Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Tales from days in the Soviet Union


                                                  Peter and Paul Fortress, from across the Neva

Here are a couple of stories from the days when I served as Naval Attaché in the Soviet Union 1981-83.  

Women’s Day in Leningrad—Fats took the day off!
                We took the Midnight Red Arrow from Moscow to Leningrad, arriving on schedule at 8:25 a.m. A driver met us at the train station and drove us to the American Consulate, where we stowed our bags and jumped into our car, all set for a day of work.
            One of the things we did a lot of was "Order-of-Battle".  We had to report ships in port, including boats and ships that just moved around the canals and rivers of the USSR.  The information we provided was correlated with information from agents, from satellite imagery, and electronic intelligence intercept to maintain a picture of the Naval Order of Battle of the USSR.  This meant taking a lot of long, long walks in some pretty crappy, snowy places.          
One of our favorite walks was along the Neva River at Schmidt’s Bank, in Leningrad.  Here hundreds of boats and often warships and submarines tied up.  Many of the smaller, lighter draft boats were awaiting a schedule to move up the canals that cut across Russia. Here we could see these boats and ships, and Red Fleet ships, and also ships under construction in the many shipyards of Leningrad
Whenever we would take these walks, we tried to take along our cameras and collect photos of interesting things.  Photography in this area was forbidden, however.
            The KGB assigned an elderly “goon” that attachés named “Fats.”  He and some of his associates generally were around to follow us wherever we walked, or drove, and to make our job harder, or impossible.  They wore the red armbands of “Druzhniki,” or “concerned citizens.”  Sort of like elderly volunteers who operate as school crossing guards, except these were assigned to look after the foreign “spies.”  The Soviets considered all foreign diplomats spies—they hadn’t changed their attitude toward foreigners in centuries.
            One day, March the 8th, 1983 to be exact, it was International Women’s Day.  Now, in fact, the Soviets didn’t give much of a hoot about women’s rights, except the right of old women to stand in the street all day long in the winter, smashing ice with a heavy iron rod.
            But this day, as we arrived to do our job of collecting intelligence in Leningrad, there was NO KGB.  They had the day off!
            I was traveling with my assistant, Pierce Crabtree,  a big, burly former Navy football player. With no KGB to bother us, we went wild photographing shipyards and ships and everything we could see.  We were driving a Soviet version of a Land Rover, called a “Niva.”  We thought this would be a great day to check out some radar installations near the Czars’ summer palace at Petrodvorets.  However, somewhere between Kipen’ and Ropsha, we got stuck in the snow. 
            If the KGB had been around, we would not have been able to get that far.  Now, free to travel, we had gone and gotten ourselves in trouble.  The snow was pretty deep.
Fortunately, along came a bus full of Russians.  The driver and some of the passengers got out and helped push us out of the snowbank. 

Canal in downtown St. Petersburg, near the Hermitage

The Day we took the head photographer to Leningrad.   There were many communist Africans in Moscow, but one day we took our leading enlisted photographer, a black Air Force Sergeant, to Leningrad (Now re-named St. Petersburg) with us.  He had processed thousands of rolls of film for us back at our Embassy, and we thought he would enjoy visiting this very interesting city in the north.  However, when the KGB saw us with a black man in our car, they went nuts.  They acted as if we had a secret weapon.
            They normally would follow our car with another car full of goons.  But this day, they had four cars, switching off amongst one another.  These were all Soviet Zhigulis, the Russian version of the Fiat, made in a huge factory built with the help of the Italian Fiat company in a city named Tolyatti (after Italian Communist Togliatti) several hundred miles southeast of Moscow.
            Often I would make notes about what I wanted to observe on our drive that day, and I would write these on water-soluble rice paper, which I could easily pop in my mouth if we should be apprehended. This special paper would dissolve at once.
            When, with the four cars of goons following us I thought we would get hauled out, I decided it was time to swallow my notes.  However, when you are scared, which I was, your mouth dries up so much that you can’t even dissolve the paper.
            We were driving next to one of the many canals that run through Leningrad, and since our surveillance was not in sight at the moment, I thought it would be a good time to stop and throw the mouthful of rice paper in the canal.  I think it was the Griboyedova Canal.
            Wrong!  As I should have suspected in icy, frozen Leningrad, there was just ice in the canal.  Foiled! My mouthful of paper just rested on the ice.
            At any rate, we never got apprehended.   The Sergeant had a good ride around town.
            I would make a lousy spy.


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