The Kremlin’s Candidate – Jason Matthews

September 2005: Despite the velvet-flocked, gold-leaf splendor of the Metropol Hotel, the enduring fetor of Moscow clung to the drapes and lay thick on the carpet, an incense of fusel oil, boiled cabbage, and ruined pussy. Twenty-four-year-old Lieutenant Dominika Egorova of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki, the SVR, the external Russian foreign intelligence service, stood in her underwear (black lace from Wolford in Vienna) and looked down at the naked woman on the bed, snoring on her back, a feral, protruding incisor visible in her open mouth. The American woman—her name was Audrey—had been a biter. Dominika looked in the smoky gilt mirror at the purple half-moon bite mark on her shoulder, the irregular notch from Audrey’s snaggletooth clearly visible. The nineteenth-century bed, formerly from the Pavlovsk Palace in Saint Petersburg, had a soaring rococo canopy framed in falls of musty satin and faded silk ropes. The twisted sheets under Audrey’s tall, bony body were darkly wet in a wide circle. Besides the biting, there had been the throaty grunts more characteristically heard from boars in the thickets of the Smolensk hunting preserve. Audrey was what they called a khryuknut in Sparrow School: a screamer in bed. Loud, but nothing to faze a Vorobey, a Sparrow, a State-trained courtesan sent to the gabled mansion on the Volga River that was the secret State School Four, sent to learn the art of sexpionage—sexual entrapment, carnal blackmail, moral compromise—all with the aim of recruiting susceptible human targets as clandestine intelligence sources, targets who had been maneuvered into an intricate polovaya zapadnya, an SVR honey trap. Dominika looked at the horse bite on her shoulder again. Suka, bitch. How she loathed being a Sparrow, how low she had sunk. Two years ago, the world had been hers for the taking. She had been destined for the Bolshoi as a future prima ballerina, until a rival had broken Dominika’s foot, resulting in the abrupt end of a nearly twenty-year ballet career and a permanent slight hitch in her gait. The following year had been a nightmare descent into wanton indenture.

To keep her ailing, widowed mother in their State-provided apartment, she let her uncle—then Deputy Director of SVR —coerce her to sleep with a man, a repugnant oligarch whom President Putin wanted eliminated. To keep her quiet after the assassination, Uncle Vanya had magnanimously admitted her into the Andropov Institute, “The Forest,” the SVR’s foreign spy academy, where Dominika found to her astonishment that she had a natural aptitude for spook work and, consequently she hoped, a new future serving the Rodina, her Motherland, as an intelligence officer. Her fluent French and strong English learned at home in a house full of books and music were attributes. She had the skills, the ideas, the imagination, and great expectations for operations in the foreign field. Ah, what a prostodushnyy, a guileless naïf, she had been! The Service, and the Kremlin, and Novorossiya, Putin’s New Russia, were still the preserve of men, namely, the siloviki, the myrmidons around the blue-eyed new tsar, Vladimir Vladimirovich. These weasels purloined the patrimony of Russia, and spread a blanket of corruption so completely over the land that if you were not a billionaire running the energy monopoly Gazprom out of your pocket, then you were a Muscovite who could not afford meat more than three days a week. The siloviki were the inheritors of the Gray Cardinals, the sclerotic members of the old Soviet politburo, who had starved Soviet Russians for seventy years with their ineptitude as implacably as this new crowd had been starving modern Russians for the last twenty years with their avarice. After graduating with top marks, Dominika Egorova had basked in the signal achievement that she was now an operuolnomochoperuenny, one of a few women SVR operations officers. But the sweet Dead Sea fruit of success turned to ashes in her mouth when Uncle Vanya sent her packing to State School Four, the Kon Institute in Kazan on the banks of the Volga, otherwise known as Sparrow School, where women were taught the unceasing, inexorable, inescapable indignities of learning how to be one of Putin’s Prostitutes. Part of Dominika’s soul died in Sparrow School—other women literally died, suicide among the forlorn was not uncommon.

The dead parts inside Dominika were replaced by beshenstvo, an enduring white fury against the system, and a simmering hatred for the podkhalimi, the toadeaters surrounding their taciturn sovereign. She was determined to succeed. After Sparrow School and back in Moscow, she did her homework and identified a seduction target on her own: a mild French diplomat whose wife was absent and whose adult daughter in Paris worked in a department of the French Ministry of Defense, which oversaw France’s nuclear weapons. Dominika knew the man was falling in love with her, and that he would ask his daughter to whisper to Papa any French atom secrets that Dominika wanted to know. It was an easy seduction—and not altogether unpleasant, because he was a lonely, decent man. The difference was that this was a genuine operation. The potential intelligence harvest for the SVR was unparalleled. But the seduction went too well, and Dominika’s potbellied chiefs were envious, so they willfully and with malice ruined the pitch and spooked the Frenchman. He reported his dalliance to his embassy and was sent home. The case was lost and Egorova, the blue-eyed upstart Academy graduate, was put in her place.

Solicitous Uncle Vanya commiserated with her and announced he was going to offer her something that was a real operation, something substantial, something even more desirable because it included being posted abroad—in glamorous Finland, he said. This is more like it, thought Dominika. A real operational mission. But one small assignment first; it would take three hours, said her uncle, smiling: seduce an American in the Metropol Hotel. Do this final honey trap for the Service, and then pack for your assignment in Helsinki. One last time, she had thought. US Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Audrey Rowland had been in Moscow for a week with a group of senior students from the National War College on a junket to observe Russian “bilateral geopolitics,” whatever that meant. As was customary with any official visitors to Russia, on receipt of the students’ visa applications months before, SVR targeteers began their research, combed through open-source databanks, and asked clandestine sources in the Pentagon for bios and assessments of the dozen War College students who would arrive in Moscow six weeks hence. Running traces was standard procedure: SVR targeteers were like patient wolves on the hillside, watching the horse-drawn troika filled with drunken kulaks, waiting to see if someone would fall out of the sled insensate into a snowbank and provide fresh meat. LTJG Rowland’s unique profile especially caught their sharp-eyed attention.

The targeting study noted that Rowland had graduated with a PhD in advanced particle physics from Caltech, had enlisted in the US Navy, and had breezed through Officer Candidate School, already marked as a fast riser and a sure bet for eventual selection to flag rank. After OCS, Audrey had been assigned to the Electromagnetics Division in NRL, the US Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. From a purloined classified technical NRL newsletter, the Russians read that in the first three months of her assignment, Audrey Rowland had impressed senior scientists with a monograph on heat diffusion in the MJ64 experimental naval railgun. This tidbit stirred considerable interest among Russian intelligence circles: US railgun technology was a prime collection requirement of the Russian Navy. The threat of an electrically propelled, powderless projectile with a velocity of 2,200 meters per second and unerringly accurate at ranges beyond 150 kilometers, was a concern to Russian naval command. The US Navy had put it another way: a railgun projectile fired from New York City would score a direct hit on a target in Philadelphia in less than thirty-seven seconds. Because Rowland was a potentially attractive target, an extra effort was made to collect what the spook world called lifestyle-and-personal bio. There was more gleaned from a Russian illegal buried in the administrative staff of the University of California, Irvine, who had access to certain restricted databases in the UC and local law-enforcement systems. Posing as an employment investigator, the illegal also interviewed neighbors, landlords, and one former roommate at Caltech. The results were interesting: Rowland was solitary, remote, with a weakness for margaritas, after two of which she tended to pass out.

Beneath what appeared as a shy exterior was a highly competitive nature. There were unflattering stories about obsessive behavior in the classroom and laboratory. Then the jackpot: She’d had an abusive father—himself a navy pilot—there were possible sexual overtones, and a complete absence of men during her university years, culminating in an unspecified date-rape incident about which no official record existed. Vestal virgin, physics androgyne, or a woman who prefers vacations on the Aegean island of Lesbos? If the last, there could be an opening for a bit of lesbionage during her visit to Moscow. Targeteers noted that Rowland would not have been admitted into OCS or the War College, regardless of recent liberalization policies in the US Navy, if her predilections were known. A secret vulnerability. LTJG Rowland was to tour in Moscow for the week, staying at the Metropol with twelve classmates and a professor/chaperone. Word went up the line—to the SVR’s America Department; then to the FSB, Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsii, the internal security service; then to the GRU, Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye, the military foreign intelligence service of the General Staff of the Russian Federation. The usual puerile squabbling among these agencies for primacy to target Rowland was stilled when the Kremlin ordained that every organization would have a role: The FSB would control the other students and chaperone; an SVR asset would be used for the honey trap; and the GRU would exploit the take. As for the actual recruitment pitch, a Kremlin specialist known as “Doctor Anton” would be introduced.

Big trouble, Doctor Anton. During the students’ week in Moscow, FSB watchers noted with interest that LTJG Rowland seemed to enjoy more than a single after-dinner vodka in the Metropol’s ornate Chaliapin Bar, invariably saying good night, then sneaking back and drinking long after her fellow classmates retired for the evening. Sergei, a handsome SVR-trained Voronoy (a Raven, the male version of a Sparrow), was assigned the task of meeting, charming, and eventually bedding the angular beanpole who wore cardigans buttoned to the neck, opaque panty hose, and sensible flats, in sharp contrast to the hotel’s usual sea of cantaloupe busts, see-through tops, and Jimmy Choo glitter pumps. When after two nights of Sergei’s musky blandishments it became obvious that Rowland preferred to swim facedown in Veronica Lake rather than be with a man, the targeteers ordered an urgent change. Time was short, and the SVR and GRU were frantic that Rowland not slip through their fingers. Rowland’s delo formular, her operational file, was flipped onto Dominika’s worn metal desk in SVR headquarters in Yasenevo district in southwest Moscow, by a warty, dismissive section chief. He told her to read it, go home, change into something water soluble, get to the Metropol by 2100 hours, and compromise the American. Dominika’s short fuse flared and she told the pudgy deputy to go to the Metropol himself since it was obvious the target preferred pussies (which in Russian came out significantly more profane). As if he had been listening via a microphone in her cubicle, Uncle Vanya called four minutes later, assuring Dominika this would be the last such assignment—hereafter she would be an ops officer on assignment in Helsinki and the Sparrow seductions would cease. “Take this assignment, please, don’t tell me no,” Vanya had said, his voice suddenly edgy.

“Your mother would tell you the same thing.” Translation: follow orders or your mother with her rheumatoid arthritis and spinal stenosis will be out on the sidewalk by the time the real Moscow winter arrives. Four hours later, with a tab of Sparrow-issue Mogadon, a mild benzodiazepine relaxant, under her tongue, Dominika sat at the Chaliapin Bar next to an already bleary-eyed Audrey Rowland, who looked sideways at the antique Ottoman necklace Dominika wore around her throat, the hammered silver pendants of which were rattling in the deep vee of her breasts. “Service at this bar leaves something to be desired,” said Audrey, apparently assuming Dominika spoke English. “I thought this hotel was five stars.” The tumbler in front of her was empty. Dominika leaned close and whispered conspiratorially. “Russians sometimes need a little encouragement,” she said. “I know this barman; he can be a bit contrary, we say upryamyy, like a mule.” Audrey laughed and watched as Dominika ordered two iced vodkas that were served instantly and with great deference.

Audrey ignored the barman, drank the vodka in one gulp, and appraised Dominika with heavy-lidded eyes. She could not know that the barman and three other patrons in the bar were all from Line KR, countersurveillance assets looking for opposition coverage as Dominika moved on the tall American woman. The bar was clean; Audrey was alone. Dominika did not have to work it too hard. A light legend—cover story—that she was a salaried office worker was sufficient, and really couldn’t afford drinking at the Metropol but once a month. She told jokes about Russian men, gently steering the conversation, holding on to Audrey’s wrist occasionally, establishing physicality, straight out of the Sparrow manual. Dominika purposely showed no curiosity about Audrey’s work or her navy career. There was no need to elicit: Audrey showed herself to be utterly self-absorbed and inclined to talk about herself—a narcissist perhaps, ego will be a button with this one, thought Dominika, who asked what her hometown of San Diego was really like, eyes wide and interested. Audrey said that she was the only child of a naval aviator father and a quiet mother (biographical facts already in her SVR file), then went on at length about growing up a lithe surfing California beach girl, which Dominika suspected was fiction. Audrey was an unmik, a physics geek, and looked it.

After the third vodka, Dominika became serious and cocked her head toward the barman. “Russian men. Beware of them. Not just stubborn, but mostly bastards too,” she said. Audrey pried the story out of a seemingly reluctant Dominika in stages. Drying her eyes with a cocktail napkin embossed with the “M” logo of the hotel, she eventually told Audrey of her broken engagement with a fiancé who had been unfaithful by sleeping with a cashier who worked at the GUM department store in Red Square, a total fiction. “She was a little harlot with hair dyed purple, newly arrived from some rural oblast, how do you say, some unimaginable province,” said Dominika. “Two years we were engaged, and it was over in a night.” Audrey patted Dominika’s hand, incensed at the nameless philandering fiancé. The “hook” was always more believable by adding incongruously specific detail like the dyed hair (No.

87, “The short stories of Pushkin stir the imagination” was the relevant tagline, and one of scores memorized at Sparrow School to illustrate tradecraft points). Audrey’s eyes searched Dominika’s, now expectant and intense. Audrey was moved by the story only slightly less than by the high cheekbones and bee-stung lips of the chestnut-haired beauty sniffling beside her. Agreeing that all men were svinya and toasting to eternal sisterhood, Audrey huskily said she wanted to show Dominika her hotel room. Dominika put an elegant finger to her lips and whispered that instead of Audrey’s room they could sneak into the opulent Yekaterina Suite on the fourth floor—her cousin was a chambermaid at the hotel with a passkey. Audrey shivered in anticipation and grabbed her cardigan. Her profound knowledge of electromagnetic physics sadly provided no warning of the curved tail of the scorpion poised above her head. The suite was magnificent, ablaze in gold and green, with an imposing red tombak samovar on an oval Fabergé tea table in the corner of the room. They looked at the furnishings, and at each other. Neither said a word.

Dominika knew the nectar trap was about to snap shut. She pretended to stare at the frescoes capering across the Baroque vaulted ceiling when Audrey—now in musth—stepped up to her, put her hands on her breasts, and mashed their mouths together. Dominika kissed her back, then slowly disengaged, smiled, and poured two flutes of champagne from an ice bucket on the settee (she palmed a tab of Mogadon into Audrey’s glass to smooth her out), and pushed a silver platter of pecheniya toward her, powdered sugar Russian tea cakes stacked high in a snowy pyramid, taking one herself. Audrey did not register the incongruity that Dominika’s chambermaid cousin apparently had provided the expensive champagne and delicate cakes along with the passkey. It was too much watching Dominika nibble the pastry with her even white teeth. Audrey’s Dutch oven was at a rolling boil, and with trembling fingers she brushed powdered sugar off the front of Dominika’s little black dress, and pulled her across the salon into the bedroom. The next thirty minutes were filmed by four remote-headed, infrared lenses (and slaved COS-D11 mikes) concealed in the ornate acanthus moldings in each corner of the ceiling, operating at 29 megapixels. The feed was being digitally recorded by an SVR technical team in a special utility room down the hotel hallway. Not taking their eyes off the monitors, two sweating technicians bundled and encrypted the images, immediately routing them for real-time review to the Kremlin offices of a few relevant ministers—all former intelligence cronies of the president—a half kilometer away, on the other side of Red Square. Watching the live-action feed was decidedly better than looking at Brazilian bikini girls in National Geographic.

Tall, ferret-faced, all hip bones and rib cage, with light brown hair styled in a Prince Valiant cut last seen in the 1928 French silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, mousey Audrey was a Gordian knot of guilty passion, fumbling awkwardness, and anorgasmia, with a tendency to spritz the bed as she vainly chased her elusive release. Thank God, thought Dominika, nothing complicated. Without much effort, she could avoid active participation and instead assume the role of masseuse and bring this bony scarecrow through the four corporeal stages of arousal—in school they called them Fog, Breeze, Mountain, and Wave—to coax what the instructors called malenkoye sushchestvo, the little creature, out of her, which is exactly what happened thirty teetering minutes later, the first shuddering spasm triggered by the unexpected introduction of the ribbed rubber handle of Audrey’s hairbrush (No. 89, “Pray at the back altar of Saint Basil’s Cathedral”). Moaning and wide-eyed, Audrey came off the mattress like a vampire sitting up in a coffin, wrapped her arms around Dominika’s neck, sunk her teeth into her shoulder, and rode her successive, shuddering orgasms like a witch on a broom, out of the hotel, over the Kremlin walls, past President Putin’s bedroom window, and around the star on the spire of the Ukraina Hotel, two hundred meters above the Arbatsky bend of the river. That should give the GRU recruiter enough to work with, thought Dominika, with technical aplomb, as Audrey collapsed on her back, sighing. Dominika draped a towel over Audrey’s trembling loins. The last time, she thought, and thank God she was leaving this behind. Helsinki was going to be a dream. She couldn’t know she was both right and wrong.

Audrey was stirring out of her benzodiazepine-fueled, four-climax coma, her head surprisingly clear, her thighs sticky and trembling. As per procedure, the Sparrow always slipped out of the room as the recruiter came in, and Dominika shouldered past him, ignoring his courteous nod. Audrey didn’t even see her go, and she didn’t know that the inveigling Sparrow’s role was complete. For Audrey, what’s-her-name would be only a fading memory—a Venus with blue eyes holding that hairbrush— albeit immortalized permanently on digital video. Audrey likewise didn’t know that the Kremlin recruiter was the renowned Doctor Anton Gorelikov, the fifty-year-old director of Putin’s mysterious Sekretariat, a shadowy office in the Kremlin with a single member—Gorelikov himself—that handled delicate, strategic matters of importance, such as the coercive recruitment of a young US Navy officer. Uncle Anton had scored monumental recruitment successes over the years. Speaking in fluent Oxfordian English, Gorelikov had a number of issues to discuss after Audrey finished dressing and came out of the gilt bathroom nervously combing her hair with the still-hot hairbrush. He rarely used threats, preferring instead to rationally discuss the benefits of cooperating with Russian intelligence, and ignoring the “unpleasantness” that had just concluded. They sat in the salon, Audrey apprehensive but clueless. It was two o’clock in the morning.

“It’s a distinct pleasure to meet you, Audrey,” said Uncle Anton. Audrey shifted in her chair and looked at him. Some of her starch was on display. “How do you know my name?” she said. “Who are you?” Gorelikov smiled the smile that had doomed a thousand blackmailed recruits. Audrey’s voice was not calm; he heard the telltale wavering tone. “Please call me Anton,” he said. “I know your name because your bona fides are superb: a brilliant career in weapons research ahead of you, excellent prospects for promotion, influential mentors, and powerful sponsors who will supercharge your navy career.” “How do you know so much about me? What entity do you represent?” said Audrey, still not comprehending what this was. Uncle Anton ignored her questions.

“As for the brief liaison this evening with the young girl from the bar, it is wisely left unmentioned—best for all concerned,” said Uncle Anton. “I greatly admire the wisdom of the US Navy’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell reforms. Sadly, our Russian military is too monolithic for such liberal farsightedness,” he sighed. “What’s that got to do with anything?” said Audrey, whose exceptional mind was beginning to connect the dots. A cold wave ran down her back. “I have an abiding worry,” said Uncle Anton. “I fear that if your sapphic indiscretions become public, the old institutional prejudices in your service regrettably would almost certainly reemerge, putting you at risk of early retirement on the beach at half pay. That would be both unjust and unfair.” With prescient timing, Gorelikov pointed the remote at the television in the corner of the salon, which began showing precisely which indiscretions he was talking about, namely, images of Audrey’s trembling legs in the air with what appeared to be a lemur’s tail protruding from between her buttocks. Audrey sat numbly in the armchair, watching expressionless, giving few psychic clues to the wily old wizard, which was interesting—she was placid, emotionless, acquiescent.

She accepted a cigarette and drew on it deeply. Gorelikov knew she was considering the consequences. Good sign. Audrey indeed was considering the consequences. She knew what would happen as they had been given security briefings on just these situations. She had chosen to ignore them; they were regulations that would not, did not, apply to her. She was going places in the navy, and she didn’t have the time. But she knew she was in a jam: The Russians would concoct a charade. The young Russian girl would come forward, tearfully claiming to the authorities that she was coerced into making a salacious sex tape, which was a violation of at least half a dozen Russian morality laws. Such a scandal would destroy Audrey’s career, this career she had been preparing for since graduate school, through Officer Candidate School, to the research lab, in order to climb the ladder, to outdo her ungenerous father, to best his own accomplishments in the navy, and to earn the benefits and prestige of flag rank in a service that was the impenetrable preserve of smugly solicitous men.

All this would be hers; nothing was more important. Her physicist’s mind leapt ahead with comprehension. “In the simplest terms, you are blackmailing me, an officer in the US Navy.” Audrey couldn’t keep the tremor out of her voice. Uncle Anton held up his hands in an expression of alarm. “My dear Audrey,” he said. “That is the furthest thing from my mind. The very notion repels me.” “Then perhaps you’ll have the courtesy to tell me exactly what it is you have on your mind.” Gorelikov noted that she already could give orders like an admiral.

“Gladly,” he said. “Enough of hypotheticals. I have an exceptional offer. I would like to propose a discreet relationship between you and a sympathetic Russia to work together for a year toward peaceful global parity, a relationship that would be beneficial to both countries, and to all nations. A twelve-month collaboration. I ask you to consider: after all, even military research has the avoidance of war as its defining goal, does it not?” She did not move, but he knew she was listening. Audrey assessed his words. He was, in a sense, right. Audrey’s long-suffering mother had lived under the callous weight of her regnant husband for thirty years. She was a kind soul and, well, a love child of the sixties who danced at Woodstock and believed in global peace, in a world devoid of strife, cruelty, and hate.

Audrey’s analytical mind knew that such things as railguns did not exist in her mother’s Elysian world, but she never forgot her placid words, in the quiet months before the tumult when her father came home after sea duty. “But no one can live on world peace alone, can they?” said Uncle Anton, breaking into her thoughts. A discreet relationship would bring other tangible, less abstract benefits, such as a consultant’s fee, including a monthly “stipend,” an alias offshore bank account into which significant deposits would be made regularly and, most important, opekunskiy, tutorials for her prepared by Russian military experts, the North American Institute, and Kremlin staffers on strategic naval doctrine, weapons design, global forecasts, international political priorities, and economic trends. (Never mind that all intelligence services use the fiction of “tutorials” for their assets as elicitation sessions to extract even more information from their agents while giving nothing important away.) With such a start, Audrey Rowland would become the US Navy’s rising star in military research, assuring promotion, management of entire R&D programs, and plum Pentagon billets. These kinds of assignments often led to national politics after a military career—the Senate, the cabinet, even higher. Audrey flicked ash onto the floor. She knew what was happening, yet the rewards were exactly the emoluments she coveted. Gorelikov analyzed her in layers, like turning a baluster on a wood lathe. She was a social narcissist with an inflated sense of herself, a compensating careerist with a deep need for admiration and yet a lack of empathy for others, like her father.

She was in a system that made her by definition a sexual misfit. She had been a brilliant PhD student with an orderly mind, now impressing superiors at NRL. She was not by nature reckless or impulsive, and yet she was picking up women in a Moscow hotel bar, clearly ignoring ironclad security practices stipulated for criteria countries, high-securitythreat nations. Odarennost and sobstvennoye, genius clouded by ego, with the albatross of conflicted sexuality heavy around her neck. Indeed, a potent profile in a recruitment candidate. Based on his assessment of her, he doubted she would refuse his pitch and choose to face the consequences. Audrey blew a stream of smoke toward the ceiling, winding up her indignation. “Thanks for the offer, Anton, but go fuck yourself,” she said flatly, not looking at him. Gorelikov was delighted: it was just the response he’d been waiting for.

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