by Yale Richmond
Anyone who served in Moscow in the old days will be familiar with the work of the Committee for State Security, commonly known as the KGB, one of whose tasks it was to keep track of foreign diplomats and what they were doing in the Soviet Union. In the new Russia, the KGB has been replaced by the Federal Security Service (FSB), but its functions remain the same, and most Russians still use the old KGB acronym.
American Embassy personnel, as well as their wives, were prime targets for the KGB.
Apartments and telephones were bugged, and KGB harassment made working and living conditions difficult. That became especially so in 1986 when all local Russian employees of the American Embassy were withdrawn by the Soviet government in retaliation for the U.S. expulsion of Soviet personnel assigned to the United Nations in New York. All routine housekeeping and administration at the Moscow embassy had to be performed by the American staff, including such non-diplomatic tasks as shoveling snow, loading and unloading trucks, washing floors, and cleaning toilets.
For Americans in Moscow, the KGB was everywhere. It monitored our phone calls in the office and at home, followed some of us around the city and in our travels, staffed many of the Soviet offices where we did official business, and from time to time attempted to entrap us in illegal activities or compromising personal positions.
My wife, for example, was interested in modern art, and made the rounds of artist studios. On two occasions, she was set up for a rendezvous at the apartment of an art dealer, ostensibly to see some interesting paintings, but more likely to become the victim of an entrapment. On both occasions she had the good sense to take me along, which surely disappointed the KGB plotters. I distinctly remember the disappointment on their faces when they saw me enter the room on the heels of my wife.
For another American, his contacts with the KGB were more intimate. He had made the acquaintance of some Russians and had been invited over for a few drinks. The drinks, however, were quite potent, and he passed out. When he awoke and had to go to the bathroom, he found that his underpants were on backwards, presumably for the taking of photographs in flagrante while he was out cold.
Another American diplomat reported a close call. Traveling alone on a train trip from Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to Moscow, he was surprised to learn that he was to share his sleeper compartment with a very attractive young Russian woman. Ever on the alert, as the train left the station he heard her rustling her clothes as she disrobed and said to him “Turn around, I want to show you something.” “I don’t want to see it,” he replied, as he turned his back to her for the rest of the trip and a long sleepless night.
Were our phone conversations really recorded? Embassy personnel who lived in an apartment building outside the embassy compound reported that every morning a Russian would climb the stairs for a brief visit to the attic, presumably to collect the tapes from the previous day’s monitoring. If that sounds far fetched, there is also the story of American staffers aboard a Soviet plane during one of the Nixon-Brezhnev summit meetings. A sign on the lavatory door read “temporarily closed,” but when an American had “to go” and entered the lavatory, he found a Russian technician seated there, not with his pants down but with his earphones on. And an embassy wife once picked up her apartment phone to make a call but instead heard a recording of a telephone call she had made the previous day.
Old habits die hard. Construction of a new American embassy building was halted in 1986 when American technicians found that, although preventive measures had been taken, the building was riddled with Soviet listening devices, As a result, completion of the building was delayed several years while Congress and the State Department debated whether to try to remove all the listening devices or simply tear down the building and start all over again. Construction was resumed in 1996, and the new embassy building was finally occupied in May 2000. Thirty-one years earlier, I had been asked by the State Department to tell them by priority telegram how many rooms the cultural section would need in the new embassy.
On a flight from Tbilisi to Moscow once, on which seats were pre-assigned, I found myself seated next to a Russian who was unusually friendly and engaged me in conversation in English, French, and German, three languages in which he and I were conversant. We talked about many things but I kept my guard up, aware that he was probably on a provocative mission. Sure enough, within a few days he called me at the embassy and asked to be invited to one of the embassy’s film showings to which Soviet contacts were often invited, so he could keep his English up to date. Any Russian who had the audacity to call the embassy with such a request had to be calling for the KGB.
On a flight from Moscow to Novosibirsk once, my Aeroflot plane had to make an unscheduled landing at Omsk after the Novosibirsk airport was temporarily closed because of bad weather. But Omsk was a closed city, and I was not supposed to be there, even on the airport tarmac. After we had landed at Omsk, a big bus pulled up alongside the plane, and I, the only foreigner on a plane with every seat taken, was approached by a stewardess and invited to board the bus. I saw a diplomatic incident brewing, but instead, at the Omsk terminal lounge a glass of freshly brewed tea awaited me while the other passengers had to sit in the crowded plane for more than an hour until the weather over Novosibirsk had cleared. Was it an example of Russian hospitality, or the KGB’s determination to keep its eye on me while I was in Omsk?
What was the KGB looking for? An indication came a few years ago when, on a visit to Moscow and the new Russia, I met one of the Russian women who taught Russian to Embassy officers and their wives. She asked about my wife who had been one of her star students, and I told her that we were now divorced. Expressing her surprise, she added “We thought you had the best marriage in the embassy.”
But the KGB could at times be helpful. They were usually the best informed of Soviet diplomatic personnel and not hesitant to express their opinions. Those KGB officers who had served abroad knew well how far behind the West the Soviet Union was. At an official lunch in Moscow, a KGB officer seated next to me had the temerity to tell me that what was wrong with his country was that it was being run by a bunch of old men. How right he was! And at a diplomatic reception at the American Embassy, a KGB officer whom I knew from his and my service in Washington informed me that there was a conversation at the other end of the room that would interest me, as it indeed did. And in Washington, a senior Soviet intelligence officer with whom we lunched from time to time gave us some useful tips in negotiating with the Russians.
Portions of this article are excerpted, in part, from the author’s book, Practicing Public Diplomacy: A Cold War Odyssey, published by Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2008.
Yale Richmond was a Cultural Officer in the U.S. Foreign Service for thirty years, with overseas postings in Germany, Laos, Poland, Austria, and the Soviet Union. Now a writer on international cultural communication, his latest book is Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (New York: Hippocrene Books).