Chapter 5 – Into the USSR


En Route to the USSR, Via the US

1. Posted to Moscow
2. Learning the Language
3. Across the USA
4. Across the Iron Curtain
5. Australian Embassy, Moscow

Late 1962. I am due to move again

The Moscow embassy has finally reopened. 

Some people in Canberra have remembered that I had learned some Russian a few years earlier.

Since I cannot be sent to China (it would be another decade before Canberra could find the courage to open an Embassy there) why not send me to Moscow instead?

Rob Laurie, then the junior officer at the Moscow embassy, was due to come out early the following year (1963). I could follow him in.

I set out to learn more Russian – this time by myself rather than in a classroom.

2. Learning the Language

Learning Chinese had taught me something about learning languages. 

Instead of beginning with textbooks and then trying to speak, I would do it largely in reverse.

I would first listen to a recorded text and with the help of a dictionary I would try to decypher the meaning. 

Then I would go to the textbooks for the grammar. The basis completed I would try to get the conversation practice.

An elderly White Russian refugee lady living in Canberra, a Mrs. Gapanovich, was a willing helper. 

Each week she would tape-record a text from a book of simple Russian stories for me. 

I would then spend the rest of the week listening to the recording and checking out the meaning.

A week later I would go back to her to make free conversation about the story on the tape. She would then record the next story for me.

It was all rather haphazard. But it got me started on the long road to Moscow.

April 1963 I set off, via the USA and some unusual experiences.

3. Across the USA

Briefings had been arranged for me at the Rand Corporation in San Francisco. 

Memories of the 1961 Berlin and Cuban crises were still fresh and it was important for me to discover U.S. thinking about Soviet adventurism, I had been told.

What I did discover was the depth of U.S. ‘evil empire’ hatreds and suspicions, both at the official and other levels.

From the Rand offices I took the train to Chicago. It was a quick and jarring introduction to the size and diversity of the United States, and the squalor.

I had checked into a hotel near the main station. It was cheap and I soon discovered why – all the signs were in Spanish and the locks on some doors were broken.

At a nearby bar I handed over a $100 note to pay for a drink. The place froze. 

A tense bar-tender gave me my change wrapped tightly in his fist, together with a whispered warning: “Show money like this in this place and you are dead. Take this change and run.”

I had two choices. Either he was telling me the truth. Or else he had discovered the ultimate short-changing scam. 

Another look at the hungry faces around me helped me decide. I fled.

And I had not been short-changed.

The next day I headed for the airport with a ticket that said I was going to Moscow via New York. 

In those early days, tickets were checked on the plane after boarding – all rather like catching a bus. (Fortunately in those days planes were not very large.) 

A nervous hostess immediately summoned the pilot. “Is this your ticket, sir?” he asked menacingly as he strode down the aisle. I agreed that it was.

“It says you are bound for Moscow” he said even more threateningly. Again I agreed, pointing out that other people also traveled to Moscow occasionally.

“Yes, but this is a one-way ticket! ” he said triumphantly. 

Single-handedly he had unearthed a communist spy on his plane.

I had to explain that I was a diplomat en route to Moscow, and would not need a return ticket for some years, hopefully.

I had not even reached Europe and already the Cold War was upon me.

4. Across the Iron Curtain

The flight time needed to get from London to Moscow’s Vnukova airport was just three hours. Ideologically, the distance was much greater.

In London I had received the standard warnings and briefings given to British and other Commonwealth officials being posted to communist nations in those days – watch out for KGB spy traps, do not befriend the natives, and so on.

And Vnukova airport with its cold, dismal, late winter skies, and surly armed soldiers at the bottom of the gangway, did little to change the image.

Flights were few in those days — only three a week. Even so, the plane was half empty. We eyed each other suspiciously.

But just a few weeks later the suspicions began to melt. The Moscow spring had arrived, and in those days the shift to spring was dramatic, with large chunks of ice pouring down the Moscow River (today industrial waste and global warming keep it ice free).

The crowds in the streets began to brighten. 

Sitting in the Embassy garden, chatting in basic Russian with one or other of the two very pleasant and intelligent Russians ladies working in the Embassy (supplied courtesy of that dreaded KGB), and listening to allegedly banned Western jazz pouring out of a neighbour’s window, I began to wonder about that so-called Iron Curtain.

I had heard the horror stories about Communism in China, before going to Hong-Kong and discovering something quite different. Maybe the same would be true for Moscow.

Maybe the dreaded KGB was not so dreadful after all.

Or maybe it was.

5. Australian Embassy, Moscow

The Embassy had been placed in the solid, luxury two-story house of a rich, pre-revolution sugar merchant. It was located in the quiet Kropotkinskii Pereulok close to central Moscow.

Diplomatic staff was small – a doddery ambassador, the counsellor (Bill Morrison), and myself as a very junior second secretary.

Morrison had been trained in Russian in the early fifties, together with Richard Woolcott – then a rising star in External Affairs bureaucracy.

Both Morrison and Woolcott had strong, affable personalities. Both had had the distinction of being expelled from Moscow in 1954 during the Petrov spy affair when both were there as Third Secretaries in training.

And both were to carve out good careers for themselves later in Australia — Morrison ending up as Defence Minister in the Whitlam government and then as ambassador to Indonesia; Woolcott as ambassador to both Jakarta during the Whitlam years and then Washington.

Morrison had had no trouble establishing himself as effective head of our small Embassy. 

He also seemed to have had no trouble getting to know a range of important Russians, including Nikolai Firyubin, Foreign Vice-Minister, and the Minister of Culture, Yekateria Furteseva.

That, plus his friendship with the number two in the Indonesian Embassy – an Embassy that was refusing contacts with Westerners as part of Indonesia’s then strongly anti-Western stance – made him a valuable and respected person in Moscow’s Western diplomatic circles.

But we were soon to discover a lot more about Morrison