A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The KGB And Me

Next week the cloak-and-dagger television series "The Americans," about a typical middle class couple who are actually Soviet spies working undercover in Washington D.C. during the Reagan years, debuts its third season.
The narrative has now moved to 1985. Leonid Brezhnev is dead, and the USSR is being run by a succession of aging apparatchiks who keep dying, one after another.
By coincidence, that's exactly when I had a run-in with a Russian spy myself.
The date was Aug. 25, 1985, and the top news story of the day was that Samantha Smith had been killed in a plane crash.
Samantha was a 9-year-old from Maine who had written a charmingly innocent letter in 1983 to Soviet president Yuri Andropov, asking why the Russians hated us.
Andropov recognized a good public relations opportunity and promptly invited Samantha to the USSR to see for herself.
Which she did, to great fanfare, and she became a symbol of hope for world peace. When she died, everyone was feeling all misty-eyed, and the spirit of d├ętente was in the air.
Dianne Feinstein was Mayor of San Francisco at the time, and she was big on promoting East-West understanding. By coincidence, she threw a party honoring the Soviet Consul General the day after Samantha died.
I was covering the event, and I introduced myself to the Consul General. He promptly grabbed me by the elbow, ushered me across the room, and introduced me to a TASS reporter named Yuri Algunov. "You're a journalist. He's a journalist," he said. "Talk!"
Imbued with the spirit of Samantha Smith, I accepted all this at face value – big mistake, as I was to discover – and invited Yuri over to the East Bay the following week for lunch.
The lunch went well until we paid the bill, and then he said, "Let's go for a walk."
As we walked he said, "You know, I could feed you some stories that would give you great scoops. Are you interested?"
I thought, "Martin, you are getting way out of your league." I told him I'd think it over and promptly ran home and called my friend Dennis, who used to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency, for advice.
"The guy's a KGB agent," Dennis said. "He's trying to 'cultivate' you. The first few stories he feeds you will be true. Then, when he's got you hooked, he'll feed you a lie that will do big damage to our country. I'd call the FBI right away."
Which I did. The agent who answered the phone said, "Hi, Martin. We've been wondering when we were going to hear from you. Been talking to our friend Yuri, have you?"
"Yes," I gulped.
"Well, in case you're curious, he's exactly what you think he is."
"Oh my God," I said. "How did I get into this?"
"Don't worry," he said. "Happens all the time. Hey, how'd you like to help us catch him? It'll make a great column for you."
Now I knew I was in over my head. I hastily declined, and he took it with good grace.
Funny thing, though: Yuri was supposed to call me back to find out if I would accept his offer. But he never did. Could it be that both sides were bugging me at the same time?

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