Yes, Volodya, Volodya. Where to start? At the beginning, I suppose.
Volodya and Anya met me off the Moscow train and, before we headed to their flat, Volodya said he’d like to introduce me to one of his friends. Outside the entrance to his friend’s flat, he told me I was on no account to say I was from Ireland. I was to pretend to be Estonian.
So, in we went and Volodya introduced me as Alexander from Tallinn. His friend asked me in a theatrical voice how my trip was and I said fine; was this my first time in Kiev? yes, it was indeed… All this, while Volodya was busy scribbling and exchanging notes with the host, telling him who I really was – an Irish student come down to Kiev on an unauthorised trip – and, I presume, dealing with whatever other clandestine business they had to get through.
Later on in the metro Volodya explained – though I got it straight away – that his friend’s flat was being bugged by the KGB.
It was the sort of thing that happened a lot over the following few days, Volodya explaining the blindingly obvious, such as he time he brought me to a meeting of Ukrainian nationalists, some of whom, to my ear, were speaking not so much Ukrainian as Russian, with some Ukrainian words thrown in.
Whatever it was, I understood it without difficulty, but Volodya whispered in my ear that they were speaking Ukrainian and insisted on translating everything simultaneously into Russian.
As we emerged from the metro Volodya doffed his cap and gave a broad smile to a middle-aged man in a dark overcoat, who had emerged at the same time, but was walking off in the opposite direction.
‘That man there’s a KGB general,’ he said, and I began to get nervous, especially after what he then told me had happened the day before my arrival, the day, in fact, when I was supposed to arrive.
Apparently, the KGB had sprayed their apartment door with a deadly poison that activated once you touched it. He and Anya had escaped certain death thanks only to the vigilance of the concierge, who had spotted two suspicious characters enter their building, go upstairs and leave several minutes later. The concierge herself then went upstairs, but when she reached the door of Volodya and Anya’s flat, she was overcome by fumes and collapsed into a heap.
Someone from another flat further upstairs heard the thud, came down and carried her out of the building. This someone had the presence of mind to tell everyone to evacuate the building, opening all the windows in the landing area on their way down.
And then Volodya arrived. To his credit he didn’t panic. When the neighbours told him what had happened, he calmly asked for a bucket, some detergent and a cloth, tied a handkerchief round his face and entered the building. Ten minutes later he was back. Thanking the neighbours for their help, he returned the bucket and cloth and informed everyone the emergency was past.
The story was so bizarre I believed it. I was just surprised Volodya and Anya weren’t in a state of deep shock. Volodya, in particular, seemed to take it in his stride.
But Volodya was that sort of guy. Nothing threw him.
And then there was the story with the Pope…