Svetlana was riding on the front seat of the diplomatic car with Stanley, Oleg, and Feodor in the rear. “My, don’t all of you look handsome!” she exclaimed brightly. Oleg was sitting beside them in full dress uniform with medals and awards draped on his chest. Svetlana was once again dressed in a designer gown, deeply vee cut, and sprinkled with sequins. Stanley found it hard not to look at her.
“Let me offer everyone my congratulations for so much hard work. It’s an honor for me to work with gentlemen who will soon be given one of Russia’s highest medals of distinction.” Oleg looked toward his car mates and nodded his head in recognition of their value.
Both Stanley and Feodor smiled in return and complimented Svetlana and Oleg with equal praise.
“Well, no blindfolds this time?” Feodor asked, looking at Oleg.
“Not for heroes of the Republic,” Oleg replied. “We trust your discretion.”
As before, the car drove for a considerable distance and turned off onto a side road, stopping in front of an elegant country home, called a dacha. There were a number of cars already parked to one side, with chauffeurs and body guides lined up and chatting with each other.
All four occupants were lead to the rear of the estate house, into the garden area where a large number of chairs had been arranged for the crowd. There were quite a few dignitaries and high-ranking military staff milling around, drinks in hand, and talking in loud voices. As Stanley and Feodor entered the decorated area, people fell silent and began to stare at the Americans. They had now become more than a curiosity; they were being placed on a pedestal of scientific prestige.
What surprised Stanley and Feodor the most was the presence of an official photographer who was snapping shots at various angles and intervals. These would be edited and used for propaganda later on. Without their disguises, the Americans’ faces would easily be recognizable by foreign intelligence agencies. Feodor suspected that this transparency was deliberate; there was possibly a sinister goal in picturing the two Americans next to Russian politicians and military brass, holding cocktails and smiling.
Svetlana appeared out of nowhere and stood by Stanley’s side as he was questioned by the Russian elite. She radiated an open sensuality that attracted several upper echelon types, who swarmed around her, ostensibly to ask questions of the American scientist.
The ceremony began as soon as everyone was seated; Putin’s chief of staff rose to address the audience. His Russian was fluent, raspy, and filled with colloquialisms that even Svetlana had trouble translating. It was obvious that he came from a rural background and had “worked his way up the ladder of success.” He read from a script that lauded the achievements of the two Americans and how their contributions would promote greater world understanding and peace in Ukraine and other hostile neighbors.
At the end, there was a loud round of applause and Feodor and Stanley were asked to stand to receive a plaque of recognition awarded by the Russian military état-major. In the background, two cameras were filming the event for later distribution to a select committee of Russian politicians and scientists. This taping would not be made public, but would be used for propaganda purposes.
After socializing with the crowd, the honorees and their party were driven to downtown Moscow in two cars with a police escort. They entered the Kremlin through a heavily guarded back entrance and were escorted to a relatively small room where their disguises and attendants were waiting. Oleg explained again that the foreign press would be present and they couldn’t take any chances with having their identities spread around the world.
Stanley and Feodor sat in a make-up chair as specialists applied heavy grease paint that was followed by bouffant wigs that gave them the appearance of rock-and-roll devotees. A voice distortion device was pinned to their shirts to shield the Americans from any vocal recognition.
As they looked in the mirror, they were stunned at the transformation. Even members of their family wouldn’t know who they were. Svetlana wore a more attractive wig and heavy make-up, together with a lacy veil that gave her a mysterious look. She reminded Feodor of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflüte (The Magic Flute).
There was a collective gasp as the disguised scientists came on stage. Questions came from all directions. English and Russian were the only acceptable languages to be used. In the back of the room, cameras were recording every gesture, every word that would be analyzed by intelligence agencies all over the world. If a question were too revealing, the Russian press secretary would go on to the next journalist without answering. After twenty-five minutes or so, the Russian intermediary thanked those in attendance, emphasizing that weapons of peace had been invented that would humanize warfare and make Europe and many other countries much safer in the future.
“What about Ukraine? Will Putin decide to use these arms on the Ukrainian people?” The last question wasn’t answered but it echoed throughout the press room. Would Ukraine be the first hostile power to be tamed with the paralyzing emissions?
Both Stanley and Feodor were getting tired; Oleg decided to let them rest in the make-up area until they had to leave for the ceremonial dinner and medal presentation. The specialists worked on each person, restoring their natural appearance. Oleg came up to Feodor and whispered that his fiancée, Davrita, would be attending the dinner, but she couldn’t be seated with him and other dignitaries. She would be accompanied by a young officer of the Russian Navy who spoke very good German.
This invitation came at the request of the project director of the laser ray gun factory who had close ties with Russian military leaders. Afterwards, Feodor and she could enjoy the music and entertainment that members of the Russian National Orchestra would provide. It turns out that Davrita’s escort was the second cousin of Vladimir Putin himself.
The cortege of notables wended its way through the corridors of the Kremlin with other dignitaries in tow. After a short trip, they entered a large ballroom that was normally used for state functions such as receptions and diplomatic dinners.
Stanley almost gasped when he saw that the head seat of a long table placed on a wooden dias was reserved for Putin himself. There were two women on each side of him who were freely chatting with their neighbors. Putin seemed very composed, calm and even a little distracted. Like any president of a major country, he kept an exhausting schedule. The secret police, dressed in formal clothing, were strategically placed at every interval and throughout the audience.
Stanley was seated next to Svetlana on the platform and Feodor had walked over to say hello to Davrita and her escort. She seemed overwhelmed by the festivities. As one of the most distinguished generals of the group arose and approached the microphone, Feodor hurried back to his place. “Davrita says she can’t believe where she is. Oleg helped with making arrangements for her to be here tonight.” Feodor shook his head in disbelief. He then stared at the naval officer with a touch of jealousy.
Stanley could only look at Svetlana and her deep-cut bodice and chiseled features. He had slowly fallen in love with her, but he knew that seducing foreign scientists or politicians was part of her duties. He was like a bee fighting in the “honey trap” and unable to struggle free. Even Putin would stare her way from time to time. Maybe she was one of his playmates. He was reputed to be quite a ladies’ man. Stanley knew that he would have to return to his family in America before long; how would he relate to his wife and children?
Following an extended introduction in Russian, Stanley and Feodor found themselves standing next to the general and in close proximity to President Putin. It was an experience that both Stanley and Feodor would never forget. A “court photographer” took several pictures of the presentation. Putin then stood up, handed them the elaborate plaques and ribbons, and shook their hands vigorously, offering his congratulations for their unique contributions to Mother Russia. Svetlana stood beside Stanley to translate his comments.
Later, the orchestra struck up a waltz and dinner guests began to hurl themselves around the floor. Stanley looked at Svetlana and she smiled back, indicating that she would like to dance. In a slight daze, he took her in his arms and spun around the floor in fluid motions. She seemed to be an accomplished dancer, possibly an ex-ballerina. He had to force himself not to say anything serious or intimate. Everything, Oleg had said, was recorded or video-taped in Moscow. Hidden In that sequin-studded gown, there was most likely a recording device that would pick up every word.
Feodor went to Davrita’s table, interrupting the officer’s conversation and asked her to dance. The Russian almost leapt to his feet; he bowed slightly as Davrita left with Feodor to whirl around the dance floor. Davrita gazed at Feodor with admiration and tenderness. Feodor felt the urge to take her more closely in his arms when he noticed a uniformed Russian officer approaching them. In halting English, he invited them to follow him to the President’s seat at the head table. As they were moving toward Putin, Feodor noticed that Svetlana was also approaching from the dance floor at a quick pace.
The officer asked Davrita to step up on the platform. As she drew near, Putin then stood up himself and took her hand. Svetlana arrived almost breathlessly and hovered close by to translate. Putin began by asking her if she was enjoying herself (even Davrita could utter “Da”). He also mentioned that he had visited parts of Massachusetts during his trip to America. He was very proud of what her fiancé had accomplished, but he understood that she spoke flawless German and was teaching at a private language school in Moscow. His granddaughter was interested in learning German as well as English. Would she be interested in tutoring her during the school week at a time that would be convenient for all? If she needed some time to think this over, he would understand. His secretary would make all arrangements. Of course, there would issues with security but they would try not to be disruptive.
Darvita was almost speechless. She looked first at Feodor and then at Svetlana as though one of them could tell her what to say. Feodor nodded in the affirmative and Svetlana told her it would be a huge honor for Davrita and for her institution. Davrita looked respectfully at Putin, smiled, and said that it would be an honor and she hoped she would live up to the President’s expectations.
Putin smiled in return and patted her cheek with a fatherly gesture. The assigned photographer had taken several photographs of their conversation. Soon thereafter, a military officer gave the signal to the conductor; the orchestra stopped playing and Putin took one of the table guest’s arms and began to leave the dining hall. Everyone stood at attention as he departed. Once he had left, the dancing began again and the orchestra played with renewed vigor. Indeed, the entire spectacle was similar to the gaiety of the Tzarist regimes filled with unfettered enjoyment and upper class privilege. In a sense, little had changed in Russia other than a different regime and a vast nuclear arsenal.
Continued next week.