Maskirovka

In 1961 the world held its breath as Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin became the  first man to orbit the earth but behind this supreme achievement lay a story of lies, betrayal and deceit...

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PROLOGUE 17th August 1960 Stockholm

“What on Earth’s going on Lenny old man?”

Leonard ‘Lenny’ Goldstein, chief science correspondent of the Manhattan Globe turned his head sharply to see who was interrupting his thoughts. The owner of the strange transatlantic vowels was Simon Marchebanks, Goldstein’s counterpart at what the Brooklyn born New Yorker insisted on calling The London Times. Goldstein blinked in recognition of his opposite number; with his large horn rimmed spectacles and oversized girth, Goldstein looked like an owl trying to digest a particularly large mouse.

“Whatever it is, I guess ‘Earth’ will have nothing to do with it,” he said with a grin. Marchebanks laughed dutifully but before he could think of a reply worthy of Wilde, Shaw or another of his countrymen, a smart young woman with mica blonde hair and dressed in an immaculate blue blazer, white pleated skirt and tennis shoes, tugged at his elbow.

“This way please, the conference is beginning I think,” she cooed and pointed towards a pair of heavily varnished pine doors at the far end of the lobby. Marchebanks and Goldstein followed each other into the lecture hall as eagerly as students usually left it.

This particular lecture hall belonged to the University of Stockholm’s physics department and looked like any other such facility found on university campuses across the world. Windows at ceiling height let in the weakening sun of a late Swedish summer, the walls were covered in studious white paint whilst the steeply raked, and highly uncomfortable, wooden benches and desks were arranged in a semi circle in front of the speaker’s platform. Yet, for all the standardised similarity, there were two features that, on this day at least, distinguished this lecture hall from any other.

Firstly, the wide-eyed audience, hoping to hear the mysteries of the universe explained, did not consist of bemused undergraduates but of journalists from the world’s media and academics from the world’s universities. Secondly, instead of the customary lectern or slide projector, the speaker’s platform sported a long table covered in a handsome dark blue cloth. To add an air of authority to the proceedings, the front of the table’s cloth bore the badge of the newly constituted International Academy of Astronautics and amidst the neatly spaced water carafes and snow white blotters, there was a jumble of microphones from a dozen different news agencies and TV networks. Behind the table, obscuring the lecture hall’s dusty blackboards, was an enormous red flag emblazoned with the golden hammer and sickle crest of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Marchebanks looked at Goldstein and both understood each other’s thoughts immediately. Whatever it was that was about to be announced, had to be important - very important indeed.

“Ladies and gentleman of the international press,” intoned a disembodied voice from the hall’s recently installed public address system, “I have great pleasure in introducing General Gennady Arkadyevich Blagonravov, the Soviet Union’s representative to the United Nations' Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, member of the International Astronautics Federation and founder academician of the new International Academy of Astronautics.”

Flash bulbs popped and a ripple of polite applause welcomed the General and several of his staff into the hall. The General’s olive green military tunic was ablaze with medal ribbons and gold braid yet the army uniform could not conceal the fact that the white haired, 66 year old looked exactly like the rocket engineer he really was.

Marchebanks, who prided himself on his encyclopaedic knowledge of both the Russian and American space programmes, ran through his mental file of Soviet personnel. It took a second or two before he recalled that Blagonravov was the public face of Communism’s assault on the cosmos. He was genial, affable and regarded by Kremlin watchers as a high priest in Nikita Khrushchev’s cult of peaceful co-existence with the West. Blagonravov was, Marchebanks thought, the perfect choice to host an important announcement to the western press.

The General’s staff filed on to the dais, carefully pulled the neatly positioned chairs back from the long table and sat down but the General himself, despite his advancing years, did not sit. Also standing, were two burly looking men in ill-cut suits whom everyone assumed to be Blagonravov’s babysitters from the KGB. They took their place at the rear of platform and stood motionless, like heraldic beasts supporting a coat of arms, whilst Blagonravov excitedly arranged some papers in front of the microphones. His audience fidgeted nervously with ball point pens and jotter pads until the General looked up and silenced the room with a beaming smile. As soon as the hall was properly hushed, he began to speak in faultless, though highly accented, English.

“Esteemed representatives of the Fourth Estate, may I welcome you all to this, the 11th Congress of the International Astronautics Federation. Ladies and Gentleman this is truly an historic day, not only has the IAF taken the bold step of establishing a daughter institution to aid mankind in the peaceful exploration of the universe beyond our own world, namely the Academy of which I am proud to be listed amongst its first members...”

“Jeez,” whispered Goldstein in Marchebanks’ ear, “I hope this character hasn’t gone to the Fidel Castro school of public speaking, some of the Big Beard’s speeches go on for five or six hours and I got a deadline!” The normally phlegmatic Times correspondent had difficulty in stifling a giggle.

“...But also,” the General continued, in the flowery rhetoric required of all official Soviet spokesmen, “I want to appraise the world’s press of a truly momentous event in the history of humankind that will take place on the 27th of September in this historic year of 1960. As I am sure you will appreciate, the preparations for such a landmark in mankind’s development have to be conducted in the greatest secrecy, and therefore I am not yet at liberty to divulge precisely what this event will be. All I can say is that it will be a milestone on the road to the stars and you may rest assured your editors and producers will want to hold their front pages and clear their television schedules to tell the world of another triumph for the Soviet Union’s peaceful development of Outer Space! Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, I am sorry but there will not be time for questions.”

The General picked up his papers and began to stroll off the platform with all the satisfaction of a child who has thrown a brick into a beehive. For a moment the hall was stunned into silence by the brevity of his ‘historic’ announcement but in an instant the room dissolved into a chaos of noise and waving arms.

“Aw General, give us a break!” bawled Goldstein, adding his powerful voice, honed to ear-splitting perfection by years of hailing Manhattan taxi cabs, to the clamour for more information but the General had already left the room. In frustration, Goldstein flopped back onto his seat.

“Shady think they’re up to Simon?”

Marchebanks was silent for a moment. He ran his fingers through his thinning brown hair as if trying to comb the puzzlement from his mind.

“I’m not sure,” he finally admitted. Suddenly Marchebanks leaned over the bench and tapped the person sitting in front of him on the shoulder.

“David! It’s David Martin isn’t it?”

The man seated in front of Marchebanks turned his shock of ginger hair, hair so curly no brush could ever tame it, to look at his inquisitor.

“Yes that’s right. Who are... oh, hullo Simon.”

“How things at the University of t’ frozen North?” Marchebanks grinned, doing his best to imitate a Lancashire accent.

“Manchester’s just fine thank you...” replied Martin politely.

“I read your analysis of Russian fuelling systems in The Journal of Rocketry. Interesting stuff, however did you get the Soviets to let you in on their secrets?”

Goldstein couldn’t tell whether the ruddy faced David Martin was blushing or not but the removal and ritual polish of his glasses indicated the scientist, and occasional contributor to academic journals, was deeply embarrassed by the praise.

“Thank you, but I thought I had made it clear in the article it was all supposition and conjecture, I have no direct line to the Chief Designer,” he stammered.

“So Mr Martin,” interrupted Goldstein, somewhat irritated at being ignored by the Britons and wishing to return to the matter in hand.

“It’s Professor Martin,” corrected Simon Marchebanks teasingly, “David is Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at Manchester University, his particular speciality is rocket motors, isn’t that right David?”. Goldstein blinked his most owl like blink. David Martin looked far too young to be a student let alone a professor.

“You Brits and your goddamn titles,” groaned Goldstein, but he corrected himself none the less. “Sorry, Professor Martin. So whaddya make of this little piece of Soviet theatre?”

Goldstein waved his hand around the rapidly emptying lecture hall. Martin replaced his glasses and then rubbed the nape of his neck with a thin, almost feminine hand.

“I think the Soviets have learned a thing or two from you Americans about public relations,” said Martin with a smile. “Remember the brouhaha that followed the announcement of your Mercury missions last year?”

Marchebanks nodded in agreement with the academic. He had also attended the Mercury Project press conference held at Washington DC’s Dolly Madison House. Press conference? Actually, it had been more like a Hollywood premiere. Seven men, fearless test pilots full to the brim with ‘the right stuff’, had been led blinking like frightened rabbits into the spotlight of world fame. These seven men were America’s new breed of pioneers; they were the men who would tame the new frontier of the space age but, most importantly of all, they were the modern gladiators who would duel with the anonymous Soviet robots for the ultimate prize - the immortality of being remembered as the first man in space.

“Yes David, I think you have it,” smiled Marchebanks.

“I don’t follow?” replied a puzzled Goldstein, making no attempt to hide his annoyance at the parlour games these Englishmen were playing.

“The fact that Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, will be in New York addressing the United Nations on the 27th of September can’t be a coincidence,” said Marchebanks with deliberate formality. “Remember last year when, they chose the same time and place to announce Luna III?”

Goldstein nodded, how could he forget? He had been proud of his feature on the success of the Soviet moon probe. He had written in glowing terms of the tremendous human achievement in creating the first man made object to reach another heavenly body but his fulsome praise for a Soviet success had sent Ed Flagler, his fervently anti-communist editor, into paroxysms of rage. Flagler had accused his science writer of being everything from the Rosenberg’s long lost cousin to Mao Tse Tung’s secret lover. The hapless Goldstein had left Flagler’s office in no doubt that, if Senator McCarthy’s anti-red witch hunts were still around, he would have been hauled in front of a House Committee faster than a Kennedy accepts an invitation to appear on TV.

“I think,” continued Marchebanks, interrupting Goldstein’s less than happy memories, “I think that our Russian friends are planning the first manned space flight for the 27th of September. Another Russian boffin, Sedov I think it was, hinted as much last week in speech he made in Berlin. I am sorry Lenny old boy but I rather fear Ivan Ivanovitch will beat your Uncle Sam into space.”

The American groaned and rolled his eyes heavenward. He knew precisely how his editor would react to that piece of news but Goldstein was not entirely correct in his pessimism.
****
True enough, on the fateful day, Ed Flagler did indeed summon up a whole dictionary of expletives with which to curse his luckless reporter but the editor’s ire was not caused by news of another Soviet success in Space. Flagler had to retire to his office to nurse his peptic ulcer because Lenny Goldstein had left him with a completely blank front page. In fairness, it wasn’t entirely Lenny’s fault and he was not alone. On that day, newspaper editors all over the world had to frantically rewrite their lead stories and rearrange their headlines because on September 27th 1960, as far as the Space Race was concerned, nothing happened. Nothing at all...