My death is very close. I have no idea where they are taking me, but it will be my final journey. My name is Doctor Josef Kruglov. An unlikely revolutionary perhaps, but I have never killed anyone, or fired a gun since I was in the army. I was one of the first to join the cause and have always been absolutely loyal. They call me the “The Doctor”. I have worked tirelessly over the last twenty years to build and strengthen support for our nascent revolution domestically and internationally, making sure our cause and actions are totally legitimate. I am the Leader’s oldest and closest friend and part of his inner circle. For the last twenty years, I have been entrusted with organising his security.
And now, just when we have the best chance of success we have had in many years, I am taken in the night from my home like a common criminal. Beaten, bound and blindfolded in front of my family, pushed into the back of the car, a guard on either side of me. Whatever I am accused of does not matter. There will be no court, if I am lucky there will only be an executioner. If not, I will be imprisoned, starved and tortured for the rest of my life. I am sure by the deteriorating quality of the road surface that we are driving out of the city, perhaps to a remote place where I will be executed and buried in a shallow grave which they will probably make me dig with my own hands. My hands are bound tightly behind my back, sitting is very uncomfortable. With every jolt, the wire cuts deeper into the wrists. I knew this day would come, my affairs are in order, and I am ready to die. I resolve that my enemies will get nothing from me. No information, no begging for mercy, no crying, nothing. The car stops, the engine is cut, and the handbrake applied. Both of the rear doors open with a creak and a blast of chill air and I am dragged out. I hear at least three people. Something hard pushes against my back directs me forwards. A few more steps and I am standing on a hard floor. The temperature is a bit more comfortable and I can smell of rubber, oil, polish and a strong smell of diesel. In a clear and authoritative voice, I demand to know where I’ve been taken and under whose authority. There is no answer of course.
We stop briefly, then I am dragged into a space warmed by a paraffin heater. A door behind me is closed and the wire binding my wrists is cut. I prepare my last words. The hood is removed. As my eyes adjust, I see I am in a small office. It is empty except for a desk and chair and some filing cabinets. The top of the desk is worn green leather and deeply scratched. On the desk is a heavy black telephone and a green banker’s lamp, the only source of light in the room. A grubby calendar is nailed to the wall beside the desk, a stocky woman wearing a boiler suit and driving a tractor cheerfully announces it is August 1937. This room has not been used for some time. A bulky figure stands in the shadows behind the desk with the hood in his hands, but I cannot bring it into focus. I start to panic, then remember with relief that I had lost my glasses during the beating I took at home.
“Welcome old friend” says the figure. I recognise his voice instantly.
“Gregor, what is the meaning of this? I thought I had been taken by the police, they beat me, called me a traitor…” He waves away my questions with a fingerless hand.
“Calm down, let me get you a drink.” As I squint, my best friend steps forward. He is wearing a poorly tailored suit of heavy blue wool, the jacket draped over the chair behind the desk, his right sleeve of his pale shirt rolled up. With his good hand, he expertly takes two tumblers and then a bottle of good vodka from the desk draw. He grips the cork in his teeth and opens the bottle. His hand shakes as he offers the drink to me. I drain my glass without breaking eye contact. The freezing alcohol burns as it passes my cracked lips. He refills my glass, the neck of the bottle rattling against the edge of the glass. He looks as large as powerful as ever, but he seems more tired and older than I’d ever seen him before. He had made less and less public appearances recently, and the rumours were that he was ill, or worse. He takes a deep breath. He is a great speaker, he has the ability to relate to any audience, to capture their mood and use it to make them believe he is speaking solely to each person present. But now he pauses, as if he is carefully weighing what he wants to say.
“Josef, you are my most trusted and beloved friend, you are like my brother. I must ask you to do something for me.” He pauses again and looks me straight in the eye, “You must betray me.” His words fell heavily to the floor like white hot stones, hissing as they burn in the dusty air. I swallow my vodka and shake my head slowly in disbelief, my mouth wide open. He sinks heavily into the chair. “Powerful empires are rising once again in the West; War is coming and we have to be ready. This country must be united, organised and prepared to fight or we will be swept aside. We cannot wait anymore for the revolution to come, we have grown old waiting.” He stands and puts his hand over his heart. Without realising, he is using his experience as a public speaker. “We need a catalyst, a martyr, someone to inspire the people to take the last step”. He reaches over and pours from the bottle. “It is time for me to make the final sacrifice.” He grins and loudly pats the sides of his stomach. “I have had too much vodka and soft living, there is too much grey here” He smiles as he runs his hand over the stubble on his head. “I have taken us as far as I can.”
I always thought it would be he who led the revolution, he was the only one who could hold all the strands together and build a lasting peace. Why had he given up? This felt like another plot. Many have tried to eliminate Gregor over the years, both from within and without, but he was always been one step ahead and dealt with his enemies ruthlessly. This can still be undone, I can bring him back. I empty my glass to give me courage.
“But we are not so old you and I, we have good young recruits joining our cause every day we are closer than ever to a final victory. It is your vision I have risked my life for all these years. I will not stand at the side of another.” Anger took me. “What about all those good people who have given their lives? You will be a traitor to them and the revolution, you may have given up, but I haven’t.” He moves closer, carefully choosing his words, but barely able to restrain the raw emotion in his voice.
“The revolution is bigger than me, bigger than us. I leave it in safe hands, I assure you. I’m afraid too, but we must all pay a high price for freedom, we have always known that, we always believed that.” He smiles.
Desperately, I play my last card.
“This is nothing but a coup to get us both out the way, I want no part of it.” He sighs deeply and fills my glass. He looks so tired. I had never defied him or questioned one of his orders. Gregor’s weak smile has gone, a pained expression now covers his face. I feel the conversation turn. “I understand old friend, but now you have no choice. He tailed off.
The cuts and bruises on my face began to sting, as if in response to Gregor’s threat, reminding me that there is something very wrong here. Gregor tosses his drink back, but the pained expression remains. “In this last hour, I have had you discredited and disgraced, your life destroyed. As of now, you are a traitor to the revolution and a fugitive. There is a considerable reward for your capture, dead or alive.” My face burns with heat as anger rises in me once more. I take a step towards him, as menacingly as I can. We both know it is only a gesture. I cannot bear to look at him.
“How could you betray me like this?”
Gregor pauses again.
“It was my decision alone and a very difficult one. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I know there is no one else I can trust to do this for me, but I also knew you would refuse. I had to give you a motive to betray me. “I am sorry my friend.” My heart races as I drain my glass; I feel trapped and manipulated. I stare at him blankly as I realise I have no choice.
“What must I do?” I ask.
“You must hand yourself in to the police and offer them a chance to take me alone in return for your freedom. Tell them that I will be addressing a rally tomorrow in the People’s Park and I will be there briefly at 9pm tonight to check preparations.”
“Why not make an anonymous tip off?” I interrupted. He barely paused as his sharp mind considered this.
“No. I am too well guarded; they will not attempt to arrest me unless they are absolutely sure they it can take me alive. They need someone on the inside to help them. As my former head of security, tell them you have seen to it that I will be alone. You must give me to them in person. They must believe you Josef.” The word ‘former’ jarred against me.
“But they’ll torture you, they’ll kill you.” I shuddered. Torture for information gathering had been surpassed and made into an art form by both sides. People were tortured to death, not to extract information but to develop new techniques and refine existing ones.
“I will be kept alive for the trial and then executed. That is what must happen.” He snaps. Almost immediately, his voice softens. “I am not concerned about myself. For all the horrors I will face, I know that I cannot do what I am asking of you in this moment. The success of the revolution depends entirely on your courage in these moments.” He turns away. “You must carry this burden for me, for the people.” His voice trembles.
A long silence passes between us. Eventually he turns back, scanning my face for emotion. “You are beginning to understand old friend.” He clasps my hand and smiles. He looks upwards, visualising his memories. “Here we are, drinking vodka together like we did in the trenches.”
“It was the only thing that had not frozen” I interrupt. Gregor laughs. I’m surprised by how comforting I find it.
“We spent long nights talking about freedom. How we would do anything to keep it alive. Now we can.” His eyes are alight with the passion from our younger days and I could feel his zeal of old, how he had always known the right thing to do. How he saved my life in the hellish retreat from Kraków 21 years ago. Gregor had carried my unconscious body for five days, feeding me melted snow and fending off wild predators and desperate soldiers as our army disintegrated and fled through the barren winter frontier. He had lost the fingers on one hand as he carried me. I woke in a military hospital to the sound of him gently singing folk songs at my bedside. I had had enough of death, I vowed to become a doctor and help other people. In that moment, I remembered why I had followed him, why I admired him and why I loved him so dearly.
“You will be dropped off in the city, you know what you have to do, nobody can know of this conversation.” He slips the empty bottle and the empty glasses into the draw in the desk and closes it gently. Gregor stands in front of me and kisses me tenderly on the cheek. I know I’ll never see him again as he puts the hood back of my head and whispers, “Please forgive me, old friend.” He calls for my guards. My wrists are bound and I am turned and marched out of the room. The white-hot stones my friend gave me weigh down my pockets and burn against my skin.