I, Spy? Diplomatic Adventures during Soviet-American Détente
Among the challenges of serving as a U.S. diplomat in the USSR during the Cold War years of 1945 to 1991 were the certain knowledge that one’s words and actions were being monitored and reported back to the host – and often hostile – government. Intelligence gathering was carried out by both sides to learn about the other’s intentions, technological advances and military capabilities. Diplomats served under restrictions in terms of the people they could meet and the places they could go, and U.S. officers knew that wherever they went, agents from the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti or Committee for State Security) would surely follow.
James E. Taylor and his wife Louise Pfender Taylor were U.S. diplomats stationed in the Soviet Union from 1974-1976. They experienced the KGB’s watchful eyes during their tenure, realized their apartment was bugged and were mistaken as being spies themselves by a grievously disappointed Russian contact. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed James Taylor in December 1995 and Louise Taylor in January 2001.
Please follow the links to learn more about the Cold War, espionage or Russia/the Soviet Union, to read about similar adventures of The Spy Who Loved (to Follow) Me, A First-Class Spy Flap, and Come Spy with Me, or to hear the podcast of this story.
“You would go to a couple of bookstores and people couldn’t understand why you would want 20 copies of this stupid thing.”
James E. Taylor, Publications Procurement/ Political Officer in Moscow, 1974-1976
JAMES E. TAYLOR: The first year I was what they called the “publications procurement officer,” which is an overt collection effort. The person who has that job buys publications, books, encyclopedias, maps, anything that is in print from as many bookstores in Moscow as you possibly can, but also from out in the provinces in major cities where there might be different publications from those found in Moscow.
It had been going on for about 15-20 years before I got there and went on for years afterwards. It is funded by 15 or 20 government agencies back here, the largest being CIA and State, of course. So, it was a collection, a logistical operation, a management kind of job. My budget was about $250,000 a year, so it required some budgeting effort. This meant a lot of books because they were very cheap. It was fun because I got out and was able to move around a little more and was exposed to unofficial Soviets a lot, people working in bookstores, the Soviet working man or woman.
You would show up in some remote city and go to a couple of bookstores and people couldn’t understand why you would want 20 copies of this stupid thing. They would be willing to sell you as many copies of anything. You could buy the whole bookstore if you wanted to and had the money to do it. But in Moscow I ran into a number of people who were very leery of making everything available. They would sort of give me the impression that they were conducting their own censorship program as to what they should sell to foreigners…
We could travel in most areas of the Soviet Union. They had closed areas, of course. The major method of governmental control keeping us tethered to Moscow and Leningrad when we got too close was logistical. They made it so difficult to make flight and hotel reservations. They made it so difficult, even at the height of détente, in ways that made it so unpleasant that you would often give up trying to do much traveling….
“They were probably just as happy to see you go as soon as possible”
You always traveled in pairs and were briefed to avoid [being entrapped by KGB agents.] As far as the official surveillance, it was definitely there and it seemed to depend upon the concern of the local security officials involved. There was virtually no surveillance in Moscow outside of your housing complex because there were just too many foreigners and it was too big a city and they couldn’t track everybody all of the time. And, much was the same in Leningrad where the post was smaller, but still they just sort of let it go.
But, if you traveled to a smaller town, into Siberia, the Caucasus or someplace like that, you could definitely count on the surveillance guys being very, very evident. They often apparently decided they didn’t care whether you knew they were there or not. They were just going to be right next to you and behind you and see what you did. If you didn’t like it, that’s tough, get on the next plane and leave, which is probably the purpose anyway.
They didn’t particularly welcome your visit and were probably just as happy to see you go as soon as possible. If a little bit of heavy- handed surveillance contributed to that departure, so much the better. So, I would say it depended upon the local official; in the smaller cities they probably were more nervous to have embassy people running around.
[It was possible to develop some friendly contacts but] probably fewer than you could count on one hand; say three people. We knew that they had to have official sanction to see us as frequently as we saw them and do the kinds of things together in Moscow that we did. But, despite the fact that we knew and they probably knew that we knew it, they continued to socialize with us.
There was one couple in particular. They were both professionals, professors in different fields. One was a very senior economist in the government and she was in the arts. We went various places with them, to the theater, the symphony and things of that sort. But it was virtually impossible to do that on a large scale. If you make a couple of friends, that would be about it.
And in those days, in the time of détente, one of our major goals was to try to convince the Soviet government to lay off, if you will, their own citizens who might be inclined to have contact with Westerners. That was part of the agenda we had during détente, that you have to loosen up internally, and one of the concrete ways of doing that was to make it less threatening for your own citizens to have exposure and friendships with Westerners.
How much we succeeded, I don’t know, but some people felt that they had good friends. We did have a few, and some others in the embassy felt that they had developed reasonably close relationships with some Soviets.
“America versus the Soviet Union in the ‘70s was probably the best time to be in Moscow”
Louise Pfender Taylor, Cultural and Information Officer in Moscow, 1974-1976
LOUISE TAYLOR: I was in Moscow from 1974-1976. America versus the Soviet Union in the ‘70s was probably the best time to be in Moscow. It was the height of détente… Although you could not travel as an individual throughout the country, because of the fact that we had this umbrella agreement, particularly in USIA [the United States Information Agency], we were able to travel a great deal.
I accompanied the Robert Joffrey Ballet (seen left), my old stomping ground. They came under the cultural agreement. I accompanied the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to Baku, Yerevan, and Tbilisi. I don’t think I could have gotten there easily [on my own] because our travel was so limited and restricted. I accompanied the New York Jazz Repertory Company to Rostoff on the Don and a number of other places by virtue of the fact that we had a vehicle that allowed us officially to be our cover to travel.
If you just wanted to apply as a couple or as a group of friends to go visit someplace, the Soviet authorities would most normally turn you down. So, that two-year period, which by the late ‘70s was completely marred and turned around by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, really was a flourishing period of relationships between us.
Also, I found, of all the posts I’ve been in, that was the best post for third-country interaction. My husband was the Middle East watcher in the Political Section. We had wonderful relationships with representatives of Arab countries there that we would not have had in other countries. Everybody turned to everyone else because there was no information coming out of the Soviets, so you had to use your contacts.
We had Egyptian, Syrian, Indian, and a lot of Western European friends. We just all bonded together. This created a wonderful third-country international community that for us also existed in Afghanistan, but less so in the other countries we’ve been in. The environment was difficult because it was hard to get appointments with Soviets. But at the same time, everybody was in it together and you had a lot to learn from your colleagues in other embassies. I don’t remember talking as much in my entire life as I did for the two years we were in Moscow. There was just so much to be learned. Every day was a new experience. Every day, they’d throw something different at you…
I remember being approached a few times when Jim and I would be together, for example, walking around in Red Square. We had had a conversation in our apartment one night just speculating, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” “Well, if I had a million dollars, I would…” We talked about travel, building a house someplace… Somebody in the group said, “I would never work again if I had a million dollars.”
So, the next night, Jim and I were wandering around Red Square just because it was a pleasant thing to do every once in a while. A very well dressed young Russian approached us and he had some cassette tapes that he wanted to sell. He supposedly also wanted to purchase our clothing. Then he had some little fake icons that he wanted to sell.
The line that he used was, “Now, if you buy these icons and you sell them on the western market, you’ll never have to work again.” He said this in perfect English. So, whether this was just an unbelievable coincidence or they had taped us, they had thought, “Oh, here is a vulnerability. These people are talking about never having to work again,” not realizing it was just fantasy and for fun, and they tracked us down to Red Square and set this thing up… It’s almost too much to believe that they could have done it…
“If you didn’t hire a maid, there would be a certain amount of ransacking”
… Everybody understood that your phone was tapped both at the office and at home, that the maid that you hired would go through your personal papers. If you didn’t hire a maid, there would be a certain amount of ransacking done at your apartment. The people who lived in our apartment before us were a military couple and they did not hire a maid. Not only was their place ransacked and things left upside down many times; things were also stolen.
We had a maid from the central hiring authority, UPDK, which served the embassies – still do, I think – and I liked her. She was a delightful young woman. I knew that she had certain requirements. As long as you knew it and you understood it and you lived within those limits, I had nothing to hide. If she wanted to look in my checkbook, she could look in my checkbook.
The one funny thing that happened once was that we had gone on a trip and Jim had taken some pictures of me at the beach in a bikini. These were hardly centerfold-type pictures. We had put them up on one of those folder displays where you put slides up and it’s lighted from behind. We were going to sort them into trays.
This photograph of me in a bikini disappeared for about a week from the house. So, we would say very loudly in the living room (we had quite a nice apartment actually), in the dining room, in every room, “You know, I know that slide was there yesterday. I saw it. It was right there on the third row in between these other two pictures.”
We just kept saying it. Pretty soon, it came back. The same was true of our address book. We were very careful never ever to mention the name of Russian contacts or to write their names or addresses down. I had nothing like that lying around. Everything else I thought, “Well, if they’re interested in this, they’re really wasting their time.”
So that did not bother me so much. I assume there were times that we were followed in cars. The only time that I was concerned about it was when we went to visit dissident friends. If you recall, the dissident art movement was one of the big things then. Most of the USIA people had pretty good contacts within the dissident art movement.
One time, I had Jamie Wyeth, the artist, in town as a speaker. I took him around to some of the dissident places and I know we were followed. But there was no way to do it otherwise. There was no way I could have gotten to these places. It was almost impossible to drive in Moscow. That meant that frequently you had to go with a driver. Simply by virtue of being with a driver, the KGB would know where you were going.
The blatant following really occurred more out of town. Jim and a friend were followed in a very comical way in Minsk once. He and another guy had gone to buy books in Minsk. The Political Section had a big book buying budget. They bought up every book there was in Minsk.
Since there were no cars in Minsk at that time, it was quite easy to tail Jim and his colleague. They knew they were being tailed by sort of a “Mutt and Jeff” team. It was pretty comical. One night, they went to a nightclub in the hotel they were staying in. These two thugs were sitting over there. They’d wave and they’d wave back.
The funniest time when I was along was when we were in Leningrad buying books. We had been driving around all day buying books. I was with Jim at this point. You had to travel with somebody, either your spouse or someone else. So, I went on that trip to Leningrad. We went around and ordered all of the books.
All of the bookstore people were familiar with this embassy program. They said, “Okay, it will take us three hours to bundle these all up. Come back in three hours.”
So, Jim and I went around and looked at things in Leningrad. At the end of the day, we went back and picked up parcels everywhere. It was the last stop of the day. It was snowing. It was winter. It was getting very dark, about 4:00 PM. Our tail was behind us. They had been pretty bumbling throughout the day and kind of comical.
We were driving around in one of these little Zhiguli, which is those Soviet Fiats that belonged to the consulate in Leningrad. We pulled up in front of the bookstore and we went in. There were just stacks of books. I didn’t know how they were all going to fit in the little car. We came staggering out with them and our tail came in the bookstore. They picked up the parcels, brought them out to the car, helped us put them in the car. We all shook hands.
We spoke pretty good Russian at that point. We said, “Well, that’s it for the day.” That was one time when it was very obvious. We did nothing. Other than buying the books, we went to do some sightseeing. We went to lunch. Occasionally, when you were in another city, somebody very odd who spoke perfect English would show up sitting at your dinner table.
“At the end of the evening, Jim opens the little note. It’s an agent’s message”
There are some funny stories about happenings in Moscow. The best story of all time that we still talk about now actually happened to Jim, but we were all involved in it. That was when he was traveling with the then Secretary of the Treasury, Simon. They were all on the same plane.
A press guy, a radio guy who spoke perfect English, Boris, who worked for Radio Moscow, sat down next to Jim and they were chatting on their way to someplace on the Black Sea. Jim was reading a book by Laurens Van der Post called A View of All the Russias in paperback. It is a wonderful book.
Boris and Jim chatted all the way. At the end of the trip, Boris said, “I’d really love to read that book. Would you mind lending it to me?” Jim said, “Sure.” Anytime you can, you get a western publication in somebody’s hands. So, he gave him the book.
Then a series of invitations came from Boris and his wife, who was a Swedish language broadcaster for Radio Moscow who spoke no English. This was a bit unusual. So, we told our various bosses that we were going to accept these. They said, “Fine.”
One night, we reciprocated by having Boris and his wife and a couple of other officials, no dissidents, at our apartment for dinner. The big thing in Moscow was to show movies. It was a great way to entertain. The Russians loved it. We were showing Blazing Saddles or something like that.
One of our guests was to this day a very good friend to the then-CIA station chief. He lived in the apartment directly below us. We had a bunch of other people. As Jim was taking the movie screen down (we had our own screen), Boris ducked behind the screen and pushed this little piece of paper in Jim’s hand.
Jim just quietly pocketed it and continued on. The evening continued on. I think Jim actually took Boris and his wife home that night, if I’m not mistaken. At the end of the evening, Jim opens the little note. It’s an agent’s message.
So, we took it into the embassy the next day. Our friend Bob was there and other people were there. He said, “Yes, this is a legitimate message, but I have no idea why he’s giving it to you.”
The station chief then asked my supervisor, the PAO [Public Affairs Officer] Ray Benson, a wonderful guy, who always likes a bit of mischief, and Jim’s boss, Marshall Brement. Both of them authorized our continuing to see Boris just until the Agency could figure out what was going on here.
So, this message went back to headquarters. It turned out that Boris was, according to what he said in the message, a legitimate double or maybe triple agent, but the Agency, the CIA, had dropped him over the years. They had used him years back, but then they dropped him. His information was of moderate interest only.
So, life continued on. We would see them occasionally. Each time that we saw them, Boris would give Jim a message.
“Where is my money? I haven’t been paid!”
Finally, we were getting ready to leave Moscow. I think it was the end of our second year. Boris and his wife invited us to the opera. They were going on a trip to the Black Sea and they had really wanted me to go with them. Every day, they’d call me up and say, “Oh, Louise, you’ve got to come with us. We love you so much!”
I just wasn’t able to go. So, I got together a little pile of paperback books for Boris to take and then I got some fashion magazines and house magazines for his wife. Because she could not read English, she liked to look at the pictures. One of the books that I got for Boris was Tinker, Tailor, Sailor, Spy by John le Carré – I thought he would think that is a good read – and a couple of other things.
I put them in this bag and off we went to the opera. Jim had decided and he told the station chief that, on that night, he was going to tell Boris that he really had the wrong man, that we were leaving and that if Boris really wanted the relationship with the embassy, he had to do it with the correct outfit. So, he decided to do this at the intermission.
I went off with the wife. Jim went off with Boris. We got back to our seats and the lights went down and Jim whispered to me, “I can’t tell you anything more, but just ditch the books. Don’t give him the books. Give him the magazines.” This was to have taken place later in the car.
So I thought something had happened. We got through the rest of the opera. As we went home in the car together, I gave her the bag of magazines and I put the books under the seat. What turned out to have been happening over a seven or eight month period: Boris was quite irate at Jim when Jim told him that Jim was not a real agent and that he was dealing with the wrong person.
Boris said, “Well, why didn’t you tell me this from the very beginning? On top of that, where is my money? I haven’t been paid!”
Jim said, “Well, I just don’t know anything about this. I don’t even know why you turned up in my life.”
Boris said, “Well, you activated me.”
Jim said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Boris said, “Well, what about the word ‘Cossack?’”
It turns out that when Jim had handed the book A View of All the Russias to Boris, he had turned down the corner of the page where he had finished reading and it pointed to a chapter called “Cossacks.” This was Boris’ code name from the ‘60s. Boris had thought that the embassy was asking him to come back to work for them.
All of the time, he had been passing these messages of a moderate degree of interest to the CIA and they were not paying him for this and they were not giving him all the stuff he was used to. As we say to our friend Bob, and we still see him – we go out to dinner a lot – “Here he was, he (Jim) missed one of the biggest stories that was right under his nose, right in our apartment, and he had no idea what was going on. He had no idea why Boris had resurfaced.”
So, when we got back to the apartment that night after the opera, Jim went straight to the bookcase. Boris had returned the book some months earlier and Jim had just put it back on the shelf. He took it off of the shelf and opened it up and there was Boris’ first message saying, “I’m here. I’m back. These are my terms. This is what I expect.”
That had never been passed to the CIA because Jim didn’t have a clue. I think that’s really one of the best coincidental stories that I’ve ever heard and one of the best ones that happened to us.