Chapter 10 – Exit USSR
BETWEEN FOUR WORLDS: CHINA, RUSSIA, JAPAN AND AUSTRALIA.
BETWEEN FOUR CAREERS and FOUR LANGUAGES
Trying to Leave the USSR
1. A New Career? Japan?
2. The KGB Strikes, Again
3. Some Siberian Truths
4. Getting out of Moscow
5. More KGB Tricks?
6. Back to Canberra, via Israel
My first and rather impetuous move was to write to Canberra formally declining the New York posting.
But did I really want immediately to leave for ever the organisation that had looked after me and trained me for so many of my formative years?
I began to realise that there were few jobs in the outside world for ex- diplomats, even those who spoke both Chinese and Russian.
A tentative approach via a good Canberra friend, Gerry Gutman, to Heine Brothers, the large and very Jewish, Melbourne-based trader with the communist bloc, had not gone very far.
Those very hard-nosed people had told him bluntly that for them the ability to speak Chinese and Russian was not very important.
They only employed people who knew something about business. If there was a language problem they hired interpreters.
Clearly I had to find some stepping stone more solid that language ability to help me get back into the real world.
What to do? Japan was rapidly becoming the economic flavour of the month.
Maybe some Japanese expertise would give me the stepping stone I needed. And maybe my Chinese would help me wth the language.
Japan was still an attractively pacifist nation. Even as a diplomat there I would not have to defend Canberra’s monstrous Vietnam activities, or so I thought.
There was also an emotional factor. The Japan interest first kindled by my nostalgic 1961 train ride through the countryside had been rekindled by getting to know some of the people at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow, in particular the wife of one of their officials there who had shown me the very human and attractive side of the Japanese personality.
So in the process of rejecting New York, I decided I would ask for a posting to Japan after a cooling-down spell in Australia.
But before any of this could happen, I had first to get out of Moscow.
The KGB attentions – the constant following and phone bugging – had become even more intense than before. I still had some months to run on my two year Moscow posting.
Having rejected the UN posting, it was quite likely Canberra would punish me by keeping me in Moscow.
And as the Embassy’s only Russian speaker that was quite likely to happen anyway. Meanwhile, the KGB attentions would continue.
Emotionally too I was burned out, with J. back to London after a brief affair with a Russian writer.
I had tried hard to get onto her psychological wavelength. But we were different people. Moscow had thrown us together in a rather unnatural way.
On a visit to London that winter we had had a warm reunion. I may even have proposed to her. But by this time she was living in a very different world from myself. We parted and I never got to see her again.
Back in Moscow I went through the usual routine of Embassy work and diplomatic cocktail parties. But at heart it had become meaningless. I was moving into a vortex.
2. The KGB Strikes, Again
The climax came a month or so later with another call from Volodya.
He and Yelena had just come from Siberia. They could only stay in Moscow briefly. In that forced voice I had come to know well, he said he had to see me, urgently.
I agreed to meet, but briefly. And this time it had to be somewhere public in central Moscow. And this time he would have to be with Yelena.
We met, and he told me how the KGB had been working on him for months in advance of the Podolsk operation. And because of his ‘failure’ there, he and Yelena had been banished to Siberia.
But they had been told they could come back to Moscow if he could persuade me to meet their KGB handler. The handler, he said, respected me. He only wanted to talk to me about things in general.
This was just the shock I needed to force me to a final decision. Once they think they can try openly to approach you, it can only spell trouble.
I had to get out of Moscow, and quickly.
3. Some Siberian Truths
As it happened, I too had just come back from a Siberian visit.
There both I and my traveling companion – a rather sensible man from the US Embassy who handled cultural matters – had bumped into even more than the usual quota of KGB spies and stunts.
The crunch-point for me had been a courtesy visit to the head of Yakutsk University.
Unlike most of the bland, elderly bureaucrats running most Soviet universities at the time, he turned out to be a young, intelligent Yakutian with very Oriental features.
He wasted no time on courtesies. Instead he had asked us angrily whether we were both aware of the bombing and other atrocities being committed by our governments in a small Oriental country just a few thousand miles away to the south.
The American made a few stumbling excuses. I stayed silent.
Even more than before I was being forced to realise just what it meant to be an Australian diplomat justifying Australia`s Vietnam policies.
If I was to remain as a diplomat I would be just as guilty as those murderers to the south.
Forget about the Japan posting, I told myself. I had to get out of the diplomatic life completely, and quickly.
But first I had to get out of Moscow. And to do that I had to make a fuss – a big one.
4. Escaping Moscow
Canberra still had no replacement for me in Moscow. So I set out deliberately to create the image of someone who had been in there too long and needed to be sent home quickly .
I had earlier asked the Department to be allowed to return to Australia via China and the trans-Siberian railway. That request had been refused; it was still Australian policy to prohibit any Australian official to set foot on Chinese soil.
So I decided to write to the Department’s administration chief (my former Taiwan colleague, Keith Brennan) making an artificial fuss over the refusal to let me travel via China, saying I saw this as proof Canberra`s anti-China policies had gone too far.
I wanted to persuade them that I was starting to get a bit emotional.
As an extra move I went to our new ambassador, the sensitive and intelligent John Rowlands (whose premature death from cancer a few years later deprived the Department of one of its very few sensible moderates), and hinted that a lovesick maid was pestering me.
The strategy worked. Among Western embassies in Moscow any hint of maid trouble is a flashing red signal (someone should tell them that they would not have this problem if, like the Soviets in their overseas embassies, they supplied their own maids rather than accept locally KGB appointed women).
My request to head back to Australia was quickly granted.
5. More KGB Tricks?
But first I had to get a Soviet exit visa. Normally they are granted automatically. But in my case there was a very strange delay.
Was the KGB reluctant to see its prey slip away?
I had to assume so, since it is most abnormal for any nation to deny a diplomat the right to leave its territory.
I insisted we try to get a formal explanation from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the delay. To my great relief the exit visa eventually arrived.
Later I learned that the exit visa was only granted after some dispute between the Foreign Ministry, which wanted to adhere to diplomatic norms, and the KGB, which wanted to keep me around a bit longer.
Maybe it still felt that it could use Volodya to lure me into another trap.
(I owe some of this information to Svetlana, the highly intelligent assistant provided to our embassy by the Soviets. She made no secret of her brief to report on us to the authorities. But she claimed to have been planted by the Foreign Ministry, not by the KGB).
Finally, on a cold March morning, very like the day on which I had arrived just two years earlier, Rowlands went with me to the airport to say goodbye.
I was glad he did; we could see some KGB types hovering around the exit passage. Did they have another trick up the sleeves of their shiny black suits?
Fortunately Rowlands agreed to stay with me all the way to the exit gate. A hour or so later, at several thousand feet, I could feel the same overwhelming relief that many others have written about when they finally escape the pressures of a totalitarian regime.
I was finally out of the KGB morass I had partly created for myself. I was a free person.
6. Back To Canberra
From Moscow it was direct to the standard de-briefing in London. There it was made fairly clear that my superiors had not been very impressed by my pre-departure antics.
But for me that did not matter; I was determined to get away from them anyway.
From London it was back to Canberra via Israel where, by coincidence, my friend from Korea in 1961, Richard Gates, was Charge d’Affaires.
As I toured the Israeli countryside I could not help but wonder why the original Palestinian population, most of which Israel said voluntarily fled the country in 1948, had somehow decided to hand over the fertile valleys to the Jews while the remnants had chosen to remain on the arid hillside land.
But for Canberra with its powerful pro-Israel lobby these injustices were of little concern.
And soon, back in Canberra, I was to be enveloped by an even larger injustice – Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.