Chapter 8 – KGB Traps


A Night in Podolsk

1. The Pressure Rises
2. The KGB Trap
3. A Night in Podolsk
4. Escaping the Trap
5. Some Self Reflection

I had long suffered KGB attentions — something inevitable for a Russian-speaking, bachelor diplomat determined to go out and meet Russian people. 

On my first week in Moscow an attractive blonde lady had come to my door in an otherwise heavily KGB guarded apartment block, claiming to be looking for my predecessor. 

I was followed constantly by KGB operatives in various disguises, particularly on visits to the provinces. Sometimes the KGB types would be lolling suspiciously at a rendezvous I had agreed on with friends by phone only a hour or so earlier. 

Strange people would be planted on me in strange places. And like everyone else, I had to assume there were listening bugs in my walls.

I tried to suggest to my diplomatic colleagues that if they all behaved as I did – going out frequently and talking to a range of people – the KGB would be too over-worked to be able to concentrate on the one or two of us who tried to live normal lives in Moscow. 

That idea got quick shrift. The colleagues much preferred to remain in their sheltered diplomatic cocoons, saving both their skins and their generous allowances for the good life back in their home countries.

1. The Pressure Rises

Towards the end of 1964 and as I was nearing the end of the normal two year posting, the KGB attentions were getting to be even more intense than usual.

from my Soviet diplomatic card

Attitudes of the Russians working in the Embassy began to turn stiff and unnatural; they seemed to have had a brief to focus especially on me.

Up to four different cars, each with three to four operatives on board, would follow me every time I set out to drive across and around Moscow, with cars and operatives taking turns to replace themselves when they knew I had spotted them.

Few outsiders can appreciate the strain you suffer once the KGB decides to turn the screws on you. It is as if the 200 million people in tightly-controlled society have all conspired to work against you.

You have no escape. Everything you do is monitored. Meanwhile you have to carry on as if everything around you seemed normal. 

Finally, it all came to a head. On a dark, freezing night of December, 1964, in the ugly industrial town of Podolsk on the outskirts of Moscow, the trap had been set. 

My good friend, Volodya Nikitin, was the bait.

2. The Student and the Trap 

I had met Volodya a year or so earlier, on one of my student restaurant forays. 

He and his charming wife, Yelena, were at one of the tables I had been made to share. 

From the start it was obvious he could not be a KGB plant. Apart from anything else the KGB had no idea that I was even dining out that night, let alone the restaurant I would visit. 

Volodya had an attractively direct and proletarian kind of openness. Yelena was classy but warm. We took an immediate liking to each other. 

Like most of the students I met, they were reasonably patriotic. But they were happy also to talk about faults in the system, and their hopes that things would get better. 

They impressed me especially with their frankness in describing the wretched living conditions of most students. 

Normally at the student cafes I would finish my dinner and say goodbye. But with these people I could feel some kind of sympatico. 

After the usual rounds of vodka toasts we agreed to meet again. He was studying metallurgy. She was studying politics. 

At the next dinner party I followed Embassy regulations and made sure I was accompanied. I took J, the rather demure English girl working as a nanny at the Embassy and who had come to Moscow to improve her Russian. 

She shared my interest in the language and society. For well over a year the four of us would meet every month or so for dinner and conversation. 

We liked each other. 

(I once quizzed him on 1956 Hungarian events. “Those swine (svolochii),’ he said. It turned out that a friend of his had had his eyes gouged out by Hungarian revolutionaries. I suggested that maybe the revolutionaries had a reason for behaving so badly. 

(Volodya for all his other virtues was part of the same worldwide syndrome that says the abuses by one’s own side are acceptable but not those of the other side.) 

No KGB Watch?

I realised the KGB would be watching our dinner parties. I even discussed it with Volodya. 

But since it was obvious we were simply people who liked to eat, drink and chat with each other occasionally, and since neither he or his wife as students had any access to anything that even looked like a secret, we assumed we would all be safe.

True, with the fall of Khrushchev in October 1964 we knew that the hawks and their KGB friends were back in control (courtesy of the US hawks who had done everything — Bay of Pigs, Cuban crises, U 2 flights etc – to derail Khrushchev’s honest efforts to gain détente with the West and to end the Cold War).

But by this time I had also discovered that Yelena was the daughter of a highly placed general in the Ukraine. That would be a kind of insurance against arbitrary KGB stunts, or so I thought. 

Towards the end of 1964 Volodya began acting strangely. He rang, wanting urgently to meet me over dinner.

J. had gone back to England and he knew that. We met, and this time Yelena was not with him. 

But I had gone out of my way to take a woman I knew at the British Embassy with me so that I would be covered.

Volodya was rather thrown out by the unexpected presence of the woman, and after some talk about the problems he was having finding a job after graduating from university, we parted. 

There was something very unnatural about the meeting. I suspected already that the KGB had put him up to it. 

Later the British woman pestered me with demands from her Embassy to find out who Volodya was. I knew the Brits were highly security conscious; they were up to their necks in a host of other anti-Soviet stunts like the Penkovsky affair. 

But I did not like the implication that I might be trying to lead the woman into a trap. I decided I should not involve her in any future meeting. 

Soon after I had another call from Volodya. This time he wanted to meet me in Podolsk where some friends were having a party. 

And this time his voice sounded even more unnatural than usual. I was certain that something was afoot. 

A Night in Podolsk?

I had a problem. If I went to the rendezvous I would be leaving myself open to KGB attentions. 

But if Volodya was acting under KGB pressure and I did not go, he would be in trouble. 

His future career already seemed under some kind of threat; he had already graduated but had not been given a job.

It could well get worse, and it would be through my fault rather than his since it was I who initially had put him in this situation of danger. 

I decided I would go to the station, hear what he had to say, and return promptly to Moscow, taking every anti-KGB precaution.

That way he would be covered, since he would have delivered the goods even if they had not been seized. Maybe I too would see an end to KGB attentions.

The moment I met Volodya at the station it was clear that something was indeed afoot. With unnatural enthusiasm and in a high voice he urged me to go with him to the party. 

But first, he said, we should go to the station toilet. There, and in a low voice, he suddenly turned to me — tyi moi vrag, you are my enemy.

4. Escaping the Trap

It took me some seconds to realise: he was trying to warn me of a KGB trap.

What to do? I had assumed that the KGB plan was to wait till we got to the party before moving in on us. 

But already I had sensed we were being closely watched by operatives planted around the station premises. 

If I about-turned and tried to catch a train back to Moscow as I had initially planned, it was very possible the thugs would move in on both of us. 

They would push secret documents into his hands and then claim I had come to this unlikely place to receive the documents – a favourite KGB trick.

As well, they would suspect that Volodya had done something to warn me, and he would still be in trouble. 

So I decided to pretend to accept an invitation to leave the station with him, and at some point en-route to the alleged party find an excuse to do a sudden about-turn, allowing Volodya to walk off into the darkness without giving the thugs time to move in on us. 

The strategy worked. But on the train back to Moscow I was shaking badly.

5. Some Self-Reflection 

Safe back in my Moscow apartment I began to stock of myself. (The Japanese call it  hansei — self-reflection – but it means more like reflecting on past mistakes and stupidities.)

I did not like what I saw.

Life in the diplomatic cocoon had made me soft and sloppy. Only a few hours earlier I had found myself close to KGB entrapment at a grubby station toilet.

I had done great damage to the lives of two people I liked very much. 

I was guilty of the same over-confidence that had trapped Morrison. I should have realised the risks of the Podolsk excursion from the start. 

Why had I gone? My aim had been to help Volodya, I had told myself. 

But maybe there had also been a moth to the candle element – a silly willingness to flirt with KGB danger. 

For what could they do against me, I had thought? I was not part of any anti-Soviet plot, and they knew that. 

They had no compromising photos. There was no point them trying to expel me since that would simply have invited a Canberra retaliation. 

The only thing they could pin on me was the friendship with Volodya. 

True, they could try to recruit me as some kind of agent. But I already knew the answer to that one.

 I would simply sit down with them and with great sympathy discuss the political situation, the war in Vietnam, the problems of their jobs and so on.

In the process I might even do something to educate them out of their Cold War mentalities. I would also get to know something about how KGB operatives thought. 

Podolosk put an end to that kind of fantasising. There is not much interesting or educative about a close friend having to call me an enemy in a remote station toilet and then having to flee into the winter darkness of an industrial town. 

Not just over-confidence was my crime. I was also guilty of severe immaturity.

I had thought of myself as an up-and-coming diplomat well on top of the Moscow scene, the language, the society, and headed for a good diplomatic career. 

But for the hard men in the KGB I was just another piece of Western diplomatic raw meat, to be attacked and devoured whenever the chance arose, just as the hard men in the CIA, ASIO etc. saw my Soviet counter-parts as juicy raw meat too. 

Did I really want to stay part of that senseless dog eat dog game forever?

6. A Difficult Decision 

My career was at a crossroads. 

At the very young age of 28 I had already been promoted ahead of some others in my cohort to First Secretary.

 Canberra had already asked me to accept a posting directly from Moscow to replace Michael Cook as Australian representative on the UN Disarmament Commission in New York. 

It was a prestige posting, especially for someone as young as myself (Cook was already a rising star and later went on to be one of Canberra’s top diplomatic bureaucrats and ambassador to the US).

But if I took the post, I would have to spend another two, three more years in the artificial cocoon of diplomatic protocol, meaningless cocktail parties and a cramped personal life. 

I would probably also have had to put up with more KGB stunts. Like their mirror-image opposites in the CIA, once those people think they have had you in their sights they never give up.

As well the Vietnam War was heating up and I would have to represent and defend Canberra’s increasingly ugly foreign policies. Did I really want to be part of that kind of nonsense for the rest of my life? Maybe I should forget about the prestige of the New York posting.

Maybe it was time for me to make a fresh start, to go off and do something quite different. I was still young enough for that. I could finish out my two years in Moscow, head back to Australia and begin a new life there – a life that had nothing to do with bureaucracy or diplomacy. 

7. The Vietnam Factor 

More than anything else it was the escalating horror of Vietnam that helped me decide. 

The Americans were running regular bombing raids into North Vietnam under the pretext of the phoney Tonkin Gulf ‘incident’. Canberra was giving full- throated support. 

The rationale for Australia’s Vietnam policies? That the war in Vietnam had been instigated by China, as the ‘first stage in China’s southward thrust between the Pacific and Indian oceans.’ 

Only a few months earlier we had been instructed by Canberra to visit MID (the Soviet Foreign Ministry) to express Australia’s regret at Moscow’s inability to realise the vicious nature of the Chinese-backed Vietcong bandits and the need for global condemnation. 

Yet already it was obvious that Moscow, not Beijing, was Hanoi’s main supporter. And the North Vietnamese students one met in Moscow were clearly pro-Soviet rather than pro-China. 

A visit to MID to seek cooperation with Canberra’s Sancho Panza efforts in Vietnam was more than I could stomach.

Internationally, Moscow was already throwing its weight behind Hanoi. 

I could see the close similarity with the pre-1949 situation in China. 

There the West had thrown its unthinking support behind a corrupt and incompetent government facing strong domestic opposition, and in so doing had guaranteed the victory of a motivated, well-organised guerrilla army backed up by strong nationalism and a seemingly coherent ideology. 

Vietnam would see the same dynamic at work.

But Vietnam was a lot smaller than China. And military technology was much more advanced. 

This time the guerrillas, and much of the rural population, could well be wiped out by the might and viciousness of the US intervention. The obligation to do something quickly was far greater. 

8. The Hasluck Farce 

Compounding my angst had been the seemingly farcical November 1964 pilgrimage to Moscow by Australian Foreign Minister, Paul Hasluck.

He had come, urgently he said, to deliver an important message to the Soviet leadership. At very short notice we were instructed to arrange a meeting with premier Kosygin and foreign minister Gromyko.

We conveyed his request to the appropriate officials.  They reacted as we expected: why on earth would an Australian foreign minister want to talk with the top Soviet leadership?  About what?  And why – just after the change of leadership in the Kremlin?

But after making Hasluck wait impatiently for several days, they finally relented and we were told Hasluck could have his meeting, in the Kremlin, the following day. 

(For the extraordinary details I urge readers to see my website for ‘Amazing Scenes : How Australia Influences the World’ in the National Times of March 1979, and my chapter in the book ‘Vietnam, China and the Foreign Affairs Debate in Australia’. 

(After warning the Soviets of Chinese determination to seize Sinkiang and the Soviet Far East, Hasluck made a bizarre request for the Soviets to join the West in resisting China’s ‘aggression’ in Vietnam.)

Sitting alongside Hasluck in the middle of the Kremlin looking across the standard green baize table and listening to an Australian ignoramus taking up the valuable time of Moscow’s two top leaders, simply to make a fool of himself and Australia while not being able even to get his geographical facts right, I began to reflect: 

Did I really want to remain part of this kind of circus for ever? 

Back in Australia Hasluck was to try to explain his quixotic visit as an urge to be the first Western leader to congratulate the new Soviet leadership after the downfall of Khrushchev.*

*Years later, however, I discovered via former prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, that this bizarre event might not have been quite as foolishly Hasluckian as I had thought – that it had probably been at US instigation. 

Washington shared Canberra’s quixotic belief that the Vietnam War had been inspired by and was being controlled by Beijing. Washington also went along with the conventional wisdom that said the Sino-Soviet polemics, then well into their fourth year, were clear proof that Moscow was bent on communist moderation but was having to confront an inherently militaristic Beijing in the process. 

In short, Washington had decided there was a real chance of Moscow being unhappy about Beijing’s alleged adventurism in Vietnam, and of being able to swing Moscow into an anti-Beijing alliance with the West over Vietnam. 

But rather than themselves directly approach their Cold War enemy in Moscow with the proposal, the Americans had asked Hasluck to test these waters. 

The US involvement does help explain the puzzling immediacy with which we had been asked to arrange the visit. It was out of Canberra’s nature to want to arrange this sort of grand venture on its own. 

But neither Moscow or ourselves knew any of this background. Both Kosygin and Gromyko – the latter especially – were thoroughly confused by Hasluck`s seemingly absurd attempt single-handedly to change the course of global politics.

Kosygin ended the performance abruptly saying there was no way Moscow would abandon its commitment to the brave Vietnamese people facing brutal US attack. 

He added sarcastically that even Beijing had felt obliged to offer some help of the suffering Vietnamese people. 

Looking back, it was yet another example how the mistaken Western view of Sino-Soviet polemics had distorted Western foreign policies, to the tragic disadvantage of the Indochinese peoples. 

At the time I could only look on helplessly while academics and commentators, mainly Anglo-saxon, used the polemics to create their doomsday scenarios of a mad Beijing already on the move in Indochina and the rest of Asia. 

But deep in Canberra’s archives there lies the one dispatch I sent from Moscow that made it into the roundup of dispatches sent to all foreign posts – an analysis questioning the standard ‘Soviet moderate versus Chinese extremist’ interpretation of the polemics. I pointed out that both were basically saying the same things about war, revolution etc.

Needless to say, it made little impression on Canberra’s myopic view of the world. 

Later, after I got out of the diplomatic service, I finally puzzled out the key to it all – Khrushchev`s withdrawal of his nuclear development aid promise to Beijing following the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis when the US had threatened nuclear attack. 

I wrote up that piece of detective work in my ‘In Fear Of China’ book, but that too made little impression on the conventional wisdom – except to a professor of politics at the University of Sydney, Peter King, whom later I was to get to know well.

9. The Burchett Factor 

A key part of my Vietnam education was my meeting with the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett in Moscow at around the same time. 

Burchett had just returned from a visit to Indochina. He wanted to meet me and I got permission from the Embassy to go to his apartment. There he gave me the conclusive photo proof that the Vietcong forces in South Vietnam were far stronger and better organised than anyone in the West seemed to realise. 

I passed all this on to Canberra, as Burchett wanted. But Canberra simply dismissed the valuable information about the Vietcong as the tired bleatings of a failed leftie. I should add that Australia’s persecution of Burchett, an outstanding international journalist and likeable human being, says volumes about Australia’s intellectual pettiness and shallowness. 

That Canberra could so blithely dismiss not just the reports but also the photographic evidence from the one Westerner to actually get into Vietcong-controlled territory in South Vietnam showed a level of blindness even worse than what I had come normally to expect from our bureaucrats. 

If anything the fact you could get to enter enemy territory and report, with photos, what  you had seen there automatically made you suspect – a collaborator with the enemy.

Was I supposed to live with that kind of ignorance forever?

The final coffin nail, so to speak, in my disgust with Canberra was EA later sending me reprovingly a US appraisal of Burchett’s claim to have visited a Vietcong-controlled village on the fringes of Ton San Nuit airport outside Saigon.

The US experts had said Burchett’s claim was clearly false since the area was totally under US and Saigon control, and that it would have been impossible for him even to get to the village let alone be able to claim it was under Vietcong control.

A few months later rockets from that village began to land on Ton San Nuit airport.

Did I hear any admission of mistake or apology from Canberra? Of course not. Being an ideologue, or a Canberra bureaucrat, really does mean not having to say sorry, ever. 

In my report on the meeting, I had said the dreaded Burchett did not seem to be quite the communist monster most in Australia assumed he was – that he seemed to be a quite reasonable and sane sort of person. 

All I got for that effort was Canberra passing on to me a rebuke from a junior diplomat in Saigon, Kim Jones, pointing out Burchett`s monstrous behavior in praising the bravery of a Vietcong bomb thrower in Saigon who had caused some casualties. 

Jones had been a good friend and colleague back in Canberra. Clearly I was out of touch with my fellow Australians. I had to get out.