In the early 1990s, and for nearly a decade, I was a civilian contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense, assigned first in Belarus and, later, in Kazakhstan. My job was to assist in the dismantlement of weapons of mass destruction. Overall, the initiative was to eradicate nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western world discovered that the Soviet Union had over 10,000 nuclear weapons and tons of deadly biological and chemical stockpiles. My job in Belarus involved deconstructing some of the more standard weapons of war, for example, the conversion of a military plant making laser guidance systems to commercial use.

I have waited over twenty years (and the publication of six novels) to write Black Wolf, which chronicles some of my experiences in what was formerly Soviet Byelorussia. Some of my hesitation in writing a Russian spy novel was the perception that Russia had ceased to be our number one enemy. They had come to be seen as a potential ally to Western interests. The threat of nuclear attack was coming from different parts of the world. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2022 has perhaps irrevocably changed that perception. 

Soon after I arrived in Minsk, I became aware that seventy percent of the country had been irradiated by Chernobyl – which meant that the soil, the water, and even the air we breathed was still contaminated. The worry over the long-term effects of the toxic environment was constant. I knew that the KGB would always be listening and watching. My phone calls would be recorded, the mirrors in the hotels would often be two-way, and every translator and guide would be working with Soviet intelligence. I had also been made aware by our defense contacts that hostile entities such as Iran were keenly interested in acquiring nuclear weapons or fissionable material. 

To add to this stress, being a female project manager was something that the male dominated Soviet system had a hard time accommodating. Soviet culture was a hostile place to navigate for women in business or the sciences. 

My novel’s main character, Melvina Donleavy, is a young CIA agent on her first mission, and is the repository of many of my own fears and frustrations maneuvering with, and around, Soviet intelligence and the chaotic aftermath of glasnost. The ancillary characters emerging from the chaos of a crumbling empire---the Bratva (mafia), the KGB, the sex workers, scientists and apparatchiks---are composite sketches of people whose paths I crossed and who left a lasting impression on me. 

And finally, in November 1990, one of the most prolific serial killers the world had ever seen, Andrei Chikatilo, was captured after spending decades murdering dozens of women and children across Russia and Ukraine. The serial killer in my book, the Svisloch Strangler, is based loosely on this elusive man who was arrested by utilizing the novel approach of psychological profiling, developed in the West. Techniques that Melvina introduced to the fearsome head of the Byelorussian KGB: the Black Wolf. 


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by Kathleen Kent
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