that demonstrators weren’t capitulating.

Before the crowd could grow much further, a line of buses pulled up on Yanka Kupala Street and disgorged hundreds of black-helmeted, baton-wielding riot police. One column ran straight up onto the terrace where Piper was standing and forced him and others off in a moving ring, also giving him the chance to view the policemen up-close. Young faces behind the plexiglass face-shields. Malleable eighteen and nineteen-year-old boys from the villages. Willing to take orders. Ready to do combat.

They began pushing the crowd up the Prospekt, in an involuntary procession. Caught in the flow, Piper heard his cell-phone ring and pulled it from his inside pocket. The caller was another U.S. observer, a Russia hand sent over from Langley; the situation on the other side of Oktyabraska Square had taken an equally adverse turn. The principal opposition leader and former presidential candidate had scuffled with militia in front of GUM and been diverted south with several thousand other demonstrators, all now detached from the main procession.

Thus far, an inauspicious start.

Upon disconnecting he took a closer look at the demonstrators around him, however, and found some new encouragement. There was a preponderance of students, as usual, largely male. But also a healthy turnout of females—at least twenty percent of the total, he reckoned, perhaps more. He knew Minsk contained a plethora of modern-thinking, ambitious young women, just as Kiev did during the tumultuous weeks of November-December 2004. Then, at the historic epicenter on the Maydan, the proportion had been even higher. Closer ratios generated more energy and impetus. In Minsk, he believed, the higher the female share, the better.

His attention swung to the opposite side of the Prospekt, where five or six male students, in a burst of defiance, tried to stand their ground around a flag. There was a whir of batons, smacks against bone and flesh. Several stumbled to the ground with blood on their faces, flecking scarlet on a snow-bank before they were promptly hustled away to waiting paddy-wagons.

Other marchers rippled with outrage, but didn’t falter, even if the message was clear. The regime was ready to inflict severe violence, if challenged. To crush mass movements and stray individuals alike.

Just ahead on the bridge over the Svisloch, municipal police already lined both curbs, preventing protesters from spilling onto the asphalt, while additional riot detachments kept channeling the protesters forward. This procession would be forced all the way up to the Academy of Sciences and beyond, until it was spent.

Piper thought of reaction from Washington and shook his head.

For now the Kiev scenario didn’t apply. There were certain promising signs. But Minsk still had considerable distance to go.

There would be no Orange Revolution here, at least not this year.




The chirping phone roused Lena Antonova out of deep concentration. She put down her pen and marked her place in the article she was notating: Looking beyond Social Commentary in Dreiser. Natasha was known to call at importune moments. She was now speaking over background noise from a television and sounded excited, almost out of breath. “I had the volume up for a reason,” she said, when Lena asked her to lower it.

“What are you doing?” Natasha asked.

“Preparing for my lecture tomorrow.”

“Turn on Euronews. There’s a live report coming on soon from Minsk, about the demonstration. Quick!”

With a sigh Lena rose, crossed the living room and grabbed the remote. She clicked on the TV and found the channel. A report was in progress on the European Union’s 50th-Anniversary celebration in Berlin.

“What’s the big deal? I already knew about it….”

“Wait…There it is. That’s just one block from your apartment!”

Back on-screen a live transmission issued from the Prospekt, just past the intersection with Masherova. Flags, streams of youthful faces under shaggy hair. A contingent of demonstrators, not much younger than Lena herself, shouted and pumped fists as they moved cross-camera. The frame shifted to a reporter, standing next to a lamppost as marchers filed behind. The demonstration had been scheduled for noon on Oktyabraska Square…Stymied by militia, he said….Leaders harassed…Protesters now marching toward the Academy of Sciences, numbering six to seven thousand. He held his microphone with a slumped posture, as if he’d yearned for more.

Video images from Iran quickly replaced those from Minsk. Other tales of frustration and woe, further from home. Lena wasn’t surprised. She returned the phone to her ear.

“What I expected,” she said. “It’s not even a lead story this year. By tomorrow it will be forgotten.”

Natasha didn’t relinquish her enthusiasm.

“Why don’t you go out and have a closer look? Descend from your ivory tower?”

“And do what? Get videotaped by the militia? Cause complications for myself at the Institute? Who needs it?”

“You might at least check it out from your balcony. You have a great view.”

“I’ll think about it. By the way…Why aren’t you out there?”

Silence fell on Natasha’s end of the connection. When she spoke again her enthusiasm had ebbed.

“I thought about it. But I was worried about beatings by the militia.”

Lena sighed again. Just as she’d thought. Most people still weren’t ready to cross those lines.

She admitted. She was among them.




Piper tucked his scarf inside his overcoat and lowered the edge of his beret as he watched the protesters regroup in front of the Academy of Sciences. Video cameras proliferated across the stepped plaza: half a dozen from Russian and Ukrainian television stations, several from Western news organizations, the rest wielded by plainclothesmen from the Belarussian KGB. A gray militia van pulled up with curtained windows and big loudspeakers on top. “Gatherings are prohibited at the Academy of Sciences,” it boomed. “You must proceed to Bangalore, to Freedom Park.”

Freedom Park was a tract of un-manicured grass and trees on the outskirts of the city, muted and out-of-sight. None of the protesters budged.

The injunction was repeated. Same result. Instead, the protesters seized on the name and revived a chant from the previous year:

Svoboda! Svoboda! Svoboda!

Freedom. Piper adjusted his outlook. If he was reassigned to Minsk—if Langley overruled his objections and discounted the stress to his marriage, due to insistence from the White House—he might really have something to build on.

Sensing attention from his side, he turned to meet the gazes of two female protesters: early-to-mid 20s, probably university students, totemic marvels who could energize any setting—especially ones like this where politics amplified their sway. Disposed, just now, to share the moment. Visceral urges rushed to the fore.

For all the disparities with Kiev he recognized them. Freedom was a rousing idea. Capable of producing big changes—the kind he believed in and sought to advance.

This time round, he’d just have to curb some of its accompanying defilements.

Revolutions and sex, he knew from Kiev, often marched in tandem. And sex could be the most powerful change agent of all.





Saturday, 19 July 2008

Back in better days—more prosperous, ascendant, confident days—Evan Morris had never envisioned himself in Belarus. He’d known little of the country, and had held little desire to learn more. On this particular afternoon, moreover, out in the countryside, he felt even more displaced than usual.

Across the clearing several programmers tramped out of the woods with bundles of branches, chopped with hand axes. From inside the dacha came kitchen sounds: women preparing skewers and other barbecue fare. Shashlik. One of the few Russian words that he’d retained through seven months of lessons.

The fault didn’t reside with Lena. He couldn’t have asked for a more conscientious tutor. The language just wasn’t sticking, and he had had no one but himself to blame.

Deciding he couldn’t stand idle, he walked toward the barbecue pit and intersected with Yuri. One-time member of the Soviet scientific elite. Head scientist in the lab. Diligent host. The dacha was his.

“Would you like another beer?” Yuri asked in English, with his usual tobacco-cured bass.

There would be vodka toasts later on, Morris presumed. He needed to save himself.

“No thanks. Not quite finished with this one.”

Yuri squinted at him, taking a drag from his cigarette. In addition to being the only foreigner present, Morris was also the boss. Envoy from corporate back in Santa Clara. Therefore subject to special attention, which had both pluses and minuses.

“Then I have another idea,” Yuri declared after a moment.

Morris looked back. He hoped it didn’t involve breaking a sweat.

“Would you like to pick berries with me?”

“Wild berries?”

“Yes, raspberries. Mid-July is perfect season. We can eat them for breakfast tomorrow. There’s a very good place nearby…what do you call it in English?”

“A patch.”

“Yes, a patch. Anyway, it’s less than two kilometers away.  Right along a trail that runs near here.”

Morris wasn’t fond of traipsing through brush, due in part to numerous childhood bouts with poison ivy. Then he recalled there was no poison ivy in the European sub-continent. And the trail was a bonus, which made him more receptive to the idea.

“I suppose so,” he said. “Why not?”

“Good. As I say, this patch is an excellent one. We can fill two buckets each in no time.”

Yuri ground out his cigarette, disappeared into a shed and re-emerged with four plastic buckets, handing two over. They set out, traversing the clearing and entering a path into the woods. Greenery enveloped them, with tall pines and birches creating a speckled canopy overhead. Belarus wasn’t over-hot—even in mid summer—and the scented air made the walk pleasant. Their dirt footpath soon converged onto asphalt: a trail about two meters across, painted white along its borders, in fine condition. Yuri noted Morris’s surprise.

“Our president has a dacha near here,” he explained. “Actually more like a compound. I’ve never seen it. It’s behind walls…He uses this trail for skiing in the winter.”

Morris took that to mean cross-country skiing. “Is it okay to walk here?”

“Yes, Yes. It’s okay. His house is quite far. Probably three kilometers.”

Morris looked at him. Yuri sensed his concern.

“I wouldn’t worry,” he added. “He doesn’t even come here in the summer, as far as I know.”

Yuri increased his pace and Morris angled out his buckets as he followed suit. For a man in his early 60s with a sedentary career and a two-pack-a-day habit, Yuri had aged amazingly well, with a trim physique, full gray hair, and considerable stamina. Something to do with the Russian’s childhood in Siberia, Morris figured.

Though he himself didn’t exercise much, he was lean and could keep up without much exertion. Around a bend, asphalt slightly banked with the terrain. The asphalt pathway continued to impress him.

“How far does this trail go?” he asked.

“It goes in a loop, about five kilometers. There are a couple of others connected to it… a small network.”

“No one uses it in the summer?”

“Occasionally the national ski team trains here…on those roller skies.”

Morris glanced back over his shoulder, then forward again. Observing this, Yuri assured him.

“Don’t worry, you’ll hear them coming, if they’re here.”

Minutes later Yuri gestured off the trail down a wooded embankment.

“This way,” he said. “Follow me.”

They veered down a faint footpath, only slightly matted. Otherwise there was little evidence of human visitation. Thirty meters further down, full sun broke overhead. A tangle of brush and vines came into view, covering a sizable ravine. Ground under Morris’ feet became a little damper. Yuri stopped and Morris drew up beside him.

“It’s the best picking I’ve ever found,” Yuri proclaimed, nodding and squinting over the area. “And no bears, either.”

Morris’ reaction prompted a smile from the Russian.

“They’re a worry around berries in Siberia,” he elaborated. “They like the sweetness. But not here. There are no bears left in Belarus.”

Morris smiled back. “What about people? Do many others know about it?”

“I don’t think so. I discovered it on my own, by accident. In fact I’ve never met anyone else here.”

Morris gazed back over the ravine and realized he hadn’t mulled his troubles since setting out from the dacha. Agonies he’d left behind in the States, back in the Bay Area, in the high-intensity environs of Silicon Valley—were more distant than twenty minutes earlier. Money troubles most of all.

“Where do we start?” he asked, smiling and shifting his buckets forward.

“Anywhere you want,” Yuri answered. “There are berries everywhere.





Truth was, certain aspects of life in Belarus had started growing on Morris. This was just the latest example. Still standing at the edge of the patch, he plucked several raspberries off the closest bush and tasted them. Yuri was correct: juicy but not overripe. They soon diverged: Morris moving along at random and plucking berries almost by handful. Seeking freer movement, he set his empty bucket on a rock, stood at full height for a moment to plot its location, and continued. Yuri’s rustled off out of sight through the brush.

Overhead sun created a soothing sensation on his face and arms. His shirt became damp, while violet juice colored his fingers. So what if Belarus was the only sizable, industrialized country in the Western world without a golf course? Where Soviet-era bureaucracy still held sway and customer service remained a novel concept?

That mattered less this afternoon. Belarus had other merits which balanced out the drawbacks.

Vines grew denser as he roamed more deeply. In 20 minutes his first bucket was full: more than enough berries to satisfy a half-dozen people. He re-traced his steps to the first bucket, and set the full container down on the rock. He straightened again and looked around. Faint rustlings emanated from the interior of the ravine, though the coordinates were unclear.

“Yuri, you still out there?” he said, raising his voice.

“Out here,” Yuri’s shouted back, deep from another tangent.

While Morris gravitated toward another cluster of berries and resumed picking, additional murmured voices issued from a different quarter. He stopped and listened. His view was concealed by overgrowth but it sounded like two or three people.

Perhaps this berry patch wasn’t as unknown as Yuri imagined.

The voices—all male—got closer and louder, perhaps 20 meters away. Morris couldn’t discern what they were saying; his Russian wasn’t even close to the task. He contemplated going back to retrieve his first bucket. However, that seemed overdone. Why would anyone steal berries when there were so many available?

When the group veered off in a different direction, he resumed picking and filled his second bucket within five minutes, then stretched and slapped his palms together in a crossways motion, attempting to clean them but only spreading juice from right to left. Upon re-tracing his path to the rock he found the first bucket where he’d left it, undisturbed. Yuri was nowhere to be seen, and he realized they’d neglected to establish a timetable for rendezvous. His best bet, he reckoned, was simply to wait. He sat down, careful not to stain his trousers with his hands.

Once he was seated sounds emerged nearby. No voices: just rustling. He stood again and peered over the tops of the bushes, on tiptoes.

He expected to see Yuri. He was wrong.




Tops of two heads became visible: one a blond buzz-cut, the other capped by light-gray homburg. To Morris’ surprise English passed between the two men, in non-native-speaking accents. Blond buzz-cut emerged from behind a cluster of vines: broad-shouldered and muscular, with a ripped neck and wrap-around sunglasses. He halted abruptly and fixed on Morris’ hands. Morris assumed, at first, that this was due to his stained fingers. Then he realized the man’s attention arose from other reasons.

To discern if he was armed.

“Schto vi delaete zdes?”

Even under ordinary circumstance Morris would have labored in vain to understand the question. He kept his hands by his sides, staying non-confrontational.

“I don’t speak Russian,” he answered.

An instant later the man wearing the gray homburg emerged: mustachioed and older, somewhat olive-skinned, holding a pail full of berries. Morris took him in. The man did likewise.

This didn’t please blond buzz-cut. His face hardened further, and he interposed himself with several quick steps, his fingers splayed for attack. Morris sensed the man was capable of breaking his neck with a single, lightning-fast movement. A pistol grip also protruded under his lightweight jacket. In what now sounded like a Russian accent, he switched to English.

“What are you doing here?”

Morris deduced that he’d ventured too close to the presidential compound and run afoul of security. He tried to stay calm. “Just picking berries,” he answered, gesturing toward his two overflowing buckets, still resting on the rock.

Blond buzz-cut held his stare. “Are you here alone?”

“No, I’m with a colleague…I’m visiting his dacha…” A shout from Yuri interrupted Morris, coming somewhere from the middle of the patch.

“Evan, where are you?”

Blond buzz-cut reached inside his jacket and pulled out an automatic pistol. When Morris saw the weapon on full display he stiffened.

“That him?” blond buzz-cut said, lowering his voice.

Morris nodded. Yuri’s rustling grew closer.

“Okhrana!” blond buzz-cut barked. “Ostavaetes tam!

Yuri’s progress came to sudden stop. Silence fell over the ravine for several seconds. Blond buzz-cut pulled up his walkie-talkie and barked in a Russian command, concluding with, “Bistro!” Ruckus ensued from the direction of the trail: snapping twigs, sliding dirt, frenetic displacement of brush. A second security man materialized, close-cropped and muscular like the first, with brown hair. Blond buzz-cut spoke to him in hurried tones and gestured in the direction of Yuri. The latter drew a pistol and scrambled off.

Morris let his gaze wander again to the older man with the homburg and mustache. Blond buzz-cut took angry note.

“Attention here!” he commanded. “Your documents!”

Morris turned his gaze back and slowly extracted his wallet. With further deliberate movements he pulled out a copy of the main page of his passport and handed it over, trying his best not to leave juice stains on the paper.

Lately he’d tried to avoid unpredictable situations. He’d gotten pounded by too many already, especially of his own making.

This looked like another one.





Outside his apartment building Piper made his usual quick survey of the courtyard, and noticing no one unusual, proceeded to circular inspection of his Mercedes. Satisfied that no tampering had occurred, he de-activated the locking system and threw his laptop in the backseat.

If there was ever a Saturday afternoon when he would have preferred to avoid the office, this was it. But Caroline had assured him she’d be packing anyway for the next couple of hours, and their two teenagers would be out with friends until dinnertime.

Her departure was closing fast and they were determined to take this in stride.

While backing out into a three-point turn, he thought ahead to his upcoming video conference. It was not a pleasant prospect. He’d supposed he’d have to get used to the pattern. There would be plenty more Saturdays in Minsk like this in the coming weeks.

At least for today, Caroline would be waiting for him when he got home. That buttressed him somewhat.

Faces in the mirror burned with self-improvement. The women pumped their knees and swung their elbows in exaggerated arcs, exhorted by an instructor over a pulsing tune from Madonna:

If you want my body

You need to prove your love

Prove your love to me…

The instructor cut into the refrain:

Ras, dva, tri, chetiri, i nazad

One, two, three, four and back

Lena followed along, even though she still found it a little ridiculous.  These aerobics sessions at Bagira served certain purposes. Health, slimming. Perhaps a boosted mood. But did they really deserve this kind of seriousness?

Ras, dva, tri, chetiri, i nazad…

For all her diligence, she didn’t push herself to extremes. This stood her in contrast to other women in the class, many of whom aimed to enhance their figures before August beach vacations in Turkey, Cyprus or the Crimea–as if a kilogram or two or some extra firmness around the behind would make a difference. Which also implied these agonies were for men.

These women considered themselves modern and independent. What kind of self-determination was that? Energies like these were better directed toward sublime pursuits. Though Lena had to admit…even knowledge seemed elusive lately…Escape rather than genuine enlightenment. Maybe the specific outlet didn’t matter…

Prove your love to me

Prove your love to me…

In the mirror she confirmed that she was one of few class members with a carefree look. Detachment was key…Adoption of the right perspective…Still, she’d accepted that some of these trends from the West were hard to contravene, particularly if you were just one year short of 30…

When the dance component ran its course members of the class broke ranks to gather rubber/foam mats from along the wall, then re-spread to original positions, assuming positions on hands and knees. As if on cue, two male trainers abandoned their customary post at the vitamin/juice bar and entered the training hall. They reclined against stationary bicycles, which afforded an unimpeded side view of the aerobics floor. The adjacent weightlifting area was empty of other men.

Next target: the gluteus muscles.

Posteriors jutted up; arms stretched out; the women initiated backward leg-raises. Lena sensed eyes of the trainers sweeping across the group. The two were both around 25 in age. Amiable enough, perhaps. Still…empty-headed kachki—pumpers—who inflated themselves with protein shakes and steroids.

In any case their attention soon settled on one of the younger members of the class: a medical student. Lena couldn’t say why, but that irritated her somewhat.

Perhaps because they were the only men present.

All the same she kept at it. Nowadays, there seemed to be little choice.




The secure communication facility of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk was a room within a room: a windowless compartment constructed of lead, vinyl and polyurethane, stuffed with electronics and capable of holding four people at the most. Almost every U.S. embassy had one. Piper, who suffered mild claustrophobia, had long disliked them.

Especially lately. In Minsk he was the man on the spot.

Over the video link, from a secure conference room in the West Wing—7:30 a.m. East Coast time—were Jim Stapleton, the Deputy Director and Head of Operations at the CIA, and Vice President Wade Gallstone. Gallstone, overfed and balding, hunched over one corner of the conference table, a permanent half-scowl under his wire-rimmed glasses. Stapleton sat at the other corner: lean and cerebral, with a thatch of gray hair and bags under his eyes that had gotten worse in recent months. It was no secret in Washington that Gallstone wanted to get rid of the Deputy Director. In typical fashion Gallstone was now doing most of the talking.

“I’ll be blunt, Russell,” he said, looking hard at Piper over the feed. “Just because the government there forced us to practically close our Embassy doesn’t mean we should back down. The President wants to keep up the pressure.”

Piper tried to stay even.

“Even with our reduced staffing, Mr. Vice President,” he said, “We’ve increased our involvement with the opposition parties. Just since April we’ve doubled their funding prior to September’s parliamentary elections, renting additional office space and paying for seminars in Vilnius and Warsaw.”

“Double it or triple it again,” Gallstone fired back.

Despite half-trillion-dollar budget deficits and looming fiscal implosion, the White House was throwing millions into Belarus. Far more than Piper really needed.

“How do you propose to spend it?” Stapleton interjected, his voice as drained of emotion as he looked of energy.

Gallstone shot him a caustic stare. “Russell’s report yesterday said that Western funds are not the key to change in Belarus.”


“I don’t accept that. We’re spending more money in Iraq now, aren’t we? And we’re starting to see some progress. Why should Belarus be any different?”

Despite the absurdity of the claim Piper and Stapleton managed to keep their even expressions. Stapleton responded.

“With all due respect, Mr. Vice President, Belarus is quite a bit different. And I should note that thanks to Russell’s efforts, we are making strides in our intelligence gathering there.”

Intelligence? Don’t give me that goddamn crap, Jim. I’ve read plenty of intelligence reports in my day and know they’re often worthless. Belarus has been stalled out for long enough. I’ve determined we’ve got to whip things up a little bit. Just repeat the Orange Revolution, further north. Why the hell not?”

Silence fell over the link; Gallstone had never been so raw. For him as much as anyone, Iraq had become an interminable, slow-motion nightmare. Meanwhile the American economy was teetering. Presidential poll numbers were dreadful, as the Administration wound down its second term. In Belarus, the White House was looking for some kind of salvation. Or, at minimum, diversion. To Piper they were looking in the wrong place, and knew that Stapleton agreed. He directed his gaze straight onto the video camera.

“What happened in Ukraine was indigenous and essentially peaceful,” he said. “Success came through numbers, not open agitation. Sure, we helped with money and organization, but on the margins.  Change arose from within. And despite all that—and despite my own involvement—I should add that the Orange Revolution has not fulfilled its original promise. Ukraine hasn’t exactly become the sort of well-functioning democracy we’d hoped for.”

Gallstone locked his fingers and crushed them together. He appeared about to detonate.

“I’m tired of these endless dissections,” he scowled. “That’s all in the past. Right now we’ve got to be pro-active. Assert our interests more aggressively. Incite change. Not just promote it.”

The harsh ring alarmed Piper. A diplomatic offensive was already underway against Belarus from both the U.S. and Europe. Strains were resulting with Russia. Much more, and there might be unintended consequences.

“Incite change?” he asked. “Do you have any specific measures in mind?”

“That’s your job, Russell. Find a goddamn way.”

When Stapleton and Gallstone signed off; the video screen went gray. Piper reached over, turned off the equipment console, and leaned back, arms folded across his chest.

Incitement was not the best approach for Belarus just now. It was the last thing he needed as well.




Independence Prospekt flowed past outside: ordered and leafy, with large-proportioned Soviet-classical architecture, its broad sidewalks mostly devoid of pedestrians, reflecting the customary exodus of a summer weekend. Under normal circumstances, a benign and agreeable tableau.

Morris’ perspective was altered from the backseat of a state-security vehicle. This one—a dark gray BMW—happened to resemble his Five-Series, now in storage back in Palo Alto. Except for its dark-tinted windows. And blond buzz-cut, sitting in front with the driver.

Wordless. Threatening. Free of legal constraints.

Morris held no illusions. Belarus was a dictatorship, all its other pluses aside.

His cell-phone remained in his back pocket. One of his pre-programmed numbers was the U.S. Embassy. He considered making the call, but decided to hold off. Not provoke the situation any further.

Just before Lenin Street, McDonald’s slipped by on the right. An outpost of normalcy. The effect dissolved when the car slowed down just after GUM department store. Hulking up on the right was the dull yellow, columned facade of the Belarussian KGB headquarters. Blond buzz-cut spoke into his walkie-talkie. Massive two-story steel-and-wood doors opened near the next corner. Morris had noticed these before. Always closed. Until now.

The BMW turned off the Prospekt, crossed the sidewalk and entered the complex. Morris looked back in disbelief as the doors re-closed. He wheedled his phone from his pocket, unworried now about juice stains.

“I’ll take that,” blond buzz-cut said, holding out his hand.

“I believe I have the right to call my Embassy.”

Blond buzz-cut’s eyes narrowed. They pulled into an interior courtyard. Norms from outside seemed to fall away.  Choices as well.

“You’ll get it back later.”

Morris handed the device over. Another stern-faced guard appeared, this one wearing a uniform. He and blond buzz-cut escorted Morris inside and ushered him straight into a receiving room, with a tripod-mounted camera and a counter for fingerprinting.

“Stand over there,” blond buzz-cut said, pointing to a white back-screen.

Morris asked if he could visit a restroom, in part to wash his hands.

“Later. We’ll take pictures first.”

Flanked by two uniformed minders, Morris climbed two flights of stairs and marched down a long, high-ceilinged corridor, with office doors closed on both sides. There was little sign of activity; the environment was even calm. He also drew some encouragement from the fact that he’d been allowed to clean up. His unsettlement lifted further when they passed an empty secretary’s desk entered a spacious, well-appointed office. Two large windows faced the Prospekt, permeated with natural light. This was no interrogation chamber.

A middle-aged man stepped forward, a different class than blond buzz-cut and the other security muscle. Civil in manner, dressed in cotton shirt and summer slacks. He gave Morris an appraising look. “My name is Dimitri Shinkevich,” he said, extending his hand. The two minders withdrew and closed the door. Shinkevich ushered Morris over to a cluster of four chairs around a low table, gestured toward one, and seated himself opposite.

“First, let me express my regrets…that this was necessary,” he said. His English was good: only a slight accent.

Morris nodded, figuring he’d fare best if he stayed polite.

“We dragged you away from a shashlik.”


“Would you like some coffee or tea?”

“Tea, I suppose.”

The Russian picked up a phone, and while he was speaking Morris took further stock of the large office. Whomever he’d seen in the woods northwest of Minsk had been consequential. Enough to drag an apparently high-ranking official like Shinkevich into the office on a Saturday afternoon. Shinkevich promptly resumed.

“I’ve consulted our file on you, Mr. Morris…”

Morris was jarred by this revelation but didn’t react.

“…As far as we know, everything you’re doing here is legal.”

“It is. I’ve obeyed all laws and regulations since I got here. The same holds for my company.”

Next, at Shinkevich’s prompting, he recounted the episode from start to finish: the berry-picking expedition with Yuri, the spontaneous encounter with blond-buzz-cut and the mustachioed man with a homburg hat, and subsequent transport back to Minsk. Tea came in the interim, served by a young male functionary.

However the official’s focus was quite specific.

“Describe the man you saw in more detail…the one with the hat.”

“He had a dark mustache. Relatively tall. Olive skin. He was carrying a pail full of raspberries.”

“Did you hear him speak?”

“No.” Morris was being honest. At least in strict sense.

“Could you guess where he was from?”

“Not Russian, I guess. More southern….Turkish, maybe. It was hard to say.”

Shinkevich considered this answer.

“Would you be able to recognize him again?”

“Possibly. Though the hat sort of shaded his face.”

Subsequent questions were perfunctory and factual. Verification of Morris’ home and office addresses in Minsk. Confirmation of his marital status. Work hours. Identities of Yuri and other employees. His private Russian lessons with Lena. Leisure pursuits or lack thereof. Travel patterns and interactions with Morris’ parent company back in Santa Clara.

At last Shinkevich stood and handed Morris a business card. It contained just the KGB emblem, “Ministry of State Security” in Russian and English, and Shinkevich’s name and telephone number.

“I wish to help you avoid more trouble, Mr. Morris.”

Morris opened his mouth to speak. Shinkevich paused and studied him.

“What about my colleague, Yuri Pavlov?”

“Don’t worry. He’s been questioned and released.”

Morris nodded, somewhat relieved.

“We’re going to take you home, and give you back your phone. My advice…my firm request…is that you not discuss this episode with anyone. Not your employees…not even with Yuri. Nor…” Shinkevich’s eyes flitted back down his folder, “…with Lena Antonova, your Russian tutor. It will be simpler for you that way. And for all those you’re associated with.”


“And there’s no purpose in involving the U.S. Embassy in this. That would only create new complications for you.”

Morris didn’t respond. This induced a hard squint from Shinkevich.

“Do you have any immediate plans to leave the country?”

“No…not in the next few weeks.”

“If your plans change, will you inform me in advance?”

Morris considered for a moment.

“Yes. I can do that.”


Shinkevich let some long seconds pass, and added. “I sincerely hope this matter doesn’t develop any further.”

“I don’t see why it should.”