Author: Kent Moors, Ph.D.
I decided this week’s Classified Intelligence Brief Spy Tale would follow up on one of the matters with which our last ended (Cornering “Sergei” in Arbat,” CIB, June 9, 2021). There are really two reasons for this. First, this one had little difficulty passing by “mother.” Second, last week’s Spy Tale occasioned a colleague from the period to contact me for some long overdue comparing of remembrances. Both of us were in the USSR at the time but doing some quite different things.
Anyway, “Sergei’s” name came up and that occasioned my writing the following tale rather quickly and sending it off for review. Since the entire series of episodes have already passed muster, it received quick approval.
Remember from last week that this fellow I called Sergei was my KGB shadow while I lived in Moscow. As last week’s tale recounted, after breaking the ice on a freezing Saturday afternoon in the artsy Arbat section of the city, we had developed a working friendship.
My intel position was buried deep inside a NOC status (no official cover). On the surface I was a foreign lecturer/researcher serving in an invited capacity at an Institute of the Soviet Academy of Sciences (AHCCCP). Sergei had been assigned in a “soft” surveillance capacity since I was giving every overt indication of doing only what the academic position required. My other role was a slow moving, long-term operation that never required I do anything out of the ordinary.
That was the benign situation Sergei’s work reflected. We set up an accommodation and would fall into its rhythm every time I returned to Moscow. He was my “oversight officer” for KGB purposes and would pick me up once I came though passport control at Sheremetyevo Airport.
Well, today’s story indicates how one could fall into the deep end of the pool despite having done nothing to deserve it. This episode came close to sinking a multi-year operation because of something over which I had absolutely no control.
It was the end of August 1986 and I was preparing to depart Moscow for a respite back at my base in London, scheduled to return in October to renew my lectureship.
In those days, a Soviet visa was a separate piece of paper stuck in your passport. It would be stamped upon entrance into the country and removed at departure. Unlike just about any other place in the world, the USSR required that your visa designate particular arrival and departure dates along with the specific travel information. In the case of travel by air, this required the flight numbers and airlines used, along with arrival/departure times.
Changing outgoing travel arrangements once in country was quite difficult. It involved going over to an office nearby the Lubyanka KGB headquarters and prison complex.
At the time there was still the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky looming over the square in front of the building. He founded the organs of state security (initially called the Cheka) following the Bolshevik Revolution. A crowd (with the help of army engineers and five of their cranes) brought the statue down (colloquially known as “Iron Felix,” also Dzerzhinsky’s nickname) on the early morning of August 22, 1991.
The removal followed a failed coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev, the last (and actually only) Soviet President. “Iron Felix” was then moved to the odd graveyard of Soviet statuary called Fallen Monument Park maintained by the Mossovet, the diehard remnants of the old Moscow soviet.
Iron Felix was officially regarded as a statement of national defense against foreign aggressors and still has a resonance today among a portion of the population. It is once again in the news. There is another move championed by conservative elements to put the statue back up. In late February of this year, a referendum was announced in which the city’s population would decide whether to put Iron Felix back or use the space for a likeness of Alexander Nevsky, a 13th century prince, defender of Russia from aggression, and an Orthodox saint.
I always found it one of the more curious aspects of Moscow that this infamous building and Iron Felix were located across the street from this:
Detsky Mir (“Children’s World”) is the largest toy store in the world. Now a 525-store chain across Russia and the former Soviet Union, this remains the largest single building devoted to children to be found anywhere on earth.
But back to the problems of changing a visa in the 1980s. This was a rabbit warren. If you fell in, it would take an inordinate amount of time and subject you to disproportionate suspicion.
One never tried to alter travel dates unless faced with a true emergency. In my case, it was a non-starter. It would attract the very attention I wanted to avoid.
So, it was unexpected that somebody was pounding on my door at 2AM in late August 1986.
Now, the timing of this was also hardly reassuring. It was in the early hours that the KGB would come calling if one were to be detained. It didn’t help at all that, upon opening the door, I was greeted by Sergei and two huge guys right out of central casting.
“You are leaving,” he blurted as the other two started throwing clothes into my suitcases. “I can’t,” I answered, “my visa requires I leave next Wednesday.”
He looked at me askance and snorted, ”No, you are leaving now.” He asked for my passport and the four of us tumbled into the obligatory black Volga sedan, the standard issue KGB vehicle, and raced off.
Today, there are three major airports servicing foreign flyers to and from Moscow. But in the 1980s, there was only one airport and a single terminal. The airport was Sheremetyevo on the other side of the Outer Ring Highway, and the terminal was Number 2.
Sheremetyevo-2 remains even today one of the worst arrival locations in the so-called “developed” world. I would usually spend three to four hours in line at passport control. The delays were deliberate, meant to intimidate and allow for the identification of “persons of interest.” As seen below in a more recent photo, not much seems to have changed in the decades since.
Back then Sheremetyevo-2 had another physical dimension that would comprise a very personal barrier in several later episodes, a bitter aspect to my leaving Moscow. Passing over from ticketing to luggage inspection during the Soviet period, a foreigner would cross a two-meter-wide yellow line painted on the floor. Only those with permission to leave the county were allowed across it. All Soviet citizens had to stop or risk immediate arrest.
By the time 1988-89 approached, Marina and I were to be married. But every time she drove me to Sheremetyevo that yellow line was the end for her. I would pass, she could not. It was a terrible feeling.
As our entourage approached the airport, Sergei handed me back my passport. In it was a visa and a new SAS ticket to London via Stockholm and Copenhagen (seems I was put last minute on the only flight available). My flight the next week was to have been on BOAC (the precursor to British Airways).
Sergei escorted me directly to the luggage check, usually the first of several irritating delays getting out of the USSR. His two “associates” brought my suitcases. The KGB border guard who was to conduct my luggage search was young. That was hardly unusual. These were initial postings right out of the academy.
He opened my passport and examined the visa. His face immediately froze and I was signaled through immediately without having anything at all searched. Sergei then brought me to a special officer who inspected the passport, stamped the visa, and handed back both … to Sergei.
He smiled and gave me back my passport with the separate visa paper still inside. This was not normal procedure; the paper always remained with the passport official at the airport. “A souvenir,” he said and then left.
Upon sitting at the gate, I opened the passport. Within it – my souvenir – was a KGB export visa. As far as the flustered young border guard was concerned, I was a KGB asset setting off on a foreign mission and Sergei was my case officer! The novice security officer did not want to know anything about what may have been in those suitcases.
But I still had no clue what was happening. I began piecing it together after landing at Heathrow outside London. The US had arrested Gennadi Zakharov, a Russian scientist working at the UN in New York, following a sting operation. Zakharov had helped a Guyanese student to fund his graduate studies and found him a job with an American defense contractor. In return the student was to provide Zakharov with technical documents on US Air Force aircraft. The transfer of papers for money took place in a Queens subway station. The FBI converged and arrested the Russian on the spot. The student had been working undercover for the Feds.
The Soviets were going to respond in kind and quickly.
On Saturday, August 30,1986, US News & World Report Moscow correspondent Nicolas Daniloff was arrested and charged with espionage, an event the rest of the world heard about only on September 3. The Kremlin claimed he was found to be in possession of classified documents after meeting with a source in a Moscow cemetery.
It was orchestrated, of course. Daniloff was picked up to exchange for the guy under detention back in New York. This was a common enough KGB ploy. One person would throw papers at you, while several others came out of the woodwork to arrest you for having them. It even smacked of payback for the way Zakharov had been apprehended.
On several occasions during my position at the institute of the Soviet Academy, somebody would shove something at me while I was walking up or down the central staircase. In each instance, it was a student or junior staff member hoping for an opinion on a paper he or she had written. Nonetheless, each time, my heart immediately ended up in my throat as visions of “dancing KGB thugs” raced across my thoughts.
On September 23, Nick was allowed to leave without being charged. Zakharov pled nolo contendere and went back to Mother Russia, and Soviet dissident Yuri Orlov emigrated to the West. The tit for tat continued for another month with Washington expelling 100 Soviets (80 of whom believed to be intelligence officers), while Moscow threw out 10 US diplomats and withdrew all 260 Russian support staff working at the American embassy in Moscow. The last move crippled all US ambassadorial and counselor activities in the country.
Upon my return in October, Sergei and I had tea and he filled me in on what had happened. Back in late August, the KGB had hastily put together a list of non-official Americans in Moscow. They were going to arrest somebody as a bargaining chip, he said, adding, “Your name was third on that list.”
A KGB officer had saved me from arrest not knowing that my deeper reason for being in Moscow was a several year US intel operation against his organization. “Mother” still is adamant in not allowing me to write anything about that Moscow op.
However, Sergei and I finally compared notes on that matter over twenty years later. In the interim, he saved Marina’s life in 1993 (an episode to be discussed in a later Spy Tale) and we had developed a much stronger bond.
Nick would also figure in a later personal matter. He became the chair of the journalism department at Northeastern University in Boston. Following our marriage and establishing residence in the US, Marina would write a syndicated newspaper column and take over the directorship of Northeastern’s Summer Program in Moscow…from Ruth Daniloff, Nick’s wife.
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