November 19, 1956
Nikita Khrushchev scowled as he looked around the dimly lit room. It was a travesty, he thought to himself, that the leader of the most powerful communist nation in the world, one of only two superpowers left on the globe after WWII, should be compelled to meet with his advisers in such a shabby place. The basement of St. Basil’s Cathedral had been designated as the more-or-less secret location for all high level government and party strategy sessions since the late nineteen thirties, a time when that German madman, Hitler, was beginning his conquest of Europe. The term ‘basement’ was actually a misnomer, as this concrete bunker was not even accessible from St. Basil’s, and had never been a part of the edifice. This room was only accessible by means of a narrow tunnel that began in a dark enclosure found in the lowest level of the Spasskaya Tower, a part of the Kremlin, just across the street from the cathedral.
Nikita allowed himself a brief smile, quick and unseen by others in the room, as he remembered back to those days. He had been a junior party officer in 1939 and was working hard to make a place for himself in the still-fledgling and uncertain Communist Party. He remembered directing the civilian workers who had set up the furniture in this room for the very first meeting of the elite of the party. They had decided to meet here, in this dank, shabby place, for fear of a sneak attack, bombing raid, or outright massive invasion of the kind favored by Hitler and his blitzkrieg army. This location was secret, secure, and known only to a select, trusted few…except for the civilians moving the same furniture in and around which the group now sat almost two decades later. The General Secretary’s smile was completely gone as he remembered loading the workers into two trucks, their job complete, and driving them to a location outside the city where he directed a military firing squad to execute them and bury their bodies in an unmarked mass grave, thus assuring the party’s secret meeting place would remain so. This heinous act had endeared him to the party leaders and, along with many other acts of unquestioning loyalty, had ensured his ascension through the dark hierarchy that was the power behind the Soviet government.
Now he sat at the top of the hierarchy. His spoken word on a telephone could unleash a powerful army that was loyal to the party. A slight pressure from his index finger could press the button that would send unrecallible guided missiles tearing through the skies carrying nuclear payloads destined to decimate a city or an enemy military installation. A nod of his head could order the execution of a dissident, or the banishment of a freethinker to a frozen gulag. He met with presidents and kings who feared him and his might.
But he did not have the power to order this meeting somewhere other than this dreadful basement room…it was tradition, and, within this group, tradition was a word that carried more power than the whim of the General Secretary of the Communist Party. The party elite would continue to make their most important decisions in this dark, gloomy room with bare concrete walls, no windows, and no adornments of any kind other than the single framed photograph of Lenin that hung in a dark corner almost unseen. Dim light was provided by three bare low-wattage bulbs suspended by wires from the ceiling. There were no fans to circulate the cool but humid air, and a musty basement smell would permeate the clothing of all present before they left the dungeon-like enclosure. “At least we’re safe from Hitler,” Nikita snorted to himself as he mopped his brow with a dingy handkerchief and slowly turned his head to stare into the eyes of each of the twelve men seated around the table. There was one empty chair, and each man present had looked at it with visible discomfort as the group had taken their places at the table. Only a few weeks ago the chair had been occupied by Ivan Metrovitch, a caustic, hawk-faced man in his sixties who was a self-proclaimed progressive, and who often disagreed with Khrushchev’s policies and positions. He had often incurred the wrath of the General Secretary after imprudently stating his opposing views to Khrushchev until he had finally crossed an unseen line. After silently suffering through Metrovitch’s vile lecture on the reasons that he, the General Secretary, was unprepared and incapable of making policy decisions alone in a nuclear world, Nikita had exploded with a vitriol that had shaken the foundations of the old building and brought fear to the eyes of all present. In the end, he had banished Metrovitch from the group and ordered him to serve in a northern gulag for an undisclosed period while he adjusted his attitude regarding the leader of the Communist Party.
“Do you have something to say to your leader?” Khrushchev growled to the group in a quiet tone. “Some sage wisdom? Some unsolicited advice?” He paused and continued to glare, enjoying the fact that he could see beads of sweat forming on the brows of several present. “Something?” he pressed. “Anything?” Nikita allowed his eyes to settle on First Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan, and he stared daggers into the younger man’s eyes until the eyes fell to the table and Mikoyan began to fidget in his chair. “You, Anastas?” Khrushchev questioned harshly. “Anything at all for me? I am surprised at your silence. You are usually so vocal with your criticism. Can you not loose your tongue in my presence?”
Mikoyan opened his mouth as if to speak, but an older man seated on his right placed a hand on his forearm to stop him. “Anastas did not request this meeting, Nikita. I did.” Khrushchev shifted his gaze to the speaker and his stare softened a bit. Boris Nicholaivitch maintained a steady gaze back at the General Secretary. At seventy-eight, he was the oldest man at the table. His deeply seamed face, his cane, and his slow shuffle emphasized the physical infirmity common in one his age, but his physical appearance belied the sharp wit and high order intelligence the man still wielded with youthful exuberance. His light blue-gray eyes, pale complexion, and full head of completely white hair, gave him an albino-like appearance that was disconcerting to many and commanded attention from all…even Nikita. Boris had been a member of this elite group long before this particular location had been made necessary by world events. He had advised Lenin himself on matters of international trade and diplomacy, and his opinions in those fields and others were still the most valued in this chamber. He knew Khrushchev would listen to him.
“Nikita, my old friend,” he began, “with all the respect due to you and your position, I feel I must chastise you for the tone of your speech to the Western diplomats yesterday.” Several at the table stiffened as Boris spoke. No one talked to the General Secretary in such a way. There was always room in the Siberian gulag for one more. To his credit, Khrushchev sat calmly, placing his right hand upon his left and staring evenly at his old adviser. Boris paused briefly, perhaps expecting an angry retort, but continued when there was no reply. “The room in which you were speaking was filled only with ambassadors and low-level functionaries, but your words were addressed to nations! When all of the window dressing is removed from your statement, it basically must be interpreted as a direct threat to all the nations in the Western world. ‘We’ll bury you!’ you said to them.” The old man shook his fist in the air, just as Khrushchev had done during the speech. “What were you thinking?” he asked a little more harshly that he intended.
The General Secretary only smiled. “I was thinking that, perhaps, they should fear us. We have the power to bury them in their own decadence. Hitler, the madman, almost destroyed Europe. It is still reeling from his destruction. Perhaps we should finish the job before Europe regains its strength. Perhaps we should force American troops out of Germany and France…away from our doorstep…and bring glorious Communist rule to our western neighbors.” He smiled dreamily for a brief moment and completed the thought, “…and beyond.”
Boris bristled, “You dare to aim a veiled threat at the United States of America?”
Khrushchev slammed his fist onto the table. “It is not a veiled threat…it is a direct one! The Americans are weak! They bury themselves in their vile, decadent, capitalist lifestyle!” He stopped suddenly, composing himself. Wiping his perspiring face once more, the General Secretary smiled broadly and repeated in a calm voice, “They bury themselves. All I require is that we help them complete the process.” He continued to smile until others at the table began to nod and smile nervously back at him.
Boris remained firm, staring unwaveringly at his superior. “Nikita…my old friend…my dear friend…do not allow yourself to be deceived. The Americans are not so weak as you allow yourself to believe. Yes, their lifestyle and their political freedoms appear to us as indicators of an undisciplined and valueless people. Their personal decadence, their wastefulness, and their apparent lack of direction seem to indicate a collective weakness in their society. They are independent of thought and deed. They compete with each other rather than work collectively for the greater good. We do not understand them…maybe we don’t want to.” He was silent for a moment, as if collecting his thoughts.
“But Nikita,” the old man continued in an imploring tone, “never allow yourself to underestimate the Americans. They are not weak…not in any meaningful military or economic sense. They know how to move quickly and act decisively when threatened. Remember their response to the Japanese invasion. After Pearl Harbor their navy was practically decimated. Within a year their industrial might had provided them with enough ships and weaponry to make them the undisputed power on the seas throughout the world. One year, Nikita. We could not duplicate that feat in a decade.”
Khrushchev was silent for a moment, his tightly pursed lips the only indicator of his growing anger. “So!” he said with forced calm. “You doubt the resolve of our troops? You think we cannot defeat the Americans? Our tanks are massed on the West German border, poised to annihilate American armies. Our missiles are aimed at American cities. Our submarines are deployed along the American coastline awaiting orders to launch their nuclear payloads. All this and still you think we cannot defeat the vile Americans? Why, my friend? Tell me why.”
Khrushchev’s steely barbs continued to pierce the dank air toward the aged advisor, causing all other eyes in the room to turn toward the old man as well. Everyone present sensed that Boris’ answer to the General Secretary’s question could determine where he spent the remaining few years of his life.
Nicholaivitch was silent for several minutes, his hands folded in his lap, as he formed his response. He appeared to be calm, even though the tension permeating the dank room had become a palpable, living thing. The silence in the room was so complete and protracted that several of the men jumped when Boris finally spoke.
He began in a slow, even tone that seemed both formal and affable at the same time, “Comrade General Secretary, please do not misunderstand my position. I did not express a belief that we cannot defeat the Americans. On the contrary, I agree with much of your assessment of them, and I believe we are in a perfect position to initiate an all-out assault on them very soon.”
Khrushchev looked perplexed, the daggers in his stare giving way to questions. “But you said,” he began, then stopped abruptly, leaving the question unspoken. “Please continue,” he finally said, his posture and imposing stare relaxing a bit.
“Simply put,” Boris said, grimacing while adjusting his aching back in the straight-backed chair, “I agree completely with your adroit appraisal of the Americans and the shameless profligacy of their lifestyle. I disagree only with your proposed method of attack.” The old man continued to shift and turn in his chair, obviously in a high level of physical discomfort, until finally he scooted the chair away from the table and used his cane and his left hand on the tabletop to force himself slowly up to a standing position. His breathing became labored and rasping, and for several seconds the tight skin of his face became so pale as to be practically transparent. For a long moment the only sound in the room was the hoarse movement of air in and out of his lungs over what could very well have been a gravel surface. Finally, his breathing slowed and he looked slowly around the room, his cane supporting much of his weight as he swayed slightly back and forth.
“Please forgive my frailty, old friends. I fear this aged body I call home will not long support me in this world.” He smiled slightly, and was quick to notice the impassive eyes staring back at him throughout the room. “No friends here,” He thought to himself. “They wait for my death so they can fill my chair with someone who will strengthen their positions…Maybe I can preempt them.”
He turned his gaze back to the General Secretary. “Nikita, you propose we annihilate the west with tanks and missiles and armies. We have the might and the resolve, you say…and I do not necessarily disagree. But remember, the war was not that long ago and we are still rebuilding…we are not as strong now as we will be in a few more years. We have armies, but they are not yet well fed. The infrastructure of our great nation was weakened by the war, and has not yet fully recovered. Our tanks need repair…parts that our factories are still slow to produce. Our nuclear bombs and our missiles are the very best! Better than the Americans’. But our guidance systems are poor at best. We are as likely to destroy ourselves as the targets at which we are aimed. Our economy is weak. Our agricultural deficiencies make it difficult to feed our people. Our industrial complex, while improving, is not ready to produce the arms, transportation, and machinery necessary to support a worldwide military operation. We are not ready for that kind of war, Nikita…not ready.” He paused, watching the General Secretary’s eyes narrow into slits.
“So, what is it that you propose, Boris?” Khrushchev finally asked in a surprisingly casual tone.
“I suggest we attack the Americans on a completely different front,” Boris replied quickly, excitement building in his voice. “By attacking them militarily, we attack their strength…we have might and resolve, Nikita, but so do they. I suggest we attack them where they are the weakest, the most vulnerable…we attack the very fabric of their society. You mentioned yourself, Nikita, that they bury themselves in their decadence. Why not help them? To put my plan in the form of a metaphor, if the Americans insist on burying themselves, all we need do is provide them with a larger shovel.”
Khrushchev snorted, then began to laugh. The other men at the table had uniformly blank looks that broadcast their complete lack of understanding of Boris’ statement. “You toy with us, my old friend,” the General Secretary said flatly as he motioned around the table. “Please be more specific. What can you tell us of your plan? Whom do we attack? And when?”
Boris looked slowly around the room…not at its occupants, but at the room itself. “We planned World War II in this room,” he said as if in deep remembrance. “We defeated Hitler from this room. It is a good place.” The old man slowly and with great production value reseated himself into his straight backed chair and pulled it once more up to the table. “This is our secret place,” he finally said. “Since the beginning, we have been very careful who we admit to this room…to our little circle.”
Others in the room began to stare at Boris more intently, suddenly knowing what was coming next.
“I have a brilliant and trusted associate,” the old man began, and an immediate chorus of sighs and shuffles began around the table. All of the men but Khrushchev glared at Boris with frowns on their faces. They all had trusted associates they wanted admitted to this group to strengthen their own positions. Nicholaivitch watched the faces around the table, understanding their ire. He allowed a slight smirk to form on his lips as he realized that he had played his card well, and now had the upper hand in filling the vacant chair at the table with his own man. A quick glance at Khrushchev revealed the General Secretary had also allowed himself a slight smile, confirming the fact that Boris had, in fact, named the next member of the group.
“My associate,” the old man began with energized confidence, “has devised a plan that, while it may require several years, possibly decades, to complete, will assure that the United States will become a socialist society that will elect leaders who will bring the nation into the communist fold. We will defeat the western powers, Nikita,” Boris said with assurance, “without firing a shot. We will defeat them with their own willingness to ‘get something for nothing,’ with their own decadent desires to ‘look out for number one’ instead of looking to the good of all. We will use their own personal greed to turn them into good communists. We will do it before they know what is happening to them. There is an old adage, Nikita, about boiling a frog.”
Khrushchev suddenly looked perplexed. He held out his opened hands. “Tell us of this frog, my old friend,” he said.
“It is well known,” Boris said, his eyes twinkling and his pain apparently gone, “that if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, the frog will immediately jump out.” He looked around the room into faces that expressed both anger and a lack of interest or understanding of what he was saying. Only Khrushchev looked interested.
“If, on the other hand, you place the frog into a pot of cool water, then slowly warm the temperature until the water boils, the frog will contentedly swim around in the pot until he boils to death.” Boris looked once more at Nikita, who immediately understood the metaphor. Others in the room continued to look uninterested and uncomprehending, but they no longer mattered.
“So your brilliant associate,” Khrushchev said with a rare broad smile, “intends to turn up the heat gradually until the frog boils. I would hear more details of this ingenious plan. Who is this associate? Can he join us?”
Boris Nicholaivitch was nothing if not a master strategist. His young associate was in a nearby office waiting for his call, but Boris knew this was not the time to introduce the man to this angry group. The faces around the table were grim, resentful of the method Boris had used to undermine and effectively defeat their own desires to nominate a replacement for Evan Metrovitch’s place in their circle. Boris knew he had won, but he also knew that the young man would encounter open hatred and loud vocal opposition if he was allowed to enter this room at the current time. Better to wait…to create the illusion that his nomination was a spontaneous one…better to introduce his man to the General Secretary in private, then allow Khrushchev to introduce the young man to the rest of the group. There would be no opposition then.
Boris smiled and looked regretful. “I am sorry, General Secretary,” he began, “my associate has been in Leningrad all week gathering some trade information you requested from my office several days ago. I will recall him immediately, and will bring him to meet you at your convenience when he returns.” The old man looked once more around the table and saw resignation and defeat in the eyes of his comrade advisors. He had won!
Khrushchev cleared his throat and addressed the group, “Is there anything else, comrades?” Without waiting for a response, he stood and said, “I think it is time to adjourn.” The General Secretary of the Communist Party then turned his back to the group and plodded away.
Boris watched him go, but remained seated as the others pushed back from the table and filed from the room, each scowling at him as they passed his chair. The last to leave was Deputy Premier Mikoyan, a man who had often sided with Boris and championed his causes. As he reached the chair, Anastas paused and placed a hand on the old man’s shoulder.
“You play with fire, my old friend,” he said. “But you play well.” He walked away shaking his head slowly, the slightest hint of a smile betraying his feelings.
Boris slumped in his chair, feeling his age weigh down upon him. He peered through the dim light at the almost invisible photograph of his old friend Vladimir Lenin, finally sitting erect and giving a sharp military salute to the picture. “It goes on, Vladimir,” he said wearily. “It goes on.”
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