Friday, April 29, 2011

Memories: When the Soviets tried to recruit me to be a spy

Dan Morrill on the Android team reminded me today of a story I told him awhile back that is worth sharing.

In 1989 I was on my junior year abroad, in Budapest Hungary. Nice random chance. I had gone into the education abroad program at UCSD and told them "I need to get out of the country!" and they obliged. When I'd applied, it was 1988 and there was maybe some interesting stuff going on in Poland with Solidarity, but no one knew what was coming. I arrived in August of 1989, and a week later the Hungarian government opened the borders, allowing East Germans to leave to Austria. At the time, this was hugely momentous. East Germany and Hungary were part of the Warsaw Pact, an alliance of Soviet backed Socialist states run by the Communist parties and mostly dictated to by Moscow. Travel between those countries was permitted but travel to the West was severely restricted. East Germany (officially known at the time as the Germany Democratic Republic, or it's German abbreviation "DDR") cut off travel to Hungary, but the chain of events that had started (arguably) with the Solidarity strikes in Poland started to cascade. The end result was a very different Europe. But no one knew that at the time.

In fact, I didn't find out about the Hungarian government opening the border for a week. There were few English language news sources at the time (remember, no public Internet) and the faculty of Karl Marx University of Economics, where my program was situated, didn't bother to tell us, perhaps a little scared about what was going on.

Anyway, I was studying to be a historian at the time and historic things were happening so I was in heaven. My mother was a peace activist, and decided to go to Moscow to do work there. She was also an artist and had no real concept of dealing with bureaucratic institutions. She wanted me to visit her for Christmas in Moscow, and since I was in Budapest I thought why not? But to go, I needed an invitation to get a visa. Not an easy process. BTW, still not an easy process. So I asked her to get me an invitation.

My mother responded by saying "I invite you". I told her I needed something written, and she sent me a telegram that went something like this "Here's your invitation. I don't understand why you need this. Seems like you just don't want to spend Christmas with your mother." I may be mis-remembering that last sentence.

Sighing in frustration, and realizing I wasn't going to get anything better out of her, I showed up at the Soviet consulate. Now most embassies have nice neat orderly lines that move people through the place. The Soviet consulate in Budapest, at the time a part of the Soviet embassy, a huge concrete monstrosity, ran things differently. They let people crowd around and push their way to the front of the line. Being a shy retiring type at the time (unlike now) it took me an hour to get to a window. I tried to communicate to the official who just stared at me, and then turned and summoned someone who could speak to me in English. He frowned at me, looked at my passport, this young idealistic many trying to get a visa, glanced at the telegram dismissively, and said only "You come back tomorrow, 12:00".

Dutifully and full of dread, I came back at 12:00 the next day. "Sasha" grilled me for two hours at his desk. What did my father do (episcopal minister, deceased) ? What did my grandfather do (stockbroker)? Why was my mother in Moscow (peace work with the Peace Committee, a known KGB front organization)? What was I studying (History, very interested in Eastern Europe)? Where did I grow up (Berkeley, at the time home of radicalism and Marxism in the US)? Would I like to learn more about the Soviet Union (oh yes of course? and the kicker Would I like to study Russian with his daughter, trade language lessons (Oh yes, of course, sounds great)?

At the time I wasn't a Quaker, so a little lying and stretching the truth wasn't beyond me. He seemed satisfied, and pulled out a ticket, he actually paid for my train ticket to Moscow. How exciting! At the time your ticket came with a separate seating assignment. He gave me the top bunk in a sleeping car. Wow, how generous, thank you! Afterwards I learned that the ticket was about $7 or something, depending on whether you exchanged money officially or on the black market.

So the day finally came, and I get on the train. Top bunk, all the way to Moscow, more than a day of travel. In my mind I remember it as 36 hours, but I'm not sure now. While I was boarding the train, a revolt broke out in Romania. By the time I got off the train Ceau┼čescu, the communist dictator was arrested. He was executed a couple days later. I'm against the death penalty in general, but I certainly didn't mourn his death.

But I didn't find out about the arrest because I was on the train. No phones or Internet in those days, and no one announcing what was happening. And I was the only American in my car, as far as I could tell. My grand mother had sent me a big box of candy, and I learned the value of american candy, so I shared them with those in my cabin. There were six people in my cabin and lo and behold in the bunk across from me there was this beautiful Russian woman who spoke English with just a slight and endearing accent. She engaged me in constant delightful conversation. Turns out her father worked at the embassy, what a coincidence! Now you have to understand that this sort of thing never happens to me. So a clever man of the times, with a slight paranoid bent, I easily put together what was happening. When she gave me her number in Moscow as we got off the train, I wasn't surprised. I never called of course. My mother had her own KGB handler, and I'm sure everything was bugged in my mother's apartment. That's not paranoia, that's just how it was back then.

"Sasha", btw a very common Russian name, short of Aleksandr, wasn't at the embassy when I went back. He had asked me to "report" on what I saw in Moscow. I thought I'd be dutiful about that, thankful for the ticket, and then just not follow-up. But he wasn't there and the embassy staff acted as if they had never heard of anyone named Sasha and it was strange that I would ask and would I please go away. Sorry Sasha, you failed to recruit a spy, but thanks for the ticket!