“Winter has come too early this year,” Dmitri Yazov complained as he threw his long overcoat onto a chair near the door. He was the last of the five men to arrive. I think this will be one of the coldest we have seen in a long time.” Crossing over to the bar, he withdrew a decanter of brandy and filled a delicate crystal snifter. Yazov was a man of above-average height with a solid build. His salt-andpepper- colored hair was trimmed in a military-style crew cut. His skin was severely pockmarked and his left eye drooped slightly, due to a grenade that had exploded in his face as he was pushing one of his men out of danger’s way. While he was twice as brave as his assembled colleagues, he was easily less than half as refined, and in a demonstration of his lack of finesse, he downed his brandy in one long swallow.
The men around the table smiled at their friend’s behavior. Yazov was as constant as the northern star. In over forty years, nothing had changed him—not money, not power, not even the knowledge that he would go down in history as one of the greatest soldiers Mother Russia had ever produced. In combat, he had saved the life of each man in the room at least once; some more than once, but they had not gathered in this remote wooded area forty miles west of Moscow to relive the past. On the contrary, the five men seated around the worn oak table were there to shape the future.
Outside, a breath of icy wind blew across the gravel driveway of the centuries-old hunting lodge. From its stone chimney, tendrils of gray smoke could be seen only for an instant before being sucked upward into an ever-darkening sky. As the cold wind pressed itself against the formidable structure, it moaned deeply.
Sergei Stavropol, the group’s leader, whom many referred to in private as Rasputin, stood and walked over to the fireplace. He was an enormous man with dark hair and a large nose that bore evidence of having been broken many times. At six feet three inches tall and two hundred seventy-five pounds, he appeared twice the size of any of the other men in the room, but it was his dark, penetrating eyes that drew all of the attention and that had long ago earned him his nickname. Though he hated the Rasputin moniker, he found that it instilled in his enemies and those who would oppose him a certain degree of fear, and therefore he had allowed it to stick.
Stavropol spent several moments prodding the glowing embers with an iron poker as he pretended to search for the appropriate words to say. It was an empty gesture. He knew exactly what he was going to say. Spontaneity was not part of how he worked. It led to mistakes, and mistakes were the harbingers of failure. Stavropol had rehearsed this moment in his mind for years. His raw determination was equaled only by his capacity for cold, detached calculation.
After a sufficient show of introspection, he raised himself to his full height, turned to his colleagues and said, “It pleases me to see you all here. We have waited many long years for this. Today we embark upon a new and glorious chapter in the history of not only our beloved Russia, but of the world. Fifteen years ago we—”
“Were much younger,” interrupted one of the men.
It was Valentin Primovich, the plodder, the worrier. He had always been the weakest link. Stavropol fixed him with a steady stare. He had anticipated the possibility of dissension in the ranks, but not straight away. Unconsciously, his hand tightened into a fist. He reminded himself to relax. Wait, he told himself. Just wait.
Stavropol attempted to soften the features of his face before responding. “Valentin, we are still young men. And what we may have lost in years, we have more than gained in experience.”
“We have good lives now,” said Uri Varensky, coming to the defense of Primovich. “The world is a different place. Russia is a different place.”
“As we knew it would be,” said Stavropol as his eyes turned on Varensky. He had grown soft and lazy. Had Stavropol been told fifteen years ago that the thick narcosis of complacency would one day overtake such a great man, such a great soldier, Stavropol never would have believed it. “You forget that the change came because of us. It was our idea.”
“It was your idea,” replied Anatoly Karganov. “Yours and Dmitri’s. We supported you, as we always have, but Uri and Valentin are correct. Times have changed.”
Continue reading the State of the Union excerpt.