The Magazine

Never Speak to Strangers

A memoir of journalism, the Cold War, and the KGB.

Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By DAVID SATTER
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February 1977

A bleak, overcast day in Riga had given way to a night that was clear and bitter cold. The red lights on the last car of the Riga to Tallinn overnight train glowed in the frigid air as the train backed into the station. I gathered my things and walked to the seventh car, where I handed in my ticket and boarded the train. I entered my compartment and was surprised to see a young woman seated on one of the bunks. She had black hair, which was freshly set, a heart-shaped face, pale complexion, and lovely dark eyes. I guessed she was about 28 years old.

I took off my coat, put my suitcase under the bunk, and sat down opposite her. Two other people soon joined us. The first was a tall, sandy-haired man with broad shoulders who was wearing a heavy coat and a double-breasted jacket. He said he was a boxing instructor from the Ukraine. The second was another woman in her twenties, who entered the compartment carrying several packages. She was thin and birdlike with a petulant expression. She had red hair and wore bright red lipstick. She said her name was Masha Ivanova.

As the train began moving, the attendant gave us back our tickets and brought us glasses of tea. Rivers and the skeletons of bridges passed by in the moonlight. The pale lights of occasional villages appeared and disappeared on the horizon, and the train was soon rolling rhythmically through a landscape of pine forests and snow-blanketed fields.

It occurred to me that it might be more than just a coincidence that a man and two attractive women my own age were riding in the same compartment with me. But I decided that this compartment on a train between two Baltic capitals on a quiet Saturday night--which the KGB was undoubtedly taking off anyway--was a sanctuary. I felt relaxed. Besides, I believed that members of my generation had something in common wherever we happened to be.

I had decided to travel to the Baltics at the suggestion of Kestutis Jokubynas, a former Lithuanian political prisoner I had met in Moscow. Kestutis and I agreed to meet in Vilnius, where he lived, and he promised to give me the names of contacts in Riga and Tallinn. Being new to the Soviet Union, I also asked the Soviet news agency, Novosti, for help in setting up official interviews.

I arrived in Vilnius by train on February 15 shortly after dawn, and met Kestutis at my hotel. We took a bus to his apartment. He lived in a single room in a housing block in a new area of the city. A solitary window let in the gray light of an overcast day, and the walls were bare except for a rectangle of barbed wire over the foldout bed, a reminder of the 17 years that Kestutis had spent in the camps. Kestutis poured me a cup of tea. He said he had little hope that he would live to see an independent Lithuania. He then mentioned, almost as an afterthought, that the next day, February 16, was the anniversary of Lithuanian independence.

At 5 P.M., it became dark. We traveled by bus to the Old City, the heart of historic Vilnius, a section of weathered stone buildings, winding narrow streets, and gloomy inner courtyards in the shadow of ornate Catholic churches. From there, we took a bus to see Antanas Terleckas, another nationalist, who lived outside of Vilnius, on the edge of the Nemencine Forest. When we arrived, Terleckas welcomed us, and we entered a small room crowded with people of all ages who were sitting on worn couches and chairs. The conversation was about what would happen the next day, with nearly everyone predicting a show of force on the streets as in past years on February 16.

Several of the teenagers said that they would try to put flowers on the grave of Jonas Basanavicius, the father of the Lithuanian national movement, who, by an odd coincidence, had died on February 16. The point of laying flowers on his grave was to mark the national anniversary. But if stopped by the police, they could pretend that it was a personal gesture on the anniversary of Basanavicius's death. This would convince no one, but the police could be counted on not to arrest them at the graveside because that would acknowledge their fear of nationalism, which officially did not exist.

The dissidents described the Lithuanian national activity in recent months--underground journals, the raising of the old Lithuanian flag over the Ministry of Internal Affairs, arrests. I filled up most of a notebook. When we parted, I agreed to meet Kestutis in front of my hotel at 7 the following night.

The next morning was cold and overcast. I went with my Novosti guide for an interview with a government official, then in the afternoon for a trip to a collective farm. On the way, our car stopped to pick up a man who said he was an agronomist.