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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We left the collective farm in the late afternoon, and the agronomist proposed that we take tea at a nearby club. I was anxious to return to Vilnius but agreed, and we drove for 20 minutes before arriving at an isolated house. Although we had supposedly come for tea, the table was set for an elaborate meal. The agronomist said the club contained a Finnish sauna. He referred to the sauna several more times and then, elbowing me gently, asked, "How would you like to try it out?"

I declined politely, trying not to show how uncomfortable I was with the suggestion. An hour passed in increasingly stilted conversation. Finally, ignoring the agronomist and addressing the guide, I said I wanted to leave. This brought an angry response from the agronomist, who insisted the time had come to try out the Finnish bath. The agronomist, the guide, and the manager of the club began chanting, "Finnish bath, Finnish bath." I finally got up, took my coat, and walked out to the car. It was only after I'd stood outside for 15 minutes that my guide and the agronomist joined me and we drove back into town.

I arrived in Vilnius at 7:30 P.M., but there was no sign of Kestutis. I called Valery Smolkin, one of his friends. He said Kestutis had probably been arrested, and suggested I come to his apartment to wait. I caught a cab, and we turned down one of the side streets, where I saw the scene the nationalists had predicted the previous night. At each corner, uniformed police surrounded by milling crowds of obvious plainclothesmen were stopping passersby and checking their documents. The cab driver, a Russian, said a policeman had been shot in a robbery of the state insurance company.

I arrived at Smolkin's apartment at 8:40 P.M. Three hours later, there was a knock at the door and Smolkin opened it to Kestutis, who took off his coat, wet with new-fallen snow. He said that he had been on his way to meet me in front of the hotel when he'd been surrounded by five plainclothesmen. He was taken to a police station--the same one where he was taken after his first arrest in 1947--and put in a cell. He was then interrogated by a police officer who appeared drunk and spoke in a weird combination of Russian and Lithuanian and told him he was a suspect in the robbery of the state insurance company. "I've been in the camps," Kestutis said. "I'm not going to participate in your comedy."

In the end, we spoke for several more hours, and Kestutis gave me the address of Ints Tsalitis, a Latvian nationalist in Riga, and the names and addresses of dissidents in Estonia. He also made one request. He asked me to make sure my notes from Lithuania never left my hands. I agreed, and at that moment, I certainly intended to keep my promise.

The next morning I flew to Riga (the train from Vilnius to Riga was closed to foreigners). After I checked into my hotel, I realized that my notebook was full and I would need a new one to interview city officials. I remembered my promise to keep my notes with me, but the notebook was an awkward size. I finally forced it into my jacket pocket and left for the interview. That afternoon, however, I put the notebook in my suitcase and locked the suitcase in my room, leaving the key with the room clerk downstairs.

When I returned to the hotel, it was already dark. I asked the girl at the reception desk for the key to my room. But she looked and said she could not find it. I went upstairs and asked the floor attendant, but she did not have the key either. Now seriously worried, I went out for a walk. When I returned, I asked the girl at the desk to check again for my key. "Here it is," she said, reaching into a slot in the key rack, "it was here all along."

I took the key and went upstairs to my room. The light of the street lamps cast a pale glow in the darkness through the room's nylon curtains. I opened my suitcase and saw that the notebook from Vilnius was still there. Everything appeared untouched.

I put the notebook back into my jacket pocket and caught a cab for Vecmilgravis, outside of Riga, to meet Tsalitis. I arrived at his home at 9 P.M. He welcomed me, and as we sat in his kitchen I told him about the events in Vilnius and warned him that I was probably being followed. He put on his coat and went outside with his dog, a large St. Bernard. When he came back, he said there was a black car parked at the end of the street with four men in it. "They've probably been there for several hours," he said. "They don't have to follow you. They know there are only a few places for you to go. It saves them time and energy."