NOTE: Write intro that connects with rest of story.
He was cute. Impish. Dimpled. Round. His eager eyes always shone with anticipation and were quick to laugh. He was small for a Russian, perhaps 5’6”. Although he was somewhat rotund in shape, his shoulders-width neck reminded one of his youthful accomplishments as a Greco-Roman wrestler on the Soviet Olympic team. He always wore a shirt and tie, and always the collar was opened to the third shirt button and the tie was pulled loose to give room to his impressive neck. He never wore a jacket nor would one expect him to. Somehow his spirit could not be confined in that ritualistic way.
No matter how impressive the assembly, no matter the number of business and political dignitaries and subordinates, no matter the power of position or bankroll, when the “suits” met to negotiate, his had been the most commanding presence. His open collar and pulled-down tie emphasized his roots. Regardless of his station and power, he was a man of the people, one of the proletariat. It gave his employees a sense of protection and security. It gave businessmen, politicians and associates a sense of vulnerability and insecurity.
And, even now, as Valeriy Solovyev lay cross-armed in his upward tilted casket with his collar still open and his tie hung loose, his presence dominated the assemblage under the arches of the entrance to The Palace of Culture.
Over 100 over-sized floral wreaths were piled around his bier. 10 armed guards stood on the steps on each side of the revered leader. More than 2,000 friends and enemies had braved the sub-zero weather to pay tribute to him, say goodbye to him, and check upon the rumors as to who had ordered the hit on him.
His wife (Ludmilla) and their son (Alexander) were quietly seated on folding chairs and a small group comprised of relatives and close friends encircled them.
His key associates, Gregori Barinberg and Arnold Kogan, held court with Germans, Vietnamese, Uzbekis, Georgians, Estonians, Israelis, and a few other nations business representatives who had come to honor their former partner. Nobody came from his partners in England, my associates were fearful of catching what Solovyev caught.
National politicos talked with local politicos.
International mafia talked with local mafia.
Hundreds of employees, mostly women, wept icy tears in silence and gathered support from each other’s grief.
And, though surrounded by thirty or forty of our joint-venture employees, and held upright by her husband, Serge, on one side, and her cousin, (Svetlana), on the other, one figure stood out with almost as much singularity as Solovyev himself: Elena Aleckseva Drobiazko.
Elena Aleckseva Drobiazko was Solovyev’s lover. To herself, she was his soul mate. To his fans, his devoted mistress. To her employees, a benevolent despot. To her husband, a protector and the patron of his photographic art. To me, a thorn in the side of progress. To Solovyev’s key men, a bitch.
When she met Solovyev, she was a struggling Russian actor, filling out bit parts by selling tickets at a theater. Solovyev discovered her by buying the theater. The rest is legend. From ticket seller on Nevsky Prospect in a few years she rose through (or over) the ranks to become Solovyev’s most trusted executive helping oversee his vast enterprises of 70 optical stores, scores of other retail outlets, the largest lens making plant in Russia, and investments as far ranging as those in North Vietnam and Israel. And, when we established our British-Soviet Joint Venture in 1991 and called it Lenam (Leningrad-America), Solovyev suggested she would be its best General Director. (“What woman would ever leave a man who had given her such a present?” Elena would say to me years later.) As president of the western partner Eastern Holdings Inc., I felt the appointment a mistake, but I wasn’t even consulted because Dean Butler, the president of Vision Express Group Limited, Eastern Holding’s parent company was in attendance and agreed instantly with his “friend” Valeriy, before any discussion could be held. Barinberg and Kogan, second and third in command at Optica attended as well. The two men had been with Solovyev for a dozen or more years before the privatization in 1991. They had helped him build his empire and were astute Russian businessman. Barinberg was also the most respected optical engineer in the Soviet Union. They had no love and little respect for the saucy blond who had for the past five years become their leader’s confidential advisor. They were not consulted either. They were not happy.
Insiders knew that the day Solovyev died would be the end of the reign of “Tsarina” Elena.
And, nobody knew this better than Elena did.
Elena was unquestionably Russian. She was blond, radiant and busty but not fat. She was witty and earthy. She was a “man’s woman”, ripe as the tomato that falls from the vine, with that special sensuality of a woman near forty who could be as giving as Mother Russia herself. Her energy and enthusiasm were unbounded. Yet, her cunning was fully developed and her retaliation instant when provoked. She could drink like a Russian. Neither vodka, nor cognac, nor shoes-full of champagne nor all of the above could remove Elena’s cool.
Drinking or not, I had never seen her stance less than planted solid and spread wide.
Now, her legs were quite uncertain and she was upright only through the support of the loving hands that held her.
But, her mind was racing. And, her voice was strong.
As soon as the driver opened the door and Veronica Nazarova (my interpreter) and I stepped out of the car in which we had arrived, Elena called out, “Nikka! Jack! Pooshalesta! Prehoditye! (Please! Come here!).
About 2,000 heads turned to see Veronica and Jack cross the 50-meter width of the reception plaza to where Elena unsteadily stood. I was after all, Solovyev’s most visible partner. Lenam was his company’s most publicized success. I was the company’s TV presence and the “best known face in St. Petersburg.” And, I was The American. Optica employees revered me second only to Solovyev himself. And, besides that, Veronica was not only one of the brightest 25-year old women in all of Russia but her vibrant dark-haired beauty was classic and worth staring at regardless of Jack Jamesovitch. Thus, by the time we reached Elena, no heads had turned back to what they had been doing, but all choose to focus on this international encounter.
Elena’s face was red from the cognac and the cold and wet with recurring tears, and her eyes stared with the shock of a deer in the headlights. Serge and Svetlana supported her under her arms. As I nodded a greeting to them, Elena grabbed my open coat and began to button it up like she was my babushka and I her little skolnik. But, she spoke more like a lover, partly with English words from her tender vocabulary, but mostly in Russian mirrored by Veronica’s interpretation to me.
“ Jack! Jack! You must keep warm. You must protect yourself. We need you. We all need you now. Solovyev is gone. Who will lead us? It must be you, Jack. You are strong and you are so smart, Jack. Everything behind us is behind us. Tomorrow is all that counts, Jack. But, tomorrow is full of danger. Danger is all around us. There is great danger for Lenam, Jack. Solovyev’s dream! Your dream! My dream! Barinberg and Kogan don’t understand the dream. They never understood the dream, Jack. Only you and me and Solovyev understood. Barinberg and Kogan will destroy the dream, Jack. Lenam will die. They will kill Lenam. Only you can beat them, Jack. Only you can save Lenam, Jack. I will be at your side. Please, Jack, save Lenam!”
Throughout her pleas, she had been buttoning my coat, sobbing while her loud pleas kept attention upon us. Then, with her last plea for Lenam, she reached her hands behind my head and pulled my face abruptly forward so that my lips fell fully upon her lips, which were open and wet and hot and filled with tongue. I hesitated to pull away too quickly from her for it would clearly be another rejection for her on this tragic day. I saw her young husband’s non-reactive face behind her head as the soulful kiss continued. I noted that the taste of cognac-sweetened saliva was quite warming on a cold Russian day. And, I realized I was being offered Solovyev’s best and if I “saved Lenam” I could pick up where Valeriy left off. I slowly drew back, unlocking our lips, and brushed her hair back from her face in a benign manner.
“Elena,” I replied through my still tingling mouth, “nobody is going to kill Lenam. Nobody. Not now. Not ever.”
By now, our bodies were clearly separated. I looked around at the spectators. Virtually everyone averted their eyes and turned away from my gaze. Two people did not, Barinberg and Kogan who stared, without expression, straight into my eyes as I looked at them. I nodded a non-committal greeting and turned back to Elena wondering if she had kissed me for them.
“Elena, we have not always been friends. You have worked to destroy my position ever since we named you General Director of Lenam. You hid behind my respect for Solovyev and manipulated your situation to gain all the power you could. But, I know you believe in Lenam and I know your style of leadership has been good for our joint venture until now. Now, things will change. You will change. Not because you want to, but because you will have to. Nobody will destroy you if you understand what is wanted of you. Optica and Vision Express own Lenam. Barinberg and Kogan run Optica now. I run Vision Express. You work for us. You can no longer think you are equal or better. You are neither. You are Elena Drobiazko, and we are your bosses.”
I think Veronica carried the full meaning of this statement in translation. I think Elena took from it what she wanted.
She replied, while re-buttoning the top button on my coat, “God bless you, Jack. I love you, Jack. I knew you would save Lenam.”