After I stopped working in the Soviet Union, my mother told me she had stayed up nights worrying that, during one of my stays in the USSR, I would be kidnapped by the KGB and sent to a prison camp in Siberia. To tell the truth, the thought that something like that might happen had crossed my mind (I had, after all, read the first volume of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago soon after it had been published), but it was the era of détente, of improved relations between the world's superpowers, where our Apollo had recently orbited the Earth with their Soyuz. I was young, pure of heart, strong of arm, and anyway, why would the KGB bother with an insignificant nobody like me?* * *
KGB. The letters meant Committee for State Security in Russian, and the organization – metaphorically described as the "sword and shield" of the Communist Party – could trace its lineage back to the Extraordinary Commission (the fearsome "Cheka") of the Revolutionary period, and farther back, to weak-sister secret police organizations of czarist times. The KGB was truly an omnipresent force in the Soviet Union, a fact I learned shortly after I started working there.
I first stepped onto Soviet soil in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev. At lunch on our group's second day, I was asked to join a distinguished-looking older gentleman at a separate table, set for two, not far from the rest of the group. He looked like a rich uncle who didn't spend much on clothes, preferring to squander his money on food – for our private table was immaculately set and bristled with appetizers and a crystal carafe of what I soon learned was Armenian cognac.
The man introduced himself as Fyodor Yakovlevich, the head of the regional office of the Soviet travel agency Intourist, and he had arranged this tête-à-tête over lunch so that we might get acquainted and discuss any issues that may have arisen over the course of my group's brief stay in the Ukrainian capital.
I was flattered by the attention, but between nibbles of smoked sturgeon and black caviar washed down with cognac, our lunch quickly turned into a rapid-fire interrogation about my family background, education, military experience, and most significantly, my political opinions. At one point – I forget the exact context – my host remarked that all American generals were most assuredly warmongers, and paused to consume a tidbit of smoked salmon.
"Well, Fyodor Yakovlevich," I said, choosing my words carefully, "I think you are exaggerating. It is the job of generals everywhere – both here and in my country – to be on guard against potential enemies." I was about to tell a joke and change the subject, but Fyodor Yakovlevich interrupted.
"But Soviet generals are on guard against the enemies of the USSR, as it is their proper role," he said. "And those enemies include warmongering American generals." As one can't argue with a skipping record, I let the matter drop.
A year later, on the first day of my tenure as my employer's Moscow representative, the outgoing rep – a fellow named Paolo – visited me in my room at the then-new Intourist Hotel on Gorky Street. As we positioned ourselves to sit down at the table near the window, Paolo put a finger to his lips and pointed at the fire sensor embedded in the ceiling. Announcing that he simply couldn't miss the broadcast of that day's soccer game, he begged my pardon, turned on the television, set the volume a bit higher than I was used to, and then got down to the business of explaining the lay of the land as he saw it.
In a low voice, he warned me (with a malevolent look at the fire sensor) that the KGB had bugged every hotel room in Moscow. This I found hard to believe, if only because there couldn't be that much audio equipment in the country, not to mention the not insignificant army of linguists that would be required to listen to countless hours of people breathing, snoring, farting, mumbling, and of endless petty squabbling between people who shared a room. However, I didn't argue the point, I just smiled and nodded my head for Paolo to continue.
"One final thing," said Paolo, at the end of his short briefing, "don't be a Boy Scout! Don't be above doing an occasional deal in the black market." Seeing my puzzled look, he explained: "If you never exchange dollars for rubles on the black market, if you never sell a pair of jeans, you will draw attention to yourself. The way the Russians think, anyone – especially an American – who completely avoids the black market does so only because they don't want to jeopardize their mission as a spy. So unless you want the goons breathing down your neck, dip your toes in the black market now and then, but keep a low profile and for the love of God, don't overdo it, or you will end up in jail!" While I took Paolo's advice with a grain of salt, it seemed to do the trick.
I learned a lot over the course of the next year. I learned that Intourist occupied a box in the KGB's organization chart, which suggested that the many attractive and personable Intourist guides I worked with were KGB operatives. I learned where the KGB had its office in the hotel's lobby (and saw how, on occasion, "troublemakers" would be frog-marched inside). I learned that a foreigner could rent a car and not have to worry – the way locals had to – about anyone swiping the windshield wipers or side-view mirrors from a parked vehicle. All in all, it was a very educational period for me.
My trip back to the States at the end of that year's assignment took me through Kiev with a tour group, and I was anticipating yet another lunch in the hotel dining room with Fyodor Yakovlevich, who I surmised held a KGB rank of Colonel, though I would never dare try to confirm my suspicion to his face. As I supervised my group's check-in at the hotel, I idly wondered if he would continue his efforts to "recruit" me.
On our group's second morning in Kiev, I was surprised to be asked to come visit him at his office for lunch and an "informal discussion." This seemed a step up, and in any event, who was I to say no to (perhaps) a Colonel?
Fyodor Yakovlevich's office was richly furnished in dark colors, ornate, and seemed only slightly smaller than a basketball court. Tall windows led to a balcony overlooking a pleasant garden. There were three telephones on his spacious desk. A steaming samovar stood on a sideboard, and glasses for tea stood next to it, set in sterling silver holders.
A stranger sat uncomfortably in a too-small chair next to a table near the windows, and it seemed to me his feet reached the ground only through an effort of will. As I approached the men, I observed that although the stranger and Fyodor Yakovlevich shared the same incompetent haberdasher, the way Fyodor Yakovlevich unctuously danced attendance on the man in the chair made it obvious they did not share the same rank.
"Please be seated," said Fyodor Yakovlevich, taking a seat and indicating the remaining chair at the table, across from the stranger. I sat down. A waitress materialized and efficiently served us lunch, then disappeared. The stranger cleared his throat and came directly to the point, without introducing himself.
"Do you work for the CIA?" he asked.
There are moments when I manage to embark on quite a train of thought in almost no time at all, and this was one of those moments. What a stupid question! I thought. Only a numbskull would answer 'Yes' if they did, but on the other hand, 'No' means you either really don't work for the CIA, or you do and are lying about it. As it turned out, I most certainly did not work for the CIA, so answering the question was easy.
"No," I said, and hoped I sounded convincing. Twice in the next 20 minutes, though, I suppressed the urge to laugh out loud at the idiocy of the question. Our meal proceeded smoothly, with not much conversation, and once the dessert course was cleared, I was dismissed and delivered back to my hotel.
A week later, I stopped by my employer's office in New York to file my expense reports and pick up my paycheck. "There are some government men in the conference room," said Penny, our receptionist, as she handed me my envelope. "They have some questions they want to ask."
"What about?" I asked.
"I don't know," said Penny.
The company's conference room was a cold, cramped little space that was festooned with travel posters artfully arranged to cover cracks in the gypsum wallboard. The two suits inside welcomed me, introduced themselves, and then asked me a set of inane questions that could only have been designed to waste both my time and theirs. After twenty minutes of this, I made a show of looking at my watch.
"Just one more question," said one of the suits. "Are you working for the KGB?"
Again one of those moments: Do these people all belong to the same country club?
"No," I said, and the meeting ended. I managed to keep my composure until I got out to my car. Then I broke out in a long, loud laugh. I kept chuckling all the way home.