It's 1982 but not as we know it. The Cold War has lost its chill and World War III has arrived, threatening to send the whole planet into meltdown.
Vladislav Rakovich is a young, idealistic communist. He dreams of being an officer, leading his soldiers on a mission to free the world from capitalism. But as the Soviet armies roll west, he gains his first bitter taste of command and reality hits. Can he stay focused on his aim in the face of undisciplined troops, a corrupt superior officer, and NATO's military might? As conflict rages around him, Rakovich finds that his biggest battle comes from within as his faith in the communist cause is shaken by the horror of war.
Back home in Leningrad, Rakovich's beloved sister Anna has other things to worry about. Drawn into a world of trade unions and protests, Anna finds herself driven by a new purpose, although her beliefs introduce her to a dangerous world where dissent can lead to disappearance or even death. Will this war birth the second revolution the nation is crying out for? Or will the people be trampled underfoot by the establishment once more?
The Bear's Claws is a compelling and powerful story of how family, courage, and conviction can survive in a world torn apart by war.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.78(d)|
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The Will of the People
Vladislav Ivanovich Rakovich sat at the window of his small barracks room, looking out across the vehicle yard and the barbed wire fence to the forest beyond. He tapped his pen ever faster against his knee, a drum roll beating out the fruitless seconds. Anna would have known how to describe those woods, the way their shadows haunted and yet called to him. She would have been able to pick out the words that evoked this scene, to set this moment on paper before the unit was moved on to some other concrete shit hole in some other corner of the GDR, this sorry Soviet half of the once mighty German nation.
Of course, if his sister was here then he wouldn't be writing to her in Leningrad. Just thinking about it was a waste of time.
Movement down by the gate caught his eye. A command car sat outside the barrier, motor running. The driver was shouting at the sentry to let them through, but the sentry was some conscript from the backwoods of Siberia and they couldn't understand each other's accents. The driver gesticulated furiously and the sentry waved his rifle around. If they'd been in Rakovich's unit, he would have smacked their heads together for acting like such idiots, especially in front of senior officers. But then, his men didn't get to drive generals around.
He cast the pen aside and picked up a newspaper. It was from the capitalist half of Germany, contraband he'd confiscated off Szolkowski. The date read 4th of May 1982, making it weeks out of date, but Rakovich didn't care about that. The news would all be lies anyway, propaganda cooked up by the decadent western press. He'd kept it to practice his meagre German, not to learn about life beyond the Iron Curtain.
The main photo was of a warship, smoke billowing from a hole in its side. It was a melancholy sight, a mighty machine sinking into the depths. All around were men fleeing in lifeboats, while in the background towered a headland Rakovich had seen in some schoolbook years before, through he was fucked if he could remember where it was.
He picked up the hefty German dictionary he'd spent his spare money on and tried to make sense of the article. The ship was British, he understood that much. It had been attacked by Argentine saboteurs just off Gibraltar — that was the rock, wasn't it? Apparently the Argentinians had already taken some islands off the British, but now the Spanish were angry and NATO were getting involved.
Rakovich didn't know much about Argentina, but he hoped they kicked the shit out of the British, and the rest of NATO too while they were at it.
Someone knocked on the door. Rakovich hastily shoved the newspaper under his mattress, then went to answer.
An infantryman stood in the hallway, one of the men from Zimyatov's section. He saluted smartly.
"Praporshchik Rakovich," the infantryman said. "Lieutenant Valeev requests that you come to the main garage."
"On my way." Rakovich grabbed his jacket and strode down the corridor after the private. He shook his head as he went. He liked Filip Valeev, and that in itself was a problem. A company's political officer shouldn't be liked, he should be respected. The zampolit should order people like Rakovich around, not request their presence.
Rakovich had spent three years in the army, rising to become a praporshchik, that distinctive Soviet rank above NCOs and below commissioned officers. Three years of hard work and commitment, of learning obedience and how to get others to obey. That time had taught him a lesson he'd always secretly known, but that Valeev seemed immune to — that you got more done with fear and fists than with kind words.
When Rakovich reached the garage, it was echoing to the sound of excited chatter. Nearly the whole company was here, including the officers, none of whom had to listen to Valeev's talks on the forward march of international communism. Most of them kept well away from this place, with its smells of diesel and dry rot. Something big must be happening if they'd joined their men today.
Makar Alexandrovich Zimyatov was leaning against a wall at the side of the garage, watching proceedings with the same cynical smile he'd been wearing on the day they met. A sergeant's rank might have given him responsibilities, but nothing could force him to treat the world seriously.
"Any idea what this is, Vlad?" he asked.
Rakovich shook his head. "Hoped you'd know."
"It can't be anything good. Maybe they're rotating us out to Siberia."
"Why would they do that?"
"Those snowmen can't protect themselves."
"They're probably capitalists. Otherwise the warm glow of communist virtue would keep them warm."
Zimyatov laughed. "Because we're all so virtuous?"
"Heroes of the revolution, from our calloused feet to our retreating hairlines."
"I can't understand why you're not a general already, with inspiring words like that."
"And I can't see shit from back here. I'm going to find a better view."
Rakovich climbed onto one of the BMPs, the armoured vehicles that filled half the garage. It was a squat, ugly machine, and Rakovich liked that he and his transport had that much in common. With the tracks on its sides and a low turret on top carrying a cannon and missile launcher, it was the sort of vehicle that a younger Vladislav Ivanovich Rakovich would have pointed at eagerly during military parades as he tried to spot the tanks. But the BMP was something else, with lighter weaponry and seating in the back for a full squad of infantry. This flat-topped contraption, with its chipped green camouflage paint, was how the Red Army would ride to war.
Sitting on the edge of the BMP, Rakovich could see over the heads of his comrades, most of whom were taller than him. Across the crowd, Lieutenant Valeev was also climbing one of the BMPs. He looked out earnestly across the men, bright eyes shining while he waited for silence to fall.
"Comrades!" Valeev called out, his voice echoing from the concrete walls. "As I warned you yesterday, capitalist Germany has become more belligerent. Now our comrades in the intelligence services have discovered that they, with their NATO allies, are planning to attack us."
Rakovich watched the reactions of the crowd. In front of him, rifleman Szolkowski leaned toward Sergeant Zinoviev.
"At least someone here has some intelligence," Szolkowski hissed.
Rakovich leaned over and smacked Szolkowski across the back of the head. The rifleman looked around, snarling with anger, then hid his rage when he saw who his assailant was.
"Show some respect," growled Rakovich.
"Yes, Praporshchik," Szolkowski mumbled, turning his attention back to Valeev.
"We will soon be at war," Valeev said.
Several men gasped or cursed. One cheered.
Rakovich just stared. It didn't seem real. Germany was meant to be a safe posting, a country where everything was too valuable for either side to start a fight. The company was due to sit here menacing the border for a few months and then head home. However much the government talked about war with the West, the reality was too absurd.
And what about nuclear weapons? If they started fighting the Americans, wouldn't somebody fire the nukes? He thought of Leningrad and of Anna, fervently hoping that those terrible weapons never flew.
"This was not our choice," Valeev continued. "But once again, the security of our homeland is threatened by the Germans. Our fathers and grandfathers defeated them in the Great Patriotic War. Now it is our turn to show them the ferocity of the Soviet bear."
More cheering this time. Szolkowski glanced around, grinned, and joined in. Zinoviev followed his lead.
Valeev waved them into silence. He was smiling now, even as he talked of war.
"This time, the Germans have new allies. We, comrades, will be fighting the British. Make no mistake, they are good soldiers, but we are better, and we will be fighting to protect our homeland, to protect our families. So make sure your weapons are cleaned and ready. Two days from now, we go to war."
As one last cheer went up, Rakovich looked around for his men. Lieutenant Tikhomirov, the platoon's commanding officer, wasn't here. In his absence, it fell to Rakovich to make sure the men were ready.
"Third Platoon!" he shouted, standing on the BMP so they couldn't miss him. "Gather round!"
As others dispersed, his men gathered around to listen to Rakovich. They were a motley band, a mix of conscripts and professionals from across the Soviet Union, bound together by no more than love of their homeland. But they were his motley band, and whatever they had to do tomorrow, they were going to do it well.
"Lobachov, Akayev, Shistyev," he said, starting with the drivers. "Make sure the BMPs are fuelled up and ready to roll. I don't want us stuck in a queue at the pumps while the war's starting."
Akayev gave him a blank stare, and Rakovich realised that he'd again hit the limits of the Kyrgyzstani mechanic's Russian. If he weren't so good with engines, Rakovich would have had him packed off months ago. But knowing Akayev, his machine was fuelled and ready to go already.
"The rest of you," Rakovich said. "Every weapon gets stripped down, cleaned, and tested. Check your ammunition. Check your rations. If you're short of anything, tell your sergeant. Anyone who isn't ready in two hours answers to my fists.
"Beletsky, make sure that missile of yours is ready. NATO like their helicopters, let's show them why a BMP is better."
The men cheered again, and now Rakovich was grinning, just like he'd seen Valeev do. The anticipation of action made his heart beat faster. At last he'd have a chance to lead in battle.
Since the moment he first donned his uniform, he'd dreamed of making a career in the army. To do that, he needed to prove himself and earn an officer's epaulettes. What better chance would he have than this?
The men moved off, discussing how real war would compare to training exercises. Watching them, Rakovich had his own thoughts. He'd never been to Afghanistan, unlike some of his peers. He knew men who had and he'd heard their stories, each one full of horror and loss. Surely this would be different? The British, the Germans, and the rest of NATO were capitalists, not religious fanatics like the mujahideen. They wouldn't shown the same brutal dedication to their cause.
If Anna was here, he would have asked her. His sister was smart enough to go to university. She knew how the world worked. But Anna was in a safe place hundreds of miles from the front, and for that he was grateful.
He would just have to ask Valeev instead.
As he leapt down from the BMP, he noticed a pair of boots protruding from the rear doors. He stomped around to find Sergeant Kholodov sat in one of the seats that lined the middle of the troop compartment, facing out through a gun port in the side. His sleeves were rolled up, pencil and paper in hand.
At the sight of his superior, Kholodov thrust the paper away, not quite quick enough to hide a sketch of the forest beyond the fence.
"That doesn't look like weapons maintenance to me," Rakovich growled.
"No, sir." Kholodov bolted upright, banged his head against the ceiling, and smiled sheepishly. He was a pretty bastard, Rakovich would give him that, with his blond hair and his boyish looks. Probably had women all over him back home. But pretty looks didn't get a man anywhere in Rakovich's platoon. "I was just —"
"You were slacking off again." Rakovich stepped inside the vehicle, grabbed a fistful of that pretty blond hair, and hauled the sergeant up against the wall. There wasn't much space around the seats, nowhere for Kholodov to try to squirm into. "You might be an artist back home, Kholodov. You might be the finest talent in Moscow for all I care. But out here you're just one more soldier like the rest of us. And I'm not letting those other poor bastards die because of your laziness. So see to your guns, see to your transport, and see to your men."
He knocked Kholodov's head back against the wall one last time, then strode away.
"And next time tuck your fucking shirt in," he called back as he went.
* * *
Rakovich had set up the private lounge on their first day on base. Trying to get the lay of the land, he'd noticed a door ajar and gone inside. There he'd found a dusty office half filled with abandoned furniture. A couple of hours of hauling out broken chairs and rearranging what remained had created a comfortable space to retreat to, as long as you ignored the slightly odd smells from a stained sofa and mismatched armchairs. The simple expedient of an "AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY" sign kept out everyone except Rakovich and the people he liked, which amounted to Zimyatov and a couple of sergeants from third company. He had considered inviting some of the men from his platoon, like Akayev, the crazy Kyrgyzstani driver, or Obolensky, second section's medic. But inviting one of them in risked opening the floodgates to the rest. Besides, he was in a position of command now, and his socialising should reflect that.
Third company had shipped out ahead of the rest, to start preparing positions along the front line, so this evening it was just him and Zimyatov in their hidden club house. A small black and white TV was on in one corner, showing a football match. Zimyatov, half an eye always on the game, poured them both tea and added a slug of vodka, while Rakovich dealt cards onto a coffee table.
"Are your boys ready?" Rakovich asked as he put the remains of the deck down.
"Ready as they'll ever be. Rebane's been bitching about not having enough ammunition for the cannon, but Niyazi has a contact in supplies who claims he can sort us out. How are the rest of them?"
"Kholodov thinks he's still at art school and Zinoviev's so dim he can barely hit the ground with his own arse. When I'm not forcing one of them to do his job I'm telling the other how to do his. But fuck it, they can point a gun, they're good enough to fight for Mother Russia."
"The mighty Red Army, the world's greatest fighting force."
"I assume all the capitalist soldiers are children and cardboard cutouts."
"That would make the firing range more realistic."
"It might even make our commanders look competent."
"Oh come on!" Zimyatov leapt from his seat and shouted at the TV. "That was clearly a foul!"
"Are you here to watch or to play?"
"A bit of both."
Zimyatov sat back down and took a good gulp of tea. Then they picked up their cards and started to play.
Outside the dirt-smeared window, a truck rolled past, laden down with parts and ammunition. Bit by bit, the whole base was emptying out, depositing its contents across what would soon be the fighting front. It seemed strange to Rakovich that they could still sit like this, their lives peaceful and normal, when death and destruction lay less than forty-eight hours away. But he supposed that this was how it had always been, from ancient Sparta through to the Great Patriotic War. Long stretches of quiet before the time of destruction came.
"I was talking with Tatyana yesterday," Zimyatov said, looking from his hand to the TV and back again. "She mentioned you and Anna."
Rakovich frowned. Even with his best friend, this wasn't a topic he knew how to talk about.
"My sister has no respect for what I do. She's happy to waste the life our mother gave her on parties and idle chatter."
"Sometimes idle chatter is good. Even you crack a joke from time to time."
"I'm the funniest fucker on this base. Just give me a clown nose and I could do children's parties. But there's a difference between enjoying life and dedicating it to your own pleasure."
"I can't imagine why she finds you judgemental and condescending."
"And I can't imagine why more people don't tell you what's on their mind."
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Zimyatov shook a fist at the TV, then turned back to Rakovich. "Sorry, you're right. Guess we're not great listeners in my family."
He poured more vodka into his tea, but Rakovich held out a hand over the top of his cup.
"No more for me. And you should consider how much you drink — you're going to need a clear head."
"This is nothing. I could have half the bottle and still be fine tomorrow."
"So could your father. Do you want to end up like him?"
Zimyatov froze, the bottle still inches above Rakovich's cup. They stared at each other and the corner of Zimyatov's eye twitched.
"I'm sorry," Rakovich said, looking away. "That was —"
"That was what I needed." Zimyatov put the stopper in the bottle and rolled it away into a corner of the room. "You're right, and sometimes I need you to be right even when I don't want to hear it."
Rakovich scooped up the cards and shuffled them, using another round to move the conversation on.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bear's Claws"
Copyright © 2019 Andrew Knighton and Russell Phillips.
Excerpted by permission of Shilka Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter One: The Will of the People,
Chapter Two: Before the War,
Chapter Three: Politics and Pickles,
Chapter Four: The Face of Battle,
Chapter Five: A Long Night,
Chapter Six: Keep Moving,
Chapter Seven: River Crossing,
Chapter Eight: House to House,
Chapter Nine: Discipline,
Chapter Ten: Dissidents,
Chapter Eleven: Death from Above,
Chapter Twelve: Professor Hofmann,
Chapter Thirteen: Bad Faith,
Chapter Fourteen: Running from Trouble,
Chapter Fifteen: Breakthrough,
Chapter Sixteen: Backup,
Chapter Seventeen: Captain Hare,
Chapter Eighteen: Keeping Hope Alive,
Chapter Nineteen: The Minefield,
Chapter Twenty: Around Dusk,
Chapter Twenty-One: Little Things,
Chapter Twenty-Two: Enemies of the State,
Chapter Twenty-Three: Amid the Dead,
Chapter Twenty-Four: Heroes,
Chapter Twenty-Five: Out of the Woods,
Chapter Twenty-Six: Worth Dying For,
Chapter Twenty-Seven: Secrets and Lies,
Chapter Twenty-Eight: Prisoners of War,
Chapter Twenty-Nine: A Moment in the Rain,
Chapter Thirty: Live Like Germans,
Chapter Thirty-One: A City Rewritten,
Chapter Thirty-Two: The Shadow of a Cloud,
Chapter Thirty-Three: What We Do Now,
About the Authors,