HEAR NO EVIL
Consorting with the Enemy
Soon after my Swedish sojourn, the Bureau boys reappeared. It was becoming alarmingly habitual.
One day I looked up and there they were - again. These G-men traveled in pairs, like nuns. It struck me as a waste of manpower, but what did I know. I was a lowly civilian. Anyway, they were on a mission.
A few years earlier, the then current Pope, John Paul II, had been shot by a demented Turk in what appeared to be a Soviet-orchestrated assassination attempt. The trail of treachery led back to Communist Bulgaria. Apparently, the FBI had been briefed on the Bulgars alleged involvement in the plot. Sophia had surfaced on the Bureau’s radar.
At that time, my partner and I were marketing a line of American-made stun guns to the international marketplace. They were handy little gadgets, primarily designed for self-protection. Somehow, these guns carefully converted a 9.8 volt battery into 50,000 volts of low amperage which was capable of knocking a 1,000 pound bull to its knees by short-circuiting its central nervous system.
Sales were brisk. It seemed that there were a lot of little old ladies worldwide who wanted protection from muggers.
The ‘Suits’ were very interested in the stun guns. They wanted to
“Who is buying these guns overseas?”
“Lots of folk.”
“We’re interested in specific folk.”
“The Bulgarian Secret Police.
I didn’t bother to comment.
“Have they ever contacted you?”
Oh yeah, all the time. I have a hot line to Sofia.
“What do you think?”
“Did they buy any of these guns?”
Like the gun, I was stunned. These guys were actually serious. I had already noted that, also like nuns, the Bureau boys had little humour. At least they didn’t show it in public to the laity.
This was going to be good. I loved bursting Bureau bubbles so I observed:
“I don’t know if by the ‘Bulgarian Secret Police’ you mean the DS (Durzhavna Sigurnost)?
“If so, I still would not know if they have contacted me or not since I sincerely doubt that would have given me their correct identity, don’t you?”
They nodded their assent.
“Unless, of course, they were looking for a special government discount on the pricing. That could change things.”
My last comment hung in the air. I could not envision ‘Boris the Bulgarian’ calling up, identifying himself as an authorized torturer for the Durzhavna Sigurnost, ordering several gross of guns and then requesting a special government discount. After hearing my observation, it appeared that the Feds thought it unlikely as well.
It went downhill from there. The Bureau, it seemed, was operating under the major misconception that the sales of these guns were somehow magically managed by a few exclusive, easily-traceable distributors, such as myself. I queried:
“Are you aware that these guns are sold over the counter by hundreds of dealers in at least 35 states?”
“Most anyone can buy them most anywhere, even through the mail.”
The Feds flinched, flushed, and finally fled. For having to deal with the Bureau, it had been a surprizingly satisfying meeting.
This had been my fourth run-in with the Feds. They were not improving with age. Once again, the Bureau had not done its homework. Had they bothered to make a few telephone calls they could have saved themselves a whole lot of hassle and embarrassment, and more importantly, me a visit.
Each additional encounter with the Bureau Boys further eroded their image. It was becoming harder and harder for me to understand how the FBI could continue to function and easier and easier for me to understand how they could be mistaken for the Keystone Cops.
My perception of the Bureau bottomed out soon thereafter. Through a series of bizarre circumstances I became a ‘person on interest’ in my own right.
The local G-men had decided that I was guilty of committing an interstate crime, more specifically illegally collecting computers through a scam using bogus Purchase Orders and then shipping them out of state. Their conviction in my guilt heightened despite the fact that I had been out of the state at the time of the crime.
Upon my return home, the FBI served as my welcoming committee. They showed up at my office. They appeared at my home. Everywhere I turned, the Bureau Boys were bugging me.
I threw them out of my office. I threw them out of my home. I made them park their hardware outside my front door. I did everything I could to give the message across to get the hell out of my life. Suffice it to say that we were not playing well in the sandbox.
I pointed out to the ‘Suits’ that I distributed computers on an exclusive territorial basis and consequently received exclusive distributor pricing from my supplier. Therefore, I hardly had a need to scam computers at full list pricing. They finally grasped the concept of wholesale sales and realized that I had no motivation to commit the crime.
Soon thereafter, the real culprits were identified and apprehended. Not surprizingly, I was completely cleared. The Bureau neither apologized nor reappeared. They just vanished.
I informed my partner that henceforth he could handle Hoover’s henchmen. I had had it. Enough was enough.
It was now the tail end of the 1980s. Under Gorbachev’s guidance, the ‘Evil Empire’ had eased into ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika.’ The Russians had just lost their own version of a Vietnam War in Afghanistan and had given up foreign invasions for foreign investments. Their economy needed all the help they could get.
Interacting with the West was fast becoming the proletariat’s new obsession. “Amerikanskis” were of special interest. The Commies were just as curious about us as we were about them. Absence did make the heart grow fonder.
At that time I was heading an international trade organization. After years of watching from afar, I was finally getting to work with some real live Russkies up close.
A remarkable bigger-than-life Russian émigré and his charming wife had entered into the picture. We became good friends. They served as a beacon and way station for all sojourning Soviets in the area. As a result, I was included in some of their gatherings.
One get together in particular stood out from the rest. I met my Russian friends in the cozy, comfortable lounge of a quietly genteel hotel. With them was another of their Soviet friends, a new face for me.
We were introduced. He had a firm handshake and a soft, well-modulated voice. The Communist commune had obviously not supplied his clothes. He was definitely ‘kulturniy.’
My friends informed me that he was attached to the Russian Embassy in Washington. This was going to be my first time with a Soviet government official. It should prove to be a very interesting evening. I had lots of questions. I politely asked him his function at the embassy.
“I am editor of Soviet Life.”
Bells rang in my brain. Our collegiate governor from the days in Britain had gone on to become the First Secretary of the American Embassy in Moscow. We had had quite a few discussions about his activities there, so I was not totally ignorant of how things were played. I responded:
“Editor of Soviet Life?”
Ah ha, that meant he was KGB. This was getting better and better.
He carefullyscrutinized my reaction as I watched his. He must have read recognition in my demeanor. His eyes flickered for a second.
Yup, this guy was definitely KGB. How neat, my very first spy!
We sat down at our table in the corner and the fun and frolic commenced. I found him fascinating. He was witty, charming and quick, with a highly developed sense of humour. The evening ran on and on as dinner faded and the wine morphed into vodka. At some point, our mutual friends excused themselves, pleading an early morning. We elected to remain. As our consumption increased, our guards decreased. By midnight we were best buds; by 2:00AM close confidants.
Not surprizingly, his activities were closely watched and his movements monitored. I knew from my governor that he had suffered similar constraints in the Muscovite Motherland when he was First Secretary. While in town, my new-found friend was required to stay at a specific hotel in a pre-assigned room, presumably thoughtfully pre-bugged by the Bureau.
Of all possible topics, we ended up sharing our mutual run-ins with the Bureau. Apparently his opinion of the Hoover’s henchmen was in direct alignment with my own. He was especially taken with the stun gun debacle.
Interestingly, he was no more complimentary of his own intelligence services than he had been about America’s. He summed it upon succinctly:
“Screw the KGB and the CIA, I’m going back to Moscow and make money.”
Nobody needed to explain the concept of capitalism to this guy.
And that is exactly what he did. Later on I learned that he had become a major millionaire in Moscow. No surprize there.
My Russian friends had made all necessary introductions and arrangements. I had found the equipment. Together, we were going to supply out-of-date, technologically retarded and socially acceptable computers to the Soviet Union with the full sanction and approval of Uncle Sam.
To make certain that everything was above board, we filed a flood of forms with the Feds at Export Control. They read our files and approved our proposed sales. Preparations proceeded for departure.
I had not heard back from the Bureau since my last encounter as a ‘person of interest.’ I had not expected to. Our last parting had been less than cordial. Since my partner now handled any requisite interaction with the Feds, I was free and clear.
A few weeks before departure my partner requested that I join him in his office. I found it mildly surprizing; normally we just barged into one another’s office. Nonetheless, I showed up on time.
There I found a sole FBI Agent awaiting my arrival. I had not been forewarned and was therefore not forearmed. I was informed that the G-man reportedly wished to discuss the impending Soviet sale.
I reluctantly agreed and informed the Agent that I would answer his questions about the computers. I did not envision many since we had already received official authorization from the Feds for the sale. I crossed the hall, gathered my voluminous file and returned.
He asked a few obligatory questions about the computers and their specifications. I parried with paper, politely shoving Uncle Sam’s forms down his bureaucratic throat. He countered by slyly shifting the dialogue to my Russian associates and their frequent proletarian visitors. Not surprizingly, my friend from Soviet Life featured foremost in the conversation. Somebody had either watched us, talked about us or both. I had duly noted that this change in topic had not come as a major shock to my partner. His feelings about the FBI did not mirror my own.
My answers shortened from staccato to stagnant. My partner shriveled in his seat as my blood pressure rose. Once again, I had hit my limit with the boys from the Bureau.
I turned once more to the Agent and asked him:
“Do you have any more questions concerning the computers?”
“Then this meeting is now over.”
His eyes popped. Apparently, he was not accustomed to having his comments queried. Wisely, he did not deign to disagree.
“Furthermore, I suggest that you contact these ‘people of interest’ directly. They are in a much better position to answer your questions than I am.”
I got up to leave. The ‘Suit’ turned to me and said:
“Please don’t mention this meeting to your friends.”
I looked down at him, glared and then replied:
“I won’t have to. You have two weeks in which to do it yourself.”
I smiled serenely at him as I callously quipped:
“After that, all bets are off.”
I walked out, leaving the Agent with my partner. At least this time I had not thrown anyone out of the office. I suppose that was a step in the right direction.
Soon thereafter, it came time to depart. We stopped by New York City to file the final flurry of forms with Customs Control and then headed for Helsinki, hauling a couple of sample computer systems with us.
The route to Russia this time was a bit circuitous since the Communist Congress had convened in the capital and hogged all the hotel rooms. Since there were no flights from America which arrived in the morning and we had a morning meeting already scheduled, my associate and I were taking the Tolstoy Express train from Helsinki to Moscow. We’d sleep on the road. The train did arrive in the right morning at the right time, the day after the Party’s Politburo had finished its pontifications.
After landing at Helsinki-Vantaa airport, we deplaned, cruised through customs, claimed our computers and commandeered a couple of cabs to haul us to the train station. Along the way, we hit a grocery to stock up for the trip. Apparently, menus in the U.S.S.R. were not extensive. Caffeinated coffee was not an option. The commandeered caffeine was sold separately, usually on the black market.
Having finally found a Finnish red cap complete with trolley, we rounded up our mounds of luggage and headed towards the platform. The afternoon sun glistened off the gleaming silver train cars as they awaited their passengers and departure. I was reminded of my camping days in Colorado and more specifically, the two-day train rides to get there. It wasn’t going to be such a bad trip after all.
I scanned the trains, looking for ours. It finally appeared at the end of the station, sandwiched between two shiny stainless steel sisters. It was not difficult to pick out.
Unlike the others, our train was camouflaged, akin to a troop transport heading for the front. It boasted two large red hammer-and-sickle Soviet flags on the front of the engine just above the cattle guard. It seemed somehow reminiscent of a vintage victory parade. The twenty hours on board this train would not pass quickly enough for me.
The roomette resembled a no-star, no-tell motel room. The one and only segregated lavatory for the entire car made the amenities of a frontier filling station look good.
It was roughly two in the morning when we finally arrived at the Russo-Finnish border. The train stopped while we prepared for immigration formalities. From opposite ends, our railway car was simultaneously overrun by armed military personnel, demanding to see our identification papers and luggage. Their subsequent inspections were far from formal. Sadly, their English was no better than my Russian.
My associate and I were immediately and forcibly separated. The discovery of our stash of electronic hardware in the roomette between us had iced the cake. Smuggling in the Soviet Union brought severe penalties.
I was hurriedly hauled off the train and marched away into the darkness, guarded by 4 soldiers shouldering AK-47s and a female officer sporting a holstered Makarov revolver. I was the only one in the crowd not packing ‘heat.’
I had always wondered if it actually did happen. Well, it did. My life flashed before me on fast forward. Here I was, in the dead of night, deep within the enemy camp, being marched off to some God-forsaken place by a cadre of communist comrades armed to the teeth.
No communication was being exchanged with anyone. The only sound was the synchronized steps of the Soviet soldiers, softened as we sloshed through the slush.
There would be no witnesses; at least none who would be testifying on my behalf. It was still 8 or 9 hours to Moscow. I would be long gone by the time anyone could do anything. I would simply vanish, an unknown casualty of the Cold War.
We halted outside a darkened, decrepit wooden shack. This did not look good. The door squeaked open, dimly reflecting a man in the candlelight. The officer and the man spoke softly for a while. At the end of the conversation, I was marched inside. The man momentarily disappeared and then returned with some Soviet papers and my American passport. I focused fully on my passport. I wasn’t going anywhere good without it. I really wanted it back.
He filled out several forms in Cyrillic script and pointed for me to sign. I did. I would have signed anything that would have gotten me and my passport out of there.
Then he pointed to a figure on the form. It appeared that I was to pay that amount. I did. In turn, he signed a couple of more forms and handed them to me along with my passport. I was a happy camper.
The spring was definitely back in my step. I almost skipped as we marched back to the train. My pace was only kept circumspect by the surrounding soviet solders.
I was rather surprized to see the train still parked at the platform. It had been almost two hours since we had arrived at the border.
We finally reached one entrance of the train car. Not knowing the proper protocol, I colluded with the steward and had him, on my behalf; offer a handful of Finnish markkas to my military escort so they could purchase some liquid libations. So close to freedom, I did not want to make enemies. On the other hand, I did not want to be accused of bribery either. The female officer slowly accepted and finally smiled.
I reboarded the train and tracked down my associate. I must confess that the troop transport had never looked better or more beckoning. Those camouflaged cars were growing on me - exponentially.
The formalities finished, my military escort exited the train. After an agonizing eon of inertia the engines finally revved up and the train began to move.
It was actually over and I was still alive to talk about it.
The remaining adrenalin fled from my body. I began to shake. I looked at my associate and we silently agreed to head for the dining/bar car. When in Rome… The Russians loved their vodka and right then, so did I.
We found a table by a window. My solicitous associate disappeared, rounded up a couple of glasses and a really big bottle of Russia’s finest and returned to the table. She poured, we toasted, drank deeply and then settled in for the duration.
Numbed and stunned, I viewed the vista with vapid violence, drinking in my resurrection. Dawn was beginning to appear. As the light increased the aesthetics of the countryside decreased. It looked as if the Germans had passed through - yesterday.
Every five to ten minutes we passed another village or hamlet. They all looked the same. Each had a few dozen houses and izbas, a couple of muddy dirt roads and what appeared from the style of architecture to be an Orthodox church or more correctly its remains. It seemed that with very few exceptions they had all been destroyed, mostly by fire.
Mile after mile featured yet another outline of a blackened, burnt-out church, silhouetted against the dull gray morning sky. Like cookie cutter Potemkin villages, the same vignette repeated itself again and again.
The scenery didn’t change. My depression increased as the remaining mileage decreased. Finally on the fringes of Moscow the terrain changed and so did my disposition.
Though several hours behind schedule, we finally rolled into Moscow’s Leningradsky station. I was neither in the position nor in the mood to complain about the delay. I had been the primary cause for it and was still much too thankful at being alive and on board the train to cavil about the time. Same day service worked for me. If we missed the meeting, the hell with it. Hell, I was alive to miss it!
There was good news and bad news. The goods news was immediate. Our Communist comrades were there to meet us, waiting on the platform. The bad news was not so quick in coming. Despite much effort and many inquiries, the computers never resurfaced. Apparently, they had vanished at the border. I waxed philosophical on the loss. Better the computers than me.
We piled into a caravan of cars and headed across the communist Capital towards our lodgings. Appropriately, we would be staying at a Soviet worker’s Conference Center adjacent to the East German Embassy.
Having studied Russian history and the language for several years in my assorted schools I was somewhat familiar with Russia’s more famous rulers like Ivan the Terrible, Mikhail Romanov, the two “Greats,” Peter and Catherine, the mysterious and missing Alexander I and lastly, the dutiful but doomed Nicholas II. I had also studied Moscow and its long history from its humble beginnings through the Time of Troubles, the Great Northern War, Napoleon’s invasion and Hitler’s attempted repeat in the Great Patriotic War.
Growing up, I had religiously reviewed Moscow’s militaristic May Day festivities as I watched the Red Army parade their military might pass their Soviet satraps high atop Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square. To actually be there and see first hand, up close, the Kremlin, Lenin’s last stop, Stalin’s two concrete wedding cakes; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ukraina and St Basil’s Cathedral was surreal. They actually did exist; it was not proletariat propaganda.
I was especially wired when we passed the KGB Headquarters domiciled in what had once been the Rossiya Insurance Company under the Czars. Located at #2 Dzerzhinskiy Square, the building did justice to its legendary, lethal reputation. ‘Iron’ Feliks Dzerzhinskiy, founder of the CHEKA/GPU/NKVD, forerunners of the KGB, stood solitary sentry against the capitalist menace in the center of a traffic circle.
He really was truly alone. There was no traffic light, walkway or any other available access to his monument. Any potential visitor had to outmaneuver the Muscovite motor traffic which rivaled Paris on a bad night. Apparently, not too many Russians wanted to honor the guy who had fathered the ‘Big Brother’ method of manpower management. Can’t say that I blamed them.
Though fascinating, the spin through the Soviet symbol of solidarity dampened the high of my safe arrival. The colours in the Communist capital reminded me of the early television sets when the picture faded. Everything was bleak and dismal, etched in a never-ending array of the grey tones of decay. The overcast sky did not improve the view. Moscow made Milano look good, and that had been on a dull and dreary day in November.
I finally figured it out. To hell with the computers. Just give me the paint concession for the city. With the exception of the Kremlin and St. Basil’s, everything in Moscow screamed out for a paint job. Sherman-Williams could easily have tripled their total annual sales in the Communist capital alone. No telling what the rest of the country looked like.
My eerie entry into the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Muscovites had topped the charts for eccentricity. Even for me. By comparison, everything else in Russia had instantly improved, paint or no paint; even the ever-present KGB.
It was highly doubtful that Gorbachev’s goons would try to march me anywhere in broad daylight in Metropolitan Moscow. In my capitalistic clothes, I stuck out like a peacock on the strut. There would be too many witnesses and not all of them would be Soviets. Besides, the KGB was already tagging along; they had no need to march me off anywhere. They already knew what I was doing and with whom.
The great train ride signaled the beginning of my ‘Pinko Period,’ or translated into bureaucratic ‘Bureauese:’ ‘consorting with the enemy.’ From then on, the Soviet Union featured prominently on my itineraries. Moscow became my second, second home after Tokyo. It felt almost normal. While I was allowed to come and go at will, I noticed that most ‘Amerikanskis’ were still denied entry. Despite ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’, the Soviets had remained reluctant to host their archrivals and advertise their shortcomings.
The U.S.S.R. struck me as the most “pressed” country I had ever encountered. The Russian people were oppressed by the government, suppressed by the party and repressed by the KGB. One third of the citizens spied on the other two-thirds. No wonder they were depressed. This was probably why they fixed their fascination on the ‘Amerikanskis.’
As a result, the Soviet Union emerged as the only place on the planet that actually preferred Americans to other nationalities. It was the one place where we weren’t viewed as ‘Ugly Americans.’ ‘Archrivals’ was better than ‘ugly.’ Absence does make the heart grow fonder.
Soon after our arrival, Gorbachev’s personal representative politely paid us a courtesy call. The previous year, my international trade club had hosted him. Apparently, even in the U.S.S.R., turnabout was fair play.
As he exited the elevator to greet us, a blinding light caught us unawares. Our friend was encompassed by a large contingent of Commie cameramen with spotlights blazing. That had not been expected.
Regardless of circumstances, it was good to see him again. A soft-spoken, highly honourable and intelligent man from a rather remote region in the Urals, Valentin had hit all the high notes with me. He had my respect and admiration. Being Gorbachev’s personal representative hadn’t hurt. As far as I was concerned, Gorbie had it ‘going on.’
Unfortunately, our quiet, cozy tete-a-tete transmuted into a multi-media medley. We weathered the worst of it and were reprieved when the fourth estate finally retired from the field, giving us a chance to catch up with one another. At least they hadn’t insisted on makeup.
That evening as I changed for dinner, I flipped on the telly, not wanting to miss my daily dose of proletariat programming. As I returned to the bathroom I heard my voice in the other room. Dashing in, I saw myself on the tube. It was surreal. In the past I had done a few interviews with a couple of local stations, but nothing on a national level. It was truly bizarre to see and hear myself muttering something while someone else babbled on in the background in Russian. Too bad the Bureau boys weren’t nearby. This would certainly have given them food for thought.
Our television debut was the ‘on dit’ of the dinner. Champanski and vodka intermingled. Apparently we had acquitted ourselves adequately. I couldn’t really remember what I had said and after the second course I really didn’t care one way or the other. It was a very pleasant evening but a nasty next morning.
A couple of days later, St. Patrick celebrated his birthday. Being a true Celt, so did I. As was my custom, I always packed my kilts when there was to be a major Celtic holiday while I was on the road. ‘Where’ one celebrates does not matter to a true son of Gael.
That day, after completing our customary business, I dutifully donned my kilts and wandered off to the Arbatt with some friends. The Arbatt’s cobblestone pathways and antique buildings were vaguely reminiscent of Boston’s Faneuil Hall area. If average ‘Amerikanskis’ turned heads in Moscow, ‘Amerikanskis’ in kilts nearly broke them. The Muscovites probably thought that the circus was in town.
During one early visit, I was shuttled off to a top secret Soviet city managed by the military. The city was so secret it didn’t even appear on any maps of the Soviet Union. Hiding a million people could not have been easy. I never understood how they were able to do it. It probably had to do with their internal travel restrictions.
In the Soviet Union everyone had a domestic passport; a hangover from Peter the Great. Each passport stipulated where and how far from home the holder could travel. The secret city made military hardware and nuclear powered stuff. It was like an Army Base gone ballistic.
Dressed and smocked like the Pillsbury doughboy, I was shown a lot and comprehended a lot less. I had no idea why I had been invited. I was certainly no scientist. If I had understood what was being explained it probably would have made it more interesting. All in all, I could have cheerfully done without it.
However, later on I was jazzed to learn that a senior Senator from Massachusetts had been in the Soviet Union at roughly the same time and had been denied access to this secret city. Since I really did not like that particular politician the satisfaction had escalated.
My next visit ended up a media extravaganza. As head of the international trade club, I was responsible for planning and hosting the club’s annual World Trade Conference. Not surprizingly, I chose for the theme; “Trading East in the ‘90s.” The Berlin Wall had crumbled the previous year and the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were tumbling like dominos. It was a whole new day as former enemies sought to become reacquainted. Trade was on everybody’s mind.
Henceforth, my trips to the Soviet Union took on a two-fold purpose:
To this end, I had arranged for the club to form an alliance with our communist counterpart, the U.S.S.R. Association of Foreign Cooperation for Small and Medium Business. The two organizations promoted dialogue, interaction and, if possible, trade between our respective memberships. Both the capitalists and the communists were eager to forge economic ties, especially the Soviets; they needed the hard currency.
From the perspective of the proletariat very little of what was happening in the U.S.S.R. was good. Their enforced allies and union members were dropping like flies. Their economy was in the commode and their future looked worse. Our meager alliance was one of the few bright spots on the horizon.
The people’s propagandists seized on the story and ran with it. The day after I did a totalitarian talk show, complete with makeup, Izvestia rang up and requested an interview. Along with Pravda, Izvestia daily told the populace what they should know, left out what they shouldn’t know and pushed the party propaganda. No wonder it was only eight pages long.
I agreed and, with my trusty translator, showed up at the appointed time. Not surprizingly the building was bleak. We were greeted in the entrance hall and then ushered upstairs. The building’s décor was contemporary Khrushchev. We were then ushered into the room where the interview would be conducted.
What a change! It looked as if someone had expropriated a ballroom from the Winter Palace. The room was overloaded with gilded mirrors and wide French windows. A massive conference table dominated the setting. A couple of dozen chairs encircled it. They were all filled except for the two chairs left for myself and the translator.
This was not what I had expected! I was planning on a cluttered cubby hole somewhere.
After the formalities were finished and the decaffeinated coffee had been dispensed, we got down to business. I was pleasantly surprized by the quality of the questions, especially as they pertained to business. Capitalism was an alien concept in the Communist Motherland.We finished up on a cordial note and my translator and I departed. The article would come out in a couple of days.
A few days later, I met my troops for breakfast in the lobby of my hotel, the Rossiya. One of them sported a paper. It was Izvestia with my article in it. We headed to the dining room, sat down, settled our orders and then got to it. From the interview, I enjoyed reasonable expectations for the article. I was not disappointed.
I was front page news. After the translator had translated the article he handed me the paper. I scanned it with little comprehension and queried him about an article immediately to the left of mine. I had been able to make out the Cyrillic letters for the words: Latvia and ‘sessiya.’ It did not take a Harvard grad to figure out that ‘sessiya’ equaled ‘secession.’ Accordingly, I queried:
“What is this about?”
He reluctantly replied:
“Oh, Latvia has seceded from the Union.”
Damn, what’s going on? My article was twice as long! They had spent twice the time and twice their limited space writing about a relatively trivial trade matter than they did about a part of their country disappearing into the sunset!
I looked again at the article about Latvia. It looked to be about the size of an ordinary obituary. It read like one too. Glad to see that these guys have their priorities straight.
I was never going to get this!
It was during one of my departures from Moscow, that I was forcibly reminded of the differences between East and West. With no hard currency, Russia ran on perks. As one of a few Amerikanskis dealing commercially with the Communist pseudo-capitalists, I was granted the privilege of using the diplomatic/politburo fast lane and departure lounge at Sheremetyevo airport.
I had been running a bit late all morning. It would be good to make up the lost time at the airport. I entered the emigration area and headed directly for the far right lane – the fast track. There were only a few people in line. It was going to be smooth sailing.
As I reached the counter, a commotion broke out down below my level in the general departure lounge. According to the board, a planeload of North Vietnamese were clustered together awaiting their delayed departure for Hanoi. Scattered all about them were their boxes and bits of carry-on baggage. A couple of uniformed officials were working the crowd and checking the carry-ons.
Apparently, the passengers did not appreciate the attention. Since the Vietnam War I had always been curious about the Cong. In those days you were lucky if you didn’t see them. Since I had been so lucky during the War I openly ogled them while I had the chance.
Somehow, I had unrealistically expected them to look different from their southern sisters. They didn’t. They looked just as Vietnamese as their previously capitalistic counterparts.
Actually, they looked like angry Vietnamese. The Soviet customs folk were not winning any friends or gaining votes. Tempers rose and the decibels doubled.
The crew of customs officials noted the noise and turned to observe the situation. En masse, they shut their gates, closed down their lines, pulled out their nightsticks and entered the fray. My emigration official was the only one to remain at his post.
There was a bunch of wailing and whacking going on. Blood began to blossom on some of the passengers. The Soviet military showed up, took over from the customs officials and herded the North Vietnamese from the departure lounge. Blotches of blood littered the floor, a remainder of recent events.
My official had maintained a running commentary throughout the melee. As it turned out, the North Vietnamese were migrant workers in Moscow. Because of the small size of their hands and their dexterity, they had been brought in to make toasters and other small appliances. Apparently, they had attempted to repatriate some of their production. This attempt had been neither successful nor appreciated by their equally socialistic hosts.
I was stunned. People had been beaten and bloodied over some crappy coffee pots. Nobody else seemed to notice. Nonchalance ruled the day.
I thanked my emigration guy, grabbed my passport and papers and hightailed it for the VIP lounge. I’d just been at the O.K. corral and watched the Earp brothers’ clean clocks. It was time to get out of Dodge and head west. Clearing Soviet air space had never felt better.
Back home, my Soviet sojourns and subsequent stream of Russian visitors had not gone unnoticed by the locals at the CIA and FBI. My periodic partying with the editor of Soviet Life had also been duly noted.
The “Spooks” and the “Suits” had both zeroed in. Once again I had become a ‘person of interest.’ However, this time, no one was accusing me of either breaking the law or playing with the Bulgarians.
The Agency boys were the first to contact me. I received a rather cryptic call asking me to meet him in the formal gardens just north of the museum. I agreed. The weather was actually conducive for an al-fresco frolic and my curiosity had definitely been peaked.
I arrived at the meeting spot - my first official rendezvous - a little early. It was not difficult to pick out this fellow. He sported the requisite trench coat and sunglasses, reminding me of Boris in the Bullwinkle cartoons. Only the Fedora was missing. Unlike the Bureau, he traveled alone.
He obliquely identified himself and then began reciting the dates and places of my Soviet sojourns. Maybe this guy had done his homework. He then got down to business.
It appeared that the Firm wanted me to operate as some sort of messenger between here and Moscow. They wanted me to carry stuff in and/or out of the Soviet Union.
I couldn’t believe my ears. I had already been jerked off a train at the Soviet border for simply attempting to deliver sample computer systems to the Ministry of Datamation. Then, I had witnessed firsthand while a squad of Soviet Customs officials beat the stuffing out a group of North Vietnamese, whose only crime had been to try and take toasters home to Hanoi.
I could easily envision their response to my couriering contraband. I turned to the fellow and said:
“You’ve got to be kidding!”
“Get yourself a ‘sky whore’.”
After all, I was eccentric, not brain-dead.
Initially, he attempted to appeal to my patriotism.
“Your country needs your help.”
“You already got it. I did my four years in the War.”
“It could be beneficial for your family.”
What the hell was he talking about?
Was that a threat?!
My rage ran rampant, but I kept my cool and countered:
“I have no children.”
“My parents are dead and cremated.”
“Exactly whose family do you have in mind?”
Once again, somebody had not done his homework. Was it a Federal requirement to be stupid or did they come by it naturally?
I told the fellow what he could do with my family’s welfare and walked off. My temper dimmed as the distance between us grew. So much for the Firm.
Over the next few weeks I reviewed and reflected upon my latest ‘close encounter of the bizarre kind.’ This sort of extraterrestrial encounter took some getting used to. There was no telling what would happen next.
Rightly or wrongly, I became increasingly agitated and alarmed. Father’s 8-hour enforced interrogation with the Feds kept flashing through my mind. I had no desire to make it a family tradition
It appeared to be increasingly advisable to institute some sort of rearguard protection. Since the Agency was part of the problem, perhaps the Bureau could be part of the solution?
As it turned out, the FBI called me before I had a chance to call them. Great minds must work alike or, more likely, God was having a good day.
As it turned out, sometime during the decade, the FBI charter had been amended to include certain foreign activities. Prior to this change, the Bureau had dutifully done its domestic duty, diligently ignorant of the outside world.
Accordingly, the FBI was looking for a ‘few good men’ with interesting international backgrounds. I more than passed muster. My string of Soviet houseguests had positively enthralled them. They had tracked me down through my departures, arrivals and destinations, which I had dutifully filed with INS.
Like nuns, the two “Suits” surfaced for our first meeting like clockwork. Surprizingly, they had done their homework before showing up and had obviously perused my dossier. Their initial forays were tentative.
“We understand that you have been spending a lot of time in the Soviet Union.”
“Yes, how do you know that?”
“Your Customs records.”
“We would like to talk you about your trips there.”
“You may be able to help us understand what is going on over there.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Who are working with and what are they doing?”
“Before we go any further we need to establish a few ground rules.”
“You are allowed to ask any question you wish; O.K.?”
“I am allowed to answer only those questions which I wish to answer; O.K.?”
“Are we agreed?”
“Yes, we agree.”
The deal held for almost two decades until my main handler retired.
I only saw the Agency one more time. It did not improve my image of them. Their arrogance was only superceded by their ignorance. In the interim I had gotten wiser; I had the Bureau tag along that time. One can never carry too much insurance.
Having spent tons of time in the Soviet Union, I had taken the opportunity to visit St. Basil’s and the holy monastery of Troitskaya-Sergeeva, a fearsome fortress protecting almost a hundred Russian Orthodox chapels and cathedrals just outside the village of Zagorsk. During the Time of Troubles, Troitsky had successfully withstood a prolonged Polish siege, whose mighty cannonballs had harmlessly bounced off its massive walls. The place had been built to last forever.
Centuries later, despite communist incursions, it still exuded an aura of peace and serenity. As beautiful as it was I did not see God there either. He must have been called away on other business. I guess our paths were not destined to cross.