I have debating whether or not to share this, or if anyone would even find it interesting, but in light of the controversy swirling around Donald Trump’s adventures in Russia, I thought I would share my own. In 1987 I was in the first group of 30 American journalists, 15 photographers and 15 reporters allowed to travel freely in the Soviet Union as part of Gorbachev’s Petestroika and Glaznost initiatives.
Accompanying me was Bob Adams, Washington Bureau Chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and his interpreter, Janna. I speak Russian, not fluently, but enough to get by, having taken it in high school and college.
We traveled thousands of miles across the Soviet Union, visiting Georgia, Uzbekistan, Siberia, Estonia, the Caucuses, the Trans Caucuses, Tashkent, Novsibirsk, Stavrapol, Leningrad and Moscow. Basing our travels out of Moscow, we would leave for a week and return to conduct more interviews. I shot several hundred rolls of film on this trip, which lasted for months. If it was not the assignment of a lifetime, it was close.
In Moscow, we usually stayed at the National Hotel, a grand old hotel full of history, which was the site of the Soviet government for some months after the Russian Revolution. It is located right next door to the Moscow Ritz-Carlton that Trump stayed at, directly across the street from the Kremlin. It was odd, but every time we returned, more than 7 times, I was in exactly the same room as was Bob. We knew our rooms were bugged and tried not to say or do anything we did not want the Soviets to know. Many of those we interviewed were refuseniks, those who hoped to emigrate from the Soviet Union and we wanted to avoid being followed and surveilled to protect their identities.
The National had a wonderful restaurant. In a land of bad food where you absolutely needed to know the Heimlich Maneuver to survive, it was a culinary oasis. One of my first nights eating there I noticed a pair of Russian women sitting on a bench outside the restaurant. A brunette and a blond. They were Russians, which was odd, as Russians were not allowed unaccompanied in the Intourist Hotels reserved for foreigners. They were very attractive and had a cultured and cool demeanor, sizing me up with a glance. By the second or third time I saw them I realized they were prostitutes. To be friendly and out of my inner core of mischieviousness, I started greeting them and saying hello in Russian. They responded.
Over the course of the visit, I would see them on the arm of this or that foreign visitor, going up in the elevator or the stairs. The National was swarming with Japanese or German businessmen in those days, hoping to capitalize on new business prospects that the changes in Russia would engender.
One night, the blond was in the back of the elevator when I got on and she had a much shorter and sort of dorky Japanese man standing in front of her. I realized she was with him, although he seemed to regard her as furniture. I caught her eye with a glance, looked at the Japanese in front of her and raised an eyebrow. She got a thin smile on her face and rolled her eyes. We both tried not to giggle and I got off at my floor.
In my naivete, I thought she was in the employ of the maître des of the restaurant, nothing happened there without his approval. He was the culinary czar.
One night I went down with Bob for dinner and the blond and the brunette were sitting on their usual bench outside the restaurant. “ Good evening, beautiful capitalists, how are you this evening?” I said in Russian. “We are good, when will we do business?” the blond replied. Laughing, I said in Russian, “I am not able,” managing to look bit sad. They laughed, and we went to dinner. I did tease Bob about interviewing them as we were doing bunches of boring stories about fledgling business startups in Russia. I remember he replied, “The world’s oldest profession, that is not news.”
The last night of our trip to Russia, we met with the brother of a New York-based photographer who had helped us out with some contacts and information when we were researching the trip. He brought his roommate, Slava. Janna and I invited them back to the hotel for a drink, which was a bit of a mistake as Slava had romantic attraction toward Janna and was very stubborn about it. After a few vodkas he started making odd gestures toward a man at the bar, the sort of man that has no neck, if you get my drift. He looked like a ten miles of bad road.
“What are you doing?” I asked him, noticing the guy at the bar was glaring at him. His roommate left hurriedly at this point. “Oh, that guy is KGB and I am daring him to put the handcuffs on me.” Well, he got his wish. Two Militsiya came in to the bar, grabbed him and dragged him into the hallway. No Neck followed.
After a minute we went out to see what was happening and Slava was in handcuffs. When we asked No Neck what was up, he pulled his KGB credential and announced our friend was under arrest. Instead of taking him down the stairs and out of the hotel as we expected, they took him around the corner, past Bob’s room and opened a door and went in.
Janna and I followed 20 feet behind and passed the open door just in time to see four uniformed KGB officers with headphones on, each seated in front of his own Tandberg reel to reel tape deck and listening intently. There was also a desk with a KGB officer sitting behind to one side, and a couch in front of the desk, upon which sat my two friends, the blond and the brunette. I realized in an instant that this was a KGB listening post for the hotel and that the two prostitutes worked for the KGB.
Then the door slammed in my face.
This did explain one odd thing that happened to us. Bob had a habit of talking into the lampshade in his room or mine, when we were planning the next day’s activities. “Hello Boris, testing…one…two.” It was funny the first couple of times he did it, but then he did it in front of our “handler,” Oleg, a communist party official who was not amused. Offended would be a better word. I talked to Bob about not doing that again, but he was unrepentant. “I can do it if I want.” I told him we were most definitely being recorded and that if the Russians found that sort of stuff to be bad spy manners and, as they had a sense of humor, they would turn off the hot water to his room.
The next day, when I stopped by to pick him up for breakfast, he looked like hell. “What happened to you?” I asked.
“My hot water stopped working,” he replied.