Saved in the nick of time by the Evil Empire's collapse

Bill Thomas

August 28, 1992|By Bill Thomas

HISTORIANS will remember it as the week before the failed Soviet coup of 1991, seven days in August when a handful of Kremlin hard-liners were busy guzzling vodka and planning to take over the government.

But I will remember it as the week the KGB was after me. It was perhaps the last time in the annals of the Cold War that the Soviet secret police would be in hot pursuit of an American "spy" right in their own backyard. At least, that's probably what the KGB agents bent on tracking me down thought I was. An American journalist living in a crummy Moscow apartment who suddenly decides to visit friends in the Russian countryside -- friends who just happened to live near a Soviet military base? By Russian standards it was an open and shut case. Except for one small detail: I wasn't in the CIA. I was on vacation.

When Alexander, a writer in Moscow, invited me to spend the weekend with him and his family at their dacha 100 miles east of the city, I had no idea that a neighboring military base put the entire area off limits to foreigners. Even if I had known, I'm not sure it would have made any difference.

What could be more Russian than lounging around a country dacha? Russians have turned relaxation into a science, and after six months of working on a book about the Soviet economy, I needed an authentic Russian-style rest.

No wonder Muscovites love their summer houses! Trapped all winter in apartments that could double as high-rise prison cells, their passion for escaping to the country makes all the sense in the world. The more primitive the surroundings, the better; and Alexander had a place that seemed designed for internal exile: no plumbing, no heat and nothing growing in the garden but potatoes.

Life in Russian villages is dominated by local soviets, or town councils, which used to implement the policies of the Communist Party. They still run things, only now they take their signals from the new "democratic" edicts coming from Moscow. Gone for the most part are the party badges and pictures of Lenin, but aside from the revised political slogans not much else has changed.

One thing that has changed is the distribution of wealth. In a society where the haves once were largely invisible to the have-nots, people with money seem to be everywhere. In tiny Kalinino, where water has to be hauled from a well and vacationers bring their own food with them, a building boom in dachas has become the leading economic indicator.

After a few days of eating potatoes and drinking vodka (potatoes liquid form), it occurred to me that buying a little dacha in this thriving community might not be a bad idea. When I asked a woman from the Kalinino soviet about prices, I was informed that current law prohibited foreigners from owning dachas but that ,, long-term leases could easily be arranged. A small down-payment, she assured me, could put me in the dacha of my choice in time for the 1992 season.

That weekend in the country had lifted my spirits. In a few months I could have my very own little house on the steppes. Back in Moscow, I was feeling almost Tolstoyan when my phone rang two days later. It was Alexander calling to tell me that shortly after I'd left Kalinino he and his wife had a visit from two KGB agents. They had heard I'd been taking suspicious walks in the woods and asking about buying a dacha. They wanted to talk.

Suddenly I was the innocent victim of a superpower paranoia that more than once had threatened to destroy the world. It didn't take a genius to see where that put me. If I got kicked out of the country, I might never be allowed back in. And if the KGB charged me with spying, I might be there forever.

Outside, the traffic below my apartment window bellowed exhaust fumes as usual. Inside, I could hear the clock ticking. The KGB always got its man.

I was scheduled to leave the following morning for a trip to Washington. Would they catch me at passport control?

On the day of my departure the airport was ominously quiet. There were no cabbies arguing. No babies crying. Even the KGB agent who asked for my papers was polite. A very bad sign.

Then I heard his rubber stamp hit my visa.

"Das vedanya," he said.

It had to be some kind of trick. Instead of arresting me in the VIP lounge, they must have decided to make it more embarrassing by pulling me off the plane. They'd drag me across the tarmac kicking and screaming in full view of my fearful fellow passengers. This is what we do to spies.

But it didn't happen. None of it. The plane took off and I was free.

Twenty-four hours later, in Washington, D.C., I picked up the paper and read the news. The coup plotters had started their ill-fated putsch. Soon tanks would fill the streets, protesters would gather at the White House and in a matter of days the world would never be the same. Clearly, the KGB had bigger fish to fry. Shortly, the KGB itself would be fried.

Future historians, rummaging through musty old archives in Moscow, may one day learn that mine was the last name on the KGB's most-wanted list. Perhaps both my own destiny and that of the Evil Empire were altered by the unpredictable course of events. Who can say?

The only thing I know for sure is that the coup came just in time to get me off the hook.

Bill Thomas, a former reporter for The Sun, is the co-author of "Red Tape: Adventure Capitalism in the New Russia," to be published by Dutton in October.

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