Never Speak to Strangers
A memoir of journalism, the Cold War, and the KGB.
Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By DAVID SATTER
Tsalitis said that, in general, the situation was quieter in Latvia. There were no active dissident groups or samizdat journals. "The Latvians find it easier to get along with others," he said. "It's a virtue, but it's also our tragedy." Half an hour later, Viktors Kalnins, another nationalist, joined us, and he and Tsalitis gave me the names and addresses of Estonian nationalists in Tallinn. I wrote them on a separate piece of paper, but they were the same names Kestutis had given me in Lithuania.
The next day in Riga I visited another collective farm courtesy of Novosti. That evening I checked out of the hotel and prepared to go for a walk. Once again, I put the notebook in my suitcase. Not wanting to take a walk carrying a suitcase, I decided to leave it with the doorman. When I returned, I opened the suitcase. It appeared that nothing had been touched.
It was only on the night train to Tallinn that I began to feel at ease. The Ukrainian boxing coach poured drinks for all of us, and Masha asked me where I was from. I told her that I was an American and that I was working in Moscow for the London Financial Times.
The coach asked what women were like in the United States. I said that they were better dressed than Soviet women but not necessarily prettier. Masha asked if I believed in God. I said that I did. This puzzled her. "Here, no one believes in God," she said. I then began to explain my views. As I continued, trying to make sense in less than perfect Russian, Masha moved slightly forward, leaning over the small table and resting her chin childishly on the rim of one of the tea glasses. The dark haired girl also fixed her eyes on me. Inexplicably relaxed, I motioned to Masha to sit beside me. She complied, and although I tried to continue what I was saying, she put her arms around me and began kissing me. The coach immediately went over to the other bunk and started kissing the dark haired girl, holding her in his arms and pressing her against him.
This situation did not last long because the two girls almost immediately told us to go into the corridor so they could make the beds and get undressed. Most of the other passengers in the car had retired for the night. As we waited in the corridor, it occurred to me that the women in the compartment, the offer of easy sex, were the standard techniques of entrapment. But it was exactly this that allayed my fears. Planting women in an overnight train compartment was too obvious. If the goal had been entrapment, the KGB would have tried something less primitive. The idea that my new friends had been seated in my compartment for no other reason than to compromise me was just too incredible to believe.
When we went back into the compartment, the women were in their nightgowns. Masha was sitting on the upper bunk, her breasts and a crucifix visible through the opening of her gown. The dark-haired girl was lying on her side on the bottom bunk. We began to undress, and the boxing coach turned off the overhead lamp so the only light came from the reading light above each berth. I climbed into the upper berth and the coach got into the lower berth. The small lights were then turned off, leaving nothing to illuminate what went on until several hours later when the first filtering rays of sunlight indicated the break of day.
During the night, I was troubled by a dream, an indistinct image of the dark-haired girl moving around the compartment as if she were making preparations to leave. In the morning, after I opened my eyes, I became concerned about my suitcase. I pulled on my pants and climbed down from the upper bunk. The fields and forests looked blue in the early morning light. The coach was already dressed and sitting on the opposite lower berth. The girls were asleep in their beds. Joking with the coach, I reached for my suitcase. It was then I discovered that it was gone.
Suddenly, the coach began feeling the pockets of his jacket. "Wait a minute," he said, "my watch is gone!"
He looked down at the bunk where the dark haired girl was sleeping, curled up facing the wall. He pulled back the top blanket and under it found other blankets tightly rolled and arranged to create the impression of a sleeping person. I woke up Masha Ivanova and asked her what she knew about the dark-haired girl. She said that she had met her that evening for the first time. I called the attendant and asked her if she had noticed anyone leaving the train in the middle of the night. I explained that I had lost my suitcase and the boxing coach had lost his watch. She promised to alert the police.
The train arrived in Tallinn at 8:30 A.M., and we were met by the police and taken to their headquarters in the station. The police made clear that they viewed the case with the utmost seriousness. They insisted that we write detailed statements and stressed that any omission could impair the investigation. The coach and Masha wrote their statements and then Masha helped me to write mine. Reading the statements, the officer in charge began to wonder. "Two men and two women in one compartment," he said, his voice trailing off thoughtfully.
I now faced a dilemma of my own making. My notes from Lithuania were gone. It was urgent that I find the Estonian dissidents whose names and addresses were in my suitcase. Fortunately, the piece of paper where I had also written them was in my wallet.
We left the station and got in a line at the taxi stand. It was a cool, foggy morning, and behind us the Upper City of Tallinn, with its medieval walls and spires, was wreathed in mist. A jeep pulled up and a policeman offered us a ride. He took us to the Viru Hotel. As I got out of the jeep, Masha gave me her address in Tallinn.
I entered the hotel and got in line to register. As I waited, I gradually became aware of a short man in a fur hat and long coat trying to attract my attention. He finally cleared his throat, walked up to me, and shook hands, leaving a tiny piece of paper that had been folded over several times in my hand. He then turned and walked quickly through the lobby and out the front door of the hotel.
As I put the piece of paper in my pocket, a change came over me. For the first time, I started to feel like a spectator at a play in which I was also an involuntary participant. In spite of myself, I began to look forward to the next act.
I registered and took the elevator to my room. Once in my room, I read the note. It asked me to call a telephone number in Tallinn from a pay phone. I went downstairs and dialed the number. I told myself that if a Russian answered the phone, I had reached the KGB. If the voice was Estonian, it might be the Estonian dissidents. The voice was Estonian. In heavily accented Russian, a man asked me to wait in front of the Tallinna Kaubamaja, the city's main department store, at exactly 1 P.M. The man who had given me the note would meet me there. When I tried to ask another question, he hung up.
I left the hotel and went to the department store. At one o'clock, I was met by the man from the hotel lobby. He signaled to me to follow him, and we proceeded in single file down a diagonal street between five-story housing blocks to an archway and entered a courtyard. He then stepped into an entryway and up a flight of steps. The door opened for him, and as soon as I followed him into the small apartment, it was quickly closed and locked behind me.
I was ushered into a dimly lit sitting room. In the middle of the table, there were several empty glasses and an unopened bottle of cognac. The man who had brought me to the apartment motioned for me to take a chair at the head of the table, and the others--three men of about middle age--gathered in chairs around the table in a rough semicircle. My guide then took up a perch directly opposite me on the windowsill.
I looked around at my companions. The man on my right was tall and thin with a mournful expression. Next to him was the man who had met me in the hotel. The next person was also short with a sheaf of sandy-colored hair over his forehead. On my left, the fourth member of the group sat in a large armchair. He had a round face and intelligent, gray eyes. He was the only member of the group with a genuinely humane expression.
The tall, mournful-looking man got up, opened the bottle of cognac, and poured me a drink. I nodded and took a sip. He then returned to his chair and said in Russian but with a thick Estonian accent, "What happened to you? We saw you with the police at the station."
For some reason, I suddenly was convinced that I was in the presence of the KGB. "I think you know the answer to that question better than I do," I said.
"We are very worried," said the man with the sandy hair, ignoring my reaction, "we want to know what happened to you."
"I was with the police," I said, "because my suitcase was stolen in the middle of the night from the train. Why don't you tell me where it is?"
"Our movement may be in danger because of you," the sandy-haired man continued. "Were our names in the suitcase that was stolen?"
"I don't know who you are. I also don't know anything about any names."
"Did Viktors Kalnins give you our names?" the sandy haired man persisted.
The tall, solemn man seemed demoralized by the hopelessness of the situation. "Viktors called me," he said, "and we went to the station to meet you, but we left when we saw you talking to the police."
"So," I said, "you are trying to tell me that someone arranged for you to meet me in Tallinn?" Several of them nodded their heads yes.
"Show me some identification," I said.
"No, we don't show any identification," said the sandy-haired man, shaking his head firmly.
"I'm glad to hear that," I said, "because for a moment it occurred to me that you might actually be the dissidents, but if you won't identify yourselves, it only proves to me that you're the KGB."
The superficial politeness that had prevailed up until that point disappeared. The tall, solemn member of the group leaned over the table. "I spent twelve years in the camps," he said. "My friends have spent six, seven, and eight years in the camps. You're not going to treat us like a bunch of niggers."
This remark took me completely by surprise. Could it be that I was accusing them unfairly?
"You're operating on a false assumption," said the older man whose expression had been the most sympathetic. "The KGB can forge any kind of identification it wants. In a situation like this, you can't rely on documents." He hesitated and then added gently, "You have to believe what is in your heart."
He asked me if I had the names and addresses of the people I was to see. I said that I knew who I was supposed to see. I then removed the paper with the names and addresses from my wallet. "Now, tell me," I said, "who are you?" The tall, solemn man on my right said, "I am Valdo Reinart." The man who met me in the hotel lobby said, "I am Endel Ratas." The intense, sandy-haired man said, "I am Mart Niklus," and the older man on the left smiled and said, "And I am Erik Udam." Udam was the leader of the Estonian dissidents. Udam then asked if there were addresses written on my note. I said there were, and each man gave his correct address.
Reinart got up, a little less obviously distressed, and filled my glass with cognac and then poured drinks for the others around the table, who also began to relax. Udam asked me to tell him about the theft of my suitcase.
I hesitated for a moment and then decided to tell them what had happened. If they were dissidents, they were entitled to know, and if they were KGB agents, what I said would come as no surprise. I began to describe what had happened and, as I told them how I was distracted, pained expressions came over the faces of the four men. When I finished, Reinart said, "I'll call Viktors immediately so he can warn everyone that your notes are missing."
They then began to argue among themselves. Udam suggested that the theft was organized by black market operators, but Niklus disagreed. "This was the KGB," he said. Reinart asked me what we talked about. "Not much," I said, "just trivialities."
"They didn't ask you any questions?"
"That doesn't sound like the KGB," Reinart said. "They always try to find out everything they can."
The conversation shifted to whether or not it was safe for us to meet later. We finally agreed that they would try to assess the situation, and Ratas would meet me at 10 P.M. that night in front of the Tallinna Kaubamaja.
Before we got ready to leave, I told Reinart that I was sorry about what had happened. For the first time, his manner seemed to soften. "What can you do," he said reflectively, "a young man, a beautiful woman . . . "
Udam said he had one request before I left. He wanted me to leave the list with the dissidents' addresses and names with them. "It's not that we don't trust you," he said. "We just can't afford another mistake." I took the list out of my wallet and gave it to Udam, and he put it in an ashtray and lit it with a match, holding the match to the list until it had been reduced to a wisp of ash.
I returned to my hotel where I met my official guide. We agreed on a program for the next day. I then left the hotel to look for Masha. But I soon discovered that the address she had given me did not exist.
I returned to the Viru, went to my room, then went to the lobby where I stopped to buy a postcard. I suddenly had the feeling that someone was watching me. When I turned to look, the only person I noticed was a young man with a mustache and goatee who was holding a square attaché case.
I finally left the hotel and walked to the Old City. There had been a slight break in the weather and a fine rain was falling. Some of the accumulated ice on the roofs was beginning to thaw, causing water to drip from the eaves and run down the drainpipes. In the streetlamps' hazy light, the paint peeling from the façades of the buildings made them look particularly shabby. I turned down one of the side streets, and through the window of a gabled stone building, I could see people queuing, waiting to test loaves in the bread racks for freshness. The drumbeat of dripping water was punctuated by the slamming of the heavy wooden door to the bread store as people left with their purchases. A little bit further down the same street, I passed a dimly lit café where, through a gauze curtain, I could see pensioners carrying their tin trays to metal tables and an old crone mopping up the broken tiles on the floor. I entered a quiet alleyway that ran along the city wall. At last, I came to a cul de sac, where I was surprised to see an old woman with a few wisps of scraggly gray hair, a lined face, and a dazed look in her wide-open eyes. She stood motionless in the rain holding a tin can filled with pencils and made no effort to speak, looking past me as if I weren't there.
Shortly before 10 P.M. I returned to the hotel, where a group of Finnish tourists were showing the effects of heavy drinking. Finally, I walked to the door and glanced behind me. On the upper mezzanine, I saw the man with the attaché case.
At 10 o'clock, I met Ratas at the Tallinna Kaubamaja. "They're following you!" he said, his face completely contorted. "Be here tomorrow, 2 P.M."
The next morning I went with my guide to an agricultural institute outside Tallinn. The meeting lasted for several hours. I excused myself from the lunch that had been prepared and left the institute at 1 P.M.
As we rode back to Tallinn, I tried to imagine how I could meet the dissidents without being followed. Suddenly, I recalled a rundown hotel in the Old City called the Hotel Baltika that I had noticed the previous night. As we approached the Old City, I asked the driver to let me off at this hotel. There was a moment of confusion but the guide agreed that the driver could stop there.
I got out of the car. I then cut back through a small park and started to climb the stone steps to the Upper City. Factories and railroad lines, the yellow cranes of Tallinn harbor, and rows of brown and grey Soviet apartment blocks spread out before me. Glancing back, I turned and saw a man in a silver jacket at the bottom of the steps starting to climb rapidly. I got to the top and hurried along a narrow path between the stone houses. Looking back again, I saw that my pursuer had reached the top of the steps. I turned into the entryway of a Lutheran church, where an official Soviet guide, mistaking me for a tourist, began to describe the torture of heretics that had been performed there.
I left the church, turned down a cobbled path between two stone walls, and then hurried across a broad square. My pursuer appeared from around a corner. Finally, in desperation, I turned and began to advance on him. When he realized that I was coming toward him, he quickly turned his back. I changed directions and doubled back behind one of the government buildings and made my way to the wall of the Upper City. I began going down the steps, watching for my pursuer. To my surprise, I did not see him. I plunged into the crowded streets of the Old City and flagged down a cab. With 15 minutes to go before the scheduled meeting, I arrived at the Tallinna Kaubamaja, where scores of people were stepping through the slush. There were old, fat women with canes, young women with pallid faces and stringy blonde hair, nondescript men in worn overcoats, and, off to one side, the old woman with the can of pencils whom I had encountered the previous night.
At exactly 2 P.M., Ratas appeared on the street and led me to a nearby courtyard. He said that KGB agents were everywhere and the group had decided it was too dangerous for us to meet in Tallinn. They wanted to meet not in Tallinn but in Moscow. I asked Ratas if he had reached Kalnins to tell him about the loss of my notes. He said "our friends" had been informed.
The train for Moscow left as darkness fell, and I was relieved to see that my companion in the compartment was a woman engineer in her 50s with a dark mustache. As we rode to Moscow, I tried to recreate my notes from memory, adding to them and elaborating on them.
The next few days in Moscow were uneventful. Life assumed its previous rhythm. I began to think that the events in the Baltics were an aberration and maybe even, to some extent, the product of my imagination. One night, about a week after I had gotten back, I decided to call Kestutis in Vilnius, although I had no doubt that Udam had already told him what had happened on the Riga to Tallinn train. I called from the central telegraph office, reaching him at the institute where he worked as an archivist.
After I described the loss of my suitcase, there was silence at the other end of the line. "What happened," Jokubynas asked, "were you drunk?" "Kestutis," I said, "We have to be careful. They may be listening." "Oh, yes," Kestutis said, and then his voice began to tremble. "They're listening. Of course, they're listening. They're listening to every word." With that I broke off the conversation and promised to call him again.
A week passed and there was no word from anyone in the Baltics, until one night I received a frantic call from someone who said he had to meet me and was waiting in front of the Puppet Theater across the street from my apartment on the Ring Road. I didn't recognize the caller's voice, and after the affair in the Baltics, I was wary of provocation. But I decided to go. When I pulled up in my car, I saw Antanas Terleckas and Ints Tsalitis.
We got into my car and began looking for a place to talk. It was too dangerous to talk in an apartment, and we would have had to queue for hours to get into a café. Finally, after driving around for half an hour, we adjourned to the stairwell of a building on Leninsky Prospect.
Neither Terleckas nor Tsalitis appeared upset about the consequences for them of the loss of my suitcase. They were more concerned to make sure that I did not lose the opportunity to write about nationalism, particularly in Lithuania. During the next hour, they repeated to me the information that I had received in the Baltics, much of which I had already reconstructed from memory. When my notes were complete, we left the building and went for a ride in my car.
"The one thing you'll never find," Terleckas said as we turned into the Lenin Hills, "or at least almost never find is a Russian who is willing to recognize a small people's right to its own country. If you talk about Lithuania, they say that's our Russian land, our country."
I told Antanas that I liked the Russian people.
"They are good, sweet, kind people," he replied, "but it doesn't occur to them that the Lithuanians consider Lithuania to be their country and want to be able to live in it without them."
"By the way," Tsalitis said. "Why didn't you meet our friends in Estonia?" Below us, Moscow was a carpet of apartment lights broken by the shadows of gothic government skyscrapers. "They called me and wanted to know why you never contacted them."
"Who called you?"
"The Estonian nationalists, Udam, Ratas . . . "
"They said I never contacted them?"
"Ints, I spent two days in Tallinn with Udam and Ratas. I'm expecting them to meet me here. Did either of you get a telephone call from Estonia telling you that my suitcase with the notes on Latvia and Lithuania had been stolen?"
"No," Tsalitis said, "we heard about it from Kestutis." I pulled the car over to the side of the road. A light snow began to fall, and the snowflakes seemed to hang immobile in the arcs of light cast by the streetlamps.
I turned to look at Tsalitis and Terleckas who were sitting in the back seat. "If I didn't spend those two days with Udam and Ratas," I said, "then who did I spend them with?"
There was silence in the car.
"Do you mean?"
Antanas smiled. "They're clever. You've got to hand them that."
"Yes," I said, "but these were Estonians."
"The Estonian KGB," Tsalitis said.
"You mean the whole thing, the meetings, the arguments, the discussion of KGB tactics, the small army they had following me, all that was a performance?"
"They are brilliant actors," Antanas said.
"But what was the point of it? Just to prevent me from meeting a group of Estonian dissidents?"
"Not only that," said Antanas. "The Soviet Union is a land of miracles, and from time to time the KGB likes to create reality."
The snow was coming down harder now, and it was getting late. We rode silently along the embankment of the Moscow River to Kutuzovsky Prospekt and then across the bridge and past the American embassy to the Sadovoye Ring Road. I drove them to the bridge over Tsvetnoy Boulevard, where we got out of the car and shook hands. Terleckas gestured toward me as they got ready to leave. "Look at him," he said to Tsalitis, "a free man. Can you imagine, a free man."
Several weeks after my meeting with Terleckas and Tsalitis, the Financial Times published my report on nationalism in Lithuania under the headline "The Ghost in the Machine." A detailed summary of the article was broadcast back to the Soviet Union by the Russian service of the BBC, so in the end the Lithuanian dissidents got their wish. What was happening in the republic became known in both the Soviet Union and the West.
I never did make direct contact with the Estonian dissidents, but in May the real Erik Udam arrived in Moscow and left a
I ended up working five more years for the Financial Times in Moscow and never again fell for a KGB provocation. Indeed, I became convinced that Terleckas was right and the whole point of the Soviet system was to create reality and then impose this world of illusions on a helpless population by force. In early 1983, I testified before the U.S. Congress on "Stopping Communism without War," and argued that the Soviet Union's false ideology compelled it to create illusions and, as a result, the most effective weapon against communism was not arms but the truth. I published an article based on this testimony on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.
Several days after the article appeared, I wrote to Kestutis and enclosed a copy. Kestutis had succeeded in leaving Lithuania and was working for the Lithuanian service of Radio Liberty in Munich. A week later, a reply came that showed he had finally forgiven me for my mistakes in the Baltics. It said: "You did not spend your years in the Soviet Union in vain."
David Satter, correspondent of the London Financial Times in Moscow from 1976 to 1982, is affiliated with the Hoover Institution, the Hudson Institute, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His book Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union (Yale) is being made into a documentary film.