Excerpt: "The Guardians of Stavka: The Deadly Hunt for Romanov Gold in Canada."


Georgia, Russia. Summer - 1894

Ilya Nikolayevich Orlov squinted at the bright morning sun bursting across the high Caucasus. Already the intense heat waves were shimmering and dancing across the dried stubbly hay fields and the ripening fat golden wheat in the distance. Occasionally a rebel breeze born among the lofty distant snow covered peaks, swept down the gullies and ravines and brought welcome relief to the townspeople of Gori.

The l4 year old boy loved the mountains, so massive and rugged, so proud and nonconforming. Pushing back a mop of fair hair, tinged almost imperceptibly with red, he shaded his pale face and light blue eyes unaware these features isolated him from the other townsfolk. They were all dark skinned, their eyes were dark brown, almost black, and their heavy features were reminiscent of the Turks, Iranians and other Middle Eastern people living to the south.

The boy was a northerner. His long legs pumped him effortlessly along the dusty street. Two men, one attired in the traditional Caucasian tunic and the cape of a shepherd, argued noisily outside the inn over the cost of replacing a sheep killed by a horse and cart. Fascinated and unconscious of his path the youth collided with two elderly women, one of whom carried an old metal milk churn.

"Hey! Are you rich enough to spill milk?" the heavy woman cried, winking broadly at her equally heavy friend.

"It's the teacher's son," remarked the other, her dark Georgian features full of warm adulatory smiles. Everyone knew the boy was a brilliant student. "What have you learned today, Ilya Nikolayevich?"

The boy flashed a polite smile. "Nothing!" Then not wishing to appear rude or terse, he added, "School is finished for the summer."

The woman really did not care a sow's ear about Ilya's education but referred to the fact his father held the esteemed post of Russian teacher at the school. No one cared for Russian. They saw no need for it. The old Ossetic Georgian language had served them for centuries through countless invasions wars and occupations.

However, since Georgia, the rugged Caucasian land squeezed between the Black Sea in the west and the Caspian Sea in the east was now annexed to the great Russian Empire, the law required that every school student must learn Russian. Russification, they called it, and Ilya's father taught the language in the old two level pink sandstone school. He had taught Russian as long as Ilya could remember. The boy liked that. Teachers and priests carried considerable importance.

Ilya had been born in the rugged picturesque valley town of Gori which flanks the fast flowing Kura River. His mother, a native Georgian, was a fine upright woman of disciplined working stock who still felt uneasy in the presence of landowners or nobility. Her father had once been a serf in some northern village.

The boy's father was tall, refined and delicate and most people respected him not only for his profession, teaching, but for his breeding. Nikolas Orlov was unmistakably an aristocrat. Poor, yes, but still an aristocrat. The Gori townspeople failed to understand Orlov senior.

"They say he was embroiled in a terrible scandal," said the clockmaker a prominent rumourmonger. "A seduction! The wife of a prince! Orlov was personally exiled by the Tsar."

Years later Ilya discovered the truth about his father. Among the Hussars of the Guard a bond of support was an unwritten rule among the officers. Many families whose sons served with distinction in elite regiments were forced to sell valuables, livestock, even property so that their officer-sons could assist brother officers in distress. Gambling was usually the most disastrous pitfall for creating enormous debts.

Nikolas Orlov had been a young Hussars officer. He had served with distinction and valour in the Polish uprisings. One day, a senior officer, a prince, ran into substantial debts. Half a million roubles! He was unable to repay it. When creditors threatened exposure brother officers raised the necessary money. Honour was maintained but the repercussions were disastrous. Twelve officers declared bankruptcy and were forced to leave the service. Cornet or Second Lieutenant Nikolas Orlov was one of them.

Ilya often heard his father talk fondly and nostalgically about St. Petersburg, the capital city far to the north with its wide boulevards, grand palaces, towering ornate churches, great bridges and magnificent homes. Ilya's mother hated to hear such talk. She had never left Georgia. Tiflis and Baku were the far limits of her world. Anything else was totally alien.

Ilya pushed through the hot crowded market with its heavy aromas of spices and coffees. The fortunate were buying vegetables meats and delicacies such as pheasant octopus and caviar, while the unfortunate stared with hungry and resigned eyes and then quietly went home to bread and onions and the occasional luxury of a boiled potato. The narrow dusty street wound up the hill through a maze of small shops from where one could see the ancient fortress perched on a rocky hillock.

Outside the school a group of youngsters was shouting furiously and goading two of their kind to greater acts of brutality in a fist fight. For a moment the fighters stood there, clenched and bloodied fists held poised. Their dark scowling faces were lined with sweat while smouldering black eyes regarded each other with murderous hostility.

Ilya immediately recognized one fighter, his friend Soso. The other boy was a stranger, an Armenian, said someone, from the other side of town. No one liked the Armenians. "Punch the chicken-head," screamed someone. Soso lashed out. His small steel fist hammered the other boy's swollen face. A fist sliced back. Soso anticipated it and warded it away easily with an arm.

Smack! With lightning delivery his fist ploughed into the Armenian's right eye. Blood trickled down. The crowd became incensed.

"Kill the chicken-head," yelled a boy close by.

Ilya immediately recognized his friend Lado Komadze and quickly pushed through the crowd to his side.
"Soso's a great fighter," said Lado with a grin. "Truly, he is a master of punishment."
The crowd roared with delight as Soso despatched a series of devastating punches to the other boy's face chest and stomach. Gasping and screaming for air, the youngster staggered away to the merciless jeers of the spectators. Soso, breathing heavily, his face bathed in perspiration that accentuated the smallpox scars, came and leaned on his friends and paused to collect himself.

"What happened?" Ilya asked as the three walked down the hill towards the river.
"Nothing!" Soso was a youngster of few words. "Nothing happened."
"Aw! Come on," insisted Ilya, grinning. "What happened?"

"Nothing!" Lado chipped in quickly. "The chicken-head was a Jew. That's all. It's of no importance. Jews aren't important."

Outwardly, Ilya appeared amused at their strange and blunt logic. Inwardly, he admitted he would never understand these Georgians in spite of many years of close friendship in which they had played, studied, adventured and sung together. They enjoyed doing things together whether it was a trek to a battered fortress on a remote hilltop, a swim in the river, a lazy afternoon in the orchard reading books or staging wrestling contests in the hay barn. Soso always won at wrestling.

Until recently when their voices had finally broken, they had performed regularly in the choir of the Georgian Orthodox Cathedral. Their shrill melodic voices pure and perfect like a heavenly chorus enchanted the congregation.
Soso's mother, a seamstress whose cobbler husband had deserted her for work in Tiflis, always had tears of joy when Soso performed solos.

"My heart is so proud of you, Joseph," she said, using his proper name. "You will make a good priest, my son. God will bless you."
The lad always displayed a remote detached air whenever his mother mentioned the priesthood which was quite often.

"Let's go swimming," cried Soso suddenly, tossing back his long black hair. "My body is burning and the river will refresh us."

"It's too fast," said Lado as he tossed a small stone in the direction of some grazing sheep. "The summer melt is furious this year."

Soso grinned challengingly. "Scared?"

"Me? No!"

"You want to stay with the Jewish bastard? Make friends with your father's murderers?" Soso put the questions quietly, knowing full well they hurt Lado whose father had been ruined and driven to suicide in Tiflis. People blamed the Jews. It was easier than blaming alcohol. He hated anything Jewish.

Lado was short like Soso. Ilya towered over both of them. However, Lado was thin and not very strong unlike the tough muscular Soso who frequently boasted and demonstrated his physical prowess. Lado for the most part was a silent youngster, an observer, a follower. Schoolmates suggested Lado was abnormally intelligent because he appeared to spend most of his time absorbed in thought. Others felt he had little intelligence and therefore had nothing to say. In spite of this the teachers and priests at the Gori Theological School decided that silence in a boy was an unwholesome quality.

"There's something wrong with that Lado Komadze," said a priest. "Something bad. Why can't he be like that young Soso? Now there's a good intelligent boy."

The other priest smiled approval. "Little Joseph Dzhugashvili? A clever lad that one. Nevertheless he has a strange inclination -- always reading dangerous books. School Inspector Butyrsky says he caught the boy reading books by Chonadze, Chavchavadze and Kazbegi -- all fervent Georgian nationalists."

The older priest stroked his long white beard. "Soso is predictable. He worships heroes, warriors, fighters...and God. He'll go far. The other boy? I'm not so sure."


The older priest nodded. "Lado is much too moody. Those black eyes hold fires of anger. He could be dangerous."

"Come now! Don't imagine things. Admittedly Lado is intense but not dangerous."

Ilya had overheard the priests' conversation and moved on troubled that adults -- no, men of God, -- had so freely and unfairly criticized his two close friends. They did not understand Lado that's all, he told himself.

The friendship that existed between the three boys had matured over many years longer than any of them could remember. They were all born in the same month, December 1879 and had played, gone to school and become friends as they grew up. Now in the hot summer of 1894 they were fourteen years old and getting ready to go to the higher schools to learn a trade or a profession. The three boys moved away from the little white houses with their red tiled roofs wooden balconies and rickety steps and walked through the long dry grass lining the banks of the Kura River.

"You see," cried Lado jubilantly, "the water is much too fast for swimming."

Soso's dark eyes peered from under the thick black hair draped across his forehead. He watched the river with silent apprehension. It was fast, very fast, but he was not prepared to show concern let along alarm or cowardice. "The river is like that snotty bitch with the large breasts that roasts her fat haunches by the school stove. Both must be made to succumb to power." The others never argued with Soso when he talked of power.

"Let's move down river towards the trees," cried Soso pointing towards a cluster of brilliant green and silver birch. He kicked off his boots and trousers, tossed his shirt to the ground and wearing only rough cotton undergarments, slipped through the reeds into the water.

Lado followed closely then gasped. "The water! It's direct from the devil's icebox."

"It has power! It purifies! It cleanses the body and the mind," cried Soso. Suddenly he turned and spotted Ilya's lanky body still fully clothed reclining in the shade of a birch. "What makes you so special, Your Highness?"

Ilya flinched. Little Joe rarely mentioned the Orlov's origin and their aristocratic connections at St. Petersburg except in an angry outburst.
Ilya ignored the sarcasm. "Go and swim! I'll stand guard over your clothes...in case brigands come down from the mountains." The youth mustered a smile, but it was true. Bands of brigands still made occasional raids on villagers and travellers.

The boy lay there, his pale blue eyes regarding the rugged inhospitable mountains thrusting themselves up against the clear blue sky. Deep in those mountains among the valleys and on the grassy plateau reigned remnants of wild and violent tribes some of whom were still attired in ancient medieval doublets with embroidered crosses, long woollen stockings, blouses with puffed sleeves and hair trimmed with heavy fringes.

When they plunged into battle they were armed with heavy chain mail and their hands clutched heavy swords and shields. Known as the Ingushi these peculiar tribes were said to be living descendants of the European crusaders who battled the infidels at Jerusalem centuries before. How could such people exist in complete isolation for hundreds of years? It baffled and intrigued the youngster and he never tired of listening to Georgians tell stories of the battling Ingushi.

The two boys, their black heads glistening in the sun, swam down and across the strong current to conserve energy and had now reached the other bank. They waved as they scrambled breathlessly through the long grass. Some goats grazing nearby suddenly scattered, bleating with alarm. Ilya could see the boys standing by a fallen tree. They talked animatedly and shivered while attempting to dry their bodies in the sun. Soso repeatedly hugged his left arm.

During the crowded Easter services two years before, the boys had been singing with the choir outside the Orthodox Church. Various affluent landowners naturally tethered their horses and carriages close to the stone water troughs in the square. One thoughtless man left his horse and carriage parked alone on the hill above the church. Tired, the animal knocked over a bucket which had frightened a dog which in turn had raced forward to snap at the horse's legs. Terrified, the animal had reared and bolted. The carriage harness snapped and the vehicle hurtled down the hill straight towards the choir and congregation. "Run! Run for your lives!" shouted someone.

People screamed and fled helter skelter in all directions. Nobody was killed but four were injured. One was Soso. A carriage wheel ran over the youngster's left arm. The injuries took months to heal and left the lad with a permanently shortened arm that he would attempt to hide for the rest of his life.

A shout!

Ilya looked up. The two boys were again mid-stream and in trouble. He could see them clutching each other. Their heads appeared as one. Lado screamed something. The message was lost in the wind. Up on his feet, his face suddenly pale and drawn, Ilya raced to the river bank. He felt totally helpless. Soso broke away from Lado and struck out senselessly downstream. Then, correcting his course, he started for the bank but a moment later slipped from view under the fast running water.

"Wait! Soso! Wait!" Lado screamed desperately. He dived under. For a moment, his long, skinny legs waved futilely above water. Then he too was gone into the depths of the bitterly cold water direct from the melted snow on the high Caucasus.

Ilya clenched his fists and stared. If only he could swim. If only he had learned. Anguish and embarrassment ripped through his troubled mind. Suddenly, Lado surfaced coughing and spluttering. In his arms was the blue-white lifeless Soso.

"Ilya, get help! I can't hold him much longer," he cried. He jerked his head around in a desperate attempt to see something, a log, a boat, a tree branch. Something on which he could hold. There was nothing. "Get help! For God's sake, help us!"

The current was sweeping the two boys down river and away from the town reducing chances of getting adult assistance. Ilya raced along the river bank, his eyes scanning everywhere for possible help, possible solutions. If only his mind would stop panicking. God, how he wanted to run away. It would be easy. Forget the whole thing. It was an accident. No, I saw nothing. Anyway, they had been warned.

Ilya broke through some bushes and entered a clearing. Several wooden boats were up-turned on the grass. "Hello! Anyone here?" He screamed the question at two old stone cottages. No response.

He ran to the boats and picked the smallest. It was an old wooden skiff used by farmers to haul produce and supplies across the river. Damnation! It was heavy. Incredibly heavy! He could hardly move the thing let alone turn it over and drag it 20 paces to the river. He struggled with the boat until the veins on his arms and neck seemed ready to burst.

Then he spotted the rope coiled neatly underneath the boat. In a flash, he raced down to the river. Lado and Soso were almost opposite, perhaps 25 metres away and moving away quickly. Both were suffering severe cramps and groaning in agony as they clung to each other for survival.

A chunk of wood! Ilya wrapped two strands around it and tied a knot. Waving it wildly about his head he tossed it with all his might. It splashed down well beyond the direction of the two boys but the current swept them into it.

Lado immediately seized the rope. "Soso's dead!" he cried. "He's stopped breathing!"

"Don't say such things," cried Ilya quickly.

"The cold. It's killed him."

"Shut your mouth!" admonished Ilya. "Hold on while I pull."

His hands tightened on the rope. Immediately he felt the current and the weight of the two boys. It was impossible to hold. Twice his bare feet slipped in the soft sand. Then he spotted help. An old piling. A wooden stake, driven into the bank. Feverishly, he raced across and wrapped the rope around it and tied a knot. Moments later the rope jerked tight under the strain of the boys' weight. Ilya, free of the rope, rushed into the water.

"Don't let go," he cried wildly. "I'm coming. I'm coming." The solid earth was no longer there for his feet. Kicking out at the bitterly cold water he tried moving his arms the way the boys had shown him. Gulping mouthfuls of water, coughing and spluttering, he reached his friends.

"Come...let's get him to the shore," he cried and Lado now shivering and very pale smiled bleakly. Unknown to the boys the current had naturally swung the attached rope in towards the shore.

"Take him! Pull him up," muttered Lado.

They dragged Soso onto the grass. "There's water coming from his mouth," cried Ilya alarmed.

"Hold him upside down."

Ilya seized his legs and stood up. Water drained from the youngster's mouth and nose but there were no signs of life. Lado sank to his knees and started pounding Soso's chest with his fists.

"My God! What are you doing?" demanded Ilya.

"Damn it! I don't know," screamed Lado, tears rolling down his white shivering face. "Damn it! I don't know. He's my friend. I don't know."

Suddenly Little Joe started to cough. The sound came as a miracle. A blessed relief. They stared in sheer amazement. Then they started smiling.

Later when they had dressed and Ilya had dried out his clothes they sat under the birch trees looking at the Kura River and the field beyond with its ripening wheat and barley and beyond an apple orchard and vineyard and in the distance the blue hazy mountains.

They said nothing for a long time. The brush with death and the narrow escape had shattered their confidence and rudely jerked them back into the harsh reality of life. Finally Soso spoke his mind.

"A man could not want for better brothers than the two I have today," he said slowly, his gruff broken voice now deeper than ever. "In the great Kura I was confronted by death and found it ugly and terrifying and my heart trembled with great fear. In addition, today I have found supreme dedication, comradeship and brotherly love."

The two boys felt uncomfortable.

"It's not necessary to say such things," said Lado as he held his aching head. "It's not necessary."

Soso ignored him. "Whatever happens in the days and years to come, whatever our destinies, we shall always remain what we are this day -- brothers!" He stared at Ilya.

"Brothers," said the teacher's son with a satisfied feeling of pride and accomplishment. He grinned easily.

Soso stared at Lado.

"Brothers," said the youngster as he stared at Soso with glowing admiration. "How is it that you have such a wonderful way with words? Of course we are brothers."

"Yes," said Ilya feeling pleased. "Brothers. We shall always be brothers."

One month later in the summer of 1894 the brotherly trio split up. Nikolas Orlov was persuaded by a rich and influential noble uncle to send young Ilya to St. Petersburg where he would receive a "proper education in keeping with his breeding."

In the years that followed Ilya Nikolayevich Orlov followed a colourful and distinguished military career in the elite Imperial Guards serving the Tsar and the Imperial Family.

When he departed the town of Gori on that hot summer's day in 1894, fighting to hold back welling tears, the youngster had no idea that the events in his life would be connected with those two scruffy, black haired Georgian youngsters -the brothers -- he was leaving behind.

Once more in his life, in the spring of l9l7, he would meet Lado Komadze under vastly different circumstances. Lado would become a dedicated Bolshevik working under a fanatical disciplinarian named Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the CHEKA, the dreaded new Soviet State's Security Apparatus.

Ilya never saw Soso or Joe Dzhugashvili again, but his influence plagued him all his life. After the youngster entered the Theological College in Tiflis where his mother wanted him to train as a priest, Soso changed his name to Koba in honour of the Georgian nationalist guerrilla who had battled the Russian overlords. At the same time he joined the growing Bolshevik movement.

With a remarkable ability to use words, he quickly became a forceful revolutionary, writer and agitator. It was a power not to be ignored. The Russian word for steel is "stal." In l9l2 the youngster from Gori again changed his name. This time to Stalin. Joseph Stalin.

Author's note: I enjoyed writing this adventure immensely and you can read the rest of it either in book form or as an ebook. As always, I always enjoy hearing from readers, so please drop me a line afterwards, and if you feel like it, write a review on Amazon either in the U.S. or U.K. Happy reading! Robert

Copyright: Robert Egby -- 2011

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