Revanchist policies from the Kremlin, crackdowns on protesters – lately with Russia it seems like everything old is new again. So perhaps it’s time to look back at the very embodiment of Cold War tensions – the infamous KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, or Committee of State Security). Rarely violent but often threatening, the constant presence of KGB agents became a fact of life for those serving in the USSR, especially Moscow. From smashed car windows to seductive blondes, the Soviets used many tactics to intimidate and monitor the Americans placed in their charge. And yet many Foreign Service officers found they were able to coexist with their KGB counterparts, and often formed wary relationships of grudging respect.
E. Wayne Merry, a consular officer in Moscow from 1980-1983, was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in February 2010. Joseph Neubert was a political officer in Moscow from 1953-1956 and submitted his autobiography to ADST in 2007. John Todd Stewart served as a commercial officer from 1974-1977; he was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning October 1999. Kempton Jenkins, who was a political officer in Moscow from 1960-1962, was interviewed by Kennedy beginning in February 1995. Vladimir Lehovich, who worked for the United States Information Service (USIS) from 1961-1962, was also interviewed by Kennedy, beginning March 1997.
You can read about Naomi Collins’ adventures in Moscow in the 1960s, Stephen Dachi’s recruitment by the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior, and the honeypot that caught Marine Clayton Lonetree in Moscow. You can also learn about how the KGB sent in operatives dressed as firemen during the 1977 embassy fire and the time the KGB microwaved the embassy.
“The door was kicked off the hinges”
MERRY: As I didn’t have a car and used public transportation and was walking extensively around Moscow and Leningrad and the other cities I visited, I gave the KGB a lot of work because they had to keep me in sight. The poor buggers, I think, had to use up a lot of shoe leather. The quality of the surveillance would vary dramatically, but the only occasions on which they ever deliberately showed their hands or engaged in harassment was when I was engaged in what they would consider a political act. Unfortunately, they considered many things political.
For example, in Vilnius, in Lithuania, my travel partner and I were visiting the family of a Lithuanian nationalist who was in political prison. We’d been there for two or three minutes when, literally, the door was just kicked off the hinges. They didn’t even knock; they just kicked the door down to inform us that we had no right to be there. If I was trying to attend a dissident trial in Moscow, or if I was visiting a Soviet dissident, then… the KGB could become, shall we say, overt.
On one occasion a colleague and I were physically thrown out of the Supreme Court building of the Russian Federation. When I say thrown out, I was briefly airborne going out the front door. Of course, we protested that to the Foreign Ministry, because they weren’t supposed to physically lay hands on diplomats. They were just supposed to tell us to leave. They weren’t supposed to pick us up and heave us out the door, which in this case they did.
For the most part, I would say my experience with the KGB was—I certainly wouldn’t call it benign—but it was less adversarial than one might think. Something I noticed, and I was not the only one who noticed, was that the KGB tended to harass people whom they felt were disrespectful of Russia, people forever making derogatory, condescending, even semi-racist remarks about Russia and Russians. Those were the people the KGB really harassed. Whereas people—not just Foreign Service officers, but some of our military attachés—who were genuinely interested in the country, its history, and who experienced its culture and clearly had a respect for the nation, for the society, tended to get less harassment from the KGB.
Not that they didn’t keep a close eye on us, not that they weren’t tailing us, not that they weren’t tapping our telephones and bugging the apartments and so forth, but they tended to treat with respect those people whom they felt reciprocated some respect. I once asked the Foreign Ministry for special permission to visit a cemetery that was closed to the public – because Khrushchev was buried there – to lay flowers on the grave of Dmitri Shostakovich on the anniversary of his death. This was simply a personal gesture for me, but I think it redounded to my credit with the Soviet authorities. Cemeteries play an important role in Russian culture, and manifestations of respect for cultural figures are taken seriously.
They did occasionally screw up. One Columbus Day, a Monday holiday for us but not a holiday for them, I had slept in till about ten o’clock in the morning, something like that. I was just beginning to putter around in the kitchen when I heard a key in the lock of the front door. I turned to look into the entry hall, but knew instantaneously what I was about to see. The door opens and two guys in winter coats and hats appear, they see me in my bathrobe standing in the kitchen. One of them mutters an appropriate Russian obscenity. The door closes, they lock the door, and off they go. They had assumed the apartment was empty because this was a Monday, a working day, and they hadn’t heard anything on the microphones.
It was a classic illustration that they were certainly there. They did regular visits to inventory your apartment for anything of interest, to keep track of what you were doing. Some colleagues suffered real damage to their property, but in my case they only stole corkscrews, several times. Corkscrews were a scarce but necessary item.
“Invariably…there would be some bimbo”
Q: Did you have any problems with the KGB trying to set you up, or anything like that?
JENKINS: We had a lot of first stage confrontations. When I traveled, for example, which I did I think six times in two years, and I went to various regions of the Soviet Union. Invariably, on the train or in the hotel, there would be some bimbo come up and brush against me, and ask if I would buy her a drink, and that sort of thing. It was never too aggressive; it was always just probing a little bit.
They had an eye, and they were very clever for marriages that were in trouble. And Moscow was a tremendous pressure cooker, and if you didn’t have a solid marriage, it would really come unglued there. Or it would be made solid. And some of our people had marital problems, and inevitably they would get targeted for a more serious approach.
“We almost got our comeuppance”
NEUBERT: One of the aspects of driving around the Soviet countryside in those days was that you were always followed by KGB vehicles, a fact difficult to hide since there usually were no other vehicles for miles around. I was younger and gayer in those days, and even Chevrolets had more get up and go than Volgas (they still have) so I could resist from time to time stepping it up and watch the pursuing Volga or Volgas drop back, and vanish. Then we would turn off, stop, and have a picnic lunch, and finally wave to the Volgas as they sped painfully past. And, of course, we waved to them again as we went on after lunch. And they picked up the fresh scent. Just what it was they thought we were up to never became clear. But, perhaps it was as much a holiday for them as for us, so perhaps it all came out even.
Sometimes the business of being followed became ridiculous. Once, the Agricultural Attaché, my good friend Horace Davis, and I were making our way south of Kiev toward Odessa, across the “breadbasket” of the Soviet Union. We were not following usual roads but we were in “open” areas. Every once in a while we would stop and finger the wheat crop — not that I knew anything about wheat, ready or unready. Then we would eat. The funny thing was that in all this emptiness — and it was empty — there were one sedan, two jeeps, and one motor cycle with sidecar behind us. About two hundred yards behind us. A flat plain. Nothing for miles. Then this oddly spaced caravan. We had field glasses. They had field glasses. I watched them from time to time as they watched us from time to time. We had lunch. I was never able to observe what they did. Supermen, no doubt.
We almost got our comeuppance. I was driving. Suddenly there was a hole in the road. I swerved but a rear tire dropped in. We stopped. There was nothing sinister in all this. There was a row of holes, obviously for a new fence. One was in the middle of what passed for a road. But there we were. Stuck.
The reaction of our four escorts was interesting. Would they come to help us? Scarcely. They stopped and watched with field glasses. I hope they learned something.
First, Horace and I opened the trunk and got out two iced cans of beer. Then we sat in the shade of the car and drank the beer while we considered the problem. We rapidly concluded that there was no problem — so we had another beer. After that we decided we might as well move on, so I got out the jack and jacked up the immersed wheel and stepped back while Horace drove the car off onto level ground. We put away the jack, opened another beer, and went on our way, no thanks to the KGB.
Giving the Slip
STEWART: We had a large number of Congressional visits at that point, too. I think the biggest group was a delegation of some 25 senators, the most senior being Hubert Humphrey, who had been to Moscow many times. This group was wined and dined like a collective head of state. We had a control officer for every senator and, of course, the Soviets did too, all KGB types.
After a gala dinner one evening, every senator got into his own limo with his own Soviet escort and was taken back to the Rossiya Hotel, which was down near Red Square. I was there at the Rossiya, which was my post for the evening, watching the senators get out of their vehicles. It was naturally assumed that they would go into the hotel and go to bed. As a result, the KGB escorts all started to congregate together to have a smoke and discuss the day’s events. However, the senators didn’t go straight in but formed a little group themselves. It appeared at that point that Humphrey said, “You guys haven’t been on the subway yet? Hey, I’ll show you.” And all 25 senators disappeared down an escalator into the subway system, where all the signs are in Cyrillic.
We turned and looked at the KGB types, and I’ve never seen such looks of naked horror. Every one of them could see his transfer orders to Yakutsk when the U.S. press reported that 25 senators had been lost in the Moscow subway system. I’ve never seen so many people run so fast, throwing their cigarettes in every direction and charging down that escalator.
Q: You can picture yourself in the shoes of a KGB agent trying to ride herd on a bunch of foreigners, and that would not be fun.
STEWART: A lot of my KGB associates were certainly not bad personally, and if the system had not been what it was, there were several that I would have been friends with.
I remember having lunch with one KGB officer who was older than I was, somewhere in his 40s. He had spent a good deal of time in the West, his English was very good, but he always had trouble getting U.S. visas because he had been involved at one point in industrial espionage. He knew the western system well enough, and he mused to me, “You know, if I were in Chicago or in London, I could be a corporate CEO or maybe a number two, but I can’t have that kind of responsibility here at my age.” He was right.
“I felt like James Bond”
Q: Were there attempts by the KGB to compromise you?
LEHOVICH: Yes, there were attempts to compromise a couple of my other colleagues. I was not put in that particular situation. I think what they were doing was conducting very intensive biographic intelligence on me, personality surveillance, psychological profiling. I think they were looking at me much more in terms of the long term than anything they wanted to mess up right there and then. I presume they knew that I was going to join the diplomatic service. I didn’t conceal this kind of thing. So, the KGB was actually very decent to me. I knew that they were around all the time. They got me cabs without my knowing it or asking for it.
Once, they pulled me out of a very nasty situation with a half-crazy drunk whose hobby was fist-fighting. He was very good at it. A half-crazy drunk on a snowy night attacked me and was amusing himself by having me on the ground and was stomping on my ears. That’s a very frustrating situation…when some guy is stomping on your ears, when you’re lying on the ground, with the heel of his foot. Luckily, I had a hat on, which didn’t come off. Even more luckily, a taxi pulled up, which I should have noticed earlier was in the neighborhood because of me.
The driver got out and I saw from the ground out of the corner of my eye, he took the guy who was stomping on me, he hit him only once in the back of the neck, and then he stacked him like a big bag of potatoes against the wall. Then he changed the expression on his face to a friendly one and in a friendly way asked me if I wanted a taxi ride. That was the KGB.
So, I didn’t have any hostile behavior. The rules we played by, those of us who were reasonable about it, was not to make life hard for those guys and we didn’t.
Q: I’ve had problems with young Foreign Service officers who start playing games. I think, as you get older, you understand your surveillants are people doing their job and you don’t play games. Why make it more difficult for them?
LEHOVICH: There’s a big temptation to do it. I remember clearly that we were told in a very unambiguous way before and during not to do that. Apparently, it was convincing.
The real reason you don’t do it is because they have one of the dumber jobs in the country, and they were not being well-rewarded for it. It’s not a particular glamorous job to tail people like me around. If you don’t bother them, they think they’ve done a great job. They think they’ve followed you all day, know a lot about you, and have not fallen into disgrace and you haven’t made an obscene gesture at them or anything like that.
The only thing I ever did to those guys, which I think was a good thing to do on balance, was one evening when I was with a young lady at a cafe, one of these hard to find cafes in Moscow, called “The Cafe Lyra,” which was open rather late every day and had a good omelet and very cheap champagne, a very drinkable kind. I sent a bottle of champagne and a glass with my compliments to the KGB monitor who followed me around most evenings. This fellow then left. I didn’t mean for him to leave. I hoped he might enjoy the champagne, but he left. I felt more like James Bond than I ever had before or ever have since. I don’t think that was an unfriendly thing to do to the guy.