by Jonathan Rickert
During my foreign service tour in Moscow 1966-1968, embassy security regulations prohibited employees from traveling alone within the Soviet Union. We were warned that we risked being targeted by the KGB, whose operatives might attempt to compromise us in any number of ways.
Among those often needing a travel companion to comply with this regulation were the embassy’s Publications Procurement Officers (PPOs), who traveled extensively within the country buying all sorts of books and other publications for various U.S. government organizations. And that is how I came to be invited to join PPO Bill Pryce on a book-buying trip to Ufa and Kazan in early December 1966.
On December 6, Bill and I flew from Sheremetyevo Airport in an AN-10 to Ufa, the capital of the Bashkiri Republic, over 700 miles southeast of Moscow, on the western side of the Ural Mountains. It was a cold, dirty, ramshackle city, with lots of poorly built, new apartment buildings mingling with many old, freestanding wooden houses that seemed destined for early demolition. Although it seemed a rather out-of-the-way place to look for publications, apparently the goal was to sweep up as much printed material as possible, including phone books.
Our rounds of the local bookstores completed, we repaired to our rooms at the Hotel Bashkiri, the only semi-decent-looking hotel in town. After freshening up, I joined Bill for dinner in the hotel’s spacious but nearly empty restaurant. A sad sounding combo played oldies but goodies across the room. We were well into our forgettable meal when two young men approached our table and asked, in Russian, if they could join us, a not uncommon occurrence in the USSR in those days. We agreed and soon were engaged in conversation with them. They said that they were engineering graduates from Moscow who had been dispatched to Ufa as a form of national service for two or three years. They considered Ufa to be a godforsaken place and were eager to return to Moscow as soon as possible.
When our new tablemates discovered that we were Americans, they peppered us with questions about the United States. The only specific topics that I recall were Vietnam and the assassination of President Kennedy. The two Russians were polite and non-polemical, although predictably critical of U.S. actions in Vietnam; they opined that Lyndon Johnson must have engineered the President’s death, since he had the most to gain by it. The interesting conversation was aided by repeated orders of vodka.
After a time two young women sidled up to our table and, addressing Bill and me, said that they had overheard us speaking Russian and could not tell if we were Poles or Czechs. One was plain and plus-sized while the trimmer, more attractive one had a full set of stainless-steel-like metallic teeth. They expressed, or at least feigned, amazement when we said that we were Americans and asked if they could join us. Thus we ended up with the two Russian men sitting on either side of Bill, while I sat between the two women.
The discussion continued, and after a while the steely-toothed beauty whispered to me that she found the conversation fascinating and suggested that we retire to her room for further talk there. Although I pretended not to hear her, she repeated her offer several times. Finally, in a burst of vodka-fueled inspiration, I told her that the man across the table, Bill, was my boss, and I could do NOTHING without his permission, a concept that Russians had no trouble understanding. After that she made a halfhearted pass at Bill before she and her friend drifted away. Bill told me afterwards that the Russian men had been warning him quietly that the two women were bad news and that we should stay clear of them.
What to make of this experience? Were the women plants? Most likely so. We joked that the KGB must have a low opinion of us as targets to have sent the B—or C—team to try to entrap us. Were the two engineers also KGB affiliated? Possibly, though I suspect that they were just curious and bored. In any case, the whole episode was a useful introduction for me, early in my assignment, to the ambiguities and uncertainties confronting foreigners in the murkiness that was the USSR at that time. And never during the rest of my tour in Moscow did I hear about another KGB seduction attempt with the “bait” possessing metallic choppers.
Retired Senior Foreign Service officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent over 35 years of his career in London, Moscow, Vienna, Port of Spain, Sofia, and Bucharest (twice), as well as in Washington. His last two overseas assignments were as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bulgaria and Romania. Mr. Rickert holds a B.A. degree in history from Princeton University and an M.A. in international relations from the George Washington University.